Friday, March 8, 2013

Bringing International Women's Day to Young Men

In our world, today is International Women's Day. In my world, it is also Forgiveness Friday.  It seemed only appropriate to commemorate both in the spirituality seminar I am teaching.

Having worked with all boys before, I know that my bringing up women's issues to an all-male audience can be tricky.  Tricky because the message I give is not always welcome; to them, my words may feel like accusations, even when they are not meant to be so. When I gave one class a heads-up about today's class, a student asked, "When is International Men's Day?"  My reply, "Every day is International Men's Day."  The question and short conversation that followed confirmed my suspicion that this group might not take today's activities seriously.  Sure enough, today many students from the class came in ready to make fun of whatever I might have planned for them.  

Before we started, I simply said that the purpose of our activity was to bring them into greater awareness, to ask them to open up to other people's realities, in this case, that of women both near and far, and to try to understand it.  

After our opening prayer, I invited all students to bring forward a photograph (they'd been forewarned to have one) of a woman who was significant to them in some way.  Students brought pictures of mothers, sisters, grandmothers, girlfriends, friends, Madeiline Albright, Jane Goodall, Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Frank, and other women.  

We read from Genesis 1: So God created humankind in God's own image, in the image of God God created them; male and female God created them.

God created all of us in God's image.  

We watched two videos: 

I dropped stones on the table with the women's pictures.  We heard the story of the adulterous woman in John's gospel.  After Jesus challenged the crowd to throw stones at her only if they were without sin, all walked away, leaving the accused woman alone with Jesus, who told her simply to go and sin no more. We noted that the man she'd been with was not in danger of a stoning.  We heard one final story: the story of a young man talking to his sister about when she'd been raped at a party.   

After sharing some of my own reflections on what we'd heard and seen, the next part of our ritual began.  It is never obligatory to speak during our rituals. I invited the boys to come forward, take one of the stones that had been dropped on the women precious to them, and offer some sort of pledge to better support women and girls, either those they know personally or on a global level. 

By this point, the demeanor of my resistant class had definitely changed.  Through the videos, prayers, and stories, they watched, they listened, and they became increasingly quieter. When we do rituals, the first student to act sets the tone.  In this class, the first did not speak.  Most followed his example.  In fact, only one student chose to speak.  About half of his classmates had already silently taken their stone. He stood up, took his stone, and walking back to his desk, said, "I will treat all girls the way I treat my sister."  The fact that he had the courage to speak was testament to his sincerity.  So was the look on his face when our eyes met.  

In the other class, almost everyone spoke during the pledge ritual.  Many, so many, spoke of the support they give and will give to girls they know who are in or have been in abusive relationships. Some pledged to better appreciate their mothers; one said he wanted to work to end trafficking; another spoke of the pain he feels for women who can't be ordained priests.  When we do these rituals in class and they work, I realize anew the responsibility and great privilege it is to be a teacher.

Though my reluctant class was quieter during the ritual, it was clear that they, too, were moved.  They finished the prayer service a few minutes early, so I asked them to reflect in their journals on what we'd seen and done in class. Students will often write things they aren't willing to say out loud.  One student said he felt the activity was pointless because all the women in his life are treated fairly.  Another wrote that he felt the statistics we'd seen were exaggerated and that lots of women make false rape accusations.  Several wrote that they had a greater appreciation for the women and girls in their lives and for the struggles of women around the world.  In reflecting on being a man, a student remarked "I think that everyone should have enough self-dignity to not be a presence that's scary to those around them."  One student wrote, "I realized that women are just as guilty as men in living up to stereotypes as defined by a greater culture. I hope for a world in which an activity such as this is not necessary, where people, regardless of gender, race, or other divisions, are appreciated thanks to their own merit."  

I hope for that world, too.  On this International Women's Day and Forgiveness Friday, I ask forgiveness for the times I haven't spoken out when I have seen injustice.  I pledge, through my teaching, through my writing, and through my living to work for a world where I don't have to raise awareness about the plight of others because all people, regardless of gender, race, or other categories we use to judge people, are appreciated for their own merits. 

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