Sunday, March 09, 2014

Power and lightbulb moments

With it being International Women's Day the other day, I have been thinking about the power some have over others. I was struck by the message that in NSW, domestic violence is still the most common case that police respond to, and that half of all cases go unreported. It was suggested that there are more than 700 instances of domestic violence occuring in NSW every day. It's clear to me that there is still so much to be done in Australia to close the gap in opportunity, power and safety between men and women, yet many people in Australia believe that all the battles have already been fought, and that there is nothing a woman can't do, if she would just stop complaining and get on with it.

Then, across the Pacific ocean, I find myself on the opposite end of the power spectrum. As a white woman I am constantly aware of my own power and privilege. In Solomon Islands I represent those who have greater access to money, safety and decision making ability. This was made even more startlingly clear to me this past week when my Solomon Islands colleagues were invited to share about some of the power inequalities that they experience in a cross-cultural group. For the first time in five years, the "elephant in the room" was being discussed. They explained how it felt that decisions were already made before the meeting had started, how they felt inferior and unable to contribute anything worthwhile, and how some more powerful people would interrupt, talk over and generally not seem to value the "Solomon voice".

Suddenly, I saw that lightbulb moment happen for the most powerful people in the room. Instead of insistently denying any suggestion that interactions within our cross-cultural group were not 100% rosy, as had been the reaction in the past, there was genuine listening, and they began to understand. We agreed upon some ways to change the power dynamic a little - discussing more complex issues in smaller groups before sharing with the wider group, allowing a moment of silent reflection before rushing in with our thoughts, and taking a secret ballot to find out how people actually feel about the level of power that they hold in the group. As a result, the mood in the group really improved for the better.

In the taxi later on my Solomon colleagues and I were discussing this turn of events. We couldn't believe how much things had changed. Then one of my colleagues summed it up: "I just realised that she didn't realise what she was doing". What we had assumed was deliberate we began to realise was not. Some just hadn't realised the extent of their power. It was our own lightbulb moment.

So, as I think about the men in my life, I realise that some of them probably just don't realise either. Of course, my friends range from those men who would describe themselves as feminists and "get it", to those who can't understand why you'd need a women's only space, and all those in between who benefit in many little ways from the position of power that they hold.

As I listened to my Sols colleagues share their discomfort, I could relate. I sometimes feel that my views are unimportant and that decisions are already made by others with more power. And I wonder how I can learn from my Solomon Islands colleagues about how can I share my experience with those in more powerful positions than me in a way that allows that realisation, and enables them to be part of the solution rather than feeling like the problem?

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Wild Woman

I've been thinking about how I'm very rarely described as a strong, confident woman. Instead, people normally say that I'm nice, or thoughtful. Which I don't mind, of course. It's just that the strong, confident women are the ones that make things happen, who earn respect. A very wise friend of mine is often telling me that I need to tap into my "Xena the Warrier Princess" alter-ego a little more. He thinks she's in there somewhere.

Following on from this advice, I was reading a book mum lent me called "Women who run with the wolves". Within every woman, the book assures me, lives a powerful force made up of good instincts, passionate creativity and ageless knowing. Through unpacking the experience of "wild women" in a number of folk and fairy tales, we learn of our innate power and potential, even if we are quiet, or not conventionally beautiful, or a bit broken.

Often what these wild woman face and fight are not enemies of a physical kind, but the enemies within. Their stories are about overcoming emotional obstacles, learning a difficult lesson or discovering one's power. The skeleton woman emerges from the sea on the end of a fisherman's hook, and chases him back to a cave where she takes his heart and through his eventual acceptance becomes flesh again. A young girl buys a pair of "too scandalous" red shoes that give her the urge to dance uncontrollably until she must cut off her feet to stop. The ugly duckling must find her own kind, the place where she belongs and is beautiful. Vasilisa the brave is sent by her mean step-mother to Baba Yaga, the old witch lady known for eating people. When she completes the impossible tasks set by Baba Yaga, with the help of a magic doll, she is free to return home. Etc.

So, what is my wild woman story? There are elements of all the stories in my life.  Like the girl with the red shoes, I have struggled with addiction (mainly to chocolate, gelato and all things sweet) and seen my wellbeing and weight spiral out of control when I don't keep my cravings in check. I've also faced the death/life/death cycle in relationships that the fisherman faced, where the dark side of the other person is revealed, and you want to run away because you feel betrayed by their frailty, but you continue anyway, finding that acceptance can give new life to the relationship. I have been on a journey to connect with "my people" just like the ugly duckling, because being a little different can feel lonely. I have found that sense of connection with the Quaker community, and also in new friends who are passionate activists.

I also think my story is about Vasilisa the brave. She journeys from subservience to independence. For me, it has been fear, not an evil stepmother, that I have been a slave to. I'm often too scared to set boundaries, to try new things, and to be vulnerable. It took me about half an hour of procrastination disguised as "getting ready" before I set off on my first after-dark bike ride home. But recently I've been tapping into the power of that magic doll. I stood up to a few of those bullies. I have been blogging more, accepting that not everyone will like or agree with what I write. I have been prepared to follow through on tough work decisions that more senior men could not bring themselves to address. And earlier this year I found the courage to finally face a longstanding pain, and sow the seed of meaningful reconciliation. My strength is not big or loud or obvious, but I think you will agree that it is there if you delve a little deeper.

Woman and wolf
Yep, I am woman, here me roar... or howl, if we are keeping with the wolf theme. I know that my power, while quiet and backgroundy, still contains those elements of good instincts, passionate creativity, and ageless knowing. Of course, I still have a few more internal enemies to fight. In fact you could probably write a whole season of Zena episodes or anthology of wild woman fairy tales representing the issues I still need to work through. But I am proud of the wild woman that I am, and actually look forward to the next chapter of my own little folktale with anticipation.