Feminist Activist & Author
Dear Friends, Activists, Sisters, Brothers, and most of all, Grandmothers—our heroes and our teachers:
I’ve been invited here as a witness and a judge today, and even before meeting you, I had the privilege of reading your stories. You have braved daily disasters and deprivation, you yourselves have had too little love and help from those around you, yet you have loved and helped children and many others around you. Each one of you is a unique miracle. No one on earth could hear any one of your unique stories without being awed and inspired.
I would like to add three ways that I believe you are crucial even beyond what you yourselves may encounter every day.
First, you as grandmothers are teaching and inspiring through stories—and stories are almost as crucial to human beings as air, water and food.
We as humans have been formed by sitting around campfires for at least 100,000 years, each one sharing our unique experience in the narrative and imagery of story. That’s how we conveyed knowledge, from birthing and the stages of life to maps, weather, healing, astronomy, animal behaviour, the power of the mind over the body—everything. Even now, if you tell me a fact or statistic, I will make up a story to explain why it is so.
Yet our modern media and educators don’t always understand that our brains are organized by narrative and image. Instead, they give us generalities and statistics and words that end in – tion. This is another price we pay for the falsity of gender. Facts and statistics are considered “hard news,” serious scholarship and “masculine,” while narrative and image are considered “soft news,” trivial, and “feminine.”
This leaves us hungry for understanding through story. It leaves us feeling outside media and communities of learning—and makes us vulnerable to everything from celebrity journalism to dictators and religions—to anything or anyone that offers narrative and imagery and story—even when our instincts whisper to us that their stories are manipulative and false, that they divide us from each other.
Perhaps I should say here that I’m making a distinction between religion and spirituality, between a hierarchy that ranks us—men over women, humans over nature —and a circle that links us—males and females and all living things. I know we may use different words in our different languages. So perhaps I should just say about telling the difference between true and deceptive story: Trust your instinct. Honour that which honours your story and allows you to honour others. You wouldn’t have survived or helped others to survive if you hadn’t followed your deepest instincts. As a friend from Kenya once said to me: If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, but you think it’s a pig—it’s a pig!
Second, you have already discovered through the crucible of HIV and AIDS that sharing our stories is how we know we are neither at fault nor alone. In my country, the oldest cultures say of someone who is ill or destructive, “They have lost their story…they have lost their own song.” Sharing stories and acting on their common themes is the source of every social justice movement I know. In a way, the tragedy of HIV and AIDS may have forced you to learn and to teach this wisdom that everyone needs in all areas of life.
Third, what has made HIV and AIDS even more of a danger to females than to males is far more than a minor difference in physiology that makes men less vulnerable through external skin, and women more vulnerable through internal membrane. It is a major difference in power between males and females in every area of life, from culture to politics. It is deep and definitional. What happens to men is called politics. What happens to women is called culture. Men’s work is included in economics and measured in money. Women’s work is often invisible and not measured at all. And this profound structural inequality gives women little choice in sexual relations, even when their decision would be an act of self-preservation.
This makes you the shock troops, the early warning system, the prophets of violence against females and its cost on this spaceship Earth that we all share.
I believe we all have instinctive knowledge of violence against females as basic to all other violence, but now it has been proven. In Sex and World Peace—a book by Valerie Hudson and three other international scholars— 100 current countries, with many different governance systems, were assessed. Here is the conclusion: The single greatest determinant of whether a country is violent within itself—or will use military violence against another country—is not poverty, or natural resources, or religion, or even the degree of democracy. It is violence against females.
In some countries, female infanticide has produced a daughter deficit and a son surplus. For the first time in history that I know of, females are no longer half the human race. In many countries, child marriage and forced impregnation and childbirth have produced a human population that cannot be sustained. In my country, more women have been murdered by their husbands or boyfriends since 9/11 than Americans were killed in 9/11, both Iraq wars and the war in Afghanistan —combined.
Female life is not more valuable than male life. One can also imagine males being vulnerable, especially since their unprotected genitals are on the outside. The problem is making one group of people powerful over another by dividing human beings into gender prisons of “masculine” and “feminine,” the leaders and the led, those who own property and those who don’t or even are property, those who own children in marriage and those who do the work of raising them—all of this inequality requires violence to maintain.
And it is that violence that normalizes all other violence, and that false division of gender roles that normalizes roles and violence based on race, caste, class, tribe, nation or culture.
It wasn’t always like this. Most of human history on all our continents seems to have been matrilineal. Many Native Canadian and Native American cultures didn’t even have “he” and “she” in the language, much less did attribute gender to tables and chairs. For reasons I think I understand, Europeans became the inventors of patriarchy, in turn became over-populated, and invaded my continent and yours. Much of they called cultures “primitive” was because women had equal power and controlled reproduction.
Because controlling reproduction—controlling female bodies—is the root and rationale of male supremacy. Without it, racism and other birth-based hierarchies can’t continue into the future without controlling reproduction. Thus the bodily integrity of females is also the answer not only to slowing the spread of HIV/ AIDS, but to a population growth that slows and becomes sustainable, to ending the divisions of clan and race and caste—and for females ourselves, to an end to forced pregnancy, female genital cutting, infibulations, sex trafficking, survival sex—an end to the basic division that normalizes violence.
So you who are raising the children of the lost—you are teaching by your lives and by your stories.
Perhaps in the future, historians will look back and say: This is when humans re-discovered that we are linked, not ranked. This is when a lethal illness forced females to rebel, and males to find their humanity in those who rescued them. This was the time of the grandmothers.