On being female

I’d intended this week’s post to be an overview of the camp – I wanted to set the scene so that future, more specific posts had a backdrop. When I look back over the last seven days though, everything seems coloured by this one issue, and as I find myself unable to move on from it, it seems wrong not to write about it. So we’re going straight for the big stuff.

I am a woman. I currently share a staff house with four other women, and gender has dominated nearly every conversation this week. Over the past days, it has felt as though we are constantly being confronted by the realities of what it means to be female. At first I wondered why all these things were happening all of a sudden, but I’m now beginning to accept that they were always happening, and it’s just that we are now, in our female-only household, free to talk about them. It’s empowering to feel that solidarity; to give and receive support. It’s also overwhelming, forcing me to focus on past and present events, revisit uncomfortable and sometimes disturbing memories, and take stock of the situation.

Our house is in a secluded spot by the sea. Most of the neighbouring properties are summer houses, unoccupied for the majority of the time. We don’t see many people out and about. Over the past few months, four separate volunteers staying at the house have been approached by a man whilst out walking. He asks for directions, establishes that they are not locals, and then offers money for sex. He is persistent. He follows them. He once dropped his trousers and showed off his penis.

It happened again this week, and there is nothing we can do to stop it happening again. I am angry about this all the time – furious that I feel afraid when I go outside, that I am powerless to address my fear, that my gender makes me a target. I am also really struggling to deal with the way it is dealt with by the males around me. Last night I cried in public as I tried to explain to a male friend what it is like to be a little bit afraid all the time. He couldn’t get it. Worse, when I woke up this morning, despite believing deeply in everything I’d said the night before, my most overwhelming feeling was one of shame that I’d caused a scene, that I’d made the men present uncomfortable, and that I’d behaved in a way that I would be judged negatively for and which would be attributed to my femaleness. I feel so hopeless. If I, and four other articulate, intelligent women, cannot make good, decent men understand the fight that women are forced to put up every single day, then what chance is there of society overall every recognising these issues? And if I, a woman, cannot stop myself from not wanting to make a fuss, what right do I have to expect other women to stand up for themselves?

There are over 300 female residents at the camp, but you’d never guess it if you took a walk around the site. Camp life is, on the whole, segregated. Men congregate at the cafe, at the falafel shop, at the cigarette stand. They join together to play football and volleyball. They attend the various activities arranged by the organisations on site. The women…well actually I don’t exactly know how the women spend their days. Opening up our services to the female population is something that I’ve been trying to do since I arrived, eight months ago. I haven’t succeeded yet.

I know that it’s partly because the women have a busier day than the men. For many of the women, the things they needed to do before they were displaced still need to be done here in camp. Children need to be cared for, meals need to be cooked, homes need to be kept clean. These tasks are not only still present, they are much more difficult and time-consuming in this inhospitable environment. Boredom drives the men into our language classes, but the women who attend have to squeeze classes in around a thousand other jobs.

As far as the language classes go, there is also the issue of studying with men. Several times, women have tried our classes, only to drop out as they or their husbands felt uncomfortable with a mixed gender environment. We currently have a women’s English class, but we lack the resources to run male/female classes at every level, so it’s a mixed level group. This has caused some problems with lower level students who feel intimidated by those with more English knowledge. In our Greek classes, we swung back and forth between mixed and separate classes, trying to match the service to the needs of the community, but nobody could agree on which they preferred. We continue to search for ways to make the language classes more accessible for women.

There is a Female Friendly Space in camp, which until this week was run by an organisation focusing on sexual and gender based violence. Unfortunately, a lack of funding means that they are unable to continue their work here. This is a massive blow – while another organisation is able to pick up the running of the FFS, no other actor has the expertise necessary to deal with the SGBV aspect. I’m deeply worried that the risk to the female population will now increase, and that women in need of help will not know where or how to access it. Nevertheless, I’m encouraged that the FFS will continue to exist, and I’m hoping to use the change-over as an opportunity to get our organisation more involved in women’s activities. A recent participatory assessment of the camp population indicated that the female residents feel under represented and inadequately informed, and that they resent the lack of activities specifically for them. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll be attempting to bring together the various NGOs and state actors onsite in order to come up with a collaborative plan to tackle these issues. I’ve never done this before, and actually interact much less than I should with the other organisations, so I’m pretty nervous. But at worst, no-one takes me seriously, and at best, we get some real, focused attention on an issue that has been ignored for too long.

It would be wrong to write a post on being female without mentioning the most female friendly project in camp. Our organisation supports a social enterprise involving nine female residents who use recycled materials such as lifejackets and blankets to make handwoven products for sale overseas. The profits come back to the women, who use some of their earnings to subsidise a weekly bus service to the nearest big city. The camp is in a remote, rural location with no public transport links, and the weekly bus is the only opportunity to leave for many residents. These nine strong, hardworking women support not only their families but the community as a whole.

I could keep writing this post forever. Every part of camp life (and all life, actually) has a gender-based issue somewhere – like the parents who don’t want their female children to attend the local school out of fear that they will be in danger on the school bus (story for another day). One of our current volunteers asked me yesterday what I thought the most important thing about women’s issues was. All I could say to her was that women’s issues are not women’s issues. They’re just issues, plain and simple. So why do I feel like the responsibility of resolving them is going to stay squarely on our shoulders? And how do I change that?


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