To all the bossy girls

ImageYou just don’t hear the word bossy used to describe men. It’s a word most often used as a negative trait describing a woman; a woman who might be being assertive or trying to lead. She might be being decisive or strong-willed; she might be saying: this is how things should be done.

I’ve been called bossy all my life. The so-called bossyness has got me into positions of leadership – from that time when (aged seven) I started a girls’ football club at school because the boys wouldn’t let us play (I made posters and everything(!) and had to make an announcement in assembly*). My so-called bossyness saw me picked as the first form captain in year seven, captain of various sports teams throughout school, become a senior prefect, homework club supervisor, to being faculty rep at uni, news editor of the uni paper, to leading teams at work and sitting on boards as a full-grown adult.

Thinking back at the times when I was called bossy when I was younger – there was a part of me that liked it. To me, it meant people could see I clearly liked to lead things.

But somewhere along the line, I started to pick up a different meaning. As I started to realise that the term was only used to describe me because I was a girl. Because women were bossy while men were the bosses. Somewhere along the line, bossy started to mean: unattractive. It reeked of a masculine arrogance that had hints of the grotesque when seen in a woman. It suggested that a woman was acting above her station; that women should be seen – looked at, adored – but not heard leading the charge from the front.

Over the past few months I’ve been honing in on the B word – challenging men when they use it – watching the look of realisation on their faces when I ask if they would have described a man in the same way. And then I find myself using it too. Thirty years of social conditioning means the B word slips out – when I refer to some of my strong-willed female friends; when I apologise in male company for being ‘bossy’. When I deliberately keep my mouth shut and act helplessly for fear of being seen as bossy.

Sometimes women (and men) can be bossy. They can be domineering, oppressive, dictatorial, aggravating. Sometimes I can be those things. These negative traits absolutely should be called out. But they should be called out for what they are; not confused with leadership behaviour mistakenly seen as negative just because it is being found in a female.

Because when you tell a girl she’s bossy, it makes her second guess herself. It makes her hesitate. It makes her think twice about putting herself forward. It makes her wonder whether she’s supposed to lead. It makes her count herself out of changing the world.

In the past two weeks I’ve loved being in the audience to see two of the most powerful women in the world: Beyoncé at the O2 and Malala Yousafzai at the Southbank Centre as part of last week’s Women of the World festival.

Amazingly talented pop star Beyoncé – one of the leading women behind the new Ban Bossy campaign (check out the video) – is more than just a pop star, but an icon of our time – a woman not afraid to raise her voice and dare to set the agenda rather than follow it.

Malala too is not afraid to raise her voice in the face of criticism. “Words have power,” she said on Saturday. “If we don’t speak and we don’t raise our voices we can’t see change. When we speak, we make our dreams come true.”

Words do have power. Even simple words like ‘bossy’ can stop a girl in her tracks – whether she realises it or not.

And anything that limits girls from reaching their full potential – from leading – is a barrier to making the world better. Because according to the Girl Effect: “Girls are the most powerful force for change on the planet.”

Because in a world where girls are married off as children, where a third of all women in the European Union have been affected by sexual violence, where girls are victims of female genital mutilation – do we really need something else to hold women back?

So let’s stop using it. Let’s make an effort to ban bossy.

Let’s give girls examples of strong women who aren’t ‘bossy’, but are the boss. Women like Beyoncé, girls like Malala, and women like this amazing one in Proverbs 31:

She seeks wool and flax,
    and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant;
    she brings her food from afar.
15 She rises while it is yet night
    and provides food for her household
    and portions for her maidens.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
    with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She dresses herself[e] with strength
    and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
    Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
    and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor
    and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid of snow for her household,
    for all her household are clothed in scarlet.[f]
22 She makes bed coverings for herself;
    her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the gates
    when he sits among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
    she delivers sashes to the merchant.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
    and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
    and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her blessed;
    her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women have done excellently,
    but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Give her of the fruit of her hands,
    and let her works praise her in the gates.

*The club lasted three weeks. 

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Violence against women: will it ever end?

Sarah by Gareth Barton for Flame International

Today I’m wearing black because black is the colour of protest.

I’m at the World Council of Churches assembly in Busan, South Korea. And with many other delegates here today – both male and female – I am ditching my usual preferred brightly-coloured attire to don black to protest in solidarity with the many victims of gender-based violence around the world.

Violence against women is a scourge on all societies. In times of conflict, the rape of women is used as a weapon of war.

The beauty myth – in which women are told they must look a certain way – addressed in my book Am I Beautiful? is just one symptom of a society which sees a woman’s body as its property. Gender-based violence, primarily against women, says it is ok for a woman’s body to be controlled, manipulated and violated.

I’m wearing black today because I say it is not.

Hundreds of the 5,000 gathered at the World Council of Churches assembly today are wearing black as a symbol of the Church’s commitment to ending violence against women across the globe.

As the assembly focuses on the theme “God of life, lead us to justice and peace”, the WCC is reviving its Thursdays in Black campaign.

Thursdays in Black began in the 1980s as a form of peaceful protest against rape and violence often exacerbated during times of war and conflict including in countries such as Syria, Palestine and Israel, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Egypt.

Several ecumenical and church initiatives have been influenced by the Thursdays in Black campaign including the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women and the Women in Black campaign which was started during the Balkan war in the 1990s. There, Serbian women called for solidarity in speaking out against rape as a weapon in war.

Earlier this week, I was at a pre-meeting of the assembly with hundreds of other women from around the world to explore how we can make the world a more just place for all women.

I heard stories of women from villages in the Congo raped and pillaged. I heard the story of a blind woman from India gang raped by five men. I heard a woman from Latin America who brought us all to tears with her gut-wrenching lament to God for victims and the children of victims around the world.

I spoke to Dr Fulata Mbano-Moyo, WCC programme executive for women in church and society, who said: “Thursdays in Black is a united global expression of the desire for safe communities where we can all walk safely without fear of being raped, shot at, beaten up, verbally abused and discriminated against due to one’s gender or sexual orientation.”

“Through this campaign we want to accompany our sisters, who bear the scars of violence, invisible and visible, in Syria, Palestine and Israel, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and the whole world, where women’s bodies remain a battlefield, whether in armed conflict or so-called ‘peaceful’ situations.”

I’m wearing black today because … it’s something. I feel helpless. I wonder whether wearing black and blogging about it will make any difference at all. The problem is huge. The statistics are heart-wrenching. Figures from the World Health Organization reveal that 35 per cent of women around the world have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. This is not just a problem for women in those places.

Just a few months ago, I did a heartbreaking interview with a British woman as part of an article which showed that violence against women also takes place among Christians.

It takes place everywhere. And the frustrating thing is that it has taken place throughout the centuries. Every WCC assembly since it began has talked about the issue of gender-based violence. And still it seems that nothing has changed.

Women continue to be broken at the hands of cruel men. Will it ever end?

The amazing photo I’ve used to illustrate the blog is by Gareth Barton of Flame International, who won the Look Again competition by anti-violence against women charity Restored. The image is of Sarah, who was abducted from her village in South Sudan by the Lord’s Resistance Army. She was later rejected by the rebel group and has returned to her family, where she is slowly recovering from the horrors she witnessed and the fear that stays with her.

I can’t end violence against women by wearing black today. I can’t end the pain or heal the memories of those whose bodies have been used as weapons of war by wearing black today. I can’t protect any of the vulnerable by wearing black today.

But if it’s all I can do today to show them I care, then that’s what I’ll do.