I was honored to be invited to be the luncheon speaker at the College of Saint Mary in Omaha for International Women’s Day. As I reflected upon what to say, I chose to take bits and pieces of things I had already written, and people I had already quoted, to truly come up with a message that i hoped would resonate with the phenomenal women who attend that college. I had met some of them the week before and had been blown away by their open vulnerability, their breadth of experience, their openness, and their willingness to share and teach and learn.
Here is the transcript of the speech.
Peace be upon you
Thank you so much for having me here today, on International Women’s Day. It is an honor to be in the presence of the future leaders of this city and this country.
I would like to begin by paying my respects to the indigenous people whose land we are on right now. In particular, I pay my respects to the Umoⁿhoⁿ people for whom this city is named.
My name is Ferial Pearson and I am a queer, Muslim immigrant woman from Kenya. I am the first daughter of a first daughter of a first daughter of a first daughter. I came to this country nineteen years ago, at the age of nineteen, on a student visa to fulfill my dream of becoming a teacher. I am the oldest of four girls, no brothers, and was the first in my family to have the opportunity to attend college. I have been teaching in this city for sixteen years and am still in school to get my doctorate.
My identity as a woman is intersectional; it is made up of various layers of my identity that color the way that I experience the world. I come from a long line of people who faced many obstacles and made many sacrifices so that I could be here today.
When people think about feminists, they don’t often picture Muslim people living in East Africa, but when I think about feminists, I think of my great-grandparents, my grandparents, and my parents, all Muslim, all born and raised in Kenya. They made sure all their children, regardless of gender, were well educated, knew how to cook, how to climb a tree and be able to get back down again, how to fix a car tyre and change the oil, how to play a good game of cricket and football, how to be kind, how to take care of children, and how to be advocates for justice and equity for everyone around us.
Since it is International Women’s Day today, it would be irresponsible of me to ignore the current reality for women around the world, especially those who have come and are trying to come here to the United States as immigrants and as refugees. I have dedicated my career to educating children in Nebraska. Most of my students have been immigrants, children of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. They have been the hardest and smartest workers I have ever met. They have gone on to do great things and are creating positive change in communities around the world, including here in these United States of America.
Unfortunately, today, there is political rhetoric that is treating immigrants and refugees as though they are criminals. I am here to tell you that being a Muslim is not a crime. Being a refugee is not a crime. Being an immigrant is not a crime. Being a woman is not a crime. Women are the most affected by war, famine, drought, exploitation, and crime throughout the world, and so, I would like to lift up the voice of Warsan Shire, a British-Somali poet, who wrote this poem entitled Home. I hope you listen with an open heart as she is not here to speak these words herself today.
Home, by Warsan Shire
no one leaves home
unless home is the mouth of a shark.
you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.
your neighbours running faster than you,
the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body,
you only leave home when home won’t let you stay.
no one would leave home unless home chased you,
fire under feet,
hot blood in your belly.
it’s not something you ever thought about doing,
and so when you did — you carried the anthem under your breath,
waiting until the airport toilet to tear up the passport and swallow,
each mouthful of paper making it clear that you would not be going back.
you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.
who would choose to spend days and nights in the stomach of a truck unless the miles travelled meant something more than journey.
no one would choose to crawl under fences,
be beaten until your shadow leaves you,
forced to the bottom of the boat because you are darker,
be sold, starved, shot at the border like a sick animal,
be pitied, lose your name, lose your family, make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten,
stripped and searched,
find prison everywhere
and if you survive and you are greeted on the other side with
go home blacks, refugees dirty immigrants, asylum seekers
sucking our country dry of milk, dark,
with their hands out smell strange, savage — look what they’ve done to their own countries, what will they do to ours?
the dirty looks in the street softer than a limb torn off,
the indignity of everyday life
more tender than fourteen men who look like your father, between your legs,
insults easier to swallow than rubble,
than your child’s body in pieces — for now, forget about pride your survival is more important.
i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home unless home chased you to the shore unless home tells you to leave what you could not behind,
even if it was human.
no one leaves home
until home is a damp voice in your ear saying leave,
i don’t know what i’ve become.
Muslims, asylees, refugees, and immigrant women are teachers, we are lawyers, we are activists, we are doctors, we are business owners, we are students, we are poets, we are musicians, we are artists, we are inventors, we are mothers, we are sisters, we are friends, and we are your co-workers and we are your neighbors. We contribute to this community just as much as anyone. We have intersectional identities and we ask that you understand that we are a part of every single facet of this society and have been for hundreds of years.
So when you march for women’s rights, know that we are women too.
When you march at Pride, know that we are LGBTQIA too.
When you march for education, know that we are teachers and students too.
When you march for science, know that we are scientists too.
When you march for disability rights, now that we are of mixed ability too.
I could go on; we are everyone too.
We are you.
The irony is that people come here to escape tyranny and religious, political, and ideological persecution. But what we have seen in the past few weeks is that America is becoming a place where it is no longer safe to come for freedom.
I seek guidance from my faith as a Muslim. In my faith, I am required to stand witness to justice, fairness, equality, not just in words, but in practice. In the Qur’an it says “be just, that is closest to Godliness.”
Social justice in Islam extends to everyone in my community, whether or not they are related to me or share my faith. I must pay Zakat where a portion of my income must be given to those who need it. The Prophet Muhammad, PBUH, once said, we are not Muslims who sleep with our stomachs full while our neighbor stays hungry.
My faith stands firmly against inequality and encourages me to be involved with initiatives that would eradicate the root causes of inequality. That means that I must think deeply about what it means to be a woman here in this country today.
It means we still suffer the consequences of misogyny here in the United States of America in the year 2017.
It means that white women still make less on the dollar than white men, and women of color even less, and immigrant women of color even less than that. On top of that, the Pink Tax is real, y’all.
It means a group of cisgender white men are still exclusively signing bills dictating what we can and cannot do with our bodies, and even where some of us get to pee.
It means that women are punished for having babies, financially, medically, and career-wise.
It means that when we compliment girls, it is often about their appearance, or their politeness, or their quietness, or their niceness. And when we compliment boys, it’s about their bravery and strength and intelligence.
It means that the worst thing you can call a boy is a girl or, really, anything feminine.
It means that men can rape people, have their careers go unaffected by it, and still go on to win awards, and even the presidency of the United States, while their victims go on trial in the public eye and suffer lifetimes of PTSD.
It means that misogyny leads to sexism and transphobia.
It means that sexism and transphobia lead to the rape, torture, and murder of real people.
It means that, as of today, seven trans women have been murdered already in the first two months of 2017. Today is A Day Without a Woman and they are literally not here to share their gifts with us.
It means that we ALL need to do better, no matter our gender identity or expression. Here are some ideas for you.
- Stop conflating gender with anatomy. My trans sisters are just as much women as my cis sisters.
- Stop making genitalia the most important thing about babies. What if gender reveal parties happened when the child can actually articulate to us who they are instead of before they are even born?
- Stop gendering colors, toys, bathrooms, careers, behavior, clothing, speech patterns, books, TV shows, advertising, health and beauty products, etc.
- Stop using gendered language to indicate strength or weakness. Things like “man up” “grow a pair” and “boys will be boys” only hurt people.
- Stop thinking of gender as binary. Do some research about that. I highly recommend the gender unicorn. Look them up. Did you know multiple genders have existed for centuries in many cultures? Read up on that. Use the Google Machine.
- Respect people’s pronouns and names.
- Respect people’s boundaries, physical and emotional, and teach consent to every single person (especially young people) in your life.
- Buy and read literature by and about cis and trans women from diverse backgrounds. Get to know their stories. Give the picture books about them to the children in your life.
- Watch Miss Representation with the young people in your life and have a conversation about what you saw.
- Encourage the strong women in your life to run for office and think about running for office yourself.
- Spend your money in women and minority-owned businesses.
- One of the things that hurt my heart the most is when I see women tearing each other down instead of building each other up. So my final request is that you celebrate every achievement of every woman in your life, and that when we make a mistake, you treat us with compassion and grace.
Let’s practice. Turn to a person next to you and give them an authentic compliment; something you enjoy about them that has nothing to do with their personal appearance. I’ll give you a minute each.
Women are the majority of people in this nation; we have the power to change the world. There is an African proverb that says, “You educate a boy, and you’re educating an individual. You educate a girl, and you’re educating a village. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Women hold up half the sky.” We will go far if we educate ourselves and others, and then use that education to make the world better for those who don’t have what we have.
Please, if you are able, stand if you are here because of something a woman did for you. I would like you to take a minute to speak their names into this space.
And now I would like to take minute of silence to remember the women in our lives who are no longer with us. Picture their faces in your mind and honor them for a minute.
I end with a quote from Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian woman, who echoes my feelings about how we advocate for the women in our lives most affected by what is happening in the world today: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
It bears repeating: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
So let’s get going. We have work to do. We are in this together, and we are stronger together.
Peace be upon you.