Yes, I’m a feminist.
Silence and Storytelling in the Heat of Jerusalem.
In the heat of the summer of 2005, at the peak of the Jewish settlement withdrawal from Gaza in Israel, I boarded a plane out of Toronto with my mother to Jerusalem. Planes, trains, automobiles. Like any summer, it was sticky and muggy on the East Coast, and impossibly dry and arid in the Middle East. Stepping off the plane I deeply inhaled through my mouth — the air felt like crispy, greasy, shards of overcooked Thanksgiving turkey clogging my throat. I nearly choked, and scrambled for the last pitiful sips from my complimentary bottle of Lufthansa Airline water. A hazy atmosphere seemed to swaddle us on the tarmac, making it difficult to move.
Once inside the Ben Gurion airport, the air-conditioning shocked us in waves of goosebumps, while we waited and deliriously stared at the choppy luggage conveyor belt. It didn’t promise to deliver anything that afternoon. The belt started, stopped, mocked like a fickle lover unclear of intentions. My mom’s luggage never came.
My mom, the eternal pragmatic optimist, filled out the appropriate forms to have the luggage delivered to the Gloria Hotel for whenever that bag ended its Austrian adventures. She warmly thanked the beautiful Israeli airline representative, and turned to me, “Well kid, we’ll have to get some laundry detergent or good soap — looks like I’m washing my undies in the sink tonight! It’s sticky out there, and well, in here too.” We both laughed; I blushed, slightly embarrassed. That was the thing about this woman I write about a lot — a woman I get to call Mom — in moments like this, and throughout my life, I’m reminded of why she’s also my friend Linda. Some Western New York sass mixed with global regard and humor is a rare and treasured combination. We hopped a bus in search of the Old Town of Jerusalem, a Turkish coffee, and baklava.
The months prior I had carefully crafted my essays to request funding for this trip through a religious initiative at Hope College. My mom had submitted to her education leadership, gaining continuing education assistance as New York State teacher (Empire State high five!). I was fascinated by the politics, the religious history of the region, but just as I had been completely unaware that the lure of Hope College was because of a High School crush on a girl, the real draw for me with Israel was the women — 1,000+ women hailing from at least twenty-six different countries. Even though I still didn’t know I was pretty queer by now, my mom certainly got the memo in the mail that summer in the company of crunchy, feministy vegans. Be still, my heart.
The conference, sponsored by a global political movement called Women in Black, was centered on “Women, Peace, and the Political Process” in occupied areas and beyond. I was introduced to WiB by a classmate and was drawn to its international reach. Together, we launched a chapter on campus with a few friends, standing in black clothes at the center of campus with a simple sign “Women in Black — for justice, against violence.” Quietly we protested the War in Iraq, along with all violence. We protested the silent epidemic of rape happening on our campus, and the personal violence some of us experienced as young women. We wanted to call attention to all the ways women and children are impacted by war they oftentimes oppose. At any given week we’d have a small gathering of 8–15 women, and a few sympathizing professors, including one man, Dr. Joel Toppen — a champion for our quiet act of resistance.
On the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, I was in awe of how a landscape so dry could look like it was composed by watercolors — tans, pinks, browns, all blending effortlessly together. We hovered under a thin tent that protected us from the sun, sucked down bottles of water, and listened intently to the story telling from each woman who assumed the podium. I pressed my ear bud deeper into my head, searching for the origin of the thick accent from our English translator. Sometimes I’d reach across and gently hold my moms hand, finding comfort as we grappled with the struggles for peace, solidarity, and fuck — even the struggles to find food and safety that so many of these women faced. Mind blow.
I sunk into my uncomfortable chair and looked out over Jerusalem, at the glistening Dome of the Rock. Hell, I had only stood up to a jock in the Dean’s office when we were accused of “practicing witchcraft” on campus. I calmly dismantled an asshole that mumbled “whore” at me as he passed our WiB circle in the Pine Grove. He proudly shoved a blueberry muffin in his mouth before I handed him a small flyer for what we stood for, reminded him to respect women, and walked back to my circle. I had been violated in many other ways, but in the company of these women, What did I know about struggle? Before I let myself dip too deeply into deprecation, I sat up straight in my sweat-stained billowy pink skirt, and refocused my pen on my notepad — I had too much to learn.
For lunch and dinner we enjoyed a masterful buffet of vegetarian delights, and shared in conversation with our hosts and fellow attendees. We made friends with a well-traveled Buddhist monk, her animated hands waved as she told stories of her devotion, adventures, friendships, and philosophies. There was a lightheartedness I assumed was absent by her austere, religious, and intimidating presentation. Then I remembered I must look like an American cheerleader…because I was, in fact, an American cheerleader (and a radical feminist and academic). Cliche as it is to say, looks are often deceiving. I was pleased by my ability to keep pace with the conversation, confidently engaging with content from my studies and research. Sometimes, mid-sentence, my mind would wander to the oppressive heat outside. I felt pangs of envy for my monk friend’s bravely shaved head, and the simplicity of her cool beige robe. So smart.
Leaning over quietly to me, my mother’s eyes lit up, “this hummus, soooo gooooood, it’s divine!” we both dipped our pita bread into the hummus and sprinkled a few olives on top. Pickled onions, exotic relishes, tabouleh and organic greens. Had I followed a rabbit in a top hat to find this place? Breaking unhealthy patterns from my collegiate bodily abuse, I cherished each bite, nourishing the empathic parts of my body that were bruised from the stories of the day. I struggled to knot my heavy, sweaty, black mane of hair on top my head, and dipped another pita into the hummus.
The satiated feeling from our delectable meals was always temporal. We’d leave the dining hall to head back out into the heat, into the depths of the stories, and the pain of cracking open. Heart pumping fast, I felt disoriented on what allegiances I held, what power I possessed, and what tools existed for dismantling the systems of oppression that seemed to tower above me from this highest point in Jerusalem. Questions flooded my body. How do we even begin? Is there a ‘we’ I belong to? Anxious, I shifted in my seat, stood up and walked to a little rock at the back of the tent to sit down alone.
“You begin in silence” a small voice in my head said.
I pushed back. Silence?! Silence. Be quiet and let the world press forward in this darkness? The stories were about resistances and activism — inspiring. But I couldn’t ignore that the portal many women have to go through towards transformation includes rape, abuse, harassment, or death. At this point in my life, I had kissed the Blarney Stone in Ireland twice — and folklore said that it granted me the gift of gab or eloquent speech (a debate on which one is true. I’m sure some of my exes have an opinion on this!). My voice was my asset, how could I keep choosing silence? I had to speak out, to act, to shout. I was twenty years old, and already I was feeling trapped and defeated, confused and disoriented. Like many other early 20-somethings, I wanted the change to happen immediately.
Frustrated and hoping the voices in my head wouldn’t follow me, I stood up from the rock and walked over to a series of small tables selling goods from various merchants. The sun beat down, warming the jewelry to an excruciating touch and blinding my naked eyes with the reflection. I noticed a rainbow flag with PACE — Peace in Italian — offered by one of the speakers from the day earlier. We smiled, exchanged awkward cross-cultural niceties. I purchased the flag, folding it up and placing it in my little side bag. For years this flag would follow from apartment to apartment, from Michigan to DC to Colorado…one more reminder of my heritage and a cross-cultural bond.
The following day, we were nearing the end of our conference. The Jewish and Palestinian hosts ushered us onto a large air-conditioned tour bus, and loaded up our black and white signs for protest. My mother and I understood the tour was to enter the West Bank and visit Ramallah to listen to a political speaker. We were going to see Yasser Arafat’s grave, and then were told that a demonstration was planned for after the visit — my stomach turned in nervousness and discomfort.
Let me pause for a moment to be clear on a few things before I get too deep into international politics, and miss my feministy point here…
Still with me?
The semester following the conference, a political science professor named Dr. Anne Dandavoti placed a heavy slinky book in my hands. The book was about multicultural feminism and was part of her slightly controversial course on our conservative campus, “Third World, Second Sex.” I know…heavy title that still lives in black ink on my collegiate transcripts. The course was my first really painful entre into understanding privilege and identity, teaching me ways to “check myself before I wreck myself” and claim that all my feminist ideals were universal. Simply put, what I learned from that course was an understanding that it is OK not to agree on it all — but we can find common ground. Sharing one’s lived experience is the heart of transformation and change — and really, it’s all we got.
For many women around the globe, we agree that violence against women and restricting our agency by force isn’t ok. In the most profane sense, getting held down and raped on an American college campus, or getting held down and raped by your husband in your home in Bangladesh, is still rape. There’s value in asking how can we stop that? How can we serve those in need of help? Focusing on the piddly shit like “what a feminist looks like,” (and trust me, my designer heels probably won’t make that etch-a-sketch) is a distraction. Don’t fall for it!
I have women in my life today that shift uncomfortably when I say I’m a feminist. They tread carefully, “I just don’t think I feel comfortable saying I’m a feminist because [Insert some weighty quality that comes with identifying as such].” Their reasoning often has an implied question mark at the end, as if they are asking with me if it’s OK not to say “I’m a feminist.” These are women I respect — strong, entrepreneurial, and dynamic. We speak about similar ideals of peace, equality, personal achievement and love in our shared community and beyond. However, they don’t fit some cookie-cutter mold of feminist — a singular brand of scary feminism concocted in a dark lab by some white dude in Nebraska (tip my hat to that asshole for securing that patent just in time for millennials to arrive). Arbitrary labels and restricted access on feminism is what makes the word so fucking scary and difficult for so many women today. There is a lot we don’t agree on! Guess what? That’s fine. It’s also going to be a little scary. Guess what? That’s fine too.
Standing on the front lines of our silent a protest in the West Bank, my discomfort mixed with solidarity with the women around me. I hadn’t lived occupation, but I was invited to lend my body and silence to the cause by the locals who had lived in occupation, and felt the violent aftermath. It ceased to be all about the nuances of politics and more about the faces of the women around me I had become friends with, people I broke (pita) bread with in laughter. We met at the intersection of common values and agreed that punishing whole populations for actions of a few wasn’t right. It’s not OK to restrict access to work, family, and impose harsh physical inspection. We hailed from all over the globe and this was something we agreed we could get behind… even if I stored a tiny bit of healthy reservation deep inside.
I looked to my left and noticed the Banksy mural of the little girl holding balloons, implying movement up and over the ominous wall to towards freedom. We all want agency over our own lives.
Armed men and women closed in, and we saw tear gas in the near distance. My mother gestured to me that it was time to make our way back to the bus. I was there to learn, but I wasn’t prepared to die and give up my ability to teach. I was there to see, record, and in this moment, be silent — stashing the memory away for a time when my experience would become more powerful, mature, and impactful.
We break damaging cycles of violence by talking about it and sharing our stories. Sharing stories in unlikely temples — over wine, at hair appointments, in the line at a coffee shop — is an act of resistance. It’s feminism, so please get comfortable with saying that word. I’m reading Krista Tippets book “Becoming Wise An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living,” and she eloquently shares: “there are pleasurable, primal, life-giving reasons why we are rediscovering the power personal story everywhere…sharing our stories in the service of probing together who we are and who we want to be.” I believe that transformation begins with owning the authorship of our lives, and sharing our story, as messy as it may be.
The counterpoint is that sharing our stories asks us to be brave enough to be a silent for a moment and listen. Sitting on the rock on top of the Mount of Olives, overwhelmed with questions, I wish I had the wisdom I possess today. Obviously, I would have packed more sandals and white clothing —seriously who needs a black sweater and four pairs of heels in the middle east desert, in towns with cobbled stone walkways? More importantly, I would have asked myself “is this mine to carry, or do I need to just listen?” Sit in silence and listen. Oftentimes conditions are not ideal for dialogue, so silence lets us rise up to gain a new perspective that will be valuable in the future. We might see, hear, and feel the questions that need to be asked on our journey towards transformation together and separately as feminists. At minimum, in the stillness we might find a little reprieve from the heat… and what’s so scary about that?
Onward and upward, strange one.