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Can we build a future where girlhood is protected?

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Girl with a torch on a hill against a fiery sunset

Ayat Mneina, Curator of MENA Stories of Girls’ Resistance, reflects on girlhood, her journey with the Stories of Girls’ Resistance, and what it will take for the world to support girls to thrive.


In my teenage years, I was taught about verses in the Quran that discuss the pre-Islamic practice of infanticide, when baby girls were buried alive to rid the families of shame for not having a son. The verses admonish this unconscionable practice and its people, focusing on the infant girl, who will be asked on the Day of Judgement “for what crime” she was killed [Quran, 81:8-9]. I remember reflecting on how horrific that time must have been, my mind being falsely put at ease thinking that surely today’s world is just, safe. But I can’t ignore the tragic relevance of these verses. Unbound by a specific time, I worry that the world girls face and resist against today, has not progressed far enough away from that ignorant, backwards and dark period of history.


In 2019, I joined a global team of feminists and set out to collect stories of girls resistance from six regions around the world. The initial task aimed to shed light on how girls’ resistance was sparked in the lives of these girls and women in hopes of enabling funders to strategically approach how to better fund girls’ initiatives.


After stories were collected, our team of curators convened in New York to conduct some analysis and prepare to present our findings and the stories to funders. And while our intended task was completed in New York that week, what unfolded during the group analysis sessions stayed with us and planted a seed of responsibility for the stories to flourish beyond the small circle of presentations we had completed. And with that, we set out to give the stories new life regionally and globally, in various forms and outlets, we dreamed of what could be. Despite many stops and starts, and a global pandemic in between, the stories have transformed and taken on many shapes including theatre, art exhibitions, songs, podcasts, reports and eventually will be housed online at girlsresistance.org.


In the context of girlhood, all around the world, the women and girls who shared their stories with us talked about the struggles they faced in their girlhood; their very existence was resistance. As we poured over each story, parallel themes and experiences lept from the pages of the transcriptions ranging from the meaning of girlhood, transnational girls consciousness, ageism, poverty, and violence to creativity, the impact of books, white supremacy and the role of NGOs as barriers in resistance. The stories we collected could, on their own, fill the pages of books dedicated to each of these themes, mapping how these factors come together to form a complicated matrix and in varying degrees, confront girls wherever they may be.


Now, three years into this vast project and my own most recent introduction to motherhood this year (to a baby girl, at that), the universality of resistance and its “thematic” underpinnings haunts me. When people think of “girlhood”, most would tell you it’s meant to be a fleeting time of happy innocence. I recall us prompting our storytellers to help us uncover why it’s only “meant” to be that way, and not always? Why “fleeting”? We sought to learn whether our storytellers considered their own girlhoods happy, what being a girl meant to her or to those around her. If she felt it was disrupted, was it the cause of her environment? Too many times, it was an unwelcome change, a trauma, a violation. Others, prematurely shortened by curiosity and intelligence, asking questions and pursuing her potential. Over and over, these factors were underlined by patriarchy exercised in the most local nuclear sense – the home – and extended beyond to the neighbourhood – the street – community – school – religious community – village – city – region – country – continent – the globe. As varied as the answers were, there was a common thread; for our storytellers, to exist as girl was to resist.


Be it in Ghana or Sri Lanka, the United States or Russia, a girl can and will face a multitude of challenges that cause a personal resistance to rise in her. That is, and most girls described it as such in their stories, an end to her girlhood was often coupled with her resistance. A knowing that an age we equate with innocence and brevity is taken away without warning. Why does girlhood have to end? What would the world look like if girlhood never ended and girls became women without learning that she had to change to adapt because the world was such an inhospitable place for her?


Undeniable was the brevity, fragility and yet strength of the girl all at once. A period that is fleeting, as most chapters in our lives are, but one that is poorly understood in the moment by the girl herself as she cannot fully comprehend, plan, defend herself without experiencing the bitter realities of the world waiting for her. The global state of the girl is one that is universal and presents us with a problem if there is no escape from resistance and the systems that entrench girls in resistance. We are at odds with patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. Only an upheaval and direct challenge to these norms that box in the way the whole world operates, does business, and oppresses can shake us out of this harmful trance that deems young girls dangerous while simultaneously putting them in danger.


It is at the heart of girls’ resistance that we can begin to build hope to challenge and build a world where gendered injustice can truly be left in the past. Today hope is in reflection and storytelling. For too long we have tackled challenges facing women as women’s issues overlooking how women got to where they ended up. Constantly meeting them where they ended up, we have overlooked the girls that turn into women and miss opportunity after opportunity to truly begin to help. Strategies need to be put in place to prevent women from ending up where they end up by helping them be the girls they need and needed to be to save themselves. And to save us all.


Girls thriving, girls living, girls resistance shows us the way. In a better world, we would see less girls’ resistance because they’ll exist in a world that doesn’t force them to resist. No, they’ll exist in a world where they can embrace their girlhood and have their girlhood embraced and not forced to end. In a better world, girls can unite, boundless, in their freedom from resistance. Unlike the times admonished by the Quranic verse, and unlike our times today, girls will experience their girlhoods without suffering for their very existence. But until then, resistance will continue to be that marker, of their resolve and of our failure.



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