Thursday, 28 July 2016

Do You and Be Awesome

By Nurul Nadhira via UN Online Volunteers

Back when I was younger, I used to have trouble wearing hijab. I was quite young when I hit puberty and although I've been explained about my duty to cover the hair, I still had difficulties wearing it. It wasn't rare to see a girl wearing hijab in schools. 
In fact from where I come from, wearing hijab in some schools are compulsory. But I looked around at society and I thought wearing hijab prevented me to be part of society, to do the things most girls do at my age. I got rebellious, taking off my hijab every now and then so I could flick my hair like other girls and feel appreciated when boys talk to me. I wanted to be like one of the popular girls in school, be part of the group that every single person adores.
That phase was challenging and difficult for me.
I browsed through magazines, looking at the beautiful outfits women wear and I was very unhappy the fact that I can never wear clothes like them. From what I see, my religion was at fault because instead of allowing me to be accepted by society it is like a barrier that keeps me away from reaching out and be like other people. Of course it was very silly of me to think of it that way. 
I am in no way degrading my religion and I know religion is personal to everyone. That was a thought I had when I was younger, but I grew up and learned and I love my religion now. My parents knew how vulnerable I was back then as I was in that teen phase so they allowed me to take off my hijab with the promise that I will wear it permanently one day. 
For some reason I was glad that my parents wasn’t forcing me because that would have just made me rebel even more but at the same time they knew where to draw the lines and pull me back when I drifted too far. Little did I know back then that you don't have to change who you are just to be accepted by society. Just because I wasn’t wearing a hijab that does not mean the society would love and adore me.
There is always something wrong with me where the society is concern.
I’m too short, I shouldn’t take off my hijab, I should be skinny, I should have longer hair, I should be this I should be that.
There are friends who love me regardless of what I wear and friends who judge me when I take it off saying that I am a disgrace to my religion. There are also friends who praised me for taking off my hijab, comforting me by saying that I look prettier without hijab. Instead of feeling like I finally belong, I actually got more confused. I started feeling insecure with myself more often. 
Trust me during that age when you’re just growing up and the world is not about Barbie and cartoons anymore, you will be desperate to find anything or anywhere that you belong to, to find a pack on your own and feel wanted. 
I thought I should be a certain size to be pretty, talk and act in a certain manner to be loved and do things that put me at risk just because I wanted to be that cool kid everyone likes. I even tried wearing makeup which only made my skin worst because I have a sensitive skin because it’s what society did so I had to do it too. Being accepted by society was more important than what my parents’ opinions are. It wasn’t a pretty phase for me honestly.
I regretted some of the mistakes I made but I was thankful that after going through that phase I realized certain things.
What you wear is not significant but how you are as a person is.
My true friends love me because of my personality not because of other reasons. You should never lose yourself just to belong somewhere. When we become older, everything in this world seem like a wide canvas ready for us to explore and paint it as how we like it. Some of us had smooth sailing while some went through rough experiences before they found answers to their questions.
So I want to let you girls out there today know that it is alright to be different.
You don't have to be someone else just to fit in.
What truly matters is how you value, respect and love yourself.
Everyone is different in their own way and a person shouldn't be judged based on what they wear, their beliefs, gender or their skin color.
If you feel that you are alone and you don’t have anywhere to belong, you should know that there is always one place where you belong and that place is your heart. It is the only place that matters and it is why you should always cherish and love yourself. We all are different but that is what makes us unique.
Today, I can say that I am comfortable being me and what I wear does not prevent me from doing anything. Wearing a hijab does not make me feel oppressed. I don’t feel insecure with my appearance and I eat like a champion. I exercise because I want to be healthy and I take good care of myself because that is how I appreciate my body. I do the things that I love even if that means it is not cool for society’s standard. In fact I am happier now because I have truly come to love and respect myself.
So never be ashamed of who you are.
You do you and be awesome. 

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Resist Passive Acceptance of Abuse

By Mara Agolleti via UN Volunteers

Where I live all young girls are told how to act and dress properly. There are lots of spoken and unspoken rules surrounding how girls should avoid provoking unwanted reactions from men. I was told what to wear, where to go, and who to hang out with.

Don’t misunderstand me, I know those are the concerns of a loving family, which have always guarded my health and well-being. However, I have recently realised how these rules deeply effect my existence, I now question if this “responsibility not to provoke” should weigh on women?

I came to realise how many things you can be shamed for (as a woman). You can trigger a reaction by walking along an off the centre lane after 6:00pm. It is your fault if something happens after you let out a bad reaction after an absolutely unprovoked sexual comment. It is your fault if after a night out with your girlfriends you don’t want to make out with some guys you have just met. “Why would you be on a night out otherwise?!”, they say. Apparently, it is common knowledge that girls could never be enjoying themselves on a night out without intention to spread their legs open for some random dudes.

These pressures have passed from being an occasional consideration of mine, to effecting my daily habits. As I have restarted university, I found a very convenient parking spot next to the train station in my hometown. Every working day I used to get off the train at 6.15 p.m. to reach my car 4 yards away. Over a week I collected a plethora of insulting and indecent sexual comments. Over the time of a short stroll, a dozen strangers made comments about my breasts.

As I went home, still shaking with anger I conversed with my father over what happened. I told him that it is unacceptable to be the object of all kinds of insults for doing nothing more than walking alone in public. The reaction was not what I was expecting.

Dad told me that it was unrealistic for a woman to expect anything different in that area of the downtown. He explained that I was to shun that kind of situation by parking somewhere else. He made me feel like it was on me to take extraordinary measures in order to keep strangers from making unprovoked comments. My own father, whom I expected to side with me, made it sound like a fee paying female student can expect to feel relatively safe and respected only if she pays € 50 per week for a parking spot. He said it, like it was the most natural thing in the world, that if a young woman goes to certain places or badly reacts to a comment it is normal for something to happen to her.

Unfortunately, I am not an isolated case. A friend recently told me that someone shamed her face-to-face for being sexually assaulted by a stranger while smoking on her own doorstep at 1 a.m. After all she was out alone at night, what else could she expect?

Over these recent experiences, I came to realise that for women it is almost impossible to just pretend respect. Women are even shaming other women for not being constantly afraid of what could happen. Is it a crime to just pretend respect when walking or having a smoke?  Are we crazy to pretend this much? What are we teaching the younger generations if we accept this as “normal”? Apparently, my father thinks that women must expect to be shamed if they exercise their right to walk in public.

Friends and families groom girls into believing that it is their responsibility to act accordingly to the bad behaviour of others, they teach them not to react. Women are told that they are to avoid being harassed by giving up on their freedom.

When I told my parents how that kind of reaction makes me feel they just replied “oh, you are so childish, would you rather take the chance of something really bad to happen? When you have children of your own, you will get how concerned we are; this is not something to be stubborn about.”

Women shouldn’t be forced to give up basic freedoms in trade for support and understanding. Any woman should be able to claim respect from any man independently from the circumstances. There should be no passive acceptance of harassment. No person should be told that it is her responsibility to guard herself/or himself from the consequences of someone else’s ignorance.

I have been driven to write this article to let girls know that they should not feel obliged to accept abuses because they have the support of people who went through the same experiences and share the same feelings. Together we can change the pattern and stop being cornered into being second class citizens. Passive acceptance only cuddles the problem into becoming bigger. Women must react together because shaming each other for being harassed will just lead to more abuse.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Young People Are Libeled for Loving

By Trang Vu Hong via UN Online Volunteering

I was studying Italian culture in Perugia, Italy when the junior Eurovision - the most renowned pan - European song contest - took place. Vincenzo Cantiello, a talented flamboyant Italian boy who performed his own love-filled song, “Tu primo grande amore„ (You are my great first love), came out as the winner. Below is the English translation of what he sang daringly, passionately and triumphantly:

It's all changed now that you're there
You are so important in my dreams...
It's so special about being with you
Almost don't believe it and I don't know why ...

You know, I can't wait ...
I love you, I have to say ...

I cannot live without
your eyes in my eyes
When your heart beats strong
Pounding along with my ...
You, the first great love
I will never let you go
You, the smile of my stroking
You which illuminate for me
The night ...

You are my very first love
I will never let you go,
Because there is something that tells me
That never again will be so ...

If I had closed my eyes, I would not have imagined that the exceptionally expressive performance and powerful voice came indeed from a teenage boy. The bravura performance was warmly welcomed and admiringly applauded across the continent. I talked to Italian peers and middle-aged women who had children of the same age as the victorious singer. The overall complimentary reaction to such a teenager suffused with fervent love in this country ran counter to what I experienced more than 10 years ago at secondary school.  I was named and shamed just because I had a crush on a schoolmate. 

I was a class monitor and an exemplary student in my 7th grade. Proactive participation in extra-curricular activities enabled me to meet numerous brainy and bouncy boys in my school, among whom I had a soft heart for a smart and and sympathetic 9th grader. After some conversations in group meetings, we had incredible impressions of each other. 

Be that as it may, we bore in mind that our top-most priority was to earn stellar grades and thrive in various competitions.  Our feelings for each other were accommodated by no more than lingering eye contacts, warm smiles, gentle words and longer strolls together after school. We never even held each other’s hands as it would be view “too early” for teenagers. I was never distracted from school work, and neither was he. We were both go-getters and high-fliers during our school years. 

As he often waited for me so that we could walk home together, gossips started circulating among my classmates and someday it reached my form teacher, who then immediately informed my parents, as if I were doing something inappropriate and immoral. She lectured me that school years must be romance-free and that I was not allowed to "love" at such a young age. "The more you love, the less you will learn.  You have to put your study before your sentiments. It is more important to be achievers than become “adults” at this age."

My mother, upon knowing that, was beside herself with rage. Much to her disbelief and dismay, her demure, docile and diligent daughter “disgracefully” doted on a boy. I was then not allowed to see him, and he was told not to approach me in private. She then discouraged me from partaking in after-school activities, so that I could not come up with any excuse to talk to him. From time to time, I spotted her following me on my way to school and back home, though it was only a 10-minute walk.

I was not the only girl to be caught being “in love” by my teacher. Whomever found visibly into somebody would be criticized and their parents would be called to “teach” them again at home. A classmate of mine wrote a love letter to a schoolmate one year her senior. Unfortunately, the letter was seized by the teacher, who considered it too sentimental for a 13-year-old girl and read it in front of all parents in a parent-teacher meeting. The girl, chided for acting dangerously beyond her age, was in tears for weeks out of shame and sorrow.

In hindsight, like many other female classmates, I was humiliated and hurt even though I did not do anything wrong at all. Acutely aware that both my teacher and my mother meant no harm and that they had my interests in their heart, I am not embittered about having been reproved and reproached, but after all, it is still a scar in my heart. Due to my limerence, and not yet love, I was forced to keep a great friend at arm’s length and have since become more reticent and even afraid of falling in love. 

While many Vietnamese people strongly commend the fictional teen love of Romeo and Juliet, they condemn squarely the real-life puppy love, a pure and natural sentiment. Even the coldest person in the world with an invincible immune system and the most rational reason will still be susceptible to the virus of love. Up to now, as an adult, I have not figured out how we can stop our heart from pounding and our mind from wandering when a romance touches us?  How could we shield ourselves against the most beautiful feeling of any human being?

And if an adult cannot, how can we teach a teenager to suppress something deep down in his/ her heart?

ABOUT Trang Vu Hong

Trang Vu Hong graduated from Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam in 2013 with a BA degree in International Relations and Translation. Immensely interested in foreign languages, international affairs and knowledge dissemination, Trang has been involved in many international cultural projects in Vietnam as translator and interpreter. 

After obtaining an advanced diploma in Italian language and culture from University of Perugia in 2015, she is currently doing her MA on Erasmus Mundus scholarship in European Studies in France, Germany and Sweden while still participating actively in UN volunteering social projects. 

Besides, Trang is in charge of current affairs section at the Vietnam’s largest open online learning resource on international studies and is also editor at the Italian Association of Civil War Victims.