On her 80th Birthday: Reflections on Meeting Gloria Steinem in India

Gloria Steinem spoke at the India International Center in January to launch her book tour (photo credit: Ileana Jiménez, Feminist Teacher).

Gloria Steinem spoke in January at the India International Centre in Delhi to launch her book tour for “As if Women Matter.” (photo credit: Ileana Jiménez, Feminist Teacher).

At the start of 2014, I led a seven-week tour of schools in India speaking to high school students about feminism and education.

Little did I know that one of my favorite feminists and fellow Smith alums, Gloria Steinem, would also be conducting an Indian tour of her own.

One morning in Delhi, I opened an email from Smith trustee, Mona Sinha. She urged me to go hear Steinem at the nearby India International Centre, where she was going to speak about her new book, As if Women Matter, alongside her longtime friend and fellow activist, Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap, which supports survivors of sex trafficking, and who had also edited Steinem’s new book.

I immediately made my reservation. I wanted a chance to speak to her in the very country that had changed her life forever.

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Exclusive: First GSA in India Speaks to Feminist Teacher, Ileana Jiménez

Students from Breaking Barriers, India's first student-led campaign to address LGBT issues in schools (photo courtesy: Shivanee Sen).

Students from Breaking Barriers, India’s first student-led campaign to address LGBT issues in schools marching in the Delhi Pride Parade in November 2013 (photo courtesy: Shivanee Sen).

“I’m trying to build a culture of compassion, understanding, and of service. I’m trying to build a culture of questioning the status quo.”

Inspiring words by Shivanee Sen, a young teacher I recently met at the Tagore International School in Delhi, where Sen is mentoring the first student-led campaign in India to address LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex) issues. In the U.S., Sen’s student group would be called a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance), but in India, it’s more like a revolution.

In just a little under six months, Sen has mobilized an energetic group of over 50 students to address issues of gender and sexuality in education and politics. What they have done in a short amount of time is more than what most established GSA’s in the U.S. do in years.

Called Breaking Barriers, Sen started her groundbreaking group during a conversation with her high school students about gender. Her initial goal was to inspire students to care about intersex individuals as well as the hijras, a community of transgender women, who are marginalized both socially and economically. What started as a discussion topic has turned into a national campaign that has gained the attention of the Indian media across the country.

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Top 10 Feminist Teacher Highlights of 2013

A great deal of inspiring work happened in 2013 both in my high school feminism class and in my outside professional work to build a movement with other teachers, activists, and academics to bring women’s, gender, and queer studies to schools. Here’s my top ten favorite moments of 2013.

1. Launched a movement to bring women’s and gender studies to K-12 schools with other high school feminist teachers from across the country at the AAUW’s (American Association of University Women) first ever symposium, Creating Classrooms of Justice: Teaching Gender Studies in Schools. Hosted in partnership with the AAUW, I delivered the keynote and helped to organize the panels featured throughout the day. More than 50 educators and activists from across the country – from California to Massachusetts – met at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, for a day-long event. Special thanks to fellow activist, Holly Kearl, for helping make this event happen as successfully as it did. Everyone walked away inspired. To join the movement, email: gender-studies@listsrv.aauw.org

I delivered the keynote at the AAUW's first ever symposium on teaching women's and gender studies in K-12 schools. The symposium was held in St. Louis (photo credit: Holly Kearl).

I delivered the keynote at the AAUW’s first ever symposium on teaching women’s and gender studies in K-12 schools. The symposium was held in St. Louis (photo credit: Holly Kearl).

2. Brought my students to the United Nations in New York for a Girls Speak Out event to observe the second annual International Day of the Girl held every October 11. As part of observing IDG, my students held our second annual assembly and blogged about their experience. As a class, we continued to partner with the all-girls school, Shri Shikshayatan, in Kolkata, India and learned about global girls education, sex trafficking, sex selection, and sexual harassment in both countries.

Students from my high school feminism class attended a Girls Speak Out event at the United Nations for International Day of the Girl (photo credit: Ileana Jiménez).

Students from my high school feminism class attended a Girls Speak Out event at the United Nations for International Day of the Girl (photo credit: Ileana Jiménez).

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My High School Feminism Class Marks International Day of the Girl 2012

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The students in my high school feminism class marked this year’s first International Day of the Girl by leading a phenomenal school-wide assembly for their peers. We partnered with 10×10 Educate Girls to learn about the state of girls’ education globally as well as with our partner school in India, the all-girls Shri Shikshayatan School in Kolkata.

In addition to sharing information about girls education globally, my students showed videos from a range of organizations including those from 10×10 and the Girl Effect. The young women and men in the class highlighted statistics on girls education and several girls shared personal stories about growing up at the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality in the U.S.

Across the globe, high school girls at Shri Shikshayatan sponsored a day of panels related to infanticide or sex selective abortion, trafficking, and the education of girls in India.

My students documented reflections on leading their International Day of the Girl assembly on their blog F to the Third Power, citing learning about intersectionality–or the theory that categories of oppression such as racism, classism, and sexism are interlocking–as the most important concept that helped provide them a lens for understanding both social justice feminism as well as themselves.

We’re looking forward to continuing our partnership with the girls and teachers at Shri Shikshayatan, and are hoping to visit their school in the future. Until then, our classes will continue the dialogue about gender and equity in both countries, as we foster a critical and action-based understanding about the need for global education for girls and their communities to create social and economic justice.