Feminist clubs are popping up in high schools across Toronto.
This fills me with joy and hope.
I visited two.
The first was meeting in a science room on the top floor of Monarch Park Collegiate Institute in the city’s east end. There were eight girls, sitting in a circle of desks, talking about sexual assault among teenagers.
They call their club Artemis, after the Greek Goddess of wilderness and the hunt. Their tag line is “slay patriarchy.”
“To be a feminist means you support equal rights, equal opportunities for anyone, no matter their sexuality, their gender, their political stance,” explained Grace Walton, 15.
“Yes, but it’s not just holding ideals. It’s acting on them,” said Cynthia Nomanee, 14.
The club is a case in point. It was borne from activism. Last spring, school principal Cynthia Abernethy included in the morning announcements a reminder to students to dress appropriately, now that the weather was warming. She mentioned the revealing summer clothes of some girls were distracting to their male classmates.
Posters went up around the school the next morning. “Men are never told that their legs, arms and stomachs are a problem for other people,” they stated. “I am a fifteen year old girl. If you are sexualizing me, YOU are the problem.”
They were quickly taken down.
In response, Ashyana Kachra (then in Grade 9) decided to put up her own posters, making a similar point.
“Much to my dismay, there are security cameras at the school. I was identified and taken down to the office,” said Kachra, 15.
To her great credit, principal Abernethy saw acumen, not insubordination. “She told me ‘You have a voice that needs to be heard,’ ” said Kachra. She advised her to create a place where she could develop her ideas — a feminist club.
This past September, Kachra and Nomanee posted sanctioned signs around the school with slogans like this: “If you believe in equal pay for equal work … You might be a feminist.”
Their first meeting was a teach-in on feminism, led by Nomanee, who at 14, could trounce most university students in a debate on the topic.
During the meeting I attended, their conversation about sexual assault segued into a dissection of rape culture in popular television shows and a critique of the “heteronormative” sex education taught in high school. (“It only focuses on men and women and penetration, not on gay sex or oral sex,” said Maheen Aktar, 15.)
Oh, they also talked about internalizing gender stereotypes, and how they often apologize for asking questions in class. “Women are taught to grow in, men are taught to grow out. They are taught they are right and they should take up space,” said Andjelija Prekic, 14.
If you thought feminism was an old worn-down lady, bruised by decades of denial, bullying and cynicism, you were wrong, thankfully. Not only have British actress Emma Watson and American singer Beyoncé picked up the mantle, so have smart, young girls across the city.
They are learning from the Internet, from one another, from their teachers, and they are taking action, which brings me to the second high school feminist club I visited this week, on the other end of Toronto.
It’s called POWER — Parkdale’s Organization for Women’s Equality and Rights. It formed at Parkdale Collegiate Institute a decade ago. I dropped in for their lunch meeting. There, I found 16 students planning a school vigil to commemorate the 14 victims of the Montreal Massacre. A teacher advising the group suggested the students tell boys in the school to imagine the women gunned down in the École Polytechnique de Montréal 25 years ago, as their own mothers, sisters or aunts.
“I object to the idea that women should only have significance if they are related to you,” said Jovana Miladinovic, 16. “She was a person. Isn’t that enough?”
Miladinovic is among the POWER students helping to facilitate hour-long workshops on sexual assault and healthy relationships in the school next week. Every class in the school will participate. The workshops are in honour of the Montreal Massacre.
To me, this seems precisely what we should expect from our high schools: critical thinking, space to debate and leadership skills.
Consider this a call to other high school principals: Follow suit!
Catherine Porter is a Star columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org