As the month of March has come to an end, the final Month Celebrating Women events are drawing to a close. Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal of the Ethnic and Gender Studies Department and Ron’na Lytle, the Administrative Assistant for both the Ethnic and Gender Studies and World Languages Departments, have worked tirelessly to make this month a success. Organized under the Ethnic and Gender Studies Department with input from other various departments across campus, the month’s events were bound to be diverse. Hosting multiple events, ranging from open classrooms to readings, from panels to lectures, and talks to discussions, has allowed the campus to open itself up to the important issues regarding women today.
What started off as a week-long celebration organized by the then, Women’s Studies Program here at Westfield State, is now a month-long tribute to women with plays, guest speakers, panel discussions, and movie screenings. This is one amazing accomplishment for the Westfield State University campus community. The larger scale celebration allows for an even greater impact.
“Each generation needs to discover the importance of women’s activism, women’s rights, women’s history, and what women are involved in,” Dr. Rajgopal states. As one of the few campuses that dedicates a whole month to the celebration of women, we hope to aid in that discovery. Unfortunately, many believe that feminism is in the past and is no longer necessary in today’s society; however, Dr. Rajgopal disagrees saying, “We need it more than ever.” The dismissal of women’s issues is exactly the opposite of what should be happening and that is why last month’s events carried such great importance.
Open classrooms gave a glimpse into what our students were learning about in relation to women’s issues during the course of the Spring 2014 semester. Open classrooms during the Month Celebrating Women included Dr. Elizabeth Stassinos’ “Writing Feminism in Prison,” as well as, Professor Nazgol Shifteh’s “The Art of Asking Questions: Reporting about Women in the Middle East” which discussed how asking the “right questions” could help change the inaccurate stereotypes held about Middle Eastern women. Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal’s “Queer in South Asia” film screening of Director Karan Johar’s “Bombay Talkies,” explored the difficulties of finding one’s sexuality, living a lie, and all of the emotions involved. In a classroom setting, students were able to talk about women’s issues, like those dealing with sexuality, oppression, and prejudice, while amongst their peers. The classroom environment encouraged discussion and questions, which would lead to further discourse outside of the classroom. Having these courses here at Westfield State allows for more exposure to the issues individuals have to experience on a day-to-day basis, even in today’s society, where many dismiss deep rooted issues.
Readings were presented during this month, as well. Professor Leah Nielsen had a poetry reading, which included poems from her new chapbook Side Effects May Include and other works. There was a staff and student reading of “For Color Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” directed by Ron’na Lytle, which was a series of poems in which the struggles and obstacles African-American women may face throughout their lifetimes were expressed. Poetry came back again when Kate Rushin returned to the Westfield State Campus to read some of her works.
All of these readings offered a new perspective on women’s issues. Poetry offers a creative outlet unlike any other. Sometimes issues cannot be expressed the way we want them to and poetry offers the option to say what one wants to say on a different platform. Also, because poetry is subjective, these readings allowed the audience to interpret for themselves and in turn relate to the pieces presented.
Speaking of platforms, panel discussions were also a part of the Month Celebrating Women. Panel discussions open the dialogue between the panelists and the audience, often in a conversational setting followed by a question and answer period. The “Good Hair” discussion panel was focused on conversations surrounding how people perceive brown/black women’s beauty, success, confidence, and more, whether it be focused on hair type, skin color, or preferred or assumed ethnicities. Coordinated by two Ethnic and Gender Studies majors, LaToyya Pleasant and Simbrit Paskins, along with M.A.D.E., the “Good Hair” panel tackled many issues. The panel was organized to offer all different types of perspectives on the issue of hair and other societal perceptions because as Pleasant said, “No one person is the same.” A panelist and student, Alisha Delissaint said that the “Good Hair” panel needed to happen because it is “Important for people to understand the everyday issues for a black female.” The panel was an eye-opening experience for all.
Vicki Krouse, also a student here at Westfield State University, really enjoyed the panel, saying it “opened my eyes to issues I didn’t know about.” The panel, along with all of the other events during the Month Celebrating Women was important to Krouse, who stated, “It is important that people understand the problems women face today.”
Another panel discussion, the last event of the Month, was the Muslim Women’s Panel Discussion titled “The Hussein Sisters: Local Bullying in the Here and Now.” Najma, Hibo, and Filsan Hussein are teenage Somali women who were born in Kenya and moved to the United States. Their struggles with bullying, Islamophobia, and hate were presented. The intention of the event being to illuminate the issues regarding religious bullying, to hear personal accounts of these acts, and to plan an appropriate response to the troubles the three sisters have faced in the West Springfield Public Schools. The moderator, Dr. Kamal Ali, held this discussion during classroom time. This event brought out many emotions in the audience. Some eyes were filled with anger while others were filled with tears after hearing the terrible experiences these young women had to go through time and time again. This panel, along with the “Good Hair” panel, was unlike anything presented on this campus. The panelists and audience members connected on a deeper level, because we all became part of the same community. A community that was open to share the struggles and troubles we all may face.
The final genre of events was discussions and lectures. A presentation on “Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 – 1992″ talked about the highly influential, award winning African-American lesbian poet who came to live in West Berlin and was the mentor and catalyst who ignited the Afro-German movement. Denise Jordan, a 20-year employee of the Commonwealth, came for a discussion titled “Women in Municipal Government” in which she talked about her experiences as a woman in the government and her expertise in the areas of Civil Rights, Equal Employment Opportunities, Human Resources, and more. The final discussion included art and was titled, “Butch: Not like the other girls.” In this discussion, photographer SD Holman delineated the term “butch” and used images to honor the beauty, power, and diversity of women who transgressed the gender binary. These discussions allowed for greater audience participation, which then allowed for a greater connection between the speaker and the observers. Each discussion tackled women’s issues in society today and offered inspiration on how individuals, even just one, could make a change.
Similarly, Dr. Tamara Smith had a talk titled “The Role of the Public Intellectual: Engaging with Race, Class and Gender in the City Council” in which she discussed the process of how running for City Councilor-At-Large turned a personal trouble into a public issue, and how engaging in politics at the local level has allowed her to use her sociological skills for structural change. Smith noticed the issues regarding class, race, and gender and decided to make a change. She became the first woman on the Easthampton Municipal Council.
All of the events that were a part of the Month Celebrating Women solidified the idea that women’s issues have not gone away and feminism is still relevant. Ms. Jasmine Amegan, Staff Assistant at the Admissions Office and panelist for the “Good Hair” Panel stated that “Celebrating women on campus by inviting them to share their passions, expertise, ideas and advice is not only encouraging to the women here on campus looking for role models and inspiration, but it allows for the opportunity to showcase to the entire campus community the amazing contributions women are making daily in our communities and society at large.”
This month has become a strong seam that keeps the Westfield State Campus community together and actively involved in making progress to help solve several women’s issues still going on today. Each event was a reminder that women are still underrepresented and underestimated. As Julia Sottile, a student here at Westfield State said, “I personally took a great deal of inspiration out of these events because I am so proud to be a woman and so strongly believe our contributions are just as important as our male counterparts.” With that alone, one can see that the Month Celebrating Women 2014 was a success.