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Girls On Fire

March 15, 2013

I received so many comments to my first International Women’s Day post last year that months ago I was already thinking about what I wanted to say this year (Who Runs the World) . A lot has happened since last March 8th I planned to write about the experiences of the refugee women I worked with this past year, the fact that we now have a host of premiers in Canada who are women, and my own unexpected experiences since becoming a “Mrs.” I even picked out a name for the post: Girls on Fire, in honour of Alicia Key’s song that continues to motivate me every time I hear it.

But as the date drew nearer things seemed to be unravelling for women everywhere. If I was going to title my post Girls on Fire it had to be positive but how was I going to do that with the current state of things? My enthusiasm started to unravel right around the time of the news of Reeva Steenkamp’s killing in South Africa (BBC News) and the subsequent articles on the gravity of the issue of Femicide in South Africa. As my husband and I sat reading the paper one morning he turned to me and said, I can’t believe this; it says ¼ of South African women have been raped Globe and Mail Article on Femicide. I told him, the saddest part about that fact is that it is actually better than the global average (1/3 of the world’s women)UN Stat .

Reeva Steenkamp memorial phpto, courtesy of Google images.

Reeva Steenkamp memorial photo, courtesy of Google images.

About a week later I was up early one morning and started thinking about my post again. I turned on CBC to listen while I got dressed. The host was talking about how excited he was for the NASCAR race that weekend because it was the first time a woman (Danica Patrick) had won the pole position to lead the pack. This was a good start…but then he added and because she isn’t hard to look at and then started laughing. Come on CBC! I have always held up CBC as a bastion of equality. If we still have these kind of comments on CBC, we are really in trouble.

Later that morning, I am waiting in line for the ski lift, and the guy working there says to me: Don’t worry darling, you look fine. I was actually thinking about how I could improve my turns, not what I looked like. But thanks for that. Jackass. I’m pretty sure that but for the ponytail sticking out of my helmet, he wouldn’t be making any comments on a snowboarder’s looks…or calling them darling.

Excuse me, could you just check my hair for me before I drop over this cliff?

Excuse me, could you just check my hair for me before I drop over this cliff?

I brush it off and head home for the night I have long been waiting for…the Oscars! You can guess what comes next…an entire evening of Seth Mcfarlane’s very special brand of culturally acceptable sexism, including everything from his original song “We saw your boobs” to jokes about Chris Brown’s history of domestic violence. It’s been a long day.

Monday morning I sit down to draft my post but Sunday’s events are still on my mind. I hear your thoughts, Lighten Up! They’re harmless jokes!

All these things can be referred to as EveryDay Sexism
A.K.A. parts of life that we’re all told to just get over. And for some women, it really may not bother them, but for others, it does. And the problem is not only is this “everyday sexism” harmful to many, it is also an indicator of just how far we still have to go towards true equal treatment in society.

It is not lost on me that I am posting my 2nd annual Women’s Day post a week after Women’s Day. I wasn’t being lazy and I didn’t forget. I sat down many times over the past couple weeks to draft it but just couldn’t find the inspiration. I tried everything, I tried discussing it with friends, I went to talks about it Half the Sky Lecture and read countless books and articles, all in an attempt to get re-energized about the status of women, it was a weeklong workshop in Women’s Rights at our house.

Part of the workshop’s required reading was Sheryl Sandberg’s (COO of Facebook) new book Lean In . So much of what she said rang so true for me. Enough that I highlighted sections to read out loud to my husband in the evenings, this part of the curriculum was entitled Kevin’s feminist business indoctrination, and included rule-setting for our careers going forward. However, one of her anecdotes really made me see just how slow progress has been with women in the workplace: She tells a story of her mother graduating with an undergrad in 1965 and thinking she had two choices for a career: nurse or teacher. Some of you may have heard my mother tell a similar story about me, that when I was just old enough to talk (let’s say 1984) she asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up, I thought about it for a minute and answered: A teacher like my one grammie or a nurse like my other grammie. So she said: No, Allison, if you could be ANYTHING in the ENTIRE world when you grow up, what would it be? I hemmed and hawed and after a long pause said: I guess if I could be ANYTHING, I would be a Smurfette. She finishes the story by saying that I did end up as Smurfette, meaning that like Smurfette, I always ran where most, if not all the others, were boys (like being the only girl on a backcountry snowboard trip, or playing soccer during high school in South Africa when all the girls were expected to swim). It’s not that I wanted to be with the boys, it was just that often the girls were missing.

Nurse Smurfette, photo courtesy of Google images.

Nurse Smurfette, photo courtesy of Google images.

The point is that 2 decades and more than 2 generations apart – our initial reaction was the same, we had 2 career choices. Great ones, but it didn’t occur to us to consider any others, at least not at first. That is some slow progress.

Fuelled with inspiration after finishing Lean In last night I woke up this morning raring to go. Enough is enough, I am writing this post. I’ll just check the news first though. I had just gotten off the phone with my brother who is currently working on his Spanish skills, including immersing himself in Latino radio stations from Florida. Having admitted he didn’t understand the lyrics, he sent me a song from his newest favourite Latin artist (Y Yo Sigo Aqui by Paulina Rubio) (I admit the song is beyond catchy). I figured it couldn’t hurt to listen to it in the background while I perused the news. I clicked on the link …it was a beautiful Latina clad in a tiny bikini in bed with one man, and four other women, all lusting after him, singing, in a rough translation; I am still here, waiting for you, I will still be here waiting. Awesome. To give it a fair chance though I left it on in the background while I read the news headlines; Ex runner charged with Killing his Ex-Wife one headline read, I skip that one and go to the next, coverage of an Ohio trial of two teenage football players on trial for rape, including unbelievable details of a night of partying gone terribly wrong. I quickly clicked back to YouTube hoping for a miracle, but now all the ladies were rubbing up against the one guy in the ocean, they were still wildly waiting for him there too (ok another guy or two popped up in the water from time to time by this point). Between their excitement at waiting around for a man and the awful details of the news I felt my head begin to spin like I was in a whirlpool. What is happening? Is it still this bad? Am I going crazy? What can I do? In law, when nothing seems to make sense anymore you go back to the founding principles, the basics. How could I apply this rule here? I know! As I steadied my ever-dizzier self against the wall with one hand I used the other to type G-L-O-R-I-A-S-T-E-I-N-E-M into Google – if anyone knows about the status of women’s progress, it is Gloria Steinem , one of the founders of the modern women’s movement.

The approach worked, I quickly found a recent interview she did with HardTalk It addressed the very question of the current status of equality between the sexes; when asked whether she felt the same urgency as she did for the women’s movement in the 1970s, her answer was more. So there we have it. The good news is I’m not going crazy. The bad news is the struggle is more needed than ever.

So although the progress is slow, at least it’s there and let this year be a reminder to us that we need to keep going. Thank you to the Alicias, the Sheryls, and the Glorias of the world for inspiring us to be Girls (and Boys) on Fire.

Smurfette girls can do anything

R.I.P. YLIP… at Least for Now

January 15, 2013

With my colleagues at ONIC in our office in Bogota, Colombia, November 2011.

With my colleagues at ONIC in our office in Bogota, Colombia, November 2011.

YLIP funding cut

Earlier this morning I read the sad news that funding for my beloved YLIP has been cut, at least for the next couple of years. YLIP is the Canadian Bar Association’s Young Lawyers International Program. It was this program that sponsored me to go to Colombia, helped me get my first field experience in international law, led me to create this blog and quite literally put me on my new career path.

YLIP is a unique program that provides funding to young Canadian lawyers to get human rights law experience abroad. I went to work with the National Organization of Indigenous Persons in Bogota, Colombia through this program in 2011-12. During my time in Colombia, my colleagues worked in various organizations in South Africa, Tanzania, Namibia, Kenya, and Guyana.

Sadly this announcement doesn’t come as a surprise. As the end of my time studying international law in Switzerland I became acutely aware that almost all the positions available for those entering this field are unpaid, many are unpaid for several years. Facing increasing student debt these were not viable options for me and many of my classmates. When I was accepted and starting explaining YLIP to my classmates, they could not believe the Canadian government funded it. My reaction was always, yes and I assume as soon as they figure out they’re doing it, it will be cut.

Flash forward not even 2 years and here we are, a sad, but not surprising day.

R.I.P. YLIP… hope to see you again soon.

Life As I See It

January 14, 2013

The Prodigal Adventurer: Life As I See It

To continue on with the theme of New Year, New Beginnings…I present to you my new blog. The Working Title is “The Prodigal Adventurer: Life As I See It”.

The idea behind my new blog is less “law”, more “life”. Unlike this blog, it won’t follow a certain theme or chronicle my experiences in law but will be more anecdotes, maybe even opinions. A cultural commentary of sorts. I plan to write about things that have surprised me since being back in North America, things that inspire me, and as always, the hurdles along the way.

I will of course continue to update this blog as well but check me out at the Prodigal Adventurer when you’re in the mood for a bit of lighter fare!

New Year, New Beginnings

January 10, 2013

Hello from Bora Bora

Although I may have lifted the title of this post from Kim Kardashian’s recent twitter announcement, unlike Kim, my “new beginnings” are not a baby. Far from it!

Yesterday, WordPress sent me “2012: Your Year in Blogging”, their annual report on my blog, so I figured there is no better time than the present to get back to it.

I realize I’ve been gone for many months, and some of you may have thought I was lost somewhere in Ethiopia. But I’m not. I’m here, back at home in Toronto. I’ve been meaning to write for a while now but haven’t because I haven’t felt I have anything to write about.  Well nothing that relates to “international law” at least.  I guess maybe I was scared of being judged for not working or having to deal with more questions about how many jobs I have applied for; But then I thought, forget it, I miss the blog, I’m writing! The point of this blog was to follow my journey from corporate lawyer to international lawyer . Well the truth about switching career paths, especially to international law, is that there are many times when you are not “working” in the traditional sense, and many more when you are working every single day, just not getting paid. So if I’m going to be totally honest, totally true to the purpose of this blog I better write about this part too!

Back at home in Toronto.

Back at home in Toronto.

I’ve been home from Ethiopia since the fall. In that time I’ve planned our wedding and related activities, had the wedding and said activities, gone on our honeymoon, caught up with family and friends, got my health back on track after years of inconsistent medical care, applied for jobs, and most of all, attempted to reintegrate into Canadian life after having been gone for almost 3 years. But even if I say that all in one breath, the next question is always: But what do you do? Like, every day? Are you applying for jobs? Or my personal favourite: Who are you with now? (Meaning what law firm are you with). Myself. I’m with myself, trying to build this new career path. I guess it’s because I’m not making any money right now but everywhere I go people are just uncomfortable with this, even basic medical appointments turn into interviews on my current and future employment status. So then I tell them what I actually do every day: I write. I’m writing a book. And again, confusion and blank stares, aversion of the eyes. But there it is folks; I’m writing a book. A book about the very adventures I wrote about in this blog and many more that I can share now that I’m back, from the safety of our home.  Once I am completely ready to own that fact myself I will fill you all in.

Oh, and Congrats Kim, in your words; New Year, New Beginnings.

Keeping warm with my brother and mom during after our wedding ceremony.

Keeping warm with my brother and mom during after our wedding ceremony.

Kevin and I, after the ceremony.

Kevin and I, after the ceremony.

Day one of our honeymoon, on our way to Tahiti.

Day one of our honeymoon, on our way to Tahiti.

On our way to our first honeymoon dinner, Tah'aa.

On our way to our first honeymoon dinner, Tah’aa.

Me with Bora Bora in the background.

Me with Bora Bora in the background.

Sunset over the dock, Tah'aa, French Polynesia.

Sunset over the dock, Tah’aa, French Polynesia.

View of Bora Bora from our beach.

View of Bora Bora from our beach.

Us with the Polynesian dancers.

Us with the Polynesian dancers.

Paddleboard Yoga. My new favourite thing.

Paddleboard Yoga. My new favourite thing.

Paddle-boarding around the lagoon, Bora Bora.

Paddle-boarding around the lagoon, Bora Bora.

2012 in review

January 9, 2013

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,800 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 6 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Happy New Year Everyone! Thanks to all of you who read my blog and supported me throughout 2012. It was a year of big changes as I finished out my work in Colombia, went on to Ethiopia, and finally back to Canada for our wedding and to figure out the next step in this journey in international law. All of your comments and support were a big help while working so far away from home!

Stay tuned for new posts coming soon!

May peace be with you wherever you are in this new year!

Sundays in Addis

July 8, 2012

Last Sunday I had my first religious experience here in Ethiopia.  I got up “early” with my friend T. to attend a traditional Ethiopian Orthodox mass. Now I say “early” because although we arrived just after 7 a.m., the mass actually started at 5 a.m. (and went until 11 a.m.).

Ethiopia may not be one of the countries that jumps to mind when you think of Christianity, but it is in fact a very Christian and religious country. Approximately 50% of Ethiopians follow the traditional Ethiopian Orthodox church. This faith is said to have many connections to and  actually fell under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Church until 1955 when it officially became its own faith, the Ethiopia Orthodox Church with its own seat on the World Council of Churches.

We headed out as early as we could bear to one of the biggest orthodox churches in Addis, Medlane Alem. As we are now officially in the rainy season, it was of course pouring rain. And although usually it’s difficult to maneuver around all of the taxis following me yelling taxi taxi taxi to the point that I’ve started saying under my breath, My name is not “Taxi”, of course this morning there were none to be found.

Medhane Alem Church, Addis. Photo courtesy of googleimages.

Eventually we made our way there and were surprised to see a large group of women all waiting outside the door; it’s only 7:15, it can’t be that full already…can it? So we wandered around a bit lost outside the church until we realized that we’d wandered right into the men’s section and wandered back. Still a bit lost, we waited outside at the back of the crowd.

Then all of the sudden there was a bit of a rush to the door and 2 priests appeared; one holding a traditional umbrella over the other who held the church’s tabot. Each church has a tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant is the tablet that God gave to Moses containing the 10 Commandments. The original is said to be kept in a small chapel in Axum in Northern Ethiopia. When I travel to Northern Ethiopia later this month I plan to follow the steps of such great explorers as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and head to Axum to try and catch a glimpse.

Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark carrying the “Ark of the Covenant”. Photo from the Daily Mail.

We realized that the church wasn’t full; people had been waiting to be blessed by the Tabot before they entered the church. We knew it was now or never if we were going to actually go in. We thought it safest for me to go in first as we weren’t completely certain they were going to let me in at all. We took off our shoes and made our way to the front and when the priest saw me he smiled, we were in! He blessed us with the tabot and we were on our way.

When I stepped in I was kind of awestruck and just stood there until T. pushed me in the right direction; I had stepped into a world of incense, chanting, and apparent mysticism and for a moment just had no idea where to go. We made our way to the back and quickly realized there was one crucial thing we had forgotten…Everyone was wearing white. Now we had been careful to be culturally sensitive, we wore head scarves and clothes that covered everything and taken off our shoes…but one crucial piece we had forgotten was Colour.  I was dressed (not shockingly) in head-to-toe dark green. T. in black. Everyone else in white. We might as well have been wearing white to a funeral.

Women in traditional Netelas. Photo from Google Images.

Anyway our embarrassment didn’t last long as out of nowhere a MAN came and stood on the ladies’ side. The women all worship on the right side of the church and the men on the left. I have to say I was pretty happy to be on the lady-side. There was lots of action, kids escaping up the aisles, babies everywhere, it made the men’s side look pretty boring. The women around us were not impressed with this intruder and were giving him piercing looks, to which he remained oblivious. Then, as if his presence wasn’t enough – his CELL PHONE rang! Seriously. At that point I knew we were in the clear, no one cared about our unfortunate colour choice with Mr. Cell phone hanging out on the ladies’ side.

Another thing that hit me was the children. No Sunday school here. Just a 6 hour mass. And save the few that escaped running down the aisles, for the most part they were well behaved. Most women had them tied to their backs in their Netelas, traditional white scarves (that I will be purchasing before my next mass).

The inside of the church was very beautiful. One thing that struck me was that the figures depicted were the same white figures you see in a western church, they were not the traditional black faces associated with Ethiopian religious paintings. One of the most interesting things I find about visiting churches around the world is how they depict Jesus and/or God, the black faces of St. George here, in Mexico mixing Catholic and traditional depictions, and once in a tiny church in Iceland I saw a huge painting of Jesus wearing an Icelandic fisherman’s sweater.  The one decorative touch I noticed in Medhane Alem was that the colours of the Ethiopian flag were painted around the dome on the ceiling of the church.

Traditional Ethiopian religious art with the face of St. George. I purchased these last weekend at the NGO market here in Addis.

The mass was a very meditative experience for me, with all of the incense and chanting, and togetherness it is easy to be taken away from your worries.  Although I realized that likely one of the reasons I found it so calming was that I didn’t understand what was being said. A suspicion I confirmed afterwards when I talked to Ethiopian friends who mentioned their frustration with corruption and discrimination of women in the church.

After so many trips walking around town guarding my bag, being grabbed at and yelled after, being in such a calm environment with so many locals renewed my faith a bit and brought me some much-needed calm. Something that is often lacking in solitary travel; excitement, invigoration, and inspiration, yes. But calm, not so much.

All in all, attending the Ethiopian Orthodox mass was a very moving experience and made me fall in love with Ethiopia a little bit. It opened a window for me to see that Ethiopia might just become one of my favourite countries yet.


I Will Hit You With This and Other Stories

June 28, 2012

Tonight was my first night walking home after dark in Addis.

Usually I run out of work, run to the gym, work-out like mad, and shower as fast as humanly possible, all just to make it home before dark. But today I was feeling a little more relaxed…I had been out late for dinner last night and walked all the way home with no hassles at all – but there were 3 of us…So telling myself it’s only 7:15, nothing will happen, I took it easy.

I left work, casually wandered to the gym, took my time working-out and took a leisurely shower afterwards. So as I am leaving the gym and walking down the main road, Bole Road, I hear whimpering. I look around to see where it was coming from. It was a boy of about 15 yrs old, sitting on some bricks a few feet away from the sidewalk, crying. Is he okay? I said out loud to myself, but then kept walking. Thinking if I were in my own country I would stop. Of course I would.  Without even thinking. But it’s just too dangerous here, you never know what’s genuine and what’s not.

A premonition of things to come.

10 minutes later I am literally 75 metres from the security gate of our compound when I see 4 boys, all about 11 years old, crossing the street in a very organized way, approaching me and finally surrounding me.

Now for those of you who have been to any big city in the developing world you’ll know this is one of the most famous robbery schemes there is; gangs of kids come up and ask to shine your shoes or for money or what have you and the next thing you know your wallet is gone.

So they approach me and I yell “Get” and think how awful I sound, like I’m talking to dogs or something. But then they all start chanting “git git git” after me and my guilt is quickly replaced with something bordering on rage.

They follow me down the pitch black street while I warn them in a very stern voice Get away, though they obviously don’t understand. Now they are starting to grab at me from all sides, one touching one arm, I swat him away while keeping watch of my purse, then another grabs onto the other arm – the first time I just swat him away but then two of them grab my arms hard at the same time and before I knew it I was swinging my arm with the force of a major league batter and threw him a few feet while I yelled at the top of my lungs I WILL HIT YOU WITH THIS.

I seriously have no idea where A. That swing and B. Those words, came from. It’s not like I planned them. I mean they didn’t even make sense; technically I was throwing him, not really hitting him. And what was “this” that I was going to hit him with? My arm? I guess I meant the bag of junk I had with me that I had unconsciously balled up around my wrist to use as a weapon.

Most importantly, it was not much of a fair warning shot, I was already in the process of hitting him [SIC]. In any case he flew a good few feet and the other 3, upon seeing this, all let go and backed away.

Officially back to being home in time for sundowners on the balcony.