The chair stood in the center of the basketball court, its worn paint revealing a rusting, metallic frame. I gazed at the circle that had formed around the chair -- 100 kids and teenagers, dressed in ragged t-shirts and shorts, dirt caking their feet and the kiss of sunshine painting their faces a few shades darker than usual. We all sat, silently awaiting the beginning of the meeting. One of the 100 people walked to the chair, tapped it, and began to speak: "I think we should have garlic spread at the table during lunch!" People cheered and laughed at the request and, with that heroic opening line, a flood of others rushed to the chair, all eager to have their voices heard.
The event that ensued was normal for my summer camp. Every Saturday, a counselor would set up an old folding chair in the middle of the cracked basketball court. Everyone from camp gathered around the chair. Each person had the opportunity to speak just by standing up, walking to the center of the basketball court, and touching the chair. Once someone's hand graced that beat-up seat, the circle became silent, awaiting the problems or compliments that the speaker would address. This may seem like a strange way to bide my time during the summer, but it was a necessary structure to ensure that everyone had a say in how my socialist summer camp was run.
I sat, nervous, like most nine-year-olds do when surrounded by older and "cooler" kids. I had issues on my mind: the girls' bathroom didn't have any paper towels and it seemed like no one cared. All I needed was to muster the courage to touch the chair and then my concerns could flow from my mouth, respected by the crowd that encircled me. Person after person raced to the chair. After hearing others I respected, I finally gathered the bravery to stand up in front of the huge group and speak my mind.
I walked gingerly up to the chair and cautiously tapped it with my finger. "I-I-I," I stammered, "I think we need more paper towels in the girls' bathroom!" My heart was beating a little faster. I wasn't a shy kid but I had never spoken to such a large group. I awaited the response; a few snaps meaning, "I agree," broke out in the circle. Sure enough, in a few days, there were more paper towels, and, I saw how my nervous attempt at speaking out paid off.
This was my first taste of activism. Although it seems small, having this platform to work for change, even if it was just a few paper towels, was empowering. It was incredible to know that if I spoke people would listen. That feeling has propelled me on to further advocacy. However, knowing that I have a voice, that I am lucky enough to have the freedom to speak out against injustices, is also an immense responsibility.
This past week, in honor of International Women's Day, thousands of women gathered together in numerous countries to demand equal rights. Many women decided to raise their voices in countries that historically silence female dissent. This bravery is both remarkable and inspiring.
The Washington Post pictured a young Bangladeshi woman, Hasina Akter, displaying scars from an acid attack. A man, angered that Akter spoke against him, doused her in acid, leaving her with partial blindness and wounds that cover her face and neck. Despite the man's attempts at keeping Akter silent, she has continued to speak out against acid-throwing, using the scars that once branded her as a victim to now show her as a champion over domestic abuse.
In the face of further retribution, Akter and others like her have continued to march and voice their grievances. In Egypt, according to the Washington Post, women chanted, "Women under military rule, violence is humiliation and silence is an insult."
The Egyptian women's call to action can be a message to us all. To see the ills of the world pass by my eyes and not demand change is an insult to those suffering and to those with fewer resources and more to lose who are still working for justice. I am immensely lucky to have the ability to close the newspaper and forget all of the problems of the world. Yet, the bravery and dedication that these women exhibit make it impossible to ignore their plight. I have no limits on my voice, yet so often I am scared to use it. These women show me that there is no excuse for inaction. Apathy can no longer be an option.
Although my setting has changed, I still feel that nervous, nine-year-old feeling when I am faced with the opportunity to voice my concerns. Surrounded by smart and more knowledgeable feminists, or people who may not agree with what I want to say, it takes an effort to feel confident enough to speak up. We all have these fears and concerns yet we no longer have the luxury to stay silent. It is our responsibility to walk up to those chairs, look out at the circle of people around us, and take action against the wrongs in our world.