UNGEI #YouthTalks meets Zeitun Tifow
Age: 24, Student
Zeitun was born and raised in Kenya. She went to high school in Nairobi and studied at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. She has just completed her MS in Global Affairs at NYU, with a concentration on Peace Building. With parents that both worked, she is aware that she had a lot more privilege growing up. She and her three sisters and two brothers have all been educated. Coming from a Somali background, where it is possible to find some community members that remain staunchly against the education of girls, she feels fortunate, but also determined to return to Kenya, to help change the attitudes and obstacles that prevent more girls from going to school. We spoke to her on her way to a job interview in Washington, DC, about social media, dress codes, and the power of good education to foster a special brand of girl leadership.
Attitude, almost more than resources, determines whether a girl is educated in much of the developing world. How did it happen for you?
My father strongly believes in educating girls. A Somali man, born in the 1960s, the only boy of many sisters and he was the only one who was educated. He has a strong mother, and strong, intelligent sisters; and yet only he was given the opportunity to study. He got a scholarship to the US and was exposed to the world, where girls study in much higher numbers. If there’s a unique thing about him, it’s his sense of pride in having daughters, and wanting us to have better opportunities than he and his sisters had, exposing us to different cultures, and encouraging us to play on sports teams. He let us follow our hearts desires. He saw the missed opportunity with his sisters and he didn’t want his daughters to suffer the same missed opportunities. You can’t overlook girls. My father thinks a lot about what his sisters’ lives would have been like had they been given the same opportunities that he’s had.
My family is Muslim. It’s within our faith to educate all members of our community; education is very important for both boys and girls. He doesn’t see the reasoning for why women shouldn’t be educated when it says very clearly in the Qur’an that all Muslims should strive for education.
I already grew up with a lot of strength from my home. My feeling has been that if my father let me do it, no one else has the right to say I can’t do it. I will take my education and run as far as I can with it.
My greatest opposition has been moments of self-doubt. I ran for President of the Muslim Student Association at University and even though I had a lot of people supporting me, I sometimes felt like ‘Am I capable of taking this on?’ I was doubting that I could reach out to people and build the community I was imagining, or create the solidarity I was envisioning. I had to overcome that. It’s so important to overcome doubt as girls because this will determine how far you get in what you want to take on. [Zeitun won the Muslim Student Association Presidency and strengthened the Muslim student body at Towson University by increasing its numbers and making it a close-knit group with much more focused agendas.]
How did you identify what it was you wanted to take on, and how did you develop the confidence to do it?
I knew what I could contribute based on what I was missing when I was first part of that [Muslim student] community. What did not make me feel good about it was the lack of cohesion I felt. Like we were many members who didn’t really know each other, we didn’t really communicate or have deep friendships. How can you be a strong community if you don’t have this powerful base? Sometimes it comes down to thinking about what you can do for that community to make it a better place to be involved with, that is your calling and your gift. This is a good way to identify what you can contribute. What unsettles a girl or makes her uncomfortable – and what she can do to make it more comfortable, is the best place to start. If she’s feeling these things, chances are that others are feeling them too.
For my confidence, I understood that I had something to offer and that I could benefit people. I had to show them I was what it was they were looking for. I wasn’t going to be satisfied if I didn’t do my best, no matter the outcome. So that’s what I did.
This idea of unifying a community to make it stronger is an idea perhaps more likely to come from a girl – but boys are favoured in education in some communities in Kenya and in much of the developing world. From your experience, why is this?
Boys are seen as continuing the family name. Gender roles are very strictly defined. Boys and men are the bread winners, and so investing in their education would seem to be the most logical thing to do. On the other hand, girls are usually expected to get married and be taken care of by her husband. They don’t need to provide for themselves because the man takes on the responsibility. The imbalance in financial responsibility leads to the inequality in education we still witness today in many communities.
When you come from cultures that don’t necessarily have a wide range of career options, where there is a pastoralist background and a man’s future is the same as his fathers’, you’re not really thinking of greater ambitions, of becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a politician. We need to broaden our horizons in terms of cultural expectations, but this is a challenge. For us Millennials, who are more exposed to different cultures, opportunities and ambitions, we understand this but it’s harder for the elders in our communities to understand. They think of a successful man as someone who is the head of a household with x amount of animals to take care of.
Has social media had an impact on the changes happening in this sphere?
Social media has freed us from these old ideas. It has allowed us not to feel alone in terms of where we would like to be, and shown us what other people around the world experience, as young people with ambitions. Who they are and what they’re like. It’s good to be exposed to people outside our own kind. This has given us a voice and a support network, we can have each other to understand if our elders are finding it harder to understand us. We can connect with others who believe in our struggle or are going through the same thing.
How much access to social media does youth culture have in Nairobi?
I went to a school that had all sorts of kids from different backgrounds, racial, ethnic and economic. Most of the kids had phones and we were connected through social media and having digital relationships. Social media helps so girls can see what being a girl somewhere else is like. It opens us to many viewpoints. When I was in high school I wasn’t necessarily looking to social media to make connections, it happened for me in 2010 when I arrived in Baltimore. I joined the African Student Association and the Muslim Student Association. Social media really helped me, especially when I campaigned to become President of the Muslim Student Association.
Having now lived in both places, how do you think girls in the developing world relate to the girl experiences in the West that they’re exposed to through social media?
Young girls today are realising that the fight for equality isn’t finished. The girls [mostly in the West] who think we’ve achieved it all don’t understand that there’s a whole world of girls and women trying so hard to get what they already have right now [mostly in the developing world].
Can the two be more in solidarity, do you think?
The girls who have more status and freedom need to not define that path for the girls who have less. Just being that support means the girls who are fighting harder can define what freedom is for themselves. This can come down to something as simple as clothing. This is a big issue right now – clothing, and what constitutes correct clothing for women. The other day, a girl was sent home in Belgium for wearing a long skirt – if a girl can’t wear a short skirt and she can’t wear a long skirt, what does she have left? Girls who prefer to cover up should have that right, as much as girls who prefer to wear less. Women who view covering up as oppression need to understand what oppression is and what personal choice is. We’re missing that language of communication among different cultural backgrounds and faiths [as girls and women]. It would be very helpful for the women’s movement to identify its weaknesses and where we can help one another, and send a message across to each other as a movement of solidarity.
Developing critical thinking, learning to believe in yourself no matter what other people say, learning to be a role model, and not judging a book by its cover are all really important. All women are different, so being bombarded by what it means to be beautiful makes real conversations more difficult. We have to be on each other’s side no matter what if we’re going to find ourselves in a truly equal world.
When I got to the US, I had to familiarise myself with the concept of feminism. I already knew of feminism as a global women’s movement but I never identified as feminist because all I knew was Western feminism, as opposed to Feminism, which to me meant identifying as a woman who believes in her human rights. I used social media to follow groups like UN Women, and to find out what women’s rights campaigns exist out there, what sort of Muslim work is going on to further the rights of Muslim girls and women. I realized I could make Feminism work for me. Girls can connect with each other in this movement even if we aren’t identifying with the same issues. We need to stay together because we are stronger together than we are apart despite our religious or cultural differences. Women and girls are discriminated against whether they are living in the US or Saudi Arabia. I feel like as long as you are identifying with yourself, and how you are a Feminist, this is how you can join the online movement in all its voices, and together, find solutions.
Your education has helped you identify a special kind of leadership. Can you tell us more about it?
You’re seeing more and more girls in leadership positions, which is hopeful. There is strength in girls who are putting themselves in leadership positions, and patience involved in getting people to understand your reasons for taking on this responsibility as a girl. There’s an element of realism that comes with girls in leadership: we know for sure that some people disagree with us being in these positions; we are faced with opposition, which we are meeting head on. Knowing who we are, and the difficulties we face, allows us to make our approaches more varied. We understand how to approach people, we make sure we’re patient and clear; we learn how to inspire others to believe in us as much as we believe in ourselves.
How inspiring. Do you plan to spread this message to other girls, to boys, and to your communities in the developing world?
Yes! Families who are still prioritising boys and are sceptical about educating girls need evidence of success and a better life for families who have chosen to educate their girls. Someone making a difference to their family as an example is the best way to convince society. My long term plan is to return to Kenya and get involved in community work either with an existing organisation or one that I start myself. I want to focus on simple things like education, community perceptions and getting people talking – which are actually not very simple issues to change.
Somali culture values poetry. My approach is ‘find out what is loved and valued by a culture and speak to them in those terms’. In the case of my community I’m thinking, “How do you get poets together to talk about education in their poetry or organise poetry sessions that can involve and inspire communities about educating girls?”
When I go back to Kenya, I will show myself to the Somali community, to girls and their families, to demonstrate to them who I am, where I’ve been, and what I’m coming back to do. Showing other girls that they’re capable of achieving their dreams because someone just like them did it too, is really important. Parents need to see that social changes are not the end of the world but maybe the beginning of a new one.