Challenging Prejudices in Girls’ Circles

The following account, written by Aleta, comes from a Girl Determined Circle at a Buddhist monastery in a rural village on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar.

“They have beards…They are not welcome here…They are bad people,” explain the girls matter-of-factly when asked about Muslims.

In a country where divisive prejudices based on religion and culture have kept it at war with itself for over half a century, such beliefs are deeply rooted.  Myanmar is known for being predominantly Buddhist, a religion considered by outsiders as one of the most tolerant and peaceful, teaching that practicing kindness to others will bring an individual good karma. So, what has aroused such hatred towards another group of people?

Mud puddles linger on the small dirt field behind the monastery. The girls set up their makeshift bamboo-pole net and mark out boundary lines with small plastic cones, as they do routinely every week. Curious boys and younger children gather around the edges of the field to watch, and to fetch stray volleyballs.

The girls arrive in simple cotton trousers with t-shirts or light floral dresses, the muddy ground seeming not to deter them in the slightest. They go about their drills without hesitation – taking it in turns to set the volleyball back to the server, toes squelching in the mud and feet disappearing into puddles.  Mini matches follow, and in contrast with their early timid nature and orderly appearance, the girls’ behaviour gradually becomes more competitive as the session progresses and their confidence grows.

When the session ends, ‘Ma Josephine’, Girl Determined’s ‘Colorful Girls’ Sports Coordinator, sits down with a group of girls in their first year of the program. They have just completed a module on trafficking and safe migration, so the discussion veers towards unsafe situations and how to protect yourself. A few girls speak up to explain that they feel unsafe around men and around Muslim people. Picking up on the blatant discrimination and entrenched prejudices, Josephine reacts swiftly abut gently, bringing the issue closer to home by asking what the girls would think if a Muslim person came into their community.

“We would not like him…They would not be welcome here…He would be a bad person,” they answer without hesitation.

Similar answers continue until Josephine suggests the girls pause for a moment and think.  Using a calm voice, her next words seemed momentarily to stump the group: “What if I told you that I was Muslim? Would that make me a bad person? Would you not want to talk to me?”

“Well, we would still like you,” chime several of the girls, “We like talking to you…It wouldn’t matter then, because we know you and you are a kind and fun person.”

“So,” Josephine reasons, “just because someone has a certain belief or background that is different from you, does that mean that person is automatically bad?  No, it does not, because they might also be a nice and fun person.  Therefore, shall we agree that not all Muslims are bad people? And shall we perhaps not be too quick to judge someone based on a single piece of information about them, with a presumption that may or may not be accurate, but might instead be hurtful?”

There are nods of agreement and giggles from the girls, alongside a few genuinely contemplative faces.

Time is up and the session ends. That was all the time Josephine had available to unpack complex cultural myths, for it was only a short visit to a sports session, but already many of the girls had shown willingness to challenge the status quo. In that short time, a few girls’ seemingly steadfast prejudices had already been brought into question.

As you will have read in the media, there has been a recent surge in tragic violence in Myanmar’s westernmost Rakhine State. The violence, a complicated mix of communal distrust, military force and, of course, the realities of the history of the area, has prompted critical discussions in our weekly adolescent girls’ Circles.

Intended to be safe spaces, ‘Colorful Girls’ Circles and sports sessions enable girls to discuss issues, feelings, opinions and concern freely. Discussions about people who are ‘different’ are common and integral to our ethos. While a significant number of girls and staff in our programs come from minority groups, the composition of each Circle depends on the demographics of each community.

This session with Ma Josephine may have been the first time some of the girls had ever been prompted to think critically about their assumptions.  A seed had been planted in their minds, and even if they had not entirely changed their opinion, at least they had been presented with a different perspective and an opportunity to try understanding an issue that has fueled ongoing conflict for centuries.  In a country with one of the longest-standing civil wars, tolerance is nothing short of essential if peace and equal rights are to be realized.

While there is still much to be done, we are slowly but surely equipping more and more girls with the necessary skills and understanding around conflict resolution, human dignity, and the benefits of being ‘colorful.’

The Ugly Side of Beauty Contests

Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Recently, in two national beauty contests held on both sides of the Atlantic, the ugly side of beauty reared its racist head as online racist backlash took over the web.  Nina Davuluri, winner of the Miss America Contest, a 24-year-old North American of Indian descent and Flora Coquerel,winner of the Miss France Contest, a 19-year-old whose mother is from the West African state of Benin, both shocked a fraction of humanity as the question was posed:

How did they win when they are not white natives to their countries?

As a mixed race young woman who has grown up in the UK and exhibits the beauty of Jamaican, Ghanaian and Irish ancestry, I found the racist reactions disturbing to say the least. Here are some of the comments that circulated on Twitter:

The United States of America

I am literarily soo mad right now a ARAB won.

More like Miss Terrorist

This is America. Not India

Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you.

Asian or indian are you kiddin this is America omg


I am sure all the monkeys in the zoo applauded the new Miss France 2014.

The mixed race is the cancer of the white race. 

If Beninese people were represented by a Scottish or a Chinese, they would feel similar discomfort.

Photo Credit @FredericLavisa
Photo Credit @FredericLavisa

First of all, these contests are open to any female citizen of any race, background or religion of the countries hence Nina and Flora had every right to win. Secondly, I just have to say this – being Indian DOES NOT make you an Arab! Finally, jury just in – the monkeys in the zoo applauded, along with the elephants, giraffes, kangaroos, most of the French population and myself of course (NOT). The hateful ridiculousness of these comments is toxic and the ignorance embedded within each racist comment is overwhelming.

What I think is most worrying is the fact that these comments were posted in a public domain for the entire world to see. The stupidity of the racists who posted the comments is highlighted in their naivety to not expect attention or to be called out for being prejudice and discriminatory. However, I think this draws our attention to an even bigger problem:

How do we combat racism in the ever growing multicultural societies that exist today?

I have thought about this in great depth and I believe that the solution lies within the question. We must continue to grow multicultural societies and tolerance. As societies diversify, people interact with one another and learn that maybe, just maybe, we’re not that different after all. United States Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. put it perfectly when he said,

We often hate each other because we fear each other; we fear each other because we don’t know each other; we don’t know each other because we cannot communicate; we cannot communicate because we are separated.”

He was speaking during the time of apartheid in the American South and during a time of great injustice for all African Americans. There is a lot to be learnt from the history of humanity and it is clear that, in order to prevent racism,we must communicate – to do so, we have to come together.

Let’s teach tolerance and understanding. Let’s educate our children to accept one another and embrace our differences. It is alarming to think that young girls watch these beauty pageants and then hear and see such racism. What message are we sending out to girls like my 11 year old mixed race niece Kya?

This brings to my mind the words one of the world’s greatest leaders, the late Nelson Madiba Mandela:

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Finally, I would just like to congratulate both Nina and Flora for their victories, the message they send out is loud and clear.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons