Tag Archives: Feminism

Sia Amma: A One Woman Show

The streets were a perfect balance of calm and chaotic, the air was cold, and the sound of a new apartment complex being built echoed throughout the shaded street. Sia Amma’s hair salon, Best Hair Braiding Salon, is in the middle of it all.

Amma was a feminist to say the least; in every sense of the word and in every facet of her passions.

“You are questioned for everything as a Black woman for everything we’re fighting to survive, fighting to claim ourselves,” Amma explains.  “I’ve learned a lot, women of color are born feminist, the stigma on those feminine issues has always been there but it is much more difficult for women of color.”

 

White feminism and Black feminism are two different realities that can be explained by intersectionality, but on the other hand Women Gender Studies professor Brooke Lober states, “Not all women are born feminists, feminism is a set of theories and politics –not a condition of birth.”

To say that she does it all would be an understatement. Amma acts, is a playwright, writes books, and is a comedian, just to name a few of her passions. But braiding hair has always been a constant in her life, and her main source of income.

In response to what kind of comedy she does, she says a lot of her jokes are racially based. “People always say things like ‘go back to Africa!’ I am like, ‘Do you know how much the tickets cost?!’” she shares as an example of one of her popular jokes.

“I just try to balance with trying to make a living and trying to survive,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone.

Outsiders cannot walk into the shop with ease, a protective gate served as a barrier in front of the door. It is a quaint salon with three chairs and two washing stations. The wall directly to the right had a plethora of rows full of braiding hair packs hanging on the wall, ranging from straight hair to kinky hair, and black and brown colors to green and blue. The brown walls gave it a warm feel that one gets from being in a living room at home.

She talks over the score of a PBS podcast playing the background. Her hands move vigorously as she and an associate micro braid a client, occasionally speaking in her native tongue to her braiding counterpart to comment on the podcast, which happened to be discussing the topic of gun control in America. She would take a little pause when resting her hands or to shake her head with disapproval.

A hairstyle of micro-braids can have a person in the salon for hours, nothing that Black women are not used to already, so two hands are definitely necessary. Amma does all sorts of braiding styles at her Tenderloin salon and has been for decades while in and out of school.

Amma left her home on the coast of Liberia during the civil war that took place in the 1990s and came straight to San Francisco with her family.

According to Peace Building Data, the civil war in Liberia, which was from 1989-2003, left hundreds of thousands of people dead, included an ethnic divide, elites who abused power, a corrupt political system, and economic disparity. All of that violence caused many to flee to the States.

In San Francisco she eventually went to community college before transferring from City College of San Francisco to San Francisco State University in 2008. At the university she double majored in communications and drama. But her true passion lay with performing.

No relationships are stirring for Amma at the moment. “I think I’m much more married to my performances, nothing makes me happier than making people laugh or performing, I think that my biggest fear is losing myself,” she elaborates.

She even has a space for a theater around the corner from the salon, literally. She has had the space since 2003, but she put that theater dream on hold as the area was getting heckled by people who had intent to gentrify. “I braided all day then I would go over there and perform,” she recounts the past.

 

She still has it, but instead uses it as a storage space for the products that she sells at her salon.

“With gentrification comes a lot of stalking and harassment,” Amma continues. “I was getting stalked and followed so I shut it down for my safety.”

She explains how San Francisco was very different when she first came here. “I remember there was more black people and more black neighborhoods,” Amma explains.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2000, Black people made up 7.5 percent of San Francisco’s population, by 2016 that number went down to 6.5 percent.  

“The first African braiding shop in the Bay Area was in the Fillmore!” Amma exclaims excitedly. That is where she met Satta, her fellow braider and colleague at the salon.

“I known her for over 20 years, we met at the first braiding salon in the Bay Area ever called African Safari, everyone that came from Africa worked there. I worked at this shop with her for 5 years,” says Satta.

In her most recent one woman show—titled Uncle Sam’s Children in Africa—she tells of her life in Liberia and what brought her to America, accompanied by a crash course on Liberian history.

She has a voice made for performing, the same booming voice that emerges in between laughs at the hair salon, it finally gets to take the main stage. She paints pictures with her hand gestures, giving the audience a virtual tour of her village in Liberia.

“It was really inspiring, with lots of drama, history, and a beautiful song,” commented a spectator Elizabeth Loyola.

Amma has a book that she says is finished, but she just cannot seem to put down the pen, she explains while continuing to laugh. When she gets to the topic of her love for performing that her eyes light up, and the volume of her voice grows with excitement. With her laugh booming throughout the small salon, she gets into some of the topics that she covers in her book, which is a feminist bible, so to speak, and based entirely on interviews and conversations that she has had with various women.

“One of the things that I learned from those interviews is the tremendous amounts of silence about these kind of topics, these interviews would happen after I performed or just people would tell me things while I did their hair.”

She touches on first dates, to women discovering sexuality, the difference between infatuation and love, vaginas and more.

“I will finish, then I’ll be like ‘okay maybe just one more, how about a first date? Or teenage pregnancy?’”

Her goal is to increase the dialogue for all of these topics that women feel the need to be silent about, through interviews with various women. “For a lot of us the separation between us and our parents comes from discovering ourselves and our sexuality,” she explains.

Her salon, and many like it, become a sanctuary for women, a safe space where your hair in its natural form is not judged and such a comfort then becomes a catalyst for open conversation and if you are lucky… a little gossip.

“It’s getting way too expensive, I wanna go far away from here,” she says, her voice trailing off into silence.

One reason she wants to go back to Liberia eventually is because she finds it harder to be Black here. “I never questioned my Blackness it was just there, but then you come here and everywhere you go, you have to prove yourself,” she admits.

She hopes to go back to teach children or to be an ambassador for women’s health.

In Search of the Right Label: The Feminism Story

“Calendar Girl” courtesy of AK Rockefeller via Flickr

It is 1968. Women gather at the Atlantic City Boardwalk for the Miss America Pageant, furious and fed up with the stereotypical ideals of beauty for women in society. The women scream, they chant, and, hell, they even throw their fists in the air. Considering that this is a vital moment for history in the making, the women all take off and burn their bras. Why? To object to the constricting elements women have to deal with for the pleasures of men. This was a significant event in the Women’s Liberation Movement; but surprisingly, none of it actually happened. Starting a fire on the boardwalk back then was illegal. Instead, the women held signs of first-wave suffragists that read “Our Heroines”; yet, the image of hysterical women screaming over ideas of equality still burns in the minds of many.

It is this scary image that leads women today – despite their affirming to the basic principles of feminism – to distance themselves from the label.

So let’s take a step back; what the heck is ‘feminism’ and why is it so scary?

According to Jonathon Whooley, adjunct lecturer at SF State and University of San Francisco as well as the previous Managing Editor for the International Feminist Journal of Politics, feminism is the creation and inception of multiple waves of activism and advocacy for issues of equality and emancipation between genders.

Multiple waves? Well, you see, women didn’t always possess the type of “equality” that they “have” today. Many scholars, like Whooley, have found that feminism has experienced three momentous waves. The first being in the early 1900s when suffragists fought for women’s ability to vote, thus bringing women into the public and political sphere. The second wave, which includes the Women’s Liberation Movement, was after the end of WWII when women, who helped fill the holes in the job market when most men were overseas, were told to go back to their domestic roles. This was deeply unsettling to those who realized their potential impact on society. The third wave of feminism, the current wave, reaches to expand freedoms and acceptance to all classes, races, and sexual orientations in post-modern society, and for that society to be acknowledging of all.

From the beginning, the idea of feminism sprouted with the suffragists, moving through the era of ambitious, undomesticated women in the ‘50s and ‘60s, until today where society has seen brave individuals, men and women, fighting for the feminist cause: to promote equality.

If Bell Hooks was right when she wrote “Feminism is for Everybody,” then why aren’t more people eager to take on the title of “Feminist”?

“I don’t think I would ever use that as a part of my identity, even though I agree with all of it. I wouldn’t be like, ‘Hi I’m Sam I’m a feminist,’” says Samantha Silvestri, an English major at SF State.

“I don’t really think I am a feminist, but I definitely support feminism,” says Alex Goodwin, a Fine Arts Education major at SF State.

These students have more in common with some celebrities than one may think, because celebrities like Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood, Demi Moore, and Kelly Clarkson all have said that they do not consider themselves feminists either.

Katy Perry, an advocate for the empowerment of women, told Billboard, “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.”

Wait a second… Doesn’t being a feminist include supporting and empowering women, as well as all sexes? So if there is nothing wrong with the definition, there must be something wrong with the label itself.

“I think that women who claim to be feminists are looked at differently. People won’t look at her weirdly, but they will look at her differently because some people associate feminism with crazy women and that’s just not true,” says Sarah Steinmetz, an International Relations major at SF State.

“When I think of the word feminism I usually think of the stigma behind it, therefore I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a feminist,” says Bryan Gonzales, an SF State Physics Department graduate.

So there it is; the stigma. The stigma is what people are apprehensive about. The mythological, yet disgraceful, image of crazed women without bras yelling at men in the streets still manages to leave its false imprint on the word “feminism.”

SF State’s Women’s Center recently held the 4th Annual Empowered Women Empower Women Conference, where Maria Elena Vargas, a Women and Gender Studies lecturer at SF State and doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland-College Park, was a panelist.

“What leads to the stigma is not understanding the history of feminism. It is supposed to be inclusive, and for me it means to fight for everybody’s equality,” says Vargas on the topic of feminism.

Education is the key to beating the stigma behind feminism, and increasing the label’s appeal. To truly understand the complex issues of feminism, one must first understand the message. When the message is clear, then so is the context. When one can apply the context to their lives, that’s when one can adopt the label. In this case, the message is equality for all, the context is equality for all, and the label is… well, you know, “feminist.”

If the label still doesn’t suit you, no problem; Vladimir Putin, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh probably wouldn’t consider themselves feminists either.

“As a movement that tries to include everybody’s voices and give everybody basic human rights, I don’t see what’s controversial or negative about that,” says Vargas.

Are you a feminist?

Interview: Amber Gordon, founder of Femsplain

Image courtesy of Femsplain

Femsplain is a online platform where women and anyone female-identified can tell their stories. Launched in 2014 by Amber Gordon, the site has become a safe space and community for women to share their thoughts.

Each month the website publishes a variety of articles that range from personal essays, illustrations, interviews, and poems. Since its launch, it’s garnered the attention of celebrities like Lena Dunham and YouTube personality Tyler Oakley.

Gordon spoke with Xpress about the challenges behind keeping the Internet troll-free and the importance of having diverse voices in media.

 

Amber Gordon, founder of Femsplain.
Amber Gordon, founder of Femsplain.

1. So what inspired you to found the site, and what’s it been like to see it develop?

Femsplain was inspired by a very long conversation myself and three friends had one night. We wanted to take the idea of talking to your friends in a group chat, writing in your diary and having a support group, and bring it to life on the Internet.

It’s been incredible. Ever since I was young I’ve always wanted to build something of my own, and to see Femsplain grow bigger and bigger each month is so amazing.

 

2. There are other feminists sites, but what makes Femsplain different?

We focus primarily on personal and relatable experiences. I think that because we’re offering a platform to anyone who identifies as a woman, we are opening the door to women who might not feel welcome on these other sites. We also offer offline events and workshops so that we can build our community in real life and do awesome things with awesome people.

 

3. Based on my experiences and others’, it sometimes feels like women aren’t welcome on the Internet. They’re threatened and harassed online in all forms of social media. Femsplain’s overall message seems to be about fostering a safe community and space for anyone female-identified. How do you go about maintaining that safe space? Are there any challenges?

Since we launched, our mission was to create a safe space so that these personal stories could live comfortably. I’ve experienced harassment both online and offline, so going in I knew what we had to do to make sure this didn’t happen to our community and contributors. We moderate all the comments that people leave on posts. Even though it’s time-consuming and manual, it’s important that we set the tone for the discussions that happen on our site.

 

4. What’s been the overall response from the community since Femsplain launched?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive! Honestly I never thought Femsplain would become what it is today, so every time someone messages me about how much they love it, or I see a comment on social media, my heart just skips so many beats. People have been expressing how they love the positive interactions and discussions happening in the comments. In the comments!!!

 

5. The site’s content is built around monthly themes. How do you go about choosing those themes?

Initially we chose themes that were aligned with what was happening in our lives at the moment.
“Firsts” made sense for our first theme, “secrets and secrecy” was our second, in which I chose to come out to my friends and family. Now we’re experimenting with suggestions from our contributors. We don’t want to limit ourselves to one certain category or style, so we try to make them as broad as possible so that everyone can participate.

 

6. How do you decide what gets published? What’s your process? What makes a Femsplain piece?

Our founding editor Gabriela Barkho handles the entire editorial process from beginning of the month to end. We open our submission period on the first of every month when we announce the theme and then accept pitches for a few days or until we fill up our slots. We usually have anywhere from 50-60 slots, which get filled up rather quickly. Gabi selects pitches that she feels tell unique and personal stories. We won’t publish anything that’s directly attacking someone and we always make sure that claims have sources to back them up. Although most of our content is made up of written work, we also accept art, music, etc.

 

7. Did you look to other writers or publications for inspiration when starting the site?

Yes! I’ve always enjoyed anything I’ve read on The Hairpin, as well as the amazing community Rookie has managed to build.

 

8. Given the current state of the media, how important is it to build more driven and diverse stories?

So important. The media is drowning by the same voices, and by continuing to ignore diverse voices we’re missing out on the important stories that are honestly more interesting.

 

9. Has your idea of feminism changed at all since starting Femsplain?

Absolutely. Every day what it means to be a “feminist” is evolving. Of course feminism means equality, but that’s not really where mainstream feminism is right now. Each day I’m learning through these stories about the struggles women less privileged face and I’m making sure that when I talk about Femsplain, I talk about them, but more importantly let them talk for themselves.

10. Lastly, what advice would you give to female writers trying to find their voice?

Trust in yourself, believe that your voice matters and know that your words are good enough.

Feminism is for men too

Men and women are posting photos showing their support for #HeForShe campaign, an initiative to promote gender equality.
Men and women are posting photos showing their support for #HeForShe campaign, an initiative to promote gender equality. (Dani Hutton/ Xpress Magazine)

For a long period of time, the only people who spoke out about the cause of equality for women through the establishment and defending of equal political, cultural, economical, and social rights for women were feminists and activists.

In the past decade, however, female celebrities like Beyonce, Shailene Woodley, Lena Dunham, Emma Watson, and Ellen Page have bravely declared themselves “feminists”—influencing a whole new wave of young adults.

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, feminism is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. That definition is quite different from the image of “man-haters and anti-men activists” that feminists have generally been depicted as. Feminist and social activist Bell Hooks, born Gloria Jean Watkins, argues that without the liberation of men, as well as women, equality of the sexes cannot be reached.

“It is not the word [feminism] that is important, it’s the idea and the ambition behind it,” says British actress Emma Watson. Watson is one of the latest Hollywood stars to call herself a feminist. Last month, the young actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador made headlines when she spoke at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, inviting men to take part in the #HeForShe campaign.

The essence of Watson’s speech was not just to reach the number of women in the world who declare themselves “anti-feminists,” but to also reach all the men who think that this issue is irrelevant to them and their lives.

“I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too—reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves,” says Watson.

Male celebrities like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Legend, and Ryan Gosling have all made declarations toward the empowerment for women through equal rights.

“All men should be feminists,” says Legend in an interview at his Chime for Change event back in 2013. “If men care about women’s rights, the world will be a better place. We are better off when women are empowered— it leads to a better society.”

Other stars like Gosling have started Tumblr pages to share feminists phrases and motivational quotes through their celebrity. Gordon-Levitt used his popular YouTube page HITRECORD to create and share an inspirational and informative video regarding feminism.

“How can we accept change in the world if only half of it is invited, or feels welcome to participate,” Watson explains about the impartial role of men in this social movement.

It is naive to think of women’s rights as an irrelevant issue, especially with the fact that women still earn less than men. In 2012, the  U.S. Census Bureau found that women are paid 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterpart. This is one of many inferiorities that women face.

With many women, the target of the campaign, being “against” the word “feminism,” it is as if this issue is even more crucial now then it was when it began in the 1800s, when the movement started. Modern day women are thought by some to be equal or even superior to some men because of the improvement in the work force and in powerful positions, but a few exceptions do not erase the bigger issue of gender inequality.

The birth of the #HeforShe campaign brings new hope for the public view and stigma currently surrounding feminism. Men and women can make the declaration to help the equalization of sexes by pledging for the U.N. campaign. If the campaign passes, can we see if anything will change.