Women in the workshop; South Sudan to Oxford

spokeswomenIn the midst of all the recent media celebration and speculation about about South Sudan’s new nationhood – a topic which I’m going to skim right over on account of an unforgivable lack of knowledge – I read an article by Laura Powell in the Guardian which really spoke to me. It was the story of four women who braved prejudice and financial hardship to train to become South Sudan’s first female mechanics. They did it for some obvious reasons i.e. to learn a trade and to escape the grinding poverty they had know growing up in civil war-torn Sudan, but then why mechanics? Why not train as nurses or teachers and avoid all the stress and attention which comes with stepping outside of (and thus challenging) acceptable occupations for women? Particularly in a country where women are very much viewed as the weaker sex, most are married off in their early teens and never learn to read and write. Surely its enough just to get some kind of financial independence and basic literacy?

What then gave them the courage to walk the difficult path everyday was their sense of themselves as role models for a new generation of South Sudanese women. This gave what they were doing an importance beyond themselves and their own survival. It was about changing the boundaries of whats possible in the minds of everyone: their families, their teachers, their colleagues and most importantly in the minds of the younger women around them. The article says that they are not activists and have never heard the word ‘feminist’ but in my eyes weather they would recognise these terms of not both accurately describe the nature of what they are doing. Despite growing up in communities which did not accept that women are equally as competent and strong as men they believe that they were, and their determination to succeed in a male industry means that they take action everyday which pushes at the boundaries of social norms about what South Sudanese women can do with their lives.

I’m a mechanic too and, although I work with bikes in a rich country with fairly good gender discrimination laws which hasn’t seen civil war since Charles I, I relate to the experience of these women and the passion they feel about what they do. A big part of the reason I decided to swap my office computer for a spanner (apart from the obvious wanting to do something real and practical and the fact that bikes are the future) was because so few women were doing it. I feel a sense of being part of a small group pioneers opening up new possibilities for other women. Every time a customer walks into our ramshackle workshop crammed to the rafters with bikes in varying states of ill-health and says: ‘oh, YOU fix the bikes do you?’, I have resisted the temptation to offer a grease covered hand and say: ‘no, I’m just the receptionist – do you have an appointment?’ But these exclamations of surprise confirm for me that just by getting up and riding over the workshop each day I am in a small, everyday kind of way contributing to the creation of a society where expectations of men and women are determined not by their gender but by their individual abilities, passions and interests. I get enormous strength from that thought, it certainly helps me get up in the morning when i’m exhausted after endless days in the workshop.

It’s not always easy to be the only woman in the workplace, to feel the need to prove your worth and ability daily. Thats why Spokeswomen matters so much to me; because its all about giving women who dare to get on a bike, walk into a bike shop, try a bit of DIY bike repair a chance to talk about it, share our frustrations and what we’ve learnt, find out about each others’ cool projects and start to build a wicked community of women who ride bikes.

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