Canadian Armenian student is battling society by empowering and educating girls
Canadian Armenian student is battling society by empowering and educating girls –
Side By Side is changing the world, one workshop at a time
By Michelle Gamage
Montreal – When Serene Qandil faced sexual harassment for the first time, the Concordia philosophy first-year didn’t ignore it, laugh it off, or shy away from the problem.
Instead, she decided to tackle it head on.
“We understand that we can’t change the world and make it better right away, but at least we’re doing our part and we’re sparking a fire in some people,” she said.
Pairing up with Tvine Donabedian, a Concordia first-year studying anthropology, the pair formed Side By Side, a non-profit, feminist, self-positivity workshop which they take all around Montreal to youth groups, classrooms and anyone else who requests their presence.
“You’d be surprised, there’s a demand for it—there’s a large demand for it,” said Donabedian. “Less in high schools but a lot of youth groups have contacted me and been like, ‘come talk to our girls, come talk to our guys.’ … there’s people who need this.”
Focusing on knowledge they’ve pulled from workshops, classes, life experience, lectures and articles, the pair tackles everything from body-positivity to preparing young girls for what kind of harassment they might encounter and what resources to use to fight back. It’s a workshop for girls, by girls.
“It’s cool because we’re not that much older than them so we’re experiencing the same things they are,” said Qandil. “We bring a different perspective than if you go to talk to your teacher or your mom. Even if your school has a guidance counsellor it’s still different because we understand how Instagram works. If you go to your mom she’ll be like, ‘it’s okay, they’re just likes so who cares.’”
Side By Side currently uses three ‘menus’ with different talking points, which groups pick and choose from to customize the workshop.
The three broad topics they tackle are self-esteem, sexual assault, and women’s health and feminism.
Games are a centrepiece of the talks, where, for one of the games, participants need to say three non-physical things they love about themselves. Sometimes it’s hard.
“It’s heartbreaking because we can think of a million things [we love about you] and we don’t even know you yet,” said Qandil.
“It shocks them. We’ve had a girl stand for five minutes and she couldn’t think of one thing, and that’s scary,” added Donabedian.
Older groups are dying to talk about sexuality, but the pair approaches the topic with care. For anyone 14 years old and under they can’t talk about sexuality without parent-consent forms. They make it clear that they are neither nurses nor guidance counsellors, and won’t answer medical questions like whether to take the morning-after pill or not. Instead, they empower girls with accessible information.
They also play the ‘porn versus ad’ game, where girls have to guess if the explicitly sexual images are from pornos or from advertisements. Everyone fails, and even Qandil and Donabedian forget which is which some days, but that just reinforces how much critical thinking should be used every day, they said.
They also work to prepare young girls for the possibility of harassment or assault in the future.
“Some things we’d be told or we’d see on the Internet and [we were] like, ‘that’s never happened to me, that’s not going to happen to me,’” said Donabedian. “And then I went out for the first time Downtown and got catcalled and I was like, ‘oh, it’s not a compliment.’ And you get it,” she said, adding she wished someone had warned her what it was like. “It’s happened that some creep is following me and my friends and you shrug it off … but you’re being followed by a potentially violent person. You shouldn’t shrug it off. That shouldn’t be normal for a girl to experience.”
But Donabedian and Qandil are fighting back. With every workshop they do they receive more and more positive feedback. “They message us, they email us, they find us on Facebook and are like, ‘you inspired us to do this,’ which is a great way to quantify [the success of Side By Side],” said Donabedian. One 17-year-old is hosting a comedy show and donating all profits to Side By Side. Another girl has been inspired to fight sexist dress codes against females.
Currently the pair are working on launching their website—which should be ready for summer—and figuring out what to do with their donations. One idea is to donate the money to an all-women’s shelter; another is to create a scholarship for girls who have attended their workshops. They’re also working with male volunteers to bring another perspective into their workshops.
Anyone interested in contributing to the website—be it artists, photographers, writers, or volunteers—should contact Qandil and Donabedian at firstname.lastname@example.org. Everyone is encouraged to contribute.