In a city that serves as a progressive paragon, it's easy to forget that American women didn't get the right to vote until 1920. And that's just one facet of the tumultuous history and continuing struggle for women's rights -- here and abroad.
The International Museum of Women (IMOW) -- an innovative online museum based in San Francisco -- has been championing female-focused issues since 2006, but its history of fierce feminism has roots stretching back to 1985.
First founded as the Women's Heritage Museum, this nascent organization operated as a museum "without walls" for 10 years, producing exhibits, sponsoring an annual book fair, providing fodder for teachers during Women's History Month, and of course, celebrating the lengthy lineage of women throughout the past, long overlooked for their accomplishments.
In 1997, a Bay Area woman named Elizabeth Colton was hoping to take her daughter to a museum dedicated to women's contributions to society...but she couldn't find anything. She called up Gloria Steinem, a noted feminist activist, who she didn't know, and asked her if such a place existed.
"Gloria told her 'no, but I think you should [start] one!'" says Catherine King, Vice President of Exhibitions and Programs at IMOW. "Elizabeth took that has a call to arms." Elizabeth soon corralled a group of Bay Area teachers equally disappointed by the current feminist offerings and established the International Museum of Museum.
"She thought, 'lets expand the mission, let's get global.'"
Finally in 2006, IMOW went virtual, revolutionizing its impact, outreach and cultural cross-pollination with Imagining Ourselves: A Global Generation of Women; tackling everything from war and conflict to motherhood and men; it connected more than 1 million participants hailing from across the globe.
"[IMOW] is breaking the mold for what a museum can be," says King. "There's no borders or boundaries. It's available anytime, anywhere, 24/7 as long as you have an Internet connection."
King explains that while the creation and celebration of art -- from painting and photography to collaborative multi-media projects -- is vital to the feminist dialogue, she believes IMOW is equally dedicated to the curation of ideas and personal experiences.
"We look specifically at immediate, contemporary, human rights issues but also the visions for the future, the opportunities and challenges ahead."
While IMOW boasts an impressive roster of artists and activists that had participated in their speaker series and shows -- like Alice Walker, Beatriz Merino, and Eve Ensler -- the virtual museum prides themselves on their profound commitment to egalitarian ideals as well.
"We turn to our global audiences and ask them to submit their work," says King. "It's not just about leaders or artists, but going to the grassroots level and getting those voices of women on the ground. If you give voice to them and allow a place to express both reality and creativity, people begin to think differently and ultimately catalyze change."
A call to action is also at the forefront of IMOW's mission, which King explains "loosely follows" the United Nation's goals for women's human rights globally. Their exhibits look at everything from economic empowerment and political engagement, but King believes the "moment is now" in attempting to reach a millennium development goal, reducing maternal mortality worldwide.
Despite IMOW's commitment to the international playground that is the World Wide Web, Samina Ali -- the curator of the current exhibit Muslima and a noted Muslim feminist -- explains that San Francisco is a city perfectly aligned with their vision.
"This is Silicon Valley, we're living in a virtual environment, everyone is part of the dot com," she says. "If we were based in Idaho, the culture would not support it as much. It's a whole ideology. San Franciscans appreciate the opportunity to be macro, to be connected. It's an ideal home for us."
While IMOW has since curated and organized 13 major exhibits (in addition to hosting public forums, creating educational material for schools and launching a provocative speaker series) their latest exhibit,which launched in early March -- Muslima: Muslim Women's Art & Voices -- is one of their most ambitious and provocative to date.
During the tumult of the Arab Spring, Ali says she noticed the rippling awareness of the "incredible and surprising role of women in the movement," but also the creeping irony. "People were being spoken for by others in the media, without the opportunity to be heard directly."
Both King and Ali stress that while Muslima is designed to serve as a sacred space for women to express their trials and tribulations, it's not simply about exposing or propagating fear or subjugation; the Muslim identity has been hijacked by stereotypes.
"Muslima creates this tapestry of voices," says King. "There's no one Muslim woman, there's an incredible diversity."
Ali echoes these sentiments, insisting that IMOW wants its content to be "complex," forcing its viewers to re-imagine what it means to be Muslim.
"Many women are speaking about the veil, but not in the stereotypical ways," says Ali. "We have a photographer from Yemen who takes the iconic American Barbie doll and couples it with the veil. No one should assume that this veil is representative of Muslim women necessarily. It's a nuanced approach."
King explains the exhibition isn't exclusionary either. "This isn't just meant for Muslim women. It's for people of no faith and other faiths. It's not just for women or even feminists. We would feel like a real success if there was an interfaith dialogue. We have a commitment to all parts of the world are heard. We're looking for diversity in materials and themes."
What many don't realize Ali explained, are the "differences between what Islam the religion grants to women -- and the power or patriarchy or tradition or culture that takes them away. Unfortunately there is, sometimes, a direct conflict."
IMOW is holding an event on Saturday, May 18th --
"When the Boston bombings happened, the refrain that was going through the Muslim community was, 'please don't let them be Muslim!'" laments Ali. "And then it came out, that it was these two young kids. It's unclear to me if they were doing it alone or became extremists because of some website...but regardless, the event just took the wind out of everyone's sails."
Ali says that in talking to local women from the Bay Area community, many of them didn't go outside following the bombings because they were afraid.
"Many of them were talking about how helpless they felt," says Ali. "For me in particular, I've been working on these issues for over a decade, and it's a step-by-step process. The change is excruciatingly slow. It's been over ten years since 9/11 and we were finally seeing change in the mainstream community. What this episode does is confirm so many fears. In one brief afternoon it removes everybody's efforts. So there's no way we could ignore it."
Saturday's event will attempt to counter prevalent stigmas against the Muslim community, allowing people to come out and ask questions of the panelists as well as local artists, serving as an honest conduit and what might be a rare glimpse of actual Muslim people, rather than regurgitated media conventions.
Ali says they even considered canceling the event, but decided in the end to take this as an opportunity to further the dialogue and collapse the distinction between "them and us."
"Moderate -- what does it mean? Theres's no such things as an 'Islamicist' -- the media creates a word to separate 'regular' people from the fanatics. The majority of the Muslim community is moderate - they're like you and me! They're concerned about mortgages, they get into arguments with their spouses, and yes they have a faith. Come and meet a Muslim and listen to the way they create art and live their lives," says Ali. "We're still building trust in this relationship."
Saturday, May 18, 2 pm. Futures Without Violence, Presidio National Park, 100 Montgomery St. between Bliss St. and Sheridan Ave. The tickets are free must RSVP.
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