How to use family dinner to teach politics | Hajer Sharief

How to use family dinner to teach politics | Hajer Sharief

November 16, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Twenty years ago, my family introduced a system
called “Friday Democracy Meetings.” Every Friday at 7pm, my family
came together for an official meeting to discuss the current family affairs. These meetings were facilitated
by one of my parents, and we even had a notetaker. These meetings had two rules. First, you are allowed
to speak open and freely. Us kids were allowed
to criticize our parents without that being considered
disrespectful or rude. Second rule was the Chatham House rule, meaning whatever is said in the meeting
stays in the meeting. (Laughter) The topics which were discussed
in these meetings varied from one week to another. One week, we’d talk about
what food we wanted to eat, what time us kids should go to bed and how to improve things as a family, while another meeting discussed
pretty much events that happened at school and how to solve
disputes between siblings, by which I mean real fights. At the end of each meeting,
we’d reach decisions and agreements that would last at least
until the next meeting. So you could say
I was raised as a politician. By the age of six or seven,
I mastered politics. I was negotiating, compromising, building alliances
with other political actors. (Laughter) And I even once tried to jeopardize
the political process. (Laughter) These meetings sound very peaceful,
civil and democratic, right? But that was not always the case. Because of this open, free space
to talk, discuss and criticize, things sometimes got really heated. One meeting went really bad for me. I was about 10 years old at that time, and I’d done something
really horrible at school, which I’m not going to share today — (Laughter) but my brother decided
to bring it up in the meeting. I could not defend myself, so I decided to withdraw from the meeting
and boycott the whole system. I literally wrote an official letter
and handed it to my dad, announcing that I am boycotting. (Laughter) I thought that if I stopped
attending these meetings anymore, the system would collapse, (Laughter) but my family continued with the meetings, and they often
made decisions that I disliked. But I could not challenge these decisions, because I was not attending the meetings, and thus had no right to go against it. Ironically, when I turned
about 13 years old, I ended up attending
one of these meetings again, after I boycotted them for a long time. Because there was an issue
that was affecting me only, and no other family member
was bringing it up. The problem was that after each dinner, I was always the only one
who was asked to wash the dishes, while my brothers didn’t have to do
anything about it. I felt this was unjust,
unfair and discriminatory, so I wanted to discuss it in the meeting. As you know, the idea that it’s a woman
or a girl’s role to do household work is a rule that has been carried out
by many societies for so long, so in order for a 13-year-old me
to challenge it, I needed a platform. In the meeting, my brothers argued that none of the other boys we knew
were washing the dishes, so why should our family be any different? But my parents agreed with me and decided
that my brothers should assist me. However, they could not force them,
so the problem continued. Seeing no solution to my problem,
I decided to attend another meeting and propose a new system
that would be fair to everyone. So I suggested instead of one person washing all the dishes
used by all the family members, each family member
should wash their own dishes. And as a gesture of good faith, I said I’d wash the pots as well. This way, my brothers
could no longer argue that it wasn’t within their responsibility as boys or men to wash the dishes
and clean after the family, because the system I proposed
was about every member of the family cleaning after themselves
and taking care of themselves. Everyone agreed to my proposal, and for years, that was
our washing-the-dishes system. What I just shared with you
is a family story, but it’s pure politics. Every part of politics
includes decision-making, and ideally, the process
of decision-making should include people
from different backgrounds, interests, opinions, gender, beliefs, race, ethnicity, age, and so on. And they should all have
an equal opportunity to contribute to the decision-making process
and influence the decisions that will affect their lives
directly or indirectly. As such, I find it difficult to understand
when I hear young people saying, “I’m too young to engage in politics
or to even hold a political opinion.” Similarly, when I hear some women saying, “Politics is a dirty world
I don’t want to engage with,” I’m worried that the idea of politics
and political engagement has become so polarized
in many parts of the world that ordinary people feel, in order
for them to participate in politics, they need to be outspoken activists, and that is not true. I want to ask these young people,
women and ordinary people in general: Can you really afford not to be interested
or not to participate in politics? Politics is not only activism. It’s awareness, it’s keeping ourselves informed,
it’s caring for the facts. When it’s possible, it’s casting a vote. Politics is the tool
through which we structure ourselves as groups and societies. Politics governs every aspect of life, and by not participating in it, you’re literally allowing other people
to decide on what you can eat, wear, if you can have access to health care, free education, how much tax you pay, when you can retire, what is your pension. Other people are also deciding
on whether your race and ethnicity is enough to consider you a criminal, or if your religion and nationality
is enough to put you on a terrorist list. And if you still think you are a strong,
independent human being unaffected by politics, then think twice. I am speaking to you
as a young woman from Libya, a country that is
in the middle of a civil war. After more than 40 years
of authoritarian rule, it’s not a place
where political engagement by women and young people
is possible, nor encouraged. Almost all political dialogues
that took place in the past few years, even those gathered by foreign powers, has been with only
middle-aged men in the room. But in places with a broken
political system like Libya, or in seemingly functioning places,
including international organizations, the systems we have nowadays
for political decision-making are not from the people for the people, but they have been established
by the few for the few. And these few have been historically
almost exclusively men, and they’ve produced laws, policies, mechanisms for political participation
that are based on the opinions, beliefs, worldviews, dreams, aspirations of this one group of people, while everyone else was kept out. After all, we’ve all heard
some version of this sentence: “What does a woman,
let alone a young person, who is brown, understand about politics?” When you’re young — and in many parts of the world, a woman — you often hear experienced politicians
say, “But you lack political experience.” And when I hear that, I wonder what sort of experience
are they referring to? The experience of corrupted
political systems? Or of waging wars? Or are they referring to the experience of putting the interests
of economic profits before those of the environment? Because if this is political experience, then yes — (Applause) we, as women and young people,
have no political experience at all. Now, politicians might not be
the only ones to blame, because ordinary people,
and many young people as well, don’t care about politics. And even those who care
don’t know how to participate. This must change, and here is my proposal. We need to teach people at an early age about decision-making
and how to be part of it. Every family is its own
mini political system that is usually not democratic, because parents make decisions
that affect all members of the family, while the kids have very little to say. Similarly, politicians make decisions
that affect the whole nation, while the people have
very little say in them. We need to change this, and in order to achieve
this change systematically, we need to teach people that political, national
and global affairs are as relevant to them
as personal and family affairs. So if we want to achieve this,
my proposal and advice is, try out the Family Democracy
Meeting system. Because that will enable your kids
to exercise their agency and decision-making from a very early age. Politics is about having conversations, including difficult conversations, that lead to decisions. And in order to have a conversation,
you need to participate, not sign off like I did when I was a kid and then learn the lesson the hard way
and have to go back again. If you include your kids
in family conversations, they will grow up and know how to participate
in political conversations. And most importantly, most importantly, they will help others engage. Thank you. (Applause)