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All over our planet, women are creating, demanding, and claiming their own spaces.
Consider Umoja, Kenya. This village came to be in 1990, formed by 15 exiled Kenyan women who had been raped by British soldiers. They moved to a piece of land and named the town Umoja, which is Swahili for Unity. It continues to this day, now existing as a refuge for women fleeing from abuse, female genital mutilation, or accusations of dishonour. Other women simply want to exist outside the oppressive regime of male dominance known as patriarchy, or rule of the father.
In Syria, there is Jinwar. “It was set up by local women’s groups and international volunteers to create a space for women to live ‘free of the constraints of the oppressive power structures of patriarchy and capitalism’.” The women of Jinwar built the homes they now live in. They grow their own food, tend animals, share childcare duties, and school the children. It is home.
I visited a women’s land called We’moon in the United States late last year. (You may be familiar with the calendars they put out every year!) On this land, women live in trailers, tents, yurts, and cabins. Though we were only there for a short while, we helped the women of the land with a few projects that needed the vigor of youth, because most of the permanent residents of We’moon are elders. The land is lush, the women fascinating, and the work plentiful.
It may surprise readers to know that the world is dotted with women’s lands, plots of land or buildings where only women can live. Although in Canada we are edging toward equality with more momentum than other countries, we are still living under a patriarchy, and when we pay attention and listen to the stories of women, we see we are losing some of the gains we’ve worked so hard for. Men in power desire to maintain it at the expense of women and girls and other oppressed groups, and as women, we have options in how we fight back.
As an activist for women’s rights, I collaborate and work alongside male allies, strategically. I have seen that there is a place for men in the fight for justice. However, I have also felt the intense healing and activating power of women-only spaces. There is a base level of understanding that we share. We are able to complete our thoughts – and our sentences. We care for one another reciprocally. We are not exhausted by the labour involved in running a household, working full-time, raising children, and managing the emotions and expectations of other people – all in siloed spaces, isolated. Rather, on women’s land, we work communally to identify, address, and resolve issues. The effort goes in every direction – there are no dead ends.
Well, that’s the intention.
And that’s what I’m talking about. Intentional community. The seven principles of a co-operative are self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. From the International Co-Operative Alliance website: “A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”
This is the vision I have for Muskoka. A dedicated space for women – not a shelter, not transitional housing, not rentals, but a land held in trust, and homes created by and for the women who wish to live there. Homes that belong to them. A sense of ownership, pride, stability, security, community, respect. A shared space for women to gather, cook collectively, have visitors, access shared resources, enjoy social support – and heal.
It is a deliberate cornerstone of our society that heterosexuality is considered the default, that marriage and children are considered a given, and that opposite-sex cohabitation is seen as the only ‘real’ way to be a family. I am seeing this change, and I am thrilled. You will never hear me pine over the destruction of traditional family values. When those values include women being isolated, unsupported, and all too often trapped in situations they want out of but can’t escape because of a lack of money or options, then those values are not humane at all. At best, they work (sometimes, sort of) for a small faction, and at worst they are cruel and oppressive. I know that a family can look any which way, and I know that when women support each other, mountains are moved.
I have worked at the women’s shelter in Huntsville for more than five years. If I had an acre for every woman who said, “All I need is a little space to myself, nothing special, just somewhere my own to feel safe,” I would have a hundred acres to get this rolling. That’s a bit too magical, so I am pursuing other options to get land. The need is there, I believe the will in our community is there, and the time is now.
So keep an eye out, because Muskoka is getting a women’s land co-operative, and we are redefining ‘home’.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.