Dispelling Emphasised Femininity – The Power of Sisu

The last hour was excruciating. After climbing for six-and-a-half hours, passing at least 14 false summits and slipping countless times backwards through the scree, I was ready to give up. Only four words went through my mind in that hour. One word. One step. You. Can. Do. It. The soft lyrics of the Tanzanian songs our guides were singing drifted over me when I first saw the flag. It was peering over the rocks, encouraging me to keep going. Not daring to let it out of my sight I kept on climbing. My walking poles were of no use at this stage; my hands became my aid as I scrambled to the top. Finally, I took that last step onto the small summit of Africa’s fifth highest mountain, Mount Meru. Standing at 4,562m, looking over to Mount Kilimanjaro, I remembered our Peaks Foundation Girls Challenge team motto, and knew confidently that we had achieved it: when sleeping women wake, mountains will move.

My story of seventeen Australian girls climbing alongside ten Tanzanian girls to the top of a mountain, though exciting, is a rare story. Rather than being encouraged to challenge themselves, in today’s society, women and girls are subjected to emphasised femininities, which say that they are to fulfill the expectations placed on them by society’s understanding of gender roles. Instead of expressing their true strengths and abilities, women and girls are to demonstrate characteristics and fulfill roles that are counter to those assigned to men. To understand why this is the case, we need to explore the intersection between hegemonic masculinity and emphasised femininity. Hegemonic masculinity is the consensual internalisation of an ideology that defines the exemplary roles and characteristics men should have in a society. Emphasised femininity closely follows on from this, as it purports the characteristics that women are expected to display. However, far from celebrating women and the unique skills and attributes they can bring to a society, these expectations and characteristics place women in a subordinate position in relation to men. Maintaining women’s consent to emphasized femininity is important to the dominant social classes. Consequently, they have established a historical bloc regarding gender.

The dominant classes would have us believe that these ideologies are so entrenched that they cannot be modified. Yet, the very hegemony that creates and sustains these ideologies is also the ticket to change. These ideologies are not static; they are shaped by historical context and culture. This means that far from being rigidly established, hegemonic masculinities and emphasised femininities are fluid and are able to develop to reflect societal expectations if the expectations themselves are altered. A counter hegemony is therefore the instrument by which expectations regarding gender can be reshaped.

That’s where Sisu comes in. Sisu is a Finnish construct, which when translated into English means determination, bravery, courage, confidence and resilience. SisuGirls is a movement that was born out of the Peaks Foundation Girls Challenge. As an organisation, the Peaks Foundation sought to empower women across the world through mountain climbing challenges. The Girls Challenge allowed them to see that empowerment isn’t for women alone; girls are also a vehicle for change. SisuGirls runs programs such as trail adventures, skateboarding and rock climbing for girls aged five to fifteen years old. In doing so, SisuGirls is creating a mindset in these girls that is far removed from the emphasised femininity the world seeks to impose on them. They create an environment that facilitates the development of the girls’ inner strength and determination to achieve their goals. This grassroots counter-hegemony demonstrates that change is on the horizon. Through their programs, Sisu Girls is providing a foundation for its participants that will not only allow them to enter the world confident in themselves and their abilities, but will enable them to be the very ones who institute a new understanding of emphasised femininity. Far from being defined in relation to men, the femininity they instigate will be exemplified by something that each woman and girl across the world possesses if she is just to look for it - the inner Sisu spirit.

Written by Annabel Paul - Member of the Peaks Foundation Girls Challenge Team