“In every culture I went to around the world, women and girls work hard getting the water and firewood, taking care of kids, cooking and growing the food,” photographer Phil Borges said.
“They do the majority of the work and I’d see a lot of men hanging out and sometimes just drinking all day. Because of their work responsibilities, girls were not chosen to go to school.”
Borges has documented many of these lives on film and in words which will be the subject the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art exhibition “Stirring the Fire,” April 13 through July 28.
For over a quarter century Borges has lived with and documented indigenous and tribal cultures here and around the globe. His work’s goal has been to create a heightened understanding of the issues faced by people in the developing world.
“Stirring the Fire” is an exhibition of photographs and multimedia documentaries created to raise awareness about the struggles of women and girls worldwide. It’s also a Seattle-based organization with full time staff that organizes social documentary training and student advocacy programs.
In his book “Women Empowered: Inspiring change in the emerging world” with forward by Madeleine Albright, Borges documents women who have overcome patriarchy and intolerance to make positive change in their communities.
“I believe that education is the most successful strategy for empowering women,” Borges said. “An educated girl will usually not have kids or get married at age 12.”
It’s been documented that when women are educated they have fewer children and the mortality rate of their offspring drops. Babies are healthier and the tradition of learning is passed on. Awareness of opportunities and choices in life are increased. Education for females often goes unfunded in many parts of the world and in a few extreme examples has even been forbidden.
“One woman teacher named Fahima in the exhibition was educating girls during the Taliban’s rule in Kabul, Afghanistan,” Borges said. “She did it clandestinely by getting them into her home and if the religious police came pounding on the door wondering why all these girls were there, she’d strategically put sewing machines up around the room.”
In Fahima’s photograph you see a gaze into the lense that’s strong and resolute. After defiantly surviving harassment and threats by clerical zealots there may be a hint of triumphant amusement in her eyes as well.
Borges has learned that every culture has its blind spots and working to right injustice doesn’t benefit from ham-handed approaches.
“The way to make a change isn’t by force,” he said. “Threatening people with force doesn’t work because the human spirit is so strong it makes them feel justified in their beliefs. It almost always has to be done from within.”
Borges cited as example the practice of female genital cutting (or female genital mutilation) which is a deeply rooted belief among many African tribes.
“It’s a rite of passage and part of their culture just as we have our own rites,” he said.
Female genital cutting however may result in death from infection, crippling the woman in some respects and depriving her of sexual satisfaction.
“Coming in to a culture and telling them to quit it just doesn’t work,” Borges said. “You have to have someone within that tribe realize the problems it causes and convince others to make a change. It’s a slow process that takes a lot of dedication.”
Borges is optimistic about the forward progress for empowering women and girls.
“Without a doubt it’s happening,” he said. “Look at our country, my grandmother could not vote until she was in her 40ss. It’s a well-supported and documented movement that’s gaining momentum. I’m very happy to be a part of that movement and to see it succeeding.”
“Stirring the Fire: A Global Movement to Empower Women and Girls” runs April 13 to July 28 at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, 555 Elm Ave.
Admission to the museum is complimentary to all visitors, thanks to a generous gift from the OU Athletics Department. The museum is closed on Mondays. Information and accommodations on the basis of disability are available by calling 405-325-4938 or visiting ou.edu/fjjma.
To learn more about Phil Borges and his work visit philborges.com.