Empowering girls through music

In August 2013, three women of Portland’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls made the transatlantic journey to Bahrain, a small archipelago country in the Persian Gulf, on an invitation from the U.S. Embassy.

The Portland-based girls’ rock camp has been around for 13 years and is a nonprofit program with the purpose of building girls’ self-esteem through music creation and performance, creating leadership opportunities and cultivating a supportive community.

On Jan. 23, Sarah Dougher, Beth Wooten and Nadya Buyse came to Portland State to share the story of their endeavor in Bahrain.

“[The] messages Americans get about [the] ongoing victimization of Muslim women continues,” said Dougher of the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at PSU. “Whenever I mentioned we were going to Bahrain,” she said, “most people reacted with fear…or a kind of ‘you go girl’ enthusiasm.”

Artist and activist Buyse said, “People would ask us if we were afraid to go or tell us we were so cool for going, [but] it was more just about ‘how do we make this a unique experience?’

“It’s not about rock ‘n’ roll setting girls free…but the process of working together is a potentially very empowering experience,” said Wooten, executive director of Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls.

“I’d like to think that rock camp avoids [the] intervention tendencies [and] censorship strategies,” she said. “Instead of preventing girls from being upset [we should] let them know that if they are upset there are structural reasons why.”

Dougher, Wooten and Buyse described some of the things that they found to be contrary to their expectations upon arriving in Bahrain. Instead of the 25 girls they were anticipating, they had 45 campers, as well as fewer instruments than they had hoped for.

The girls’ camp included a zine-making component intended to provide a creative outlet for expression, as well as a video exchange between the Portland camp and Bahrain camp. In the videos the girls introduced themselves and presented questions that interested them about the campers on the other side of the world.

Throughout their presentation, Dougher, Wooten and Buyse shared some of these film clips and photographs as well as images from the zine that the girls worked together to create.

Dougher presented a question that was raised in their Bahraini experience: “What role does this expressive culture and collaboration play in [the] larger questions of girls’ development projects in Muslim majority countries?”

Another question, raised by a member of the audience, was in regard to militant mistreatment, violence, repression and other issues present in Bahrain. Buyse said that, “from people that were living there, the whole topic was kind of avoided. People are uncomfortable to talk about it.

“Because there is that heavy fear, there’s also this desire to move on or away from it…because of that I feel like it wasn’t something that hung in the air.”

In spite of these unspoken matters, “[the camp] was a place for freedom and expression and creativity and making,” said Buyse.

She added, “[It is] important that we learn how to live creatively and make our own life,” and this was a concept they hoped to make the campers of the girls rock ‘n’ roll camp aware of, a feat that they observed to be successful.

Buyse went on to speak of their hopes for sustaining the camp. “How do we engage [and] keep going? What does this mean now that we have this connection?”

They want to expand and further globalize the girls’ camp. They have started a camp in Dubai, are attempting to start a Tunisian one and are hoping there will be more.

Dougher expressed her wonder about the role that expressive culture plays in expanding people’s ideas, closing with the sentiment that, “imagining yourself in culture [is a] really freeing thing.”