Photo credit: Yasmeen Strang

Students, GSWS, GLS

Graduate Profile: Reema Faris, GSWS

March 20, 2017

Reema Faris is a PhD student in GSWS, where she studies the relevance of (mis)conceptions of feminism as they operate in popular culture. Her question is “whether the consumer-celebrity foundation of North American popular culture has rendered the concept of feminism obsolete even though the need to advocate for social justice has not abated.”

Or, as she discusses in her TEDxGastown Women talk, “if life for young people is all about material possessions and outward appearances, how do we teach them, specifically young women, about the power they need to face the challenges life will throw their way?” More specifically, Faris asks "how do we tell them that the shape of their lives is much more profoundly affected by things like access to higher education, access to affordable housing, and their own personal safety than what are often portrayed as the elements of a good life in what they see or hear in the mass media culture around them?”

Faris' view while readying herself for her MA thesis defense. Photo: Reema Faris.

Faris came to pursue these questions in GSWS after completing her master’s degree in Graduate Liberal Studies (2015), where she examined travel writing as a “technology of the self.” She argues that the rise of “self-help” books masked as travel writing, such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular book Eat, Pray, Love, signals a shift in the relationship between feminism and popular culture, particularly when compared to examples such as the work of early feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. Faris says “it’s the triumph of self-help over self-understanding, a narrative which undermines the struggle for women’s equality.”  

While there are clearly links between her PhD project and her MA thesis, when asked what spurred her on to do her PhD, Faris speaks, first, of her work as a Teaching Assistant: “My first appointment was in the fall of 2011. I loved the work: the interaction with students, the ability to exchange ideas, and the opportunity to help them see how we can connect works from the past to our world today. Knowing that I loved the work and the environment of the university setting, and that there was so much more for me to learn, I decided to pursue my PhD.”

Indeed, Faris has a passion for education in many forms. In addition to her PhD program and her MA, she holds an MBA from the University of Toronto and a BA from the University of British Columbia. She describes herself as “very curious” and says she’s always “liked to think about things, ask a lot of questions, and engage in conversation about this that and everything.” Now, she says “as a mature woman and a mature student, I know those activities must also be connected to action.” When Faris attended her first Parent Advisory Council meeting at her son’s school in 2006, she left the meeting as a member of the executive. When the municipal elections were looming in 2011, she decided she “needed to run to understand education from the other side of the table.”

Onstage at TEDxGastown Women. Photo credit: Suzanne Rushton

Faris served one term as a Trustee of the West Vancouver Board of Education (2011-14). During this time, the province saw repeated job action in the public education sector amidst funding cuts and enrollment challenges. The view from the other side of the table was revealing: “it became very apparent that one of the challenges within the public education system in BC is that no one really talks to one another – they talk at each other.” Faris realized there “weren’t high level talks at a policy level – outside of partisan politics or government intention – about the state of education in BC.”

A former communications professional, she used social media to raise awareness of these issues. In a March 2012 blog post she called for a Royal Commission on Education; another blog post was published by the Tyee. When she decided not to seek re-election in 2014, and recognizing that “the last thing a government would ever do is set up a Royal Commission,” she started the online forum Education for BC: A Citizen’s Commission.

Now focused on her PhD, Faris says "we’re still a far way away from giving public education the attention it needs and I think it’ll be disastrous if the conversation and dialogue is not pursed at a much higher policy level than we see now.” In her current studies, what Faris says she’s “really getting at” is “the need for each of us to accept our responsibility for making change in the world – not just for ourselves, but for everyone and most especially for the vulnerable in our communities. I think the emphasis on individualism has progressed to the point of atomizing us and that’s a false consciousness. We do not operate as individuals; we cannot exist as discrete entities. It’s not and has never been a world of one – that’s a much too myopic view of the world.”

Of particular concern, she says, “is this seemingly irrational support for populist regimes that promise so much, but which really are about rewarding the very few. It makes the world into a much smaller and meaner place. It’s a path of fear, hate, and pain. I’m not someone whose head is in the clouds about humanity. I’m a student of the arts and social sciences – I know what has come before and what’s likely to come in the future without changes to systems, structures, and beliefs. And, I know it can be better than this.”