Gurlstalk: Part One

Gemma Lacey

Gurlstalk was founded by model and activist Adwoa Aboah and has blossomed into a global community, where young women bond over shared experiences. They address tough topics including race and sexual assault and have helped create a safe space where girls can share and connect with others. In the spirit of our latest issue which celebrates togetherness we spoke to some members of Gurlstalk to discover how the community has impacted their lives and what it means to them to have this resource in their lives. Their stories are candid, intriguing but most importantly full of realism, hope and optimism. The future is bright.

Zhu was born in China and went to UPenn for school so she grew up around the world. She now works in the Middle East, discovering the beauty of being a woman, being Middle Eastern, learning about ancient cultures and understanding Islam. She discovered the Gurlstalk community through Adwoa Aboah after an event in NYC and afterwards, followed the online community. She talks about how it helped expand her awareness.

GL: You had a global upbringing, how has that affected your perspective as a girl in the world, what were some of the earliest things you noticed?
Z: Global upbringing has been a blessing, which is a privilege itself. I cherish it very much. I think it comes from twofold, or three. During my childhood, I was the only daughter of my family. My grandparents on my dad’s side are quite traditionally Chinese and have mentioned to my parents many times that they wanted a male grandchild. My parents did not take that seriously but that issue was like a huge cloud covering my childhood. Because of that, I tried to prove that I am the same as boys or even better. When I was 13, I cut my hair super short like a boy. I also excelled in almost every subject I do from languages to maths to PE to instruments to anything – becoming a typical Asian good girl, who has been competitive and an admiration from both boys and girls. I also developed strong interests into political science and economics – friends always believe that I will be the next president if not an anti-govt leader… When I was around teen age (14-17), I went on exchange to many places such as Finland, California, etc., and eventually migrated to the UK. At this period, I began to step into the highly competitive field Finance. During my growth period (teen-22), I studied in too many places, seeing the equality, inequality, and anything in between for genders. From one of the most gender-equal countries (Finland, they just elected their 34-year old female head of state), to the somehow improving UK and US, to France, to Singapore, to more developing countries such as China (whose gender is actually quite equal in many aspects due to history), to the very bad Middle East (namely Iran, I think it is terrible for gender equality not to mention Saudi). Countries themselves and the variations themselves give me a lot of perspectives and make me to think that I need to do something for my fellow women, because in most fields and most countries, they are not even born free! First, I started by making myself an example. Second, I started businesses that empower girls.
GL: What was it that drew you to the Middle East and what parts of the culture offer your community in your life?
Z: It comes as a beautiful accident and goes further. I have been to the pro-Western parts of the Middle East as a child (UAE + Israel) and have had a lot of fun there. However, they do not seem to be too different from my normal surroundings in global big cities, maybe due to the relative short history of their modern countries. In 2017, I went to Iran for the first time as a simple tourist. Then, I met my boyfriend, who is Iranian. It was love at first sight. I did not expect it either. My mum is still mad at me of “why do you find an Iranian boyfriend?” Look, I did not go to Iran to find a boyfriend. I went there, and things happened. Afterwards, I started posting photos and videos and writing articles for magazines on the subject. The act itself attracted large interests. Fans and strangers started writing to me, “it’s so interesting. We never knew Iran was like this! Please write more about it.” So I did. Iran is a very misunderstood country due to the misplaced diplomacy and longtime stand-off with the West (so as Western media). Similarly, oriental media has not portrayed it rightly. The country has 7,000-year of history, which is very in depth and mesmerising. In addition, my article on my relationship with my boyfriend Sahand right at the travel ban (I was living in New York) has been posted everywhere and drew a lot of wows. I have never been a simple “travel blogger” per se so I start to read a lot of academic works about Persia, about the Middle East, to understand it better. In between, I also stayed in Iran for a few months every year or every a few years, and travel across the Middle East to grasp the modern structure and its past more.
Three reasons that the region draws me: first, the Middle East is where our civilisation comes from. Some of the earliest relics have been uncovered in the Middle East (Turkey, Saudi). To know the Middle East, the unity and disunity of the space across time, is to know our own mankind. Today, it is one of the most fragmented regions in the world. Why so? I strive to present a culture that is of unity, instead of separation, getting rid of religion and politics. Second, it is out of convenience. Not many people in my background that does studies in the Middle East, and probably it’s only me in the world that is born in the East and educated in the West that is doing something with the Middle East. I enjoy the special status and aim to present with my eyes, which tend to be impartial. I find a lot of Western studies in the space can be biased, because there is always an interest studies serve. In addition, Western media has to conform to the very basic understanding of “democracy”, and base their stories on this; hence, anything that falls out of this structure is considered unorthodox in political science and “undemocratic” or “not free”. Being a Chinese woman, I can tell from how China is very victimised under Western lense. Iran is even worse. Not to say those countries do not have bad things. They of course do. However, there are a lot of more beautiful things. Similarly, in the East, I find the studies on the Middle East too shallow. Funny enough, due to Silk Road, the East has had a long history of trading and engaging with the Middle East, but too few scholars that have done enough to give people a deeper understanding of the region. There are many great Eastern academics that have done too well for Chinese culture (so I do not necessarily have a competitive edge on Chinese culture). I think better for me to go another route. There are also some really good scholars that have done great works. I look up to them and rely on their works. I am myself in nowhere profound enough to match their works, but I try to get rid of the shallow thinking and present the region in a seriousness it deserves.
GL: What topics do you relate most to on Gurlstalk and why? Are there any things that stand out for you? I think not a single one.
Z: It is more about the strength of becoming better individually and collectively. This is what I strive for for my life, and this is what all girls that come to Gurlstalk for isn’t it? I notice there are a lot of issues about sexuality on Gurlstalk, which unfortunately I can’t be of too much help as a very heterogeneous boring woman. However, due to the global nature of Gurlstalk, I notice many women discussing the issues of hijabs or so. I am happy to listen more from them and see if I can help of my experience.

“The resilience exhibited in each story keeps the torchlight for me in my growth.”

GL: Can you give an example of feeling marginalised yourself and how this community helped you with that?
Z: I think I have been lucky enough to not try to internalise “marginalisation” per se. As an Asian woman, for sure I have faced a lot of “judgement by look”, which is very annoying. I can relate two incidents among many. Once, I was queuing at the airport custom from Germany back to the UK. There was a lane for non-EU citizen, and a lane for EU citizen. I was on the non-EU citizen lane, which had a few more people ahead of me. The EU citizen lane was empty, so the custom officer called me to come forward. I did. At that moment, there was a group of new passengers, who are mostly EU citizens, coming right after. As the custom officer checked my passport, a man standing behind me (he didn’t see how I moved from non-EU to EU, so he only saw I was at EU side as I was) shouted, “why is she even here? She is not even from here.” I was of course not happy about it. How could he judge? First of all, the custom officer asked me to come over, instead of me misplacing myself in the queue. Second, how could he know that I am not from the EU? The custom officer is himself an Asian-looking, potentially German. How could I not be an Asian-German? Another incident of mine would be, especially in developing countries such as in Iran. I walk on street, and people just automatically pester me with “Ni-hao, konichiwa” or whatever Asian languages they could come up with. I find it extremely annoying and always just shout back “fuck off dumbass”. Nevertheless, I have not seen myself too “marginalised” in my normal society in London, NY, or Shanghai, or top cities. Discriminations of course exist. I often get rejections once the other side see my name as “Zhuorui Fu”, which is obvious not something like “Anna Smith”, or get rejected front-face as they “are not looking for women partners”. I have also developed huge favour to myself by speaking in a pure British accent and by having an extremely fine demeanour. Many people may have pre-judgement, but once I open my mouth or show up in person, I haven’t faced challenges as people (especially male oversight or partners) have just been wow’ed (by a combination of seeing the knowledge behind and the face and body factor) and gave me green light pass. Sometimes I feel lucky or even empowered using my strength being a beautiful woman with global upbringing, but sometimes know that this exact feminine power has been used wrongly in many parts of the world to overly sexualise women.
GL: How does your online community differ from yours in real life?
Z: Not much. I present me the same way to the internet as I do to real life. For me, internet is a tool of my work. I accumulate some nice pieces, whether it is about fashion, culture, Economics, wellness, or what, I turn off my internet and grind those pictures, videos, TikToks, articles out. Then I post, share, liaise with other platforms. They are a part of my works. However, it does not direct my life. I do not consider myself an “Instagram” personality. I am a journalist, economist, and a part-time model. All the followings come as a by-product. I do not engage myself easily in real life (I reject most of the parties unless they are hosted by me ;)), so I do not engage myself easily on the internet. I answer letters from fans that have done due diligence and pose intellectual questions. If they ask me “how should I travel to Paris”, well, they can Google. I want to give my audience and readers nice contents and things. If I do attract them, I want it to be intelligence, classy feelings, knowledge, etc., beyond just the simple beautiful face and body.
GL: What are your aspirations for your growth?
Z: Being permanently charming, powerful, independent, free.
GL: Do you think community has a hierarchy? If so how does that evolve and who do you look to for guidance there?
Z: Community of course has a hierarchy like all human structure does. Hierarchy does not necessarily mean it is a bad thing as no-hierarchy can easily turn into flat anarchy, which is chaos and inefficiency camouflaged in a justifiable form. Certainly, over hierarchy or too strict formulation of the society are not good either. The key is to ensure right incentive and punishment system in the society and to ensure the flow of lower class to up class by merit, which is easier to say than to do itself. I always try to talk to the head of this hierarchy, by either directly connecting them to show my admiration, or work my way (legally) to become them. Nevertheless, notice power often comes with corruption. I am still in my early years to go there… so I strive to bring a transparent system to the world.
GL: Gurlstalk is a global community, how has meeting people from all over the world opened you up to ideas and new people?
Z: At my early stage, it has been very helpful to know those differences and be jaw-dropping how different people justify their way of thinking and how humanity is really alike. Now, I pretty much only engage myself with deeper talks. Conversations such as what is the most famous food in your country does not satiate me. If we talk German, I do not want to talk about Currywurst, I want to discuss Walter Benjamin. I think it is very helpful for people, students, early starters to see the world more and have early engagements with people. However, once that phase passes, an individual should strive further for depth. Our world is not built on shallowness. Krass may get attentions, only class can last.
GL: What are the things community helps you to do?
Z: It is a love-and-hate relationships. They built me. But many times a community just smash me. I deal with many communities across the globe everyday, so they have rotated to construct me, befuddle me, hinder me, reset me, etc. In short, community is supposed to be helpful, but reality is never so dreamy. One good reason for community to exist is to build you as it allows, and alerts you that you need to fight back on life and work your ass off in order to make a living.
GL: What do you aspire to do with the help of your community next?
Z: Work wise, get better job opportunities (articles for more major magazines, modelling shoot for better brands, videos for major networks). Books to be published. Build a reader’s community for girls. Set up my plan for a free moveable library for poor kids. Build a community that uses less plastics. Sell more products for my brands, etc., etc. Mostly important, work to have a more justified system that allows most people, genders, to get what they, their ambition, and their actions deserve.

Sarah describes herself as a black girl dreaming, for her Gurlstalk is a form of sanctuary: “I’ve always felt so different and never really fit in but with Gurlstalk it’s different. A community builds each other up and protects one another; supports everyone within and is welcoming to whoever – it’s a second family to me.”

GL: Do you think community has a hierarchy? If so how does that evolve and who do you look to for guidance there?
S: Despite London being a big and overwhelming city, it’s very diverse so all sorts of people are able to find a community that accepts them and that they feel comfortable around.
GL: Gurlstalk is a global community, how has meeting people from all over the world opened you up to ideas and new people?
S: I discovered Gurls Talk through a friend of mine recommending the very first podcast which featured one of our favourite artists. The best part of discovering this community would definitely be getting the chance to model for Stylist Magazine along with 5 amazing Gurls and Adwoa herself. It was so much fun!
GL: What are the things community helps you to do?
S: The community being so diverse and collaborative in understanding and talking about pressing issues we all go through makes it a safe haven for me. Everyone is respectful, honest and accepting when others open up which is nice to see.

“Gurls Talk has wholeheartedly become a safe haven for me where I can express myself freely with no judgement…it’s a second family to me.” – Sarah Atarah