The Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism goes this year to Bushra Jamil, a co-founder and supporter of Iraq’s only independent radio station for women who is not easily deterred.
Last year the station, Al-Mahabba, was hit by a car bomb aimed at two nearby hotels in Baghdad. Almost everything in the station, which went on the air in April 2005, was destroyed: computers, electronic equipment, furniture, windows, doors and, most importantly, the station’s transmitter, which broadcast throughout the country a mix of programming covering news, personal concerns, education, health, the law, poetry, situation comedies and music, including special songs about women’s and human rights.
Despite the country’s growing violence, Jamil and her colleagues were determined to keep their fledgling station alive. They rented a smaller transmitter until a Florida communications company, Harris Corp., donated a new transmitter that allowed them to air their programs advocating women’s equality throughout Iraq.
"Iraqi women have suffered immensely and feel that they are living a dismal life with a bleak future," Jamil says. "Our programs point out the positive aspects Iraqi citizens should endure to help them stay intact and strong."
But the station is still struggling. It has lost advertising revenue and survives in part on charitable donations, which can be hindered by the station’s political independence. It suffers continual shortages of such basic services as water, power and fuel. Amid the growing violence gripping the country two staff members were killed by a separate bombing at a nearby market.
Still, Jamil and her colleagues push on. "We just take it one day at a time," she says. "It’s no good living in despair and in continued fear if we can’t change the situation."
It’s advice she’s followed throughout her life.
Jamil began professional life as a teacher, but resigned after nine years because Saddam Hussein’s Baath party forced her–and all teachers–to choose between joining the party or being transferred to another job. When the Gulf War began, she and her family fled to Canada, where she worked and studied business management. She decided to return to Iraq in 2003 to help her country recover from the Hussein dictatorship.
"During the 10 years away from Iraq, I always wanted to go back and help my fellow Iraqis to improve their lives," she says, "especially after I lived in Canada and experienced the wonderful feelings of being treated as a human being, being able to plan for your future, being able to enjoy basic needs without fear and humiliation, and being respected by all."
Ask Jackson Katz, a former all-star football player, why he has dedicated his life to combating sexism and he goes on the offensive.
He’s not a victim of violence or harassment, he says. He’s just an ordinary guy who became outraged at the ordinariness of men’s violence against women.
"I realized I was in a position as a man, as a white guy and a heterosexual, to do something about it," Katz says. "Because I was successful as a young guy in sports, I was totally unintimidated by the prospect of challenging men."
Katz, 46, was a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst when he was shocked to discover that his female friends couldn’t walk to a nearby store at 9 p.m. without fear of assault. He began to raise the issue in his student newspaper column and even earned a minor in women’s studies, becoming the first man to do so at his university.
Katz says he is often asked why he does this work as a man when it’s perceived as a woman’s issue. "Why aren’t we asking the millions of men who aren’t doing anything?" Katz responds. "Why do we ask the handful of men who are, as if we’re freakishly different?"
Katz spearheaded an anti-sexist men’s organization, Real Men, in Boston in 1988, and in 1993 co-founded the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) Program, a group that enlists athletes at all levels in the campaign against gender-based violence.
Tens of thousands of high school students, student athletes and other student leaders have participated in the program, the largest of its kind in the country. A growing number of professional sports teams in the United States, Canada and Australia, including the New England Patriots and the Boston Red Sox, have also implemented the Mentors in Violence Prevention programs. Since 1997, Katz has directed the first sexual and domestic violence prevention program in the United States Marine Corps.
"Working with men and boys is by far the best hope for preventing gender violence, because men and boys are the ones doing it," says Katz.
Katz says it’s important to work with men in positions of cultural and political influence, including those in government, law enforcement, education, business, religious organizations and health care.
Katz is currently pursuing his doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and spreads his message through lectures, trainings, educational videos, articles and books, including "The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help," published in 2006 by Sourcebooks.
Shelby Knox noticed something was going wrong for many of her high school classmates and decided to take action. Five years later, she is now a national spokesperson for accurate and comprehensive sex education in public schools.
Knox was 15, a devout Christian and a member of a politically conservative family when she took a vow of abstinence until marriage. At the time, Knox also joined the Lubbock Youth Commission, a group of high school students that represented the youth in city government. She soon realized that teen pregnancy was a common thread that ran throughout Youth Commission discussions.
She came to believe that the local high schools’ abstinence-only sex education was failing to protect young women. In fact, Lubbock has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in the nation, she learned.
Knox, now 20, was especially critical of Pastor Ed "Sex Ed" Ainsworth, who was employed to teach students abstinence-only education riddled with faulty messages, such as saying that shaking hands could spread sexually transmitted diseases or that AIDS was spread through sweat and tears.
The Youth Commission decided to fight for comprehensive, fact-based sex education in the town’s public schools and Knox became a devoted member of the campaign.
"As feminists and as women, we have to fight for comprehensive sex education because it promotes positive sexuality and it teaches women how to protect themselves," she says.
Knox’s crusade drew criticism from many members of her church and caused her parents consternation, but was supported by students at her high school.
In the end, she was unable to force the school to change its policy on an abstinence-only curriculum, but her fight drew widespread attention to the issue when her struggle was chronicled in the "The Education of Shelby Knox," a 2005 documentary by filmmakers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt. The film aired on PBS and was screened at film festivals around the country.
Now a student at the University of Texas-Austin who is graduating in May 2007, Knox continues to lobby for comprehensive sex education on a national level as she attends screenings of the film made about her when it is shown at colleges and universities across the country.
"I can’t wait to see the day the government starts funding comprehensive sex education and I can go from advocating it to actually creating curriculums on it," said Knox.
Jane Mansbridge, the Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, works on the same campus as Lawrence H. Summers, who famously questioned women’s innate abilities to handle math and science.
Summers’ declaration was consistent with much of what Mansbridge experienced in academia after she left Wellesley College, a place where "all the pictures on the walls were of women and the message was ‘women can do anything.’"
In graduate school at Harvard during the 1960s, the message was much different. Female students and professors had to enter the Harvard Faculty Club through the back door.
"Do you know the term ‘over-determined?’" asks Mansbridge, a political theorist who has written extensively on altruism. "It’s when there are many, many explanations for one phenomenon. You could say my participation in the feminist movement was over-determined. There were about 27 reasons it had to be."
Among those reasons, says Mansbridge, was her husband’s expectation, though they were both graduate students, that she would do the "second shift"–shopping, cooking, cleaning–while he studied.
She was also raped during that time and the experience violently altered her understanding of sex and power.
In 1970 Mansbridge, now 67, wrote the sexuality section for the first edition of "Our Bodies, Ourselves," a landmark effort to give women open access to health information.
She was part of the movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and today she sits on committees to change Harvard’s work-family policy to be more flexible and fair for all employees.
"What makes a social movement is all these people out there making choices every day, which together form a wave," Mansbridge says.
Those individual choices are the subject of her forthcoming book, "Everyday Feminism," in which she interviews women from low-income backgrounds. One of her subjects, a nursing home aide, bravely told a male stranger on the job the story of her own rape in order to combat his stereotype that all women who are raped "ask for it."
"She had the guts and the decency to expose herself, not because it benefited her, but because it would help him act better toward other women in the future," Mansbridge says, with emotion in her voice. "Now that is a feminist act and a feminist act of deep courage."
–Courtney E. Martin.
Jamie McCourt not only sings "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in the shower but also has made it the theme song of her life. A self-described ex-tomboy with two younger brothers, Jamie McCourt was the kind of girl who tooled around her childhood neighborhood in Baltimore with baseball cards stuck in the spokes of her bicycle wheels. At 9, she told her mom she would one day buy a baseball team: a girlhood dream that came true when she and her husband, Frank, purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004.
Today, McCourt, 53, is vice chair and president of the L.A. Dodgers and is the highest ranking female executive in baseball and one of the most powerful women in the business of sports. She came to the position after a lengthy legal career in New York and Boston.
After moving to Los Angeles and taking her position with the Dodgers, McCourt devised a plan to develop and expand the team’s female audience. At a typical Dodgers game, about 40 percent of the fans are women. Over a season, women comprise more than 1.2 million of roughly 3 million attendees.
Although often overlooked, women are a particularly attractive market for the business of sports because they tend to control family decisions about where and how to spend money, McCourt says. Women are especially interested in baseball because it allows them to spend relaxed, enjoyable time with their families, she adds.
So in 2005, just before Mothers’ Day weekend, McCourt launched the Women’s Initiative & Network (WIN), a program in which women of all ages and backgrounds learn about and experience the game through activities such as baseball clinics and seminars featuring Dodger players, coaches and staff.
"You’d be surprised at how many women really care about the beauty of baseball, the romance of baseball," McCourt says.
Corporate sponsors are responding to the WIN program, she says. One indication of that came when Smashbox, a cosmetics company in Culver City, Calif., agreed to give away complimentary lip gloss to the first 50,000 attendants.
Female ticket-holders that day knew what to do. "The best part was the occasional man who didn’t take it and got sent back by a woman," McCourt says.
McCourt is also a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she teaches a course on female leadership. She has recently been honored by the Step-Up Women’s Network and the Los Angeles Rotary Club, where she is the second woman to be made an honorary member in the club’s 95-year history.
Dena Merriam founded the New York-based Global Peace Initiative of Women in 2002 and is convinced that women have "a very important role in healing the world."
Merriam herself has played an important role through her work organizing interfaith dialogues and developing youth leadership programs globally. She was the vice chair of the Millennium World Peace Summit which brought 2,000 of the world’s pre-eminent religious and spiritual leaders representing the many faith traditions to the General Assembly of the United Nations in August 2000.
Not one to rest long, Merriam then organized the Global Peace Initiative in Geneva. More than 500 leading female figures in religion, business and politics from around the world gathered for three days in October 2002 and discussed the possibilities for peace.
Since then she has continued her efforts to bring people, mostly women, from polarized countries and regions together for dialogue with one another and key religious figures, including Palestinians, Israelis, Iraqis and, most recently, young professionals from throughout Sudan.
"I think of myself as creating opportunities for people to encounter spiritual leaders," says Merriam. "But I don’t think of myself as being a healer. It’s hard to see oneself in that light."
Recently her group met in Lebanon with a male leader of the Shia community as part of a series of peace talks in the Middle East. She says members of her delegation from the Global Peace Initiative asked, "How can we work towards peace?" The Shia leader responded, "After there is peace, we’ll talk." The delegation determinedly responded, "But what can we do to help?" The Shia leader only repeated himself.
Merriam says the incident shows the contrast between some male leaders and the female peace activists she has worked with all over the world.
"I think women are more willing to take risks because we have less to lose and we feel the pain of these situations so deeply," Merriam says. "The first issue brought up in inter-religious dialogues among women is inevitably the suffering of the children. With men it just doesn’t come up."
–Courtney E. Martin.
As president of the National Hispana Leadership Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit, Marisa Rivera-Albert helps Latinas, many of whom come from low-wage-earning families and are determined to become engineers, doctors and lawyers.
Three years ago, she oversaw the development of the Latina Empowerment Conferences program, which invites young Latinas across the United States to gather and hear Hispanic women in prominent government and business positions share their strategies for success. In 2006, the institute trained 1,200 Latinas at conferences in seven cities.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Rivera-Albert left the island after her early high school graduation to attend college. She earned a bachelor’s degree at American University in Washington, D.C., and a master’s in education administration from Western Illinois University.
As a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Executive Program and the Gallup Leadership Institute, she calls herself "a product of student loans" and emphasizes the importance of education for others.
"Unless you’re well-educated, the door of opportunity will narrow," Rivera-Albert, 46, says. "In 2006, things have changed, but they’re still telling Hispanic students that they’re not college material and that they should go ahead and work as cashiers or secretaries."
Hispanic women often need a network to not only provide encouragement but also financial support, says Rivera-Albert. One protege was accepted to a top law school but almost abandoned her plans because of what it would cost. Rivera-Albert encouraged her to accept and connected her to someone to help her with financial aid.
"One of the greatest satisfactions that I have with working at a Hispanic nonprofit is that you see women working at the grassroots level on issues that affect our community," says Rivera-Albert. "They’re leading from the trenches–and many of them are feeling lonely–but they are all working towards a fair and just America and they all inspire us."
— Irene Lew
Irene Lew is the editorial intern at Women’s eNews; Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief; Courtney Martin is a writer, filmmaker and teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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