NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– Earlier this winter, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan caught international press attention by saying: “You cannot put women and men on an equal footing . . . it’s against nature. They were created differently.”
Even though I live far away, the insult felt personal. He wasn’t just talking about gender. He was also talking about my friends in the region.
Last summer I participated in the Seeds of Peace International Camp where I lived in a rural part of Maine with girls and boys from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt. It was a tense summer because of conflicts and political instability around the world; places like Gaza, Syria and Afghanistan.
Participants from all sides of the conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia had come together to share views and look for common ground by putting a human face on the “other side.”
However, in unexpected ways, the treatment of women in all these regions, including in the U.S., came to play a more significant role than I had anticipated. I know this not from news stories; but from listening to stories shared every day and night in the dining hall and bunks at Seeds of Peace.
In one of the more intense morning dialogues, the facilitator asked us: “How many of you see a future for yourselves in your country of origin?” All of the boys raised their hands; most of the girls didn’t.
The answers that the girls from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India gave were striking: “We have no rights and it’s getting worse.” “Because we can’t get an education in Afghanistan.” “Girls and women are not treated well in my country.” “Our opinions are not respected.”
Growing up in traditional, male-dominated societies, many of these young women live in daily fear of persecution and even physical violence–on the streets and even in their own homes. Rather than protect women against these daily humiliations and violations of their most basic rights, most governments appear to do nothing to help them and many leaders in the region actually reinforce negative views of women.
At the same time, young women in these regions are pushing forward. More than ever before many are getting college degrees, even in places where there is little chance of finding suitable employment. In Lebanon, for example, 54 percent of university students are women, but only 26 percent are in the workforce, according to the United Nations. These young women understand that the humiliation and persecution they face is much worse than for women living in other regions of the world.
Women in many of these countries are routinely excluded not only from active participation in the senior reaches of government but from the political process at all. This is especially so in autocratic states ruled by dynastic royal families or military leaders. The coming generations of educated women are demanding economic opportunity and jobs, but they also want a stake in the political future of their countries.
A Safer Place
Hearing my fellow campers tell their stories of fear and persecution was shocking. At first they did not want to discuss their struggles, but when I shared the story of the American suffrage movement and our current battle to guarantee women equal pay for equal work, I could see expressions change with approving smiles.
The thaw that took place was palpable. I think many had expected me to tell them how easy it is for women in the U.S.
Instead, I shared the complex truth and was very open about our deficiencies. This created a safer place for them to share their own stories, discuss their challenges and hopefully give them some optimism to fight for their future. The sharing of these stories and the finding of a place for real dialogue made these struggles real to me.
This experience demonstrated the importance of finding common ground and not idealizing womanhood in one nation while despairing over its state in another. Spaces for open, self-revealing dialogues makes the headlines about other countries more personal and prompt us to find avenues for change.