A male friend recently told me I sound like I hate men. As the wife of a Marine and mother to two teenage sons, I am far from a man-hater. When I pressed this friend for details, he said, “You always post things on Facebook about female empowerment; or how men in other countries are victimizing women. I mean, come on already.”
What I took away from that discussion was twofold. First, some people (not just men) feel uncomfortable when someone they know speaks openly about gender-based oppression and violence. Second, people aren’t talking enough about this important issue. To me, empowering women and girls is not a taboo subject that can only be spoken about in a room of hairy-pitted feminists. It’s a subject that needs to be a part of our everyday vernacular, and one that I am very passionate about.
A few months back I had the life-changing opportunity to watch the documentary, “Half the Sky”. The film is based on the book of the same name, by journalists Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. In less than three minutes, I was mesmerized by this film and the message it imparted. In a nutshell, without any glossing of words, “Half the Sky” is about ending the oppression and exploitation of women and girls worldwide. Their focus is on raising awareness and fighting against child-sex slavery, rape, maternal mortality, female genital mutilation, limited access to education and healthcare, and the lack of business opportunities for women. These are not simply “women’s issues,” these are human rights issues.
I have to believe in the deepest part of myself that there is not a single reader out there that disagrees with these concepts. I have to believe that every person, regardless of their age or income, education, or gender, believes that women and girls deserve to have the same opportunities and rights as men. I mean, that’s exactly why we Flicksters are here – to empower one another with our wisdom and our tips, to uplift and encourage one another as we walk through this life together. So it always, always shocks me, when someone says to me, “Come on already.”
In the book, “Half the Sky,” there are countless stories of women and girls who were once victimized, who later turned their pain into healing by helping others. One of the stories, that of a young Pakistani girl named Mukhtar Mai, made a painful impression on me. The young girl suffered in a way many of us can hardly fathom. First, her younger brother, a twelve year old boy named Shakur, was kidnapped and gang raped by a group of heterosexual men from a local clan called the Mastoi. I learned through the reading that rapes committed by heterosexual men against young boys are not uncommon, and are not as socially unacceptable as the rape of a female. To cover up their crime, the Mastoi then publically accused Shakur of premarital sex with a girl from their own clan. An assembly was called and Mukhtar tried to apologize to the elders – knowing that her brother did nothing wrong, but it was of no use. The judgment for Shakur’s so-called crime was that Makhtur herself was sentenced to be gang-raped by four Mastoi men.
In Pakistan, a girl’s virginity is highly prized. It is nearly impossible for a girl to be married off if she has had sexual intercourse, whether or not it was by her choice. The rape left Mukhtar without her sacred hymen, and she was left to do what many Pakistani village girls do in the same situation, commit suicide to save her family from dishonor. Mukhtar wasn’t like other girls, however, and instead of suicide – she decided to fight back. Her struggle was not an easy one, reports to the local police often went ignored, and later the same police tried to make Mukhtar marry one of her attackers.
If you’ve kept up with world news, you may remember hearing a similar story last month about a young girl in India who was gang-raped. She went to the police, who also pushed her to marry one of her attackers, and instead – the girl killed herself by swallowing poison. Another young girl in India, Jyoti Singh Pandey, didn’t even have a chance to file a report against her attackers – her rape was so brutal that she died from her injuries.
Mukhtar resisted and later received a stipend of $8,300 from a sympathetic President Pervez Musharraf. Instead of using the money for herself or her family, she decided to build the Mukhtar Mai School for Girls in her village. Her goal was to offer women the chance at an education and to teach them to fight back when they are victimized by speaking up. She faced many obstacles, including attempts from her government to silence her as she shared her story with people around the world. Today – Mukhtar’s school, and a welfare organization for women, continue to run. She even has the children of her and her brother’s attackers in her school. How is that for absolutely incredible?
What does that mean for you and me? Sometimes these stories can feel more than a world away, and sometimes the problems are too great – leading many of us to believe there isn’t anything we can do about them. Today, after sharing an article about Egypt possibly legalizing female genital mutilation (hereby referred to as FGM), a friend said that it was too hard to change other people’s “traditions” and even if it was wrong, she didn’t know where to begin.
I think a lot of us feel like my friend, overwhelmed and hesitant. It’s not likely that all of us can pick up our bags and hop the next flight to Egypt, or Pakistan, or any of the numerous countries where women and girls are exploited and oppressed. And even if we could – what difference can one person truly make?
In 2008, while living in Hawaii, I had the amazing opportunity to meet an even more amazing woman, Jane Roberts. My friend and former Sociology professor, Kathleen French, had offered students a chance to earn extra credit if they attended the discussion and wrote a short paper about the experience. I am incredibly grateful I went. Jane’s story started a few years prior, upon hearing that the Bush Administration had cut $34 million in funding the UNPF (United Nations Population Fund) which provided resources and aid to women in developing countries. Jane didn’t just get mad – she got moving. This retired Redlands, California woman used her voice to call out to friends and supporters nationwide – asking for one single dollar. Her idea that if thirty-four million people sent one dollar to the UNPF, then women in countries like Kenya or Somalia, the Congo or Pakistan, wouldn’t have to go through pregnancy without health care and more could be done to educate people about the dangers of FGM. Her mission was a success – for the most part. Although she wasn’t able to raise $34 million, she was able to bring in enough funding and awareness to continue the programs that had been at risk for being shut down. To this day, Jane travels the world raising awareness to the plight of women in developing countries. Meeting her was quite an honor.
Her power to make a difference all started with her decision to take action. There are thousands, if not millions of stories like Jane’s, or like Mukhtar’s, that exemplify how one single person, a woman, can – through sheer will, change the world around her. If knowing that one woman can make a difference, what excuse do we have?
In the documentary of “Half the Sky”, activist, humanitarian and former child sex slave, Somaly Mam of Cambodia told the cameras that sometimes, people want to help so much, that they end up doing nothing. She encouraged viewers to do what their heart wanted to do – and help stop the violence against young girls happening all over the world. I think we all owe it to ourselves, and to every girl who has been victimized because of her sex, to listen to Somaly Mam’s advice.
To really make a difference, we first have to overcome our hesitation to speak about these issues. Many people feel uncomfortable saying things like “female genital mutilation,” “rape,” or “child sex slavery,” but that doesn’t mean they cease to exist. Talking about the exploitation and oppression of women and girls worldwide, even right here in America, allows us to grow both intellectually and spiritually. It also opens the door for activism.
We also have to act. For me – the most compelling part of “Half the Sky” was that it offered me an opportunity to do something. The book and documentary highlighted grassroots organizations that were working from the bottom up to bring support, awareness and change. They pointed out studies that prove change tends to be more permanent if it happens on the local level, not by sign pumping, t-shirt wearing Westerners who impose their own agendas on a foreign community. Action can be in the form of donations, volunteer hours, discussions, and more.
I encourage every person who reads this post to get their hands on a copy of “Half the Sky” and read it, too. I also encourage you to watch the two-part documentary by the same name, and then come back here and have a discussion about how you can make a difference in the fight against the oppression of women and girls. It’s not about hating on men; it’s about empowering our women so that they can rise to their full potential. Until women worldwide are equal – our job isn’t done. Somewhere in the world, right now, a girl is being assaulted, or denied an education, or a meal, or a much needed trip to the doctor – and somewhere else in the world, maybe right here, right now, is the person who is going to change her future.