The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, celebrated globally on March 8, is “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It.” This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, a significant turning point in the global agenda for gender equality. Twenty years later, the Beijing promise is only partially fulfilled. Although we have much to celebrate in achievements made by some countries and cultures of the West in ensuring gender equality laws, there remain large gaps in practices of women’s rights in many of the regions that adhere to patriarchal laws.
As I see it, there are two major challenges to the progress of our women and societies in general. Violence against women is one of the most serious barriers to progress in any region. This is especially true in Muslim countries, and unfortunately, in Armenia (a country near and dear to my heart). The second challenge is the lack of women in leadership positions.
Female empowerment comes from within our ranks, from within our own hearts, from within our own ability to look beyond a reactionary and defensive stance. It is not enough for women to merely develop self-empowerment, or to enter the workplace, or to assume leadership roles. We must lead, yes, but we must lead from our core female values and deepest wisdom; wisdom that comes from unity and understanding of shared intellect.
(Allow me to sidebar with part of a speech delivered at a conference in Armenia for the empowerment of Armenian woman).
“We must build on the understanding that the resilience of the woman is key to a nation’s existence, our existence as a people, as Armenians; an existence which could have been obliterated by genocide 100 years ago had it not been for the strength and stamina of the woman, her will and soul to survive, to grow, to build and rebuild homes, communities, and bring life to the past that we honor through the presence of our children.
We must build on the understanding that as we make progress in breast cancer research, screening and education, we must make equal progress in reproduction and sexuality issues which are keys to women’s empowerment. Child bearing and child rearing… These are complex undertakings that cannot be decided by a medical doctor or by policy makers or by church. Contraceptive decision making, reproductive choices, gender selection, intimacy… these are all basic human right. We have to build on that understanding.
There is beauty in literature (especially Arab and Armenian literature) that praises the woman, not just in word but in action. We recite literature that dates back to the beginning of the written word by men and women with terms of adoration, of awe and reverence toward our mother earth, mother country, mother tongue and our mothers, yet we must still build on learning to respect, revere, caress and protect our spouses, our wives, the mothers of our sons and daughters. We have to build on these issues of anti-violence toward women, and children and men as a basic human right. We owe it to the brave women and men who fought for certain rights and equality, who went against the tide of what was acceptable, who challenged the status quo, who refused to take as an answer that “that’s just how things are.” We must build on that understanding.
Just as we seek that balance of power between governments, nations and international relations, we have to work together to find a balance of power between our men and women, between all that we deem sacred… Ourselves, our families, our communities our nation and humanity. Women’s empowerment should never be reduced to individual success stories. It should be about collective well-being, even in patriarchal societies. It should be about education, experiences, and trust in sharing energy, knowledge and spirit with other women and men. No matter what material, social or intellectual heights we scale, unless we learn to operate from that deeply embedded place of trust and courage with which to seek the rise of other women, and with which to seek ourselves among leaders of nations, we will never “Picture It.”
I encourage all to celebrate March. Recognize women who have fought for independence and stood up for justice, equality and peace. Acknowledge women who have tilled the soil and brought food to the markets and our tables. Praise women who have educated the children of nations without thinking of themselves alone. Look up to women who have courageously lead and empowered others to create and build a sane, soulful culture beyond today. They did not relegate their abilities to simply secure a better life for themselves, but put the vision of a better world above their own personal journeys, and in doing so secured a better life for millions. Together, side by side, shoulder to shoulder on the frontline of borders and within the boundaries of our homes, empowering women, empowering humanity. Picture it. “