November 8 2010

Billions of Our Sisters

Hadley Heath

Last week the United States was rocked by a mid-term election and a party-control switch in the House of Representatives.  As my colleague Romina Boccia pointed out, largely absent from the campaign platforms was mention of foreign policy. 

True, the U.S. has its own set of hurdles, but we are still an important player in the world and (although some would hesitate to admit it) a good example to other countries of a place where public policy honors personal freedoms.

I've had the opportunity to attend a conference in Istanbul, Turkey, this weekend on behalf of IWF, and Friday at dinner, a young Turkish woman admitted to me that many of her compatriots see Turkey as a small United States.  Or, at least the country aspires to be like the United States. 

At the opening ceremony of the conference, the speaker noted that Turkish women in Istanbul are "not seen."  In this respect, Turkey is not similar to the U.S. (where women are achieving great success educationally and economically), but Turkey is similar to several other countries, particularly in the Middle East and other parts of the developing world - places where women are simply "not seen."

In a way this weekend, I feel that I have stepped back in time.  I never had the opportunity to watch the Women's Movement of the 1960's take place in the U.S., but women (even wearing headscarves) in Turkey are now rallying to break stereotypes, encourage girls' education, provide economic opportunities for women, and raise public awareness of the value of women.  My hope is that Turkey will become a leader to some of its near neighbors who lag behind on women's rights.

In my family in the United States, my grandfather often brags about his "six women."  His line of descendants includes his two daughters and three granddaughters (plus grandma - that's his six).  I took for granted as I grew up that some men in other parts of the world would not feel so proud to have only female descendants, and I would not have been so cherished and valued by my family.  In some parts of the world, women are still treated like property, or at least as inferior beings, often married off at young ages, abused, and not even protected by law.

I am in full support of women's progress in Turkey.  Nonetheless, I was wary of the first session in this conference.  It was entitled "Women's Poverty and Social Justice."  The cause for my caution was the overuse (and abuse) of the words "social justice" by so many American campaigns - some under the feminist banner - to make government bigger and restrict the very market that could provide women with opportunities.  But today I was surprised to hear a reasonable, politically moderate panel explain the great rewards that economic growth and development have for women. 

Of course I didn't agree with everything that was said (for example, one panelist said that social justice means that there's an even distribution of income, and I believe that it is more just that people who work harder or perform more valued work receive higher pay).  But I was truly honored to be a witness to a frank conversation about how access to education and economic opportunities are good for women, and furthermore how this affects families and communities because of the great contribution women make as mothers and caretakers. 

One of the panelists emphasized the role of women in the family, and encouraged women's groups to work with religious groups (not against them) to empower women.  This same speaker closed with words that still send a chill down my spine.  At the end of his remarks he put down his papers and said in English in a strong accent, "Don't take a moment off to think, ‘oh well, we are okay over here.'  There are billions of your sisters still suffering in the rest of the world." 

The desire to be free is set in the hearts of all people, not just Americans.  Our Founding Fathers wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  It is not the place of government to give us our rights, as men or women, but good governing means protecting the safety of the governed to enjoy these natural rights.  As Americans, we should recognize that all men and all women are endowed with the same rights that we enjoy, and we should be outspoken supporters of international movements that seek to recognize the human dignity and natural rights of all people.

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