Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Phenomenal Women

I spoke at an event for International Women's Day this week, and several people asked me to post a copy of my speech. I spoke off an outline, so I can't guarantee that the wording is exact, but I think this is pretty close. I'm so grateful to have been a part of that event, of a day that celebrates all the incredible things that women have done and urges all of us to fight for those women who don't yet have the rights we have. So much has been accomplished, yet we still have so far to go.

Phenomenal Women

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies...
I say,
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet...
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

This is a poem by an author named Maya Angelou, who truly is a phenomenal woman. She's an African American writer from the United States who has survived abuse during her childhood, single parenthood as a young woman, an interracial marriage during a period when it was condemned, campaigns to fight for civil rights in the 1960's. And yet she remained strong, continued to fight, continued to view herself as phenomenal.

When I was asked to give this speech about life as a woman in the United States, I have to admit, I wasn't sure how to approach it. Just as there's no single “Afghan woman,” there is no single story that encompasses all American women. My story is very different from Maya Angelou's story, and I can't claim to represent all the incredible women or all the tragic stories from my homeland.

In fact, as I was first looking at this topic, I was overwhelmed by the differences. Among the women in America, but also between women in America and women in Afghanistan. From culture to educational opportunities to clothing. My chadar, for example- I'd never worn one until I came to Kabul, and honestly, I don't know how you ladies do it! I'm hoping that I'll someday manage to eat rice without having most of it end up in my chadar.

Though the differences between our cultures are easy to spot, we can look back through history and see that our similarities abound, that there are hundreds of years of phenomenal women who have brought us to where we are now, that the challenges Afghanistan is facing now are the same challenges others have faced and are facing still.

Education, for example. Education was always an important part of my life, something that my family really emphasized. It was never something I had to fight for, though. I never had to consider life without school, never had to worry about whether or not I'd be allowed to attend, or whether it was safe for me to continue studying.

The reason I had that luxury, though, was that there were hundreds of years of women who came before me and fought for that right. Colleges in the United States have only accepted women for about 150 years. The first woman to receive a medical degree, Elizabeth Blackwell, graduated in 1849. She was a phenomenal woman. She applied to college after college, but was turned down again and again because she was a woman and 'intellectually inferior.' She was finally accepted, and went on to graduate and become a social reformer and pioneer the field of medicine for women.

Women like Elizabeth Blackwell, who faced adversity and continued to fight for their right to receive an education, made that right available for me.

Afghanistan has its own phenomenal women campaigning to make education accessible. All the women who ran secret schools during the Taliban period. All the teachers who continue offering an education to their young female students, despite acid attacks and bombs and threats. All of the students and teachers here with us today, who are fighting to get an education despite the voices telling them not to. Anyone in this room who has ever defended a young girl's right to attend school. There will come a point when girls in Afghanistan worry as little about their education as I did, and it will be your efforts that made that possible.

Voting and political participation was another aspect of my life in the United States that I never had to worry about and another example of a right that was won by generations of determined women. Emphasis on political equality in the United States began with another incredible woman named Abigail Adams. Her husband was a part of the Continental Congress, and Abigail is known for her many letters to him, urging him to “Remember the Ladies” as the new Constitution of the United States was being written. Thanks to Abigail Adams, the Constitution says “persons or people” instead of “man.”

The US has continued from simply remembering the ladies to having them be an active part of politics, but it took many years to make that happen. It took women like Susan B. Anthony, who voted illegally and went to court because of it. Women like Alice Paul, who conducted hunger strikes to protest female voters being jailed unfairly. These ladies made it possible for my generation to vote and run for office and take it all for granted.

In Afghanistan, more and more women are calling for us to “Remember the ladies.” There's a quota for women in Parliament. There are female MPs challenging opinions of their male colleagues. Fawzia Koofi is even running for president! Ten, twenty years ago, could you have imagined any of that being possible?

Change happens because phenomenal women let themselves become phenomenal. We have to embrace the part of ourselves that believes we are extraordinary. We have to believe that we have the capacity to be just as phenomenal as Abigail Adams or Fawzia Koofi.

Change also doesn't have to mean moving mountains. I'd like to introduce you to another phenomenal woman. She's one of the most influential I know, but you won't find her name if you search her on Google. She's my mom. She's not famous or rich, but she's made a difference in this world by raising five children to care about others, to believe in themselves, to fight for what's right. She's proof that change, important change, can start small. Ask yourself: how can you make a difference today? If each of us in our lifetime changes the lives of two other people in a positive way, the world could be twice as good as it is now.

And as you fight for change, whether large or small, remember: You aren't alone. The struggles that Afghan women face sometimes seem insurmountable, but know that you aren't fighting alone. Half of the world's population understands what you are going through, has faced similar barriers, is taking strength from your strength in order to face these challenges and others.

So I challenge everyone in this room to give yourself permission to be phenomenal. Let's celebrate our abilities, our talents, our dreams. Not simply because we are women or because we are men, not because we are Afghan or American, but because we are phenomenal.

The end of Maya Angelou's poem goes like this:
Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud...
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

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