If it isn’t already known, let me be the first to tell you….. women are a force to be reckoned with. I don’t mean the brazen bra-burners of the 60’s, or the strident screamers of the world, but the regular day-to-day women who get on with their lives wherever they live, whatever their circumstances. They sometimes have to dig very deep to find the strength to keep going, to see their children through school, to survive.
And women need women; and women working with women for women can move mountains, and men.
Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States, has a diverse population made up, along with native Houstonians and other Americans, of immigrants and expatriates from all over the world. That’s a lot of women from different countries. Each cultural group have their own societies and clubs, but there are also a number of international organisations that encourage the exchange of cultural ideas and mores.
Saris, serapes and suits in vivid pinks and greens and yellows swirled on Thursday evening this week in Houston at an iftar – held after sundown because of Ramadan. The sold-out event and feast, organised by Islamic women of all nationalities for women of other faiths, was an evening of sharing facts and dispensing myths. A nice tone was set from the start as the women gathered at the Downtown Christ Church Cathedral. One of the organisers, Dr. Nusrat Ameen said, Religions get hijacked by fundamentalists. The format was simple: thirty-six Muslim women, lawyers, professors, mothers, writers and housewives were asked to each host a table discussion and as is the way with the women, they talked but they also listened.
We may pray in a different language and we may have different styles, but the message is absolutely the same, said Rose Asharaf, an American Italian who converted to Islam over three decades ago.
This city is full of groups of women. International Connections of Houston is one such group of multitudinous nationalities and faiths, expatriates and repatriates drawn together by common experiences. I have belonged to similar groups all over the world. The theme is always the same. To help a fellow traveller adjust to a new location with empathy and understanding.
It is those two words that I think best describe women’s groups and co-operatives anywhere. It is not just those lucky enough to be educated that form these groups, but women whose poverty is as breathtaking as their strength, whose lack of education makes every triumph stupendous. Their ability, sometimes with no or marginal outside guidance, to develop self-help strategies often by-passing the male of the species, in order to better their family’s chances of not just a better life, but sometimes survival.
The best way to bring about social and economic change and to raise standards of living in developing countries is to educate the girls, says Greg Mortenson, co-author of Three Cups of Tea, founder of the non-profit Central Asia Institute, and builder of schools in the rural, and often inaccessible, mountainous regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The CIA website, always a font of information, tells us two-thirds of illiterate adults in the world are women. An appalling statistic but that doesn’t stop women talking and forming co-operatives that work for them. From six founding members, Global Mamas Network in Africa has grown in six years to over 500 women. Their mission statement says, We believe that helping women gain economic independence is the most effective way to reduce dependence on foreign aid and steadily create a prosperous society.
Hearts and minds working from the inside out, and which one day might join with the purported hearts and minds strategies of the generals and politicians.
Empathy and understanding were key when the Girl Child Network and other NGOs in Kenya joined forces to prevent girls missing four or five days of school a month, due to menstruation, by supplying sanitary napkins. Such a simple solution that dramatically lessened the drop-out rate caused by embarrassment and falling behind in class.
So yes, education is key, but so to is the inherent will of women to better if not themselves, then their families. Mauritania saw its first women’s protest in December 2008 when women gathered in the capital, Nouakchott, to draw attention to the archaic practice of ‘fattening up’ girls of marriageable age in order to attract a man.
Women, whether they wear a sarong, a suit, an abaya or a muumuu, have shown spines of steel, full hearts and open minds all through an ability to do what women do best, talking and listening. Combined indeed a force to be reckoned with.
I’m proud to call Houston home with it’s diversity and tolerance, and I agree with that man, Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, Man has his will, – but woman has her way.