Whew, if watching Half the Sky won’t get you in the mood to get off the couch and make a “dent in the universe” as Steve Jobs so elegantly once quoted, I don’t know what will!
A few days ago I was having a “bad day.” As I currently navigate a transitional period between my post-Indian and pre-Argentinean lives, my life feels boring at times. I’m currently working as a barista in a café, babysitting, tutoring Spanish, and doing random projects around my house to try and keep busy before my next departure. Not exactly riveting, but I’m normally content to be surrounded by family and friends. However, just the other day, for unknown reasons I felt incredibly unhappy and unsettled when I took stake of my life-working in the café and feeling un-stimulated, feeling unsure about where my life is going/the uncertainty of it all, second guessing my decision to study in Argentina, living at home instead of on my own. “Woe is me,” I thought. So I went to my room, lay down in my bed and allowed myself a good 30 minutes of grumbling and crying and general immaturity.
Then I watched Half the Sky. I watched as women told stories of the day they were circumcised, recounted the day they were sold to a brothel, or the time they were raped by their uncle. I sipped my tea and nibbled my cookies, all of which had been bought in a store, which I had driven to in a car, conveniences that the women in this film couldn’t even fathom. I re-took stake of my surroundings, realizing that I had a roof over my head, parents who love and support me, my health, a college degree, that I live in a society that values my productivity and skill-set and immediately felt guilty for having had a “bad day.”
Half the Sky is a sobering account of the realities that many women in the world face. The filming is gorgeous, the stories moving and the message harrowing yet inspiring. One of the quotes that struck me came from Nicholas Kristof, the brains behind the operation of Half the Sky. He said, “Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.”
Talk about hitting the nail on the head. It’s opportunity that separates us, the “lucky” women in the world, from the “unlucky” ones, isn’t it? Opportunities that are created by a society that values dignity and equality for women, and works toward making such opportunities a reality. A woman in Somaliland may have the potential to become an incredible writer, but if her parents force her to quit school and find work to support her family, those opportunities, to develop her skill-set, to pursue a career, are lost.
This quote immediately took me back to one of my memories of working at a low-income school near the slums in Hyderabad, India. One of my early projects was working with the 10th standard girls (equivalent to 8th grade) on their Design For Change Project*. The theme of their project was eve teasing, the Indian English word for name-calling. Their idea was to create a series of skits showing how girls their age can stand up to boys, and, in their words, “be bold.” Their idea was to take their skits to neighboring schools and perform them for girls in hopes of reversing cultural norms (i.e. notions that women should be shy, delicate, etc). For days, and months, I practiced with them. We wrote and re-wrote the scripts, practiced the role playing and perfected it until they had everything memorized. When they were ready, I took them to a nearby school where they could perform their skits for younger girls.
It was beautiful. Tears welled up in my eyes, I was incredibly proud. I watched as Ehlam, the bossy dark-eyed girl who was the narrator, helped situate everyone on stage, watched as Ramsha and Nimrah pretended to be the boys in the skits, putting on low voices and acting gruff with the occasional hiccup of laughter. They did it! All of the months of working on the skits had finally paid off. I felt relieved and satisfied, felt like I could put a little check next to the imaginary “do something good today” box on my to-do list.
But then there were a few words from the owner of this particular school. Asma, a teacher who I worked closely with at my school, translated as he took the microphone, and I listened with horror as he began to undo everything I had just done.
He talked about the Prophet Muhammad, how it was written in the Koran that girls should study hard but have good manners, be mild and soft-spoken and at the mercy of their husbands, ready to raise children. A fresh batch of tears stung the corners of my eyes as I tried to smile and put on a good face. How could he do this?! Inside I was livid, my hurt pumping furiously, my palms began to sweat, I either wanted to hit him over the head with the microphone and tell the girls, “It’s a lie, don’t believe what he’s saying!” or run right out the door. But I had to sit through it, all of it, every stupid, piddling message he had to say to his girls, hear him mechanically and meticulously un-do the Design for Change Project that my girls had created, stitch by stitch. This man was single-handedly shutting the door to opportunities for his school girls by perpetuating cultural norms emboldened by religious sentiments.
The worst part about it was, nobody was contradicting him. Not even my girls, who came from better-educated families than the school we had performed the skits. Being a good wife, cooking meals and raising children was these girls’ mission, and it had been beaten into their skulls, by tradition and culture. How could I possibly think I was going to change all of that? What weapons did I have in my drawing board? Who was I, to think that I could cut down centuries of old beliefs and re-plant new ideas in their wake?
Although it has been my experience that working in the developing world is often like taking one step forward and two backward, I’ve realized that the one thing we can create for all women is, you guessed it, opportunity. As long as women have the chance to become educated, start businesses and pursue careers, they can break the endemic chains of cultural servitude that have kept them bound from the liberties that all women should be afforded in the 21st century. Of course, to some degree this has to happen organically and by leaders within these countries, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t help.
And so that’s why I can’t, and won’t quit, trying to give people in developing countries, especially women and children, the opportunities that are their rights. That’s why Half the Sky has re-invigorated my passion and desire for a more just world for our fellow didi’s everywhere. And that’s why, I will never, ever look at my life and think that I’m having a “bad day.”
*Design for Change is an initiative developed by Kiran Bir Sethi, a native of India. The program aims to allow children to express their own ideas for a better world and put them into action. The winners that are selected receive funding for their schools.