Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Portrait #30: Three Incredible Chics

Yesterday I met three women who have huge hearts and are making a difference. They each believe in what they do and demonstrate the potential and influence women in this country have. Each one encouraged me in a different way.

1. Through a friend of a friend, I met a woman who works at a local church. She is from a devout Christian family and her life has always revolved around the church - she told me she grew up teaching Sunday School and that her family has always been the last to leave the church when there's a meeting. When she visited some Iraqi families a few years ago, she was hugely impacted by what she found. She met children who had nothing to do, spending their days wandering the streets aimlessly or looking at naughty websites in Internet cafes. Some were victims of abuse and many had experienced emotional trauma. So she decided to do something to help, and opened a small school for Iraqi children who are unable to register for regular school. She has found volunteers to cover English, Arabic, Math, Science, Geography and other classes. All the students are also taught about spirituality and faith. She believes that the pain in these children's lives can only be solved by spiritual means and so has made that her focus. There are now more than 200 students in the school, and several hundred families receiving other services from the church through their connection with the school.

2. I had heard about a women's non-profit that recently acquired funding to start a shelter for battered women. This is a huge problem here (as it sadly is in most of the world), but one which is extremely taboo to discuss openly. So this shelter is very innovative not only in helping women in need, but also in raising awareness and discussion about the issue. Yesterday I got to meet the woman who founded the organisation and who is the mastermind behind the shelter. She runs two businesses in order to support herself and her children, as she is divorced. She was married to a foreign man who was abusive toward her and who then divorced her in a cruel way. Now she shares openly about her experiences as a way of opening a discussion about domestic violence. Currently, she is a very busy but successful businesswoman who somehow has found time on the side to plan and develop this amazing outreach to women from her country who are in need of help. Her dreams are big, and she is making huge steps towards reaching them.

3. The third woman I met yesterday was someone who was recommended to me as a good professional resource on women and girls. She used to work for the government as an educational specialist but has now switched to working as a volunteer for an international organisation. She is paid well in her 'volunteer' position, but it is temporary and she was criticised by many of her family and friends for giving up the stability she had in a government job. As we talked, she told me of her own journey toward empowerment and spiritual development. She is unusual in that she is a 40-something religious Muslim who is single and lives alone, far away from her family. She didn't used to cover her head, but now she does, and has found greater freedom in her life by embracing the full visible identity of a good Muslim woman. Nonetheless, she is eager to separate her faith from any sense of conservatism. She believes that Islamic leaders have a great deal to contribute toward women's empowerment. As she chain smoked over coffee, she explained to me that women here are scared to leave their comfort zones, and that the real problem is what women do to each other. Yes, men may pressure women, like her brothers used to pressure her, but it is women who teach their sons to play that role and their daughters to serve men. She will have none of it herself, she said, and would love to find a way to break society out of that mold. To her, the most important thing that can be done is awareness-raising, showing people what life can be like, giving women opportunities to see what a life of freedom and empowerment can look like. Then they will grab it and do amazing things with it.

1 comment:

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