This month of March we are celebrating Women’s History Month in the United States as the world celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8, and as we looked back on all the tremendous achievements and sacrifices that women have made throughout time on behalf of all of us. While it is an occasion for us to be proud of their successes, it is also a time for people all over the world to realize that there is still a long way to go. Speaking up fearlessly and demanding respect and equality are challenges that we have to deal with every hour and continuously. At the end of the day, we are all seeking Justice, which has been very elusive on all levels in our world. Shouldn’t this change? Now?
Amongst the many stories about Women that we all read and hear about, I was recently moved by three of them, mainly because they are symptomatic of much deeper cultural causes and effects than a day, or a week, in the headline “news” could convey. While it is easy to condemn two of them, and celebrate the other, their stories reflect many of the same emotions that young women, the world over, are feeling and expressing. Perhaps it is a quest for adventure, or maybe for making a difference to their own lives, or for a desire and an aspiration to change the world, misplaced as all of these can sometimes be. And, for those of us who have brought up teenagers, it becomes easy to identify with that sense of idealism, or desperation, adventure, or fervor that often propels certain behaviors.
The first woman is Rahaf Mohammed, an eighteen-year old Saudi who, according to her story, which anyone can find with an Internet search, was oppressed by her father and brother, often punished, nearly starved to death, beaten, and isolated in her bedroom sometimes for periods of six months. Amongst her “sins” was that they did not approve of her hairstyle (really?); that she aspired for an education that they did not allow her to pursue; that they wanted to force her into a marriage that she did not want; that she had rebelliously renounced her religion of Islam (dubiously?). Obviously she came from a well-to-do family and had access to a cell phone. That cell phone connection is what ended up securing her freedom, because through her Twitter account (which had about 155,000 followers by January), she had managed to link up with three other women who were supporting and facilitating her hopes of fleeing from her household and country, as they themselves once had. The concocted plan was for her to travel to Thailand and from there to seek asylum in Australia. To make a long story short, and after her passport was confiscated and she barricaded herself in a hotel room in Thailand with journalist Sophie McNeill demanding to speak to representatives from the UN (it was eventually the UNHCR, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, that got involved) she was granted asylum in Canada, arriving to Toronto on January 12. She said: “I want to be independent, travel, make my own decisions on education, a career, or who and when I should marry. I had no say in any of this. Today I can proudly say that I am capable of making all of those decisions.” After making this statement and giving a few interviews, she is now under the radar, adjusting and learning how to survive in a new country and culture. As expected, her family disowned her. My heart goes out to her.
Other than being an emotional and courageous story, Rahaf’s ordeal reveals clearly that the oppression of females by their fathers, brothers and the discriminatory laws of their cultures – as is the reality in most of the Southern Hemisphere of our Planet – is becoming less and less viable, or acceptable in our modern age. As well it should! Moreover, social media, to those who are connected, has provided an opening into the world and its alternative lifestyles and conditions that had been unknown to so many, but that is, nevertheless, not without its perils. Rahaf is a very lucky young female who connected to sincere and honest women who helped and guided her safely towards her goals of freedom. However, there are huge numbers of young women who have tragically been killed by their families when they were caught in similar situations, or who have fallen into the hands of sex traffickers and criminals because they, too, thought that they were seeking another life. Many of those teenagers are non-immigrant American and European girls, not necessarily ones suffering from Rahaf’s same oppressive conditions. They could be any teenager, anywhere.
The other two women are Hoda Muthana and Shamima Begum. They are daughters of immigrant, nationalized parents. Hoda, a twenty-year-old who had been a college student, is an American. Shamima, who was fifteen at the time, is British. Both of these women, like so many others, travelled to Syria and married IS (Islamic State) fighters. Sense of adventure? Freedom? Religious fervor? Who really knows what goes on in the minds of youngsters who have access to social media? While it is easy to condemn them, to be horrified that they would even think of doing something like that, it is definitely not surprising these days when, sadly, many young girls, Western and non-Western, are being decoyed into IS, gangs and other criminal activities. Moreover, I remember myself at the age of fifteen and at the stupid, naïve and senseless things I said and did then. Who hasn’t? These two girls were lured, or brainwashed into becoming the wives of what was portrayed to them as heroic figures and fighters for a noble cause. They have now ended up as stateless women, each with a child (Begum’s son died last week, he is her third one to do so, and I can’t even imagine her internalized distress and psychological damage), living in dismal refugee camps. Here, again, the perils of social media stare us in the face, and challenge us to the realities that the twenty-first century information age is posing to us, as well as to our kids, irrelevant of Faith and Nationality. It is quite a conundrum! While Rafah’s story might be uplifting and inspiring, Shamima’s and Hoda’s circumstances, will be a trauma and a burden for them and for their parents that they will have to live and deal with until they die. It is a very heavy weight to carry!
I do hope that the plight of these three young women will not allow us to forget that women are still the prime targets and victims of most of the crimes in our world. Wars, sex trafficking and rape that endanger all women irrelevant of age, nationality, faith, or ethnicity remain the top crimes that we all have to vehemently protest. For us, females originally from the non-Western world, there are the added crimes we have to contend with of child brides; female sexual mutilation, oppressive male societies and ignorance that keep our women down and that need to change. That change cannot happen fast enough!