The Tampon Taboo

Sign in Indonesia, Source: Flikr Creative Commons
For girls everywhere menstruation is a rite of passage. Menstruation is a healthy, normal bodily function that affects half of our population -- the overwhelming majority of our women, at some point in time. But for too many girls worldwide this shared experience is a source of shame, restriction and if badly managed -- illness. Menstruation is an age-old phenomenon and across the developed world we’ve built awareness, products and systems to manage menstrual hygiene to enable women to live their lives seamlessly. Even with such support we can still argue that menstruation is something we’d rather not talk about in the developed world  -- but in the developing world, the stigma around menstruation has led to an invisibility around it that can really hold our girls and women back.

According to the Geneva-based Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), even sectors such as water and sanitation which “routinely deal with unmentionables such as excreta, ignore girl’s and women’s need for safe spaces to manage menstrual hygiene and mechanisms for safe disposal of materials used to absorb menstrual blood.” As we all know, ignoring a problem -- or menstruation -- does not make it go away. NGO Plan International and A C Nielsen conducted a study and estimated that there are 355 million menstruating women in India -- but only 12% of them use sanitary napkins. The study even found that 23% of Indian girls drop out of school after reaching puberty, with irreversible effects on their health, well-being and participation in society. Millions of girls and women instead rely on old rags, dried leaves and grass, ash, sand or newspaper to manage their monthly menstrual flows -- shrouded by shame and disgust on a vital bodily function.

Columbia University,  Millennium Promise and the social enterprise, Be Girl also hosted pilots for menstrual hygiene products and one of their participants, Patience, a 15-year-old girl from Ruhiira, Uganda told them “you suffer a lot; in case you stamp [stain] the boys can make fun of you which causes you to lose your self-esteem […] it’s embarrassing when you are washing your soiled clothes. It makes you not even want to go to school.” The washing of stained rags or clothing can also bring shame, especially in areas of water scarcity. Be Girl reports that in rural Africa, 40% of school girls miss up to 5 school days a month, or 30% of the school year. WaterAid found that 82% of their surveyed girls in Malawi did now know about menstruation before it started; girls across their surveyed countries were found to be excluded from water sources during menstruation, and even prohibited from washing and bathing in some communities making what is often a difficult week even more difficult to bear.

Source: WaterAid
Given the success of feminine hygiene and menstruation products, and the important role it has played in women's empowerment history, it would appear that the private sector could have significant market opportunity if they can break this taboo for women and girls -- who are expected to require the products for more tham 50 years. Sanitary products must be designed to be affordable; disposable tampons and sanitary towels are often priced out of reach of low- and even middle-income families if supply is scarce. Euromonitor International found that women in India, with average earnings of US $750 per annum earns below the $1,000 per annum deemed necessary to easily purchase disposable menstruation products. Moreover, systems to support menstrual hygiene are necessary, products alone aren’t the solution: appropriately designed and managed community spaces and importantly education on female reproductive health.

To make this happen, WSSCC believes that breaking the silence around the taboo of menstruation is a crucial first step. Girls should be informed and encouraged to talk and discuss menstruation in an informed and positive manner to prepare them emotionally and physically for the onset of menstruation and their monthly menstrual periods. Families need the education to support their girls and women. WaterAid has also compiled a phenomenal guide, Menstrual Hygiene Matters, with nine modules and tool kits -- an essential resource -- to improve menstrual hygienic for women and girls in lower and middle-income countries.

WaterAid found that well designed and appropriate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities that address menstrual hygiene can make a significant difference to the schooling experience of adolescent girls
(Photo: WaterAid/ASM Shafiqur Rahman) 
As WSSCC spokesperson, Archana Patkar,  powerfully argues: “Women are the progenitors of the human race […] Menstruation is therefore something of which they can and should be proud, so each and every one of us should work to improve the lives and life chances for women who do not have access to clean materials, water and safe disposal facilities; who cannot talk about their experiences; or are never asked if they can help define a solution.”

Documentary Unravels Honor Killings of American Sisters

By Suzanne Mahadeo

The Price of Honor is a documentary that shares the story of Amina and Sarah Said, two teenage sisters from Texas who were killed by their father. It's a film that starts off tragically and ends with the sound of your own heart snapping in your chest. Before the opening credits even begin, you hear the haunting 911 call that Sarah made to the Irving, Texas police department on the day she and her sister were murdered in their father's taxi cab. That recording will stay with you long after you finish the film.
American teenagers, Amina and Sarah Said
The Said sisters' story has touched thousands of people and the documentary will undoubtedly affect many more. It unravels the personalized story of two typical American teenagers. Footage used from old home videos shows them jumping on trampolines, taking up an after-school job as a cashier, and practicing Tae Kwon Do in a suburban strip mall dojo. Seemingly innocuous footage until you realize that the girls didn't know they were being filmed. The person lurking behind windows holding the camera was their father, Yaser Said, the man responsible for their deaths. He is still wanted by the FBI more than six years after he murdered his daughters in what has been deemed an honor killing.

Yaser Said murdered his two daughters near Dallas and is still wanted by the FBI.
I asked Amy Logan, the Consulting Producer of The Price of Honor, about the difference between domestic violence and honor killing.
"With 800+ million women and girls living under the honor code, honor violence is not only a global problem, it’s a pandemic that global leaders are failing miserably to address for the crisis that it is," she said in an email. "Domestic violence is usually defined as taking place between intimate partners, whereas honor violence mostly occurs between a female and her blood relatives. Both kinds of violence are motivated by control issues but honor violence occurs because the female is actually considered property of the male blood relative whose honor is at stake if she steps out of line. And with honor violence, the family and community often support the violence, even coercing it with threats of ostracism."
So how did Amina and Sarah "step out of line" in their father's ignoble eyes? They fell in love with boys their father did not approve of. 

Joseph Moreno and Amina Said had young love that ended too soon.
Amina dared to exert her human spirit and fell in love with Joseph, a boy from her martial arts class. When Amina and Sarah were not being sexually abused by their father, they daydreamed of their future. Amina and Joseph would pass sweet notes to each other, chat on the phone, and even held hands for an entire day at Six Flags. 

In the documentary, Joseph sorrowfully reminisces about a young love that ended with gunshots and wounds that would never heal. Filmmaker Neena Nejad said that one of the important reasons for making the film was because, "I felt like it gave people like Joseph and Ruth [his mother, who was also very close to Amina] some sense of closure.” (You can also read this touching article by Joseph called "My Teenage Sweetheart Was Killed To Preserve Her Family's 'Honor'" in Business Insider.)

Visiting Amina Said's tragic grave site.
Even as much as those involved with making this film wanted to bring Amina and Sarah's story to the public, there were terrifying implications that came along with seeking justice for the girls. Filmmaker Xoel Pamos said, "Something that really shocked me while trying to reach out to several friends of the girls was the fact that they wouldn't talk to us because they were scared. I think these people think, 'if Yaser was capable of killing his daughters, what would he do to us who are totally unrelated?' We had one very ugly episode involving threats coming directly from Yaser's family when we approached them to explain their side of the story. We decided to make those interactions public because that's the best way to protect all of us. Those who are featured in the film were offered to blackout their faces but nobody wanted to do so. They knew the risks by coming forward and talking, but telling Amina and Sarah's story was more important." 

Amina Said
Neena said that "telling the story of Amina and Sarah outweighed the risks! I feel that people that make death threats are weak and scared because you are opposing their belief system and they react in this way to gain some sort of self worthso I don't pay much mind to them."

Perhaps we should follow Neena's lead, because fear of speaking out against honor killings is implicit in why the practice has gone unchallenged to this day. "The very reason that honor violence has gone on unabated since 5000 BC," said Amy Logan, "is because of this conspiracy of silence around it. If somebody—or a lot of somebodies—doesn't speak up, it will only continue and probably grow. We decided to break the silence around this atrocity and start calling it exactly what it is: community-sanctioned terrorism against half a culture’s population (female) to reinforce the system of male power and privilege." 

This documentary should serve as a start to a very important conversation. It's currently being screened at film festivals around the country before it can be distributed online or in theaters. Add The Price of Honor to your Facebook feed to keep up to date or go to the film's website to find out about future screenings.

Sarah Said
"We've been lucky, as we have encountered wonderful people along the way who always supported our work, including Muslim and non-Muslim individuals, and we are thankful to those people," said Xoel Pamos.

And what can you do? Amy Logan shares,
"We hope that after watching our film, people will feel tremendous empathy for women and girls living under the honor code—there are 800 million+ of them! We hope they will tell many others about the film (#CatchYaserNow), donate to the Catch Yaser Said Campaign Fund, and join our mailing list to stay updated on the case."
"It’s important for people to see The Price of Honor," Amy said, "so that they can really understand an atrocity that is happening right in our own back yards in the USA. If we bury our heads in the sand, we cannot prevent more of these crimes."

The Power of Voice

Wanjiku[1] has little formal schooling.  She goes about her daily life with a baby on her back and several more at her dusty feet. She tends the crops, cooks the meals, collects the water, and tries to ensure that her children get more of an education than she did.  

Depending on the wishes of her husband, Wanjiku may or may not go to the market, be involved in a women’s group, or handle cash. She may or may not participate in household decision making and rarely owns the land that is the main source of her family’s livelihood.

Women and girls in her remote village are seen but not heard — an all-too-common custom in traditionally patriarchal communities.

But not anymore in one community in Kenya.  

A Justice trainee practices her public speaking skills,
guided by Justice Project staff.  Photo: Landesa/Deborah Espinosa 
You see, Wanjiku now knows that Kenya’s Constitution, which Kenyans adopted by national referendum in August 2010, guarantees her — and every person — the right to freely express him- or herself, a right that includes the freedom to seek, receive, or impart information or ideas and the freedom of artistic creativity (art. 33).  (The right to self-expression is also within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)  And along with learning about her rights, Wanjiku was trained in the art of public speaking — a simple curriculum grounded in the right to voice her opinion.  The training included techniques and tips on how to speak in public as well as opportunities to practice speaking on a subject of importance to her.  

Wanjiku learned and practiced during a USAID-supported project called, Enhancing Customary Justice Systems in the Mau Forest, Kenya (aka the Kenya Justice Project), designed and implemented by the international NGO Landesa. The Kenya Justice Project piloted a model for improving women’s access to "informal justice" related to land, meaning the all-male, village institutions that resolve disputes but have a reputation for holding entrenched biases against women. Much to our surprise, two months after the pilot’s end, the community elected — for the first time in its history — 14 women as elders, serving alongside male elders resolving disputes. One year later, 22 women were serving as elders alongside men.  
A Justice trainee shares her knowledge of women's
rights in Kenya's Constitution. Wanjiku resides
in all of us. Photo: Landesa/Deborah Espinosa

The women had decided on their own to run for election. No doubt, there are many factors that contributed to this outcome.  

This was the first time I’d included public speaking in the design of a women’s rights project, and so at the end of the first training session, I asked the women to share their thoughts about whether training on the right to self-expression and public speaking was worth including again in a project design.  Every woman in the room eagerly raised her hand, offering to share her opinion. Up until that point in the project, we’d never had full participation in a single session.

As the women shared with us how they felt, I was struck by the fact that along with the women’s timidity and discomfort, a glimmer of pride shined through. They explained how growing up as girls they were not supposed to speak directly to an adult. And so they believed that their opinions were unimportant, and certainly never worth sharing. The room shook with potential.   

Although the short-term impact evaluation did not try to measure a causal relationship between project outcomes and the public speaking activity, specifically, I am convinced that this activity was a critical component to the success of the pilot. Knowledge of their constitutional rights to express themselves, combined with practicing public speaking in a safe and supportive environment, gave the women Justice trainees the courage to dare step out of their comfort zones. And dare to reach for one of the most powerful positions within their community — an elder resolving disputes.      

The community has made many other advances supporting women's rights and empowerment, including greater awareness among men and women of their constitutional rights to land; procedural improvements in elders' resolution of disputes; a requirement of spousal consent for land transactions; and, most recently, an increase in economic development, led by women in the community. 

Wanjiku’s courage to find her own voice is the inspiration for this column on the relationship between the arts (in its many, many forms) and women’s rights and empowerment. This column is certainly a step out of my own comfort zone.  Along the way, please share your voice — we have a lot to learn from each other!

[1] In Kenya, "Wanjiku" is an iconic representation of the "ordinary, Kenyan citizen," the common person. "Her power rests in her ordinariness."        

McKayla Maroney and the Celebrity Photo Leak of (August) 2014

Much like Loren Lynch did in her first post here at Her Blueprint, I feel I ought to tell you a little bit about myself. I have, for most of my adult life, made my income tending bar. One of the great things about this particular line of work is the opportunity to meet an incredible array of people and learn about a diversity of topics including, of course, quite a bit about yourself. Through the almost 6 years I have spent working at a small local pub in Brooklyn, I picked up two valuable pieces of Rebekah-specific information:  I do not particularly care about beer or mainstream sports.

As someone who considers herself something of an academic, I read far too much about the severity of head injuries in football and hockey to be able to see past the brutality inherent in those two sports and through to the games themselves. I find baseball boring and, though I was a big Knicks fan back in the 90's (I had a thing for John Starks), I am not terribly attached to basketball. The one sport that I watch religiously, that I can talk your ear off about (and yes, I know it is not mainstream although this is something I simply do not understand) is elite women's gymnastics.
For most people here in the United States, women's gymnastics is a once-every-four-years sport. In an Olympic year, they watch all the team and individual events on NBC and fall in love that particular quad's American it-girl: Mary Lou Retton, Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas. But for us all-the-time fans, there is so much behind those Olympic moments. These young women have, by age 16, already spent the previous 12 years in the gym. What their bodies and minds allow them to do is absolutely breath taking. Forget the athleticism which I could never dream to possess, these girls have more focus at 16 than I have at 31, a fact which is at the same time mind-blowing and enviable. It is interesting because for as much as I would love to see these girls get the attention and appreciation that all their hard work and talent deserves, I think the sport stays more pure, and the athletes more protected from the negative aspects of mainstream fandom, because of the lack of big money and the lack of exposure. Unless, of course, they are one of the lucky five to make it to the biggest stage in women's gymnastics: the Olympic Games. Once that happens all bets are off and no one knows this better than 2012 Olympic team champion and vault silver medalist McKayla Maroney.

Previously known only for her sky high vaulting, Maroney made an error in the Olympic vault finals that resulted in her being awarded the silver medal behind Romania's Sandra Izbasa and spawned the now famous not impressed face. It was that face, and her regular social media updates, that made Maroney something of a celebrity beyond the gymnastics world. Unfortunately, being in the public eye does come with certain drawbacks. This past August, McKayla Maroney found herself embroiled in a massive scandal when nude photos of her and roughly 40 other female celebrities were stolen from compromised Apple iCloud accounts and leaked via the imageboard 4chan and then widely disseminated using social media sites such as Imgur, Reddit and Tumblr. As is often the case, the victims were blamed for their own victimization, with people taking to Twitter and comment boards to tell female celebrities that if they don't want nude photographs of themselves on the internet, they shouldn't take them in the first place. In the case of McKayla Maroney, this issue took on another layer of complexity when it was discovered that the leaked photographs were taken when she was under 18, and therefore considered a minor under United States law. As a result, Reddit removed all of the photographs of her with the explanation that they are "considered CP (Child Pornography), and break reddit's site-wide rules (in addition to international law...)" At the same time, a group of concerned citizens put together a "We the People" petition to get the US Government to charge Maroney with "production and possession of sexual material containing a minor," stating that the government should not let her "get away with a crime that would get a normal teenage girl landed on the sex offenders list."

This petition is, of course, absolutely ridiculous and unlikely to gain any real traction. It is an example of victim-blaming at its finest. The absurdity of it becomes especially poignant when placed alongside the recent scandal involving the Ravens star running back, Ray Rice. When a few weeks ago TMZ released the February video of Rice knocking his then-fiancee unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator, it sparked a national conversation about domestic violence and the role of organizations such as the National Football League in combating it. Even among those who were understandably outraged, there was an undercurrent of victim-blaming as well as a noticeable presence of those who were opposed to Rice's indefinite suspension. Rice acted violently upon another person, Maroney was acted violently upon, and yet we, as a society, still don't seem to be clear on the true definition of "victim," especially where women are concerned. There should be no question as to who was in the wrong in each of these situations, and yet there is.

McKayla Maroney, in spite of it all, is at her Los Angeles gym day after day training for a chance at a second Olympics. The odds are against her, not because of this scandal but because no woman has made two consecutive US Olympic Gymnastics teams since Dominique Dawes and Amy Chow did it in 1996 and 2000. One thing I am certain of, though, is that she will be out there competing on the national and international stage in the years leading up to Rio 2016, if not at the Olympics themselves. She will be out there with the knowledge of all that has happened, and in a skin-tight leotard no less, and I have no doubt that she will show everyone exactly what she is made of. She, along with all the other gymnasts from the US and abroad, are fantastic, hard-working athletes who deserve our respect, just as all women do.

The Great 2014 Celebrity Nude Photos Leak is only the beginning [The Guardian]
Ricky Gervais and Fox News take the lead in victim blaming over celebrity nude photo leak [Salon]
The Leaked Photos of McKayla Maroney Were Taken When She was Underage, and Reddit is Freaking Out [Business Insider]

What I Talk About When I Talk About Money

Source: Flickr Creative Commons
“Money is never just about money” argues a leading financial services designer, James Moed, over a dinner attended by financial inclusion professionals hosted by Women Advancing Microfinance UK. "Instead," he explains, "it’s pretty much always about something else." In conversation with James, who has over 11 years of experience in helping innovation leaders and design teams understand people’s complex behaviours around money, we learnt how we can use Human Centered Design (HCD) to promote global financial inclusion -- an issue particularly pertinent to the world’s women.  According to the UNDP, 6 out of 10 of the world’s poorest people are women; women may comprise more than 50% of the world’s population but only own 1% of the world’s wealth. Some 75% of the world’s women are without access to bank loans as they have unpaid or insecure jobs and are not entitled to property ownership.
This blog will share some of the insights from James’ experiences having advised companies, governments, startups, and social enterprises, most recently as the Director for Financial Service Design at the London office of IDEO, a global innovation consultancy.

First, what is human-centered design (HCD)?
HCD applies the design process to create innovative solutions based on observations on humans. The HCD process begins by examining the needs, dreams and behaviours of people relevant to a prospective solution. A solution can be a product, a service, an environment, an organization or a mode of interaction. HCD focuses on desirability (what do people desire?), feasibility (what is technically and organizationally feasible?) and viability (what is financially possible?). It is an iterative process -- borrowing from the designer who observes, prototypes, tests and then repeats until an appropriate solution is reached. James describes the approach as "building to learn," creating imperfect examples of solutions to be tested by user experience instead of aiming to launch the perfectly formed solution straightaway.
Original Invitation for the HCD event with WAM UK

How can HCD help promote women in financial inclusion?
HCD depends on human observation and often women and girls have been ignored in the design of financial products and services. Even if they haven’t been explicitly ignored, then perhaps not enough nuance to their culture could have supported their financial exclusion. Such as failing to pay attention to what women and girls feel like they can and cannot say in interviews and surveys. Moreover, there is a big difference between what people say they will do, and what they actually do -- especially when it comes to money. HCD promotes user insight, so adopting an approach to always consider gender in the target user group is vital and can be extremely telling. Designing solutions with women’s behaviours, aspirations and needs specifically in mind can lead to women-inclusive financial solutions.

What kind of HCD insights on women do we have?
Investing in women has a multiplier effect

One of the major observations in microfinance -- the provision of financial service to the under and unbanked -- is based on gender. Women’s World Banking found that, "when a woman generates her own income -- and this holds true no matter what the  country -- she re-invests her profits in ways that  can make long-term, inter-generational change: the  education of her children, health care for her family and improving the quality of her family’s housing”. As James highlighted in our conversation, time and time again in his fieldwork, he saw that for women "finances are less about her own interests, but for others." Financial inclusion for women does not only empower the woman user, but often has positive impact on her wider community.
Source: Flickr Creative Commons
For some women illiquidity is attractive

Mind boggling at first, especially when we consider the gender discrimination that has led to three quarters of the world’s women unbanked, women may actually prefer access to financial services with features of illiquidity in some circumstances. Liquid cash could be dangerous to a woman’s wealth if socially she is obligated to financially help out family members and friends if they ask. It may be hard for a woman to not hand over her cash to her husband for example or her friend in financial difficulty -- it could bring stigma, perhaps attack if she says no. However a savings account with fixed non-withdrawal periods, or other features to lock funds away, could provide a socially acceptable excuse. In providing illiquidity in formal financial services, it could attract women who otherwise would prefer to store their wealth in more illiquid forms such as gold and livestock or hidden away in difficult to reach places. Illiquidity could not only protect wealth from the saver’s own impulses, and the demands of those around her.
Women experience high emotional return for good financial management
A recurring theme in James’ work saw that the rewards for good financial management were beyond financial for women -- this applies to women across the economic spectrum. Juntos Finazas, which was borne out of a class project from the Stanford Design School, helps Spanish speakers save via SMS. The founders saw that SMS was the right technology to help low-income Latinos as they tend to use mobile devices more than other groups and are substantial SMS users. Around 72% of successful Juntos Finazas savers said at sign up that they had never saved successfully before. Importantly, in feedback, users cite that using the tool to help them save has made them feel like better mothers, better daughters -- the return is more than extra money leftover in an account.
In consultation with IDEO, the successful Keep the Change savings program from Bank of America originated from the observation that women were more satisfied by the act of saving than the interest rates offered on savings itself. The program was therefore designed to emphasize the action of saving rather than focusing on the potential reward. Keep the Change automatically rounds up purchases on the Bank of America debit card and transfers the difference to a savings account, building up a savings balance subtly over time. Since its launch in 2005, the program has led to 12 million new customers building up an additional $3.1 billion of savings.
Financial planning can save lives

Having a financial plan in place affords protection for life’s shocks, and in some cases can make the difference between life and death. Although still imperfect, there are now maternity saving programs to help women save money over time to access skilled maternal care. In Kenya, where only 43% of births occur in health facilities and many Kenyans still lack access to basic maternity care and health insurance, medical payment can be a life-threatening barrier for mother and child. Changamka, established in 2008, developed a smartcard program which allows women to set saving goals and save via the mobile payments service, M-PESA. The program is a dedicated maternal savings program which locks the deposited funds for maternity expenses only. USAID has written up a case study on this project, which can be accessed here.
With financial technology advancing globally the practice of HCD, people are placed back in the center of experience to build lasting solutions. With 75% of women worldwide without access to financial services -- and importantly, the lack of understanding and emphasis upon their needs as cause and effect of their exclusion -- HCD can provide an attractive framework to unlock their considerable potential.
For more information on the topic connect with @jamesmoed, @WAM_UK, and @lisavwong on Twitter. Other interesting links on HCD and financial inclusion include:

CLIO TALKS BACK: Fatima Mernissi on the Future of the Arab World

Fatema Mernissi
Fatema (Fatima) Mernissi (b. 1940 in Fez, Morocco) is a persistent longtime advocate of women’s empowerment in the Arab world. A university-trained political scientist, a social investigator, and multi-disciplinary humanist and writer of considerable note, Mernissi has carefully studied the situation of women in Islam (historically and in the present), conducted interviews with Moroccan women on the street and in the marketplace, and has kept the world abreast of women’s issues – and advances – in the Maghrib. She is a fervent proponent of literacy and education at all levels, especially for women. Mernissi lectures at Mohammed V University in Rabat, and is also affiliated with the University Institute for Scientific Research. Her current projects concern the development of technological literacy for both women and men.

 This eloquent excerpt from her writings, published in English in 1996, contains the seeds of the projects she continues to pursue today:
 “The only Arab world worthy of being fought for and worth clashing over . . . is one in which the Arab brain can extend its capacities the way a free bird extends its wings to reach the heights. And that Arab world can only exist if – and on condition that – the chief educator of the brain also shares in this modern technological knowledge. And that chief educator is, I tell you, neither the army of educational experts (schoolteachers and university professors), nor the civil servants in the ministries of education and national culture. The chief educator is woman, who, as mother, nourishes the child, in the fateful first five years, with the knowledge she possesses. 
“The lesson of the Gulf War, a lesson you, the leaders of the Arab countries, will read in no Western document, is that the mother of all battles (umm al-maa’rik) is not the one you fight against the Americans, but the one you fight against illiteracy – the illiteracy of men and women. But, up to now, the impression has been that the budgets of the national education ministries are only for men. Thirty years after independence, 90% of Moroccan women in rural areas are illiterate and 100% of them politically marginalized. You will never be powerful, Mr. Arab leader, in a modern world where democratized and democratizing knowledge is both arm and ammunition. You will never be anything but backward outsiders in the world of satellite-borne information, whilst your mothers, sisters, wives and, most importantly, your secretaries, maids and women workers are illiterate. I omitted your daughters from the list because we all know an Arab man is hugely committed to the education of his daughter. She is the only woman with whom he identifies and whose future causes him concern. But we shall all, men and women, leave behind the mutilating law of the tribe-family and take our first steps in the space and planetary age the moment we realize that our destiny is linked to the most deprived, the most excluded of all: the poor woman, ground down in field and factory, on whom any arbitrary power whatever may be visited. The subjugated, scorned and humiliated Arab will be transformed into an autonomous, self-governing person the day he is suckled by an autonomous mother. And the path to the autonomy of the individual is through access to worthwhile knowledge. The day the political leader understands that the most faithful mirror to his strength is the reflection which comes back to him from the female citizens living in the remotest villages, the planetary Arab will be born.  
“An Arab at ease in the galaxies, interested in their movements and attuned to their secrets, can only be born of a woman who weaves her ideas around the satellite networks with the ease with which her ancestors wove a thousand geometrical flowers into their carpets.” 

Source: “Rebuild Baghdad? But in What Galaxy?” from Fatima Mernissi, Women’s Rebellion & Islamic Memory (1996), pp. 9-10. Translated from the French.

The Freedom Traveller

[Editor's Note: This post is by guest contributor Momal Mushtaq. Momal is a women’s rights activist and an aspiring social entrepreneur from Pakistan. Her work in development and media communications, with focus on youth and gender equality, has been recognized by global awards, including a first place award from the United Nations for her work with women. She writes here about her relationship with freedom and equality, and how traveling is her means to self-growth.]

As I flipped through the recent issue of my favourite youth magazine, flashes of the past illuminated the dusty recesses of my mind, like studio strobes in a television studio. My mind was pulled back into another universe that revolved around a clingy but optimistic and determined 20-year-old who had not figured out her purpose in life. But, as fate had it, the winds of change swept my life in its path, and Life, with her capital letter and dignified simplicity was never the same anymore. It seems that by giving a girl a kaleidoscope, black-and-white Life was doing her bit to usher me into modernity and colour, a whole new world, a world so beautiful that there was no looking back for me afterwards.

Travelling changed my life; it is as simple as that. They say that you can learn about different cultures by travelling to places, but travelling taught me more about myself than anyone else. It widened my perspective; helped me become more accepting of other beliefs, ideologies, and lifestyles, and most importantly, it taught me to love myself and my body.

Here's how.

A New Perspective on Life
Back in university, like many other girls in my class, a private van would pick up and drop me off. If I had ever wanted to go anywhere else, like the shops or the hospital, my father or brother would accompany me to and from the venue. I thought that was maybe how life is supposed to be. It is only when I had experienced an alternative way of living that I started questioning my previous lifestyle. During my time in Canada, Germany and the US, nobody stared at me or passed nasty comments as I walked by alone. I could go wherever and whenever I wanted to!

However, when I returned to Pakistan, it began to hurt me more than ever to realise that the country is sinking below the waterline with a barrage of social problems hitting her from all directions. From the scourge of poverty, the stink of corruption, the madness of extremism to what-not! Almost half of Pakistan’s population -- her womenfolk -- sits back at home, not because they want to, but because they don’t have a choice. There’s no law restricting free mobility of women in Pakistan, but the harassment that they face on streets or while taking public transportation have limited their movement. Those who can, drive private vehicles, which is rather expensive. Or, they travel with a male chaperone.

Since I could not take it any longer, I decided to launch the Freedom Traveller (TFT), an online platform to connect and empower female travellers, especially from countries where freedom of movement for women is highly restricted. On TFT, women of all nationalities and beliefs could actively network, share knowledge and resources, and map their experiences during their travels. That is the least I could do, considering the resources that I had. I felt that if women read about other women who are courageous enough to travel alone in their communities or across borders, other females would be encouraged to follow suit.

Freedom is an abstract quality that mature minds acknowledge exists. It is something you can talk, write, or think about, but if you have not actually experienced it, you cannot feel her essence. I developed a strong desire to help women experience what it really means to be free because I have been freed from the grinding restriction of mobility that my life had suffered. Enabling women to be independent would also have an positive impact on the country’s economy, too.

I also knew that I could not go about preaching the message of freedom if I did not practice it myself. That could be the reason why I had learned to drive -- so I could move about more freely in Pakistan. Occasionally, I go for a jog and ride a bicycle around my neighborhood but, in my heart, I know that it is never as comfortable as it is abroad, because every time I venture out I sense creepy eyes boring into me. But, that is not an excuse to give up. To change, I have to be the change, the flag bearer of the coming revolution, the freedom rider of this century!

I have promised to challenge myself every summer for the next ten years. This year, for instance, I cycled all the way from Muenster to Aachen, Germany -- some 200km, to be precise! I did it to prove to every female around the world that there is no one stopping them from achieving their dreams. The unashamedly ecstatic waves of pleasure I had felt riding a bicycle, accompanied with a great sense of accomplishment, cannot be simply put into words. That is why I am not even going to describe it, because you should try it.