Post Title: Celebrating the ‘Mobility’ of International Women

International Women’s Day Panel

For two years in a row, I’ve been privileged to appear on a panel of women discussing topics of International Women’s Day (March 8) on the podcast, Kulchurama. This year, we talked about body image, how well we accept compliments, our role as women and how to move forward. A speaker gave an inspiring talk on how she left a verbally abusive marriage, regained her confidence and went on to inspire women around the world to fight for themselves.

In the 70s, my sister served as a trailblazer for women in my hometown. She was the first female police officer on the force. She also wouldn’t accept being relegated to guarding high school dances or to doing traditional tasks, like getting coffee for the policemen on the force. I so admired the way she conducted herself, challenging these and many other male-dominated “good ol’ boy” barriers on the force and in the prison where she went on to work. Though never aggressive, she used her assertiveness to pave the way for other female officers. She never backed down from the challenges before her, and she earned the respect of her fellow officers.

International Women’s Day speaks to me on many levels. I observed how women lived in several countries around the world—Colombia, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Japan, Egypt, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates. I also observed how other women lived in surrounding countries.

My Experience through Living Abroad

in the mid-80s when I lived and traveled around Latin America, it seemed there was a big divide between successful local women and those from el campo, or countryside. The former seemed so well-put-together—make-up, stylish clothing, boots. The professional women I knew articulated their thoughts in beautifully worded Spanish. In the countryside, women took care of their men and didn’t work. They came across as so shy and dependent and kept to their traditional roles.

Indonesia is an archipelago consisting of over 13,366 islands with many different cultures on one island. The women follow the norms of their cultural group. However, in1988, some young women had been selected to study abroad and came through our language program. They were few, and most of them young. But it was exciting!

The women I met in other parts of Southeast Asia and the Far East varied in their demeanor, In the 90s, women seemed to gravitate more to demonstrative mobility. For example, in Taiwan, the Air Force admitted females. My classes had a sprinkling of these students learning English. They studied alongside their male counterparts and attended training bases in the United States.

Biggest Changes I Witnessed in Educating Women

It was in the United Arab Emirates, where I saw the greatest change. In 1997, when I arrived at the technical college where I taught, I learned the colleges were divided. Men studied in one branch and women in a separate one. Far more women enrolled in the women’s college than in the men’s. This is because they had few alternative choices for education.

That women could attend college at all was an innovative development. Essential to enrollment was the permission of their elder brothers and fathers. The college adhered to a strict entry / exit policy. Women were dropped off in the morning and picked up at the close of five o’clock, the close of our college day. If they wanted to leave for lunch or for any other reason, they needed a special pass. This could only be obtained with an elder brother or father’s signature. At each entrance to the college, guards were posted and checked these passes carefully. Not only did the security have to be alert to keep in good standing with their jobs, the very lives of a student depended on their vigilance. A few years before I left, two female students slipped by the security. The guards were fired on the spot. We never learned the exact fate of the women but it was heavily rumored that the girls did not fare well. Family honor went undisputed in most parts of the Emirates, and I lived in an especially traditional area.

In 1997, in the emirate where I lived, brothers and fathers also had to be convinced to let the females in their families attend. The biggest hurdle, by far at that time, was the college requirement of a work placement program. The students could choose where to train — mostly schools — but had to participate to enroll in the college. In this male-dominated society, it took a lot of convincing for men to agree to this requirement. Instructors then followed up closely with his or her assigned students to weekly supervise the work placement progress and liaise with the outside supervisors. I loved this honor! I could see the women blossom under the program.

Over the course of a decade, the women at my college slowly began to work at non-traditional jobs like at the airport and banks. At a certain point, I remember when they wanted to train some of our students to work at Carrefour, an international supermarket in our emirate. In the time I worked there, it never took off. Fathers and brothers simply could not accept that female family members would have any unsupervised time with male employees. At the time, college leaders tried hard but could not convince families of the benefits of placing a female student in such a precarious work environment.

Other Observed Changes in Middle Eastern Women

While college campuses remain divided, women are now being mobile in other ways. They are driving—even in Saudi Arabia, the strictest of all Middle Eastern countries. The problems they faced—harassment from male drivers on the road. Back in 2006, that repercussion limited the women that drove. Also on campus, some women cast off their traditional abiyahs (black cloaks) and sheylas (head coverings) and exchanged them for more western attire—however, that was a minority of women, just a couple over the years. Perhaps in emirates more frequented by western tourists, the percentage is greater. But for the most part, traditional attire is lovingly embraced. Actually, that is a positive cultural trait I enjoyed seeing.

It wasn’t until my teaching tenure in the Emirates that I became aware of International Women’s Day. The college celebrated it with a large cake and speakers. Usually, a Sheikha came to address the students and highlight the need for continued advancement. The speaker often pointed out what she or other sheikhas were doing in the government. She often challenged the female students to use their talents to develop themselves and also to contribute to the good of the country.

Since that time, I have celebrated this important day, cheering on the strides of women around the world.

Women’s Social Mobility in Disability Circles

Bringing this topic down to the disabilities level, I have found vision-impaired and blind women challenging the standards of beauty, accessibility and the workplace. BoldBlindBeauty is a group that celebrates accomplishments for women of all abilities. Becky Andrews created The Daring Sisters Facebook group after connecting with women from around the United States through both in-person and virtual retreats for those with sight loss. This was sponsored by the counseling company she founded, Oasis Center for Hope. They continue to empower each other through physical challenges and virtual online activities (cooking, book clubs, yoga, to name a few). Last week, I introduced you to Renee Rentmeester, a female executive director of a TV program featuring vision-impaired and blind individuals in a cooking show in Florida. Change is coming every day. We have far to go, but have come a long way as well.

The constant state of flux women find themselves in has encouraged me, personally. I hope they’re seeing new possibilities for their lives. Whether a woman comes from Latin America, the Far or Middle East, an African nation, Europe or here in the United States, I want them to know their worth. I want women faced with disabilities to know there are no limits to their success, given the right tools, training, attitudes and environment. My wish is we all have the strength to challenge the traditions that hold us back, that we can honor and celebrate the beauty we possess. I’m so glad for the trailblazers I have encountered along my journey. I encourage us all to keep striving toward developing ourselves.

Where have you experienced or seen change the most in your own life or those of women around you? Share in the comments below.

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You have just read “Celebrating the ‘Mobility’ of International Women” by Amy L. Bovaird. ©April 7, 2021. All rights reserved.