Message delivered by Hayat Imam at Community Services of Greater Brockton, March 3, 2021
Good morning! Thank you very much for inviting me to join you today, through your colleague Nasreen, whom, by the way, we Bangladeshis affectionately call “Rumi”! You may know that, in addition to our formal names, Bangladeshis almost always have small and cute nicknames!
I am glad we are here, to mark International Women’s Day, which is coming up next Monday, March 8. It is an honor for me, and a delight, to bring you some of my thoughts on women, about their capacities and about their contributions. I’ll speak from an international perspective, and also as an American. I am a Bangladeshi American; I came to the US to go to college in 1964, and then I got married and settled down in Boston. I have two children. Both of them are parents, so I am also a grandmother!
My work life was focused on Women’s Rights, both internationally, and in the US; I am also an activist, concerned about climate change, peace and justice. I hope to share some of my experiences and analysis, with you today.
As an overview, let me start by saying that each year the United Nations gives a theme for International Women’s Day. So for 2021, the International Women’s Day theme is Women’s Leadership worldwide, especially highlighting the impact of women during these COVID 19 days, as caregivers and community organizers. And I would also like to add: we should celebrate the impact women have as protectors of the earth, and as promoters of peace.
The title of my talk is: All Women are Wonder Women! I am here to say that we don’t have to go to the movies to find Wonder Woman, because all women are, indeed, wonder women!
We have an opportunity today, to reflect on the ways that women shine – given just half a chance! Let me begin, by appreciating each of you in this Zoom Room! In your various roles and responsibilities, everyday of your working lives, you provide services that contribute exactly this: You Give Women a Chance! On behalf of the women of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I want to acknowledge that, and thank you for your service!
In the short time we have together, I would like to share my sincere tribute to women everywhere. As you can imagine, there are very many things we could say about women, but I will highlight three aspects that have particular resonance for me:
Women are Wonder Women because:
- They are immensely wise in the ways that they extract moral principles and values from their experiences
- They are Wonder Women because they endure through the hardest of circumstances, but still carry on and continue to contribute
- And they are Wonder Women because, despite daily uphill battles, women show tremendous leadership, and manage to build supportive communities.
- Values that Emerge from Women’s Empirical Wisdom
Our lives are collages. They are based on the many different experiences we each have. My own female journey began with the greatest blessing of all: which was that my parents believed in me. In a world where women receive so many negative messages from so many sources, I truly feel that everything positive in my life is grounded on that foundation: I flourished as a child because I was valued.
But something as simple as that, to be valued, cannot be taken for granted. We all know that it has been an epic struggle for women, and the contributions they make, to be fully valued and appreciated. And what’s of even more concern, is that the Values that women hold as important have not been allowed to shine in our civilizations. That, I believe, is a mistake that is proving to be pretty disastrous for the earth, and for the wellbeing of human beings.
Casting our eyes back, and I mean way, way back, to the earliest days of humankind, we see that there was a division of labor, in which women took charge of the gathering of seeds and fruits for food. Through that gathering process, also known as foraging, women acquired a large body of knowledge about plants and grains. Over time, through trial and error, in a process that I would define as scientific, women identified the qualities of plants; they discovered which plants are nutritious, which ones are medicinal, or which ones are dangerous. This was a major contribution to human nutrition and health, and added to the general welfare of the community.
But beyond this important knowledge, there was another, more subtle gain, that was also acquired through this process. It was the beginning of a deeper understanding of the earth itself. Women began to tune in to the environment! They learned about growing conditions, the impacts of seasons, the cycles of growth. Noticing these natural conditions helped women to figure out the safest, and sanest, ways to gather and forage. The questions they were asking, perhaps without even knowing it consciously, were, how does one harvest without hurting the land? Without creating an imbalance in the environment?
At some point in their experience, a truth dawned on the human community: we cannot deplete nature if we wish to benefit from it in the long term. What women found in the process of foraging is that a heavy-handed extraction and denuding of the area didn’t work well at all. What was much more effective was harvesting cautiously and carefully, limiting intake, and giving areas time to rest and reseed. That is fundamentally why early human communities were nomads. They moved away from a piece of land in order to avoid over-harvesting it. And they would return to that land again, after a considerable time.
There is a Value deeply embedded in this early journey of our mothers. A journey, by the way, that was over an incredibly long period of time It is hard for us to grasp the amazing reality that this nomadic way of life is how humans lived for over 3 million years! And, you may be as shocked as I was to realize that this period, which is called the Paleolithic era, translates to a full 99% of human history! Millions of years was quite enough time for men and women, but especially women as the principal foragers, to internalize the Value that really counts: we cannot just keep extracting what we want from the earth, we must also rejuvenate and replenish it.
So the next critical question is, how have we humans fared in the other 1% of our time on earth? This next time frame after the Paleolithic era, was initiated by the beginning of Agriculture. This period, the 1% of our time, is only 10,000 years or so in length, and flows right into our present modern age. But, just in this short 1% of our time on earth, we humans appear to be discarding the Values that we had lived by for 3 million years. We have forgotten the key lesson: that we must be fair and balanced in the ways we interact with the earth! We have stopped listening to Mother Earth and we have ceased to cherish her and nurture her. These values are no longer being applied in our society today, either from an environmental perspective, from an economic perspective, or, from a moral one.
I would like to take a minute to say what has been the consequence of our carelessness. Our forests that give us oxygen are being cut down; our rivers that replenish our farms, and water tables, are drying up; our oceans that maintain aquatic life, and the cycles of rainfall, are becoming polluted; our ice caps that are the source of our water, are melting; our soils that grow our food, are eroded and lack nutrients; the birds and bees that promote pollination are dying; besieged animals all over the world are becoming extinct. All living things are begging for our intervention. Who is going to respond?
In celebrating International Women’s Day, my fervent wish is that we will all be Wonder Women! If anyone is going to respond to the plea of the earth, I believe it is likely to be women, who were the first to recognize the Value of symbiosis – a mutually beneficial relationship – in this case between humans and nature. I hope, with all my heart, that we will all respond to the call, and boldly proclaim our Values once more.
We are stewards of this earth and it is time to protect our forests, waters and animals; it is time to give back.
- My second topic is to flag the endurance and bravery of women, who keep on going, who keep on contributing, despite immense hardships.
While I was reading up about the Paleolithic period I have just referred to, I saw something else. In addition to foraging and gathering of food, through which women ensured the stable food intake of their community, they also had primary responsibility for looking after the children’s care and health. This is important work, right? But, no! The researchers covering that period concluded members of those communities considered the work that men did, namely hunting for meat, and herding, much more important and valuable! My first reaction was: “How on earth were the researchers able to determine that?” But my second reaction was: “Why am I not surprised!” Why am I not surprised?
It’s because things haven’t changed very much! Back in the prehistoric days, women were essentially freeing up and subsidizing men to go and hunt. And today, in just the same way, women are freeing up and subsidizing men to go and do jobs outside the home. And, in both cases, it is the men’s effort that receives prestige and higher recompense, and the women’s work, which allows men to do their work, receives no praise in the community. We know very well that society would not function without the work of women, but their efforts continue to be unacknowledged, invisible, and unpaid – or underpaid.
In the early 1970’s we used to wear a button that said: Women Hold Up Half the Sky. This implied, quite rightly, that men held up the other half. But wouldn’t it be nice to acknowledge, and appreciate, that it is very important that BOTH halves of the sky be held up?!
I’d like to share a story about work that I once did in Bangladesh.
In 1983, my husband and two children, and I had a wonderful opportunity to live in Bangladesh for a year. My husband did his PhD research in Bangladesh, and our two children went to a school in the capitol city of Dhaka. In the meantime, I had the powerful experience of working in the villages of Bangladesh with a wonderful Non Government Organization (NGO) by the name of BRAC.
The goal of our work was to help village women with no resources, either money or land, to set up small income generating projects. These projects included cottage industries such as growing silkworms for making silk; running a paddy husking machine that would clean rice for the community; rearing hens and chickens, for sale or for eggs.
We were keenly aware that we were trying to do this with village women who had never worked before, and who were mostly tied to their home activities. Given the culture and norms of the society in the villages, particularly back in the 80’s, we knew we had to convince the women, but also, importantly, the husbands of the women, that opportunities to earn income would be beneficial to the whole family.
An important first step was to gather all the husbands, and talk it over with them. We knew the men were skeptical that women would be able to manage any work aside from what they had always done. As the men sat together, we began the first exercise by asking the men whether women did any work! Surprised by the question, most of the guys responded saying, yes, women work, but much less than men. So then we asked them to enumerate what women do each day. On a large sheet of paper we wrote down everything they said:
“Women grind spices daily on stone tablets; they cook the meals; they wash the dishes, utensils, pots and pans; they sweep the homestead and the yard from debris; they plaster the earth floors of the home with water daily; they fetch drinking and cooking water, sometime from quite a distant pond or tube-well; they tend to cattle by cleaning them and their stalls, and collecting fodder to feed them; they collect cow dung and make patties, and set them out to dry, so they can be used for fuel; they collect sticks and twigs for cooking fuel; they bathe and feed the children; they wash, repair and sew clothing; they air and repair quilts; they tend a vegetable garden (sometimes at a distance); they husk rice and prepare it for cooking.”
By this time, we program coordinators, as well as the husbands, were in awe! It was really illuminating to watch how surprised the men were! It was evident that they had never stopped to consider the amount of work that women have to do: that they wake up before dawn, are busy every minute of the day, and go to sleep after everyone, late at night. The men grudgingly admitted that women worked as hard as men, and most significantly, they saw that the family could not get along for even one day without the women’s work. Eventually, we ended up with a great project that transformed the lives of village men and women – but that’s a story for another day!
This illustration of women’s work in Bangladesh, is reflected in women’s contributions all over the world. In the American setting, we have to incorporate another reality into this story. In the US, many women already do work outside the home. These women experience a double burden, or, as some have called it, ‘the Second Shift’. After returning home from a full day of paid work, many women have to jump into another round of work, this time unpaid housework, and care-giving for children, and sometimes, elderly family members. As many of you know through your work, this is the reality for untold numbers of women. And, although the situation is slowly improving, because more husbands do help out, the numbers still show that women do twice the housework and childcare as men, even if they work full time. And, of course, many women are single parents, who are trying to handle everything on their own.
In the best of times this is a struggle for women, but during the present COVID pandemic, things are intensely difficult. The COVID pandemic has hit women especially hard. Nearly 2 million women lost their jobs in 2020, wiping out 20 years of progress. We are to the numbers of the 1990’s. Every time a woman loses her job, the hardship extends beyond her and affects her family as well. One severe consequence is the inability to pay rent. Many families have become homeless, and sometimes the only solution is for families to move in together to save on rent, but then social distancing for COVID 19 precautions becomes impossible. It is a vicious cycle. Even those who are middle income don’t always have a cushion; they are mostly living paycheck to paycheck.
Those women who have kept their jobs in this period, are often the ones doing the hardest kinds of COVID related work: they are front line health workers, and essential workers, who have to confront the disease daily.
In this extreme situation, US government policies have not come through for the workers. Unlike countries in Europe, and also, South Korea and Singapore, possibly also Canada, the US has not been able to offer essential supports such as universal health insurance. If we do have health insurance, it is usually tied to our jobs. So if we lose our jobs, we also lose our health insurance. This has, of course, been a disaster during the pandemic. In the US, only 13 States offer a minimal form of paid sick leave, usually for a maximum of 5 days annually; 37 US States do not offer any sick leave at all. Just imagine the hardships this has caused during the pandemic. People who might have actually been sick with COVID, felt obligated to go to work because they could not take sick leave!
The Biden administration has just managed to get a stimulus bill passed through the House to help people, and the economy, withstand the COVID crisis. I admit I felt sad to learn that only Democrats voted for this bill. Not a single Republican member of Congress joined the Democrats to vote for the stimulus package, even though the suffering of Americans during this pandemic is unlike anything we have ever seen. We actually have a situation where children are going to bed hungry in this country. We have yet to see if the stimulus bill will make it through the Senate.
Wouldn’t it be great for all of us, American men, women and children, Republican or Democrat, to have universal healthcare, quality childcare, well-fed children, paid sick leave, a $15 minimum wage, rent subsidies, better education, tuition free colleges, drug rehabilitation programs –? Wouldn’t it be great to have all of these, just like the rest of the developed world?
But we are told: Stop Dreaming! We can’t do any of those things because the problem is that we just don’t have the money. Well, that is not true. The problem is not that we do not have the money. The problem is what we have chosen to do with the money, and what this nation has decided is our priority.
I am a member of Massachusetts Peace Action and also Dorchester People for Peace and Justice. For years, those who have organized in the Peace Movement have pointed to where the money can be found for all our community needs. Instead of prioritizing our money for the things that could transform the lives of all the men, women and children in the USA, we have chosen to put our money into the military budget.
Our 2021 military budget is $741 Billion dollars in discretionary spending, 60% of the total budget! Let me break that down. That means $2 Billion dollars per day. Which translates to $1 Million dollars a minute. $1 Million dollars a minute!
The question we have to answer is this: Do we really need this enormous budget to keep America safe from external attacks and harm?
I would like you to consider the analysis the Peace Movement has done:
- The $741 Billion dollar military budget in the US is larger than the military budgets of the next 8 countries combined.
- The $741 Billion dollar military budget in the US is 11 times greater than Russia!
- The $741 Billion dollar military budget in the US is 4 times greater than China!
On the other hand:
We can spend $741 Billion dollars on the military budget or:
- We could spend $20 Billion dollars a year to eradicate homelessness
We can spend $741 Billion dollars on the military budget or:
- We could spend $12 Billion dollars a year to create 160,000 new green energy jobs
We can spend $741 Billion dollars on the military budget or:
- We could spend $70 Billion dollars a year to guarantee tuition free education
These are some of the choices we could make for a kinder, saner world, in which everyone is looked after.
- In the final part of this talk, I would like to share where I find hope: For me it springs from the leadership of women; and from the supportive communities that women build together.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I came to the USA to go to college. My parents chose a small women’s college in Ohio, called Western College for Women. It was founded by Miss Helen Peabody, a former Graduate and Teacher at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, who decided to take the enlightened ideas of Mount Holyoke to the far West. And back in 1855, I guess Ohio was the far West! And that is why the College was named Western College for Women. My experience at Western College was transforming for me! There were only 500 students at the College, and 50 of them were from other countries! This was my first experience of being a part of a women’s community. I cannot even begin to describe the bonding and support I felt from these amazing women, many of whom are still my friends after more than 50 years! Above all though, what I was exposed to was a world where women were in charge, and I had the good fortune to see women as leaders. Once I got out in the world, I was kind of disappointed to see that the world was not run by women! But I had already internalized what it means to see women as leaders, and also had a taste of what it means to be a woman leader. The learning embedded in that experience strengthened and empowered me.
Since then, in one way or another, I have been drawn to work and advocacy that has supported the leadership of women, and the work, in turn, has shown me all the wonderful ways women take charge and exercise leadership. I would like to flag some key characteristics of women’s ways of leading: First is that they rarely lead alone. Women tend to make the extra effort to work with others, give and take ideas, and share leadership, rotate leadership. Secondly, through this process of give and take, they manage to build supportive communities. This, to me is the source of their success. From my work life, I’d like to share a few examples of women’s leadership.
In my first job, I was the Direct Services Coordinator at an organization for women with emotional issues. The extraordinary thing about this organization was that women with mental health issues had set it up for themselves. As staff, we provided the safe space, through funding, and liaising with appropriate government agencies, but the work of healing and supporting one another was done by the residents of the program themselves, turning the whole notion of defining mental health on its head.
As the Director of the Boston Women’s Fund, we raised the money to fund organizing efforts in the community, all of which were visualized and run by women. We operated from the principle that women knew best what work needed to happen in the community. Those who are most directly impacted by problems are also the ones most clear-sighted about the needed solutions. Community women’s constraints were not lack of ideas about what should happen, but lack of funding to implement programs. That was where the Boston Women’s Fund stepped in.
Grassroots International, where I was the Board Chair, expanded a similar concept to an international level. We fund social justice movements in key parts of the world, but it is the local leadership who shape the programs and do the organizing work. Many of the leaders of the programs are women. They are peasant farmers, water and forest protectors, climate justice fighters. It has been an incredible honor to learn about the work of women whom we have supported, women who have repeatedly put their lives on the line for their struggle for justice, and, in some cases, who have been killed for their beliefs and leadership.
I cannot end without saying how I have been personally sustained by the incredible communities of women I have been a part of, in Bangladesh, in Philippines where I worked for ten years, to the United States. I feel a debt of gratitude to my sisters, my fellow activists, guides and mentors who have been there for me and pushed me to do the best I can.
I am humbled and heartened, not just by the work of women, but also by the values that women bring to that work: respect for the environment, respect for each other, love for children and the vulnerable, an intense work ethic, the ability to work in partnership, and the foresight and willingness to do the work Today, that will safeguard the children of Tomorrow.
All Women are indeed Wonder Women.