On March 8, I attended the first of three “Women in the World Summit 2012″ sessions at Lincoln Center. What an evening! I got there early, yet the line went on for blocks. I even saw few celebrities like Debra Messing who also attended the conference.
The summit is an annual event made possible by Newsweek’s The Daily Beast. Their website heralds it “a weekend of extraordinary women.” Unfortunately, I was only able to attend one of the sessions, but I can say without reservation that my experience was extraordinary.
Once I was seated inside the jam-packed theater (4th ring, at the tippy top) Newsweek editor-in-chief Tina Brown invited some inspiring individuals to the stage for series of panels. The two main topics covered were “Forced Marriages” and “The Price of War.” I didn’t realize how much of a problem forced marriages still are– even in places like Germany and the UK! Listening to some women and their accounts of the horrors they’ve faced truly humbled me. Fortunately, some of them are rescued from forced marriages– one of whom, upon calling the FMU (Forced Marriage Unit, a hotline) was told to put a spoon in her underwear prior to her leave for Pakistan, where a husband awaited her arrival. At the airport, security took her to a separate room to search her, and it was there she told her story. Luckily, she was saved. The true horror, however, is that many of these cases don’t end happily. Moreover, the girls who do escape (as young as ten years old) are disowned by their families, if not brutalized or even killed for their so-called “rebellious behavior.”
Another enlightening moment was when I learned has to do with familial hierarchy in Middle Eastern countries like Pakistan. While one might assume the patriarch dominates the family, it is actually the mother wielding the most power. Women perpetuate the crime of forced marriages; many having suffered it themselves, out of custom impose the tradition on their daughters. Unfortunately, lots of young women who are victims of forced marriage are told that it is merely “arranged” — a much nicer and highly inaccurate term than “forced.” Hearsay makes it difficult to prove a forced marriage, and thus, difficult to save a victimized female from it.
After the first panel, Madeline Albright shared her story. I had no idea that she escaped from Czechoslovakia (well, back when it was still Czechoslovakia) as a child. She talked about genocide in Syria and the crimes perpetrated in Libya by Gaddafi. Interestingly, she did not bring up Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader; stopping his tyranny has become such a sensational thing in the States recently and I was surprised that she didn’t mention Kony at all. Albright’s interviewer, Charlie Rose, really put her in a tight spot by asking difficult questions regarding foreign policy. One incendiary thing he said was, ”how long [does the government] wait before people die?” Albright responded that it’s hard to decide who will go in to genocide-stricken countries, and even more difficult, how they will do it. Most often, the United States simply does not want to get involved.
I couldn’t help but write down some the things Albright had said. Many of these tidbits are funny because they are hard truths to bear – but because of this fact, they strike a certain chord in my heart:
“Foreign policy is trying to get people to do what you want.”
“I once spoke to an Arab and told him that the Arab awakening would soon come. He told me that was an insult, and when I asked him why, he said, ‘Because we haven’t been asleep all this time.’”
“There are not enough women in power. Why are there so few women in power? Men.”
“There aren’t enough qualified women in the world? That’s the most bullshit thing I’ve ever heard.”
“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
As the first night of the conference came to an end, Charlie Rose brought Sandra Uwringymana to the stage. She’s a seventeen year-old Rwandan genocide survivor. She witnessed a massacre in her camp and grew up with violence being the norm. Her story was deeply moving; especially when she talked about watching a group of men slaughter her young sister without remorse.
As I reflect on my experience that night, I realize that writing about the summit is a cumbersome task. First of all, there’s no possible way I can convey the aura of energy and passion that pervaded the theater. Furthermore, a lot of the stories shared were out of my realm of understanding – I am too far removed from these horrors to fathom them, but in my heart, I know they exist.
We cannot stand idly by and watch these things happen. Hence a summit like this one. Every year, it brings women together and helps them realize their strengths and positive female identity; to remind women that they are not subservient to anyone, and changing the world is within their power. Most importantly, the summit raised awareness about issues that I, sitting here listening to free music in a bookstore, perusing Facebook and snacking, did not until recently truly understand.
I think Albright put it best: “One word to describe myself? Grateful.”