Return to Middle East illuminates views on feminist causes
I landed back on U.S. soil this past week on International Women’s Day after spending two weeks in the Middle East — a place where the concept of equal pay for equal work is light years away from the kind of issues that women face in that part of the world.
Eighty percent of women in Afghanistan are illiterate because only 30 percent of them have access to education. Honor killings still happen all over the region and men can avoid jail time for rape if they marry their victims. Domestic violence is an acceptable way to deal with an unruly wife.
Having been unplugged and out of the country for so long, I was unaware of the campaign and was surprised when I finally fired up social media to see so many friends and family members participate. To be honest, I always feel a bit out of sorts when it comes to feminist causes. I was lucky to be raised by parents who told me that I could be anything I wanted and I believed them. I went to college and then went on to command an attack helicopter company in the U.S. Army. Today, I am a mother of two, own my own growing business, and have had amazing opportunities to participate in our community. I never felt that being a woman was a hurdle. So fighting for women’s rights in America through campaigns such as the Million Woman March and International Women’s Day haven’t necessarily resonated with me.
But on Wednesday, as I reflected on my trip abroad, it did hit home. My two weeks were spent in Kurdistan, Iraq working on a project called Adventure Not War that takes veterans back to countries where they fought to promote the adventure travel and tourism industries. I, along with two other veterans were the first to climb and ski the tallest mountain in Iraq. In doing so, we met many wonderful people, worked in a refugee camp for Kurds displaced by ISIS, and toured the mountains of northern Iraq. I was welcomed and treated with respect by everyone I met. I was repeatedly told, “Be my guest” from people who didn’t know English, but knew how to welcome Americans into their country.
All those good feelings aside, their culture still marginalizes women. Most restaurants have a separate room in the back where women have to sit if they dine out. In the two weeks that I traveled around, the only place I saw women driving was in the capital and boys and girls attend separate schools. While most women wore a simple hijab — a scarf worn over the head — I did see plenty of burkas, which cover up the entire body and head, with only a small slit in which to see out of. Socially, women don’t hang out with men and although I was told that women were allowed, I never did see any women in the tea houses that we visited.
Despite all of that, I still feel hopeful for the women of Kurdistan. Many of the women I met were attending university. Teenage girls constantly stopped me and wanted to practice their English with me. I told everyone that I met that I was there to climb Mount Halgard and hoped that the concept would stick on just one of those girls who would one day climb the mountain as well. I saw campaigns against domestic violence led by young men and I had the opportunity to meet the minister of tourism — a woman. The family we stayed with was incredibly proud of their 1-year-old daughter and I feel sure that she will have opportunities that her mother did not.
International Women’s Day included protests in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Africa — places that rank at the very bottom of the list of countries in order of gender equality. Many of those protests were led by men in order to protect women from punishment.
Here in America, I think it’s hard to have a real conversation about gender equality when you start throwing around terms such as ##### hats and non-binary gender identity. We’re both lucky enough and spoiled enough that our fight for women’s rights includes those who weren’t even born female while in many parts of the world access to education, electricity and clean water are serious barriers to gender equality.
I’ve written many times about how lucky I am to raise our children here in western Colorado where they have plenty of amazing role models — strong women who hold leadership positions in our community, elected officials, athletes, and working moms with all kinds of cool jobs. The women around us are doctors, biologists, artists, chefs, teachers, and business owners. That’s our norm. And I hope that by celebrating — and even protesting — what we have right here in western Colorado, it will one day be the norm for a 1-year-old little girl in Kurdistan.