Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Worldwide Wednesdays

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Michelle Obama as much as the next person; her toned arms, her organic garden, her style savy. But beyond that, what do we know about her? Oh, right, she’s the First Lady! Which means she might be the closest thing we’ve got to a woman next to the red button in the White House.

The reason I bring this up is because here in North America, we celebrate women in the spotlight, seeing ourselves as progressive in that we elect women in our legislatures, we entrust women as CEO’s of transnational corporations, we let them have prominent roles in our military. I say this because in the West, we believe ourselves to be champions of equality between men and women in the public sphere. And we love to brag about it. We celebrate Hillary Clinton for having been so close to being President and for then becoming Secretary of State. We celebrate Michelle Obama for standing next to Barack Obama and looking so damn hot! And we turn to Sarah Palin, perhaps for a good laugh, depending on your perspective, to acknowledge that she was pretty close to that elusive red button. And if we’re talking about women in Canadian politics...well how about we just leave it there and say that I mentioned it.

What I am getting at is that women in politics are not as powerful as we would like to believe in the so-called “modern” West. We are not seeing a flood of women becoming leaders right now. Oh, wait, there was also Kim Campbell, Canada’s first female Prime Minister...for four months! But at least we can say we did it before the United States!

Now what I am really getting at is that although in the West we claim that we are progressive when it comes to gender relations, perhaps we can look at the “developing world” for examples of real women in power. On the other side of the globe, where all we hear about are women living in squalor and oppressed by men, women are more powerful than ever.

Take Liberia’s “Iron Lady”, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. In 2005, she became Liberia’s first elected woman president, as well as the first woman elected head of state in all of Africa. America, eat your heart out. She had been a activist, a critic of the country’s dictatorship--an opinion that got her exiled, she has held important positions in the UN and the World Bank, and, most importantly, she is a symbol of what a woman can do in power.

Or what about Aung San Suu Kyi? A political activist, protesting the military junta since 1988, she became Burma’s first female head of state, elected as leader of The National League for Democracy while living under house arrest in 1989. She won the Nobel peace Prize in 1991. She continues to live under house arrest in Burma, a country under military rule.

Here is a list of a few countries that have elected a woman as their heads of state before the United States: Panama, Bolivia, Israel, Indonesia, the Philippines, Chile, Argentina,Sri Lanka, Haiti and Nicaragua, among others.

See what I am getting at? In the news we see images of women living in poverty, being oppressed, not having a voice in their nation’s affairs. However, when we look at countries that have elected women as their leaders, we see they are not of the “developed world”, rather it is the opposite. I think it is time that we in the west (although I concede countries like Germany, Ireland, Great Britain and Iceland have had women as heads of state, and if you count Kim Campbell’s brief four month stint, so has Canada), get off our high horses, thinking that we are leaders in gender equality. Perhaps there are more opportunities for women in the public sphere, but there is still the collective conscious in Canada and in the United States that women cannot lead. And this is seen by the fact that women are underrepresented in our legislatures.

Although I do not want to devalue our efforts in aiding our sisters abroad who are suffering, perhaps we should also look to the rest of the world as examples and then turn and look more closely at ourselves. What can we do to improve the lives of women in our own country? Looking back at Hannah’s post last week about missing Indigenous women in Canada. This severely underreported issue in Canada is an epidemic. Perhaps an Aboriginal woman as Prime Minister in Canada can be as effective as Obama was to America.

Athenites, get inspired. Check out how women have made a difference in international affairs. And take it upon yourselves to be leaders in your communities.


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