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Women, culture and healing

Why are most Asian babies born with a birthmark that looks like a bruise at the base of the spine? Doctors and traditional midwives usually have different explanations for this “Mongolian spot.” According to medical experts, abuse has nothing to do with it. The bluish-grey blotch is merely a genetic gift from the parents and it will gradually fade. However, if you ask a Korean rural villager about its origins, you might get a different answer. One old woman once told me that babies need a little kick to help them come into this world because life is so hard that they don’t want to be born. A “three-spirit” deity of heaven, earth and the underworld gives a gentle push, leaving a telltale trace on the baby’s back.

Burmese Traditional Birth Attendants
Burmese traditional birth attendants

In rural Korea in the 1970s, traditional healers such as “three-spirit” grandmothers on Cheju Island took charge of mother and child health care once the baby was born. Until the first 100 days of life had passed, these traditional healers were the family consultants on child nutrition, illness and postpartum recovery. They also performed rituals that included prayers, food offerings and songs so that the ancestors will watch over the infant’s well being.

In many countries a large group of health care providers in rural areas are women known as traditional birth attendants (TBAs) and female traditional healers. Village women often trust them because they have qualities that are sometimes missing among younger doctors, including a “caring feeling,” “strong moral character” and “years of experience.”

For decades, UN agencies such the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) have regarded local village health workers as invaluable human resources for providing services such as immunization, family planning and nutrition education—all part of an effort to improve maternal and child health. Maternal mortality continues to be one of the greatest challenges for health planners. In Afghanistan 1 out of every 11 women dies in childbirth. According to the World Bank, for every woman who dies during childbirth in Sweden, 815 women in Somalia and 495 die in Nigeria.

Training programs in countries like Nepal, Nigeria and Burma have been highly successful in mobilizing village workers to help bridge the gap between modern and traditional health beliefs. As one Burmese traditional birth attendant explained to me, “We have sterilized birthing kits, but we also stick to our traditions like cutting the umbilical cord on a coin so that the child will have good fortune. Doctors have taught us how to sterilize the coin and knife beforehand.”

Although traditional women healers have participated in government-sponsored programs, few health policy makers are aware of the problems that these women face in carrying out their work. Female traditional healers are often heads of household, poor, illiterate and landless. Their fees are typically lower than those of male specialists so that even after years of practice, they still can barely make ends meet. It is common for them to be paid in kind.

Another obstacle facing women healers is prejudice on the part of doctors who think that they discourage patients from using health services. While that happens on occasion, the degree of quackery and competition is probably far less than is assumed. In Thailand, Indonesia and Burkina Faso I found that healers themselves often used modern medicine. Women traditional healers typically deal with chronic ailments or conditions that require prolonged care like tuberculosis or cancer when patients may lose the will to live.

Depression and psychosocial complications that may accompany birthing or illness often interfere with effective medical treatment. When women feel defeated by their ill health, they may even give up trying to recover. There are also conditions that patients believe have spiritual origins for which modern medicine has no cures. For these and other reasons such as proximity and failure of medical treatments, patients may choose alternative medical care. Ultimately, the losers are the poor–many of whom are women–who go back and forth from one system to another. Like many patients in Europe and the US, they are looking for someone who will treat the whole person–heart and soul as well as mind and body.

The soaring use of alternative medicines and healers—even in industrialized countries—should alert modern medical practitioners to the shortcomings of their practice. Yet time is short to learn from the past. The ageing group of traditional birth attendants and healers is fast disappearing in many villages. With an abrupt and unannounced exit, their knowledge and experience will likewise be gone—and that may be a loss for us, all.

Mothers and Sons

female health workers
Thai nurses and me at a rural clini

Did you ever hear the riddle about the boy whose father was a famous surgeon? The child grew up fine and strong, but when he was 15-years-old, he and his father had a car accident. By chance, they were taken to different hospitals. The boy’s critical condition required immediate surgery. When the surgeon was called, the doctor said, “I can’t operate on him — he’s my son.” (Hospital rules prohibited physicians from operating on members of their own family.) The mystery to explain is: who was the doctor?

Give up? Of course, the surgeon was his mother, and that is why she could not treat her child. If you took more than ten seconds to answer the riddle, you probably should admit that you’re struggling with gender stereotypes. Don’t worry. Women do not typically think of surgeons as female, either. That’s because in most countries, they’re not. High-level medical specialists, hospital administrators and ministers of health are — on the average — male. Nurses, lab technicians and medical secretaries, on the other hand, are mostly women. This gender hierarchy in health reflects a general trend in other science education such as engineering, environmental sciences, physics and mathematics. The same is also true in the multi billion-dollar health industry where women work mostly in the lower paying jobs.

The UN Commission on the Status of Women has recommended that governments take stronger measures to end the gender gap in science and technology education. But this will take considerable effort because we must undo centuries of male bias. For example, Britain’s elite Royal Society established in 1662 did not admit women until 1945. Unequal access to education, cultural biases against science and technology careers for girls and other lifelong limitations have meant that fewer women reach the top of their scientific fields. By the 21st century only 16 women were awarded Nobel Prizes in sciences and medicine compared to more than 200 men.

We have to learn more about how boys develop positive gender values. Yet we hardly know enough about this process cross-culturally. It would be fascinating to conduct an anthropological study of sons with mothers who are professionals in medicine and science. Do the boys adjust well to the idea that a woman can compete in a man’s world?  When sons grow up, are they more likely to be supportive husbands of working wives? Do they become better teachers so that female students are encouraged to pursue any career they want? My intuitive response is an optimistic “yes.” At least the opportunity is there.

Besides the influence of UN and government policies, changes in men’s attitudes can make a difference. In Sweden, the women’s movement has stimulated a men’s movement for gender equality. This is certainly an interesting trend that merits more attention. Women who have achieved recognition in science and technology can also influence a generation of young men to give gender equality for women and girls a chance. You see, boys need women as role models, too.


Competing on a level playing field

When my daughter was 12-years-old, she came home proudly holding broken blocks of wood. She held them like prize plaques, one in each hand. “Guess what? I broke this with my foot today at tae kwon-do class.” I stared in amazement at the one-inch-thick pieces with their stone-like surfaces. She swore that it was easy if you hit the block fast and hard enough. At my request, she demonstrated the martial arts motions. She clenched her fists in boxing style as the right side of her torso swiftly twisted upward. Her knee locked, then released with an aggressive snap into the air. Only the blood-curdling cry of triumph was missing. I moved aside to give her more room to repeat the kick.

Song-Mee and Judo
Song-Mee and Judo

Judged by traditional Korean standards, her body movements could hardly be called “feminine.” The conventional social rules dictate that female gestures should be close to the body–inward and folded–not splitting apart in the air. A hand should cover the mouth when laughing. The knees should be together when sitting. These conventions of poise and modesty become part of a corporal repertoire that the body learns from early childhood. Playing sports helps the body widen its range of personal expressions and identities. That’s sufficient justification for citizens to support public sports programs for girls.

There are more good reasons to do so. When girls are allowed to compete equally with boys in sports, their self-esteem seems to gain ground. Fathers should not hesitate to make sure this happens. In the l920s, when my mother was in high school, she created a scandal in Pyongyang by playing sports. Her long Korean skirt got a little in the way, but she chased a ball around the courts just like boys. Swimming in the river was also on her list of after-school activities she wanted to do. Her confidence to pursue these interests got a boost when my grandfather publicly supported her “tomboy” behavior.

I’m not suggesting that girls should fight their way through a hockey match or take up violent sports like boxing just to prove their worth. Emulating these “masculine” behaviors are low on my list of what sports should teach girls. However, many lessons like team playing, leadership and discipline are invaluable life skills. Research shows that sports can help girls feel more secure about their bodies–mostly because when playing they are evaluated for how they perform, not just how they look.

Courage is another character trait that a challenging physical activity can contribute to girls’ self-image. Many children who study tae kwon-do can’t strike the wood (or a brick) forcefully enough because of a natural childlike fear of self-inflicted injury. As my daughter overcame her apprehension, she pushed herself into the unknown. In so doing, she took an important step forward to improving her self-esteem–she took a chance. That gave her a high score in my books for sportsmanship. But we should add 10 points for what really counted. She bet her right foot on the possibility that she could succeed. That show of courage is the real reason I installed her broken pieces of wood, with historic dates inscribed on the bottom, to the family Hall of Fame, high on a shelf for all to admire. It reminds us that one glorious day she hit a target just right, breaking a block of wood and opening a space that would always be hers.

Shoes and Economic Miracles

Industrial Mission in 1970s
Interviewing Reverend Cho about the Korean labour movement, 1977

My first experience in foreign aid was in the 1950s, helping my parents send shoes to Korean orphans. The orphanage director wrote that the Korean War had wiped out the shoemaking business. If charitable Americans would donate used shoes, children could bear the winter. Within a year, aromatic mountains of faded sneakers, crumbled slip-ons and boots filled the attic. We sent them all, knowing that some would be sold to buy food.

Nearly 25 years later, South Korea was one of the world’s major exporters of shoes. You could go through piles of the “on sale” stocks in the East Gate Market to find the real bargains. With per capita incomes that had increased more than 150 percent, most Koreans could also buy the goods they made.

Economists have tried to draw lessons from the Korean pattern of development. They are particularly intrigued by the close interaction between improvements in human development and economic growth. South Korea’s near 100 percent literacy rate in the 1990’s compared favorably with highly industrialized nations.  By 1993, Korea’s poorest 20 percent had about one-third the average per capita income compared with the United States, where the poor had less than one-fourth.

Most economists acknowledge that Korea’s success was not due to a “trickle down” from economic growth to social welfare. South Korea’s economy became a prime example of how a resource-poor country can compete in international markets with export-oriented strategies, starting with social, not economic development. On the eve of its economic “take off,” South Korea had already reduced its population growth rate. It also had a large pool of skilled labor—including women and girls– and had a critical mass of expertise in science and technology.

But try as they may, many struggling countries in Sub Saharan Africa and Latin America cannot replicate the Asian economic experience. Maybe this is because they have focused too hard on the numbers and not enough on the process. Political will may be more important than we ever imagined.

At least, in the South Korean situation, political will at all levels was a major determinant of its economic direction.  Korean economists promoted and won policy support for economic growth based on equitable investments in education for the rural poor, including girls. They also successfully argued for public sector spending in upgrading rural life so that women’s time burden would be reduced. Investments were made into rural health services and family planning. The National Economic Planning Board carefully monitored rural-urban income distribution and transfer of private wealth into the public coffers was required.

At the international level, global financial institutions and the United States cooperated to create an international financial and trade structure which favored South Korea’s entry into the global economy—all favoring labor-intensive, export-oriented industries favoring girl’s employment in electronics and garment industries.

But national policy would probably have failed without the political will for equity from the bottom-up.  Democratic movements of the l970s and l980s — among students, factory workers, women, and farmers — made economic justice a development issue. Their gains were won at high political costs, and, at times, with their lives. The factory girls went on strike repeatedly for fairer wages, better work and living conditions in free trade zones. Rural women asserted their economic and political leadership against the tide of authoritarian rule. These democratic rumblings and “disturbances” were the key ingredients in creating a stronger, more peaceful transition to an open economy governed by democratic principles.

We need to take stock of this turbulent political chapter in Korea’s economic history. We should learn more about how economic and social struggles ultimately lay a foundation for sustainable economic growth.

What do rural women really want?

Rural Women in Korean Village, 1970s
Rural Women in Korean Village 1970s

Millions of families spend a lifetime trying to get it. Many feud bitterly when they do. For many older people, they would rather die than let an outsider buy it. No, we’re no talking about the family jewels here, but something more important: land. Fertile or meager, rocky or rich–just land.

For most of the world’s small farmers, land is like a healthy savings account. It assures social and economic security, provides access to get credit and-as a last resort-can always be sold in hard times. In many rural cultures, land ownership is also a matter of respect and dignity. It can affirm a family’s sense of belonging in the community, and it can bind two generations together in a time-honored transaction. If you give your land to the eldest son, he can care for you in your old age. UN Women reports that when women own land, they are less likely to experience violence at home and have more voice in how to spend family income.

What happens, then, to landless women? Bina Agawal, the noted feminist economist, reports that in India and Bangladesh there are many cases where widows and divorced women end up working as agricultural laborers on the farms of their well-off brothers or brothers-in-law. Even women who run farms when their husbands are working elsewhere have few rights, if any. They are unable to improve production, get credit, or adopt new technologies–all because they do not control the land they cultivate.

In Africa, women produce 70 percent of the continent’s foodstuffs. Yet, globally, women own less than two percent of the world’s land. In countries like Brazil and Kenya, landholdings for women are smaller in size and value than those of men. Ironically, the so-called “feminization” of poverty has become more lopsided just when women’s responsibility for food production is increasing.

That’s only part of the bad news. When prices for water supplies go up or structural adjustment leads to cuts in health services, poor rural women suffer the most. As their scarce resources are spread thin, the whole family’s living standard is lowered. Why? Spending on food, health and basic needs is more likely to come from women’s earnings. It is sad but true that men in similar situations are more likely to spend extra money on their personal needs such as tobacco and liquor.

Land remains the key. When women control land use, they reap social as well as economic benefits. Indian women in the Bodhgaya region reported that in communities where only men got titles during land reform, there were more family crises involving drunkenness and wife-beating. Where women received titles, the relationship between men and women improved. As the women put it, “We had tongues, but could not speak. We had feet but could not walk. Now that we have land, we have the strength to speak and walk.”

Delegates from 189 countries at the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing pledged to work toward giving rural women the power to “speak and walk.” Indeed, the Platform for Action endorses the idea that all women have the equal right to inheritance an important symbolic step. But that is only a start. Land is the first bank account that rural women need.


Exploiting our children

child labor
Child labor

What makes human beings different from other animals? Is it because we have culture? Guess again. Bees have language. Sea otters are great inventors of tools. Gorillas have lifelong family ties; they may even fall in love.

But yes, one outstanding characteristic sets us apart although we should hardly be proud to admit it. As far as I know, we are the only species to make slaves of our own offspring.

According to an ILO survey, 168 million of the world’s children work. They make soccer balls and carpets for export. Children are also domestic workers, brick-makers, peddlers and garbage pickers. Although most child laborers live in developing countries and work in agriculture, there are also many employed in the industrialized countries.

These figures do not reveal the numbers of children who are bonded servants, sexually exploited, physically disabled due to accidents or exposed to hazardous chemicals. Yet such conditions are known to prevail in the businesses that hire children. Child soldiers, including girls, are among the most abused workers. Furthermore, the exploitation of the girl-child is hidden because no one counts unpaid child labor at home—caring for infants, fetching water, feeding animals and gathering firewood. The Beijing Platform for Action policy document adopted in 1995 at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women declared the plight of the girl-child one of the Twelve Critical Areas of Concern.

It’s not that human nature is evil — that would be an oversimplification. Employers’ motives range from benevolence to pure profit. Particularly if they are relatives, those who hire children may see their gesture as a rescue operation to save the young from unscrupulous exploiters. Others are less charitable. Like lords in feudal domains, the employers decide the rules. The problem is that the political and economic structure provides no guaranteed safeguards. The owners’ personal inclinations, not laws, determine whether there are fair wages or safe work conditions.

Another unknown is why parents give up children in the first place. For profit, many critics would say. Of course, there are those who cold-heartedly sell their children like unwanted animals. On the other hand, most parents are themselves victims of circumstance — homeless, impoverished and unemployed. Refugees may seek security for daughters and “marry them off” in return for payment to local nationals. In truth, there is little information about how children are pushed out of their nests into the wilds to fend for themselves. We know that sometimes, middlemen dupe rural families and promise they will help girls find jobs. Instead they sell them into prostitution. In other cases, the problem is that a change from subsistence to cash economies puts pressure on families to earn wages. Everyone has to pitch in and older children may work to help support everyone else. In cities, work can be the lesser of two evils — youth who are employed can avoid a life of crime.

Did any of these families really have options? And why in the first place are there so many unwanted children? If women had control over their fertility, wouldn’t this help reduce the supply of poor children flowing into the labor market?

One thing is certain: modern human beings may not be born bad, but they need strong political and legal constraints to remind them of their moral responsibilities. Enter the standards and conventions — the ILO conventions, the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and other international agreements. Granted, a child is not likely to take an employer to court to defend his or her rights. Neither are labor laws easy to enforce because many child laborers work in homes and the informal sector. But these conventions are essential to raise society’s standards for decent human behavior.

The voyage from public awareness to enforcement of child labor laws may be wild and woolly, but it is well worth the political struggle. If child labor is banished, we would take a progressive step forward in human evolution that may be as significant as the domestication of animals. We will have tamed our own exploitative nature and the base human instinct of self-interest.

[1] Estimates from the US Council on Foreign Relations, see:


Four Wishes for Economists

Mar des Plata
Mar des Plata, 1994

There was once a little girl who was supposed to write a class assignment on “My Hopes and Dreams.” The problem was, she was unsure about her grammar, so she carefully chose her words and wrote down each thought. Then, at the top of the first page, she wrote a note to the teacher: “ I have written this essay with everything except the punctuation and capital letters. Since you are the expert, could you please fill these in? Thank you.”

Only a fanciful child would suggest such a collaborative approach to writing about her own hopes and dreams. It would be hard to imagine why a smart-thinking adult would surrender control over the tools that give logic and coherence to important thoughts. Yet in the running of our economies, this seems to happen quite frequently — and usually with questionable results.

After politicians make major policy decisions, they busy themselves with governing, leaving the real business of running the economy to the so-called experts — economists, finance ministers and development planners. Most of these professionals are more concerned with the science of social engineering than with the ethical or ideological issues of politics. Little wonder that the hopes and dreams expressed at UN conferences often lose their meaning once the heads of state have signed the papers and gone home. The decision-makers who really count — the ones who ultimately write the checks — were never invited to the meetings in the first place.

If ministers of finance are to change their mission from economic development to sustainable human development then the people who run them will have to become much more than economists. They will also have to be social activists, willing to have dialogues with community groups and non-governmental organizations. And they will have to become more involved in the not-so-predictable world of international diplomacy.

They would do well to study the commitments that heads of state have made at UN conferences long ago and take the collective ideologies expressed in them seriously. Governments might consider these four passages chosen from historic UN conferences that express important visions for humanity:

1. “We, Heads of State and Government . . . will create a framework for action to . . . (promote) democracy, human dignity, social justice and solidarity at the national, regional and international levels, ensure tolerance, non-violence, pluralism and non-discrimination in full respect of diversity within and among societies.” (Social Summit, 1995)

2. “The human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights . . . The World Conference on Human Rights . . . reaffirms, on the basis of equality between women and men, a woman’s right to accessible and adequate health care and the widest range of family planning services. . . .” (Vienna Declaration, Conference on Human Rights, 1993)

3. “Peoples’ organizations, women’s groups and non-governmental organizations are important sources of innovation and action at the local level and have a strong interest and proven ability to promote sustainable livelihoods. Governments, in cooperation with appropriate international and non-governmental organizations should support a community-driven approach to sustainability . . . ” (UN Conference on Environment and Development, Agenda 21,1992)

4. “Existing inequalities and barriers to women in the workforce should be eliminated and women’s participation in all policy-making and implementation as well as their access to productive resources, and ownership of land and their right to inherit property should be promoted and strengthened” (Beijing Platform for Action, Fourth World Conference on Women, 1995).

The common denominator in these old—but still relevant –UN documents is the message that social equity, gender justice and human rights are the real purpose of economic growth. The UN meetings that followed since these social development conferences of the 1990s have repeated and recommitted to the same principles. So why are we still talking about a stand-alone goal for gender equality and the need to mainstream gender into economic planning? Are economists qualified to put gender equality into the long string of sound bytes that make up UN recommendations? If not, then the question is: are they the best managers of women taxpayers’ dollars?

This is the Hand That Built

This is the hand that raised the kids

                        That played in the kitchen

                                    That had the pot

                                                That cooked the corn

                                                            That sold in the market

                                                                        That fed the family

                                                                                    That lived in the house

                                                                                                That Maria built.

Look at a house from a poor woman’s point of view.  It is more than a shelter for sleeping and eating; it is also a woman’s primary workspace.  Whether this work is paid or not may change over a lifetime.  When children are young, a woman may work mainly as an unpaid householder.  But a shelter can also be a place where she earns her living.  If she is disabled, she can do home-based jobs such as sewing.   Even if she is a peddler traveling around the city, she must prepare the goods at home.  An older woman sets up a small store right at the front door.   She cures the sick and cares for children at home.  The list of activities seems endless.  Oh, there is one thing she is not likely to do at home: retire.

Woman potter
Woman potter

The error of many governments’ discussions about the home is to assume that men and women use it in the same way.  Participants at UN meetings about economic development, including urban planners, academicians and scientists, often talk about a home from a male perspective–as a place that you leave when you go to work.  It is as if a home were a “private” space without connection to the “public” arena of commerce and politics.   From a working woman’s point of view, this “private” space cannot be separated from outside life.

Reproduction, production and consumption are the three pillars of a household economy.  A woman is the fourth pillar and she must keep the others balanced or the whole family suffers. If her job requires long distance travel and there is no day-care facility at work, she must find alternative care for the children.  In many families this means that daughters will drop out of school to help the family survive.  Women must also consider their responsibilities as consumers of goods and services.  A home’s location near a good school, a water pump, quality public services, and stores is as important for family welfare as low-cost housing.

These are some critical gender and shelter issues that need to be remembered in the final deliberations of defining the post-2015 agenda.  They are conditions many of us know exist, but they are not always reflected in the outcome of a UN consultation.  If anything, policy-makers are prone to apply a double standard to women and shelter issues.  They do not mind bringing women into the picture when referring to personal security or family life.  They are less inclined to listen when women declare that housing is not a personal matter, but a political one.  Women want and should have more decision-making power about house rights—including issues related to land and other assets.

At stake are women’s rights to speak out against economic and social policies that create conflicts between women’s multiple roles.  For example, to increase women’s economic participation, policies may favor foreign investments in export-oriented trade zones that attract a female work force.  But these jobs are often incompatible with women’s duties at home. There are few support services for child-care in these industrial parks even if management openly approves of working mothers.

Another example is how poverty affects family planning.  Poor women may have access to family planning services, but even quality services do not guarantee women “reproductive choice.”  Women and health activists point out that in some Latin American countries, women appear to have access to a variety of family planning methods, but they still undergo mass sterilization because of poverty.  They simply cannot afford to give up workdays or extra money for visits to health clinics.  True freedom of choice about family planning is possible only when there are economic opportunities as well.  But these have declined for women due to the global economic crisis and higher fees for public services.

What will count in the future?  UN negotiations on the so-called Post-2015 development agenda (the UN development targets from 2015 to 2018) that marginalize women’s view about how work and family fits into economic development fail to uncover.  One important message from the International labor Organiation and the Beijing Platform for Action is that creating compatibility between work and family is crucial to attaining sustainable development. Let the women who speak from real life situations have an equal say in how family and work fits into the bigger pictures.

Are Women a Sack of Potatoes?

I never thought that potatoes and onions would ever attract my intellectual curiosity, but lately these two legumes have turned into giant metaphors about gender and politics. Potatoes as a cornerstone of political analysis appeared many years ago when Marx wrote about French peasants as “potatoes in a sack.” The reason he called them potatoes is because he didn’t think much of the French small-landed peasantry as an ingredient in his recipe for class revolt. If anything, this highly individualistic, entrepreneurial group symbolized everything he didn’t like about citizens who would never unite into a class to defend their own interests. He turned his attention instead to the industrial working class. He lauded factory workers with many flattering metaphors, none of which were vegetarian.

My latest thought about women is that we are not potatoes — but a wonderful bag of onions. Well, maybe men are, too, but for women the complexities of private life are much more exposed. Each of us carries around layers upon layers of identities. Some of them were given to me while I was growing up — a daughter, tomboy, student and musician.

Am-6 Indigenous peoples caucus
The Indigenous Peoples Caucus adopted me

As my social world expanded, identities that included me as a member of larger groups were added, like vice-president of the class and anti-war activist. Then, came the grander labels that placed me in the category of an ethnic or cultural group. I became a Korean-American and Asian. As I travelled in countries that were unfamiliar with Korea, I was given many mistaken identities to add to these.

Me in Sari
I adopted a sari and bindi

At a party in India, a woman scolded me for speaking English instead of my native tongue—Nepalese. When living in Thailand, most locals treated me like a Japanese tourist. In Tunisia, a man called out to me in Berber, thinking that I was a fellow tribes woman. I had the most fun with my multiple identities at a UN meeting on environment in Rio (2002), when I was adopted by the indigenous people’s caucus. After joining them for a television shoot and much merriment, they presented me to Princess Basma of Jordan as their chief negotiator to access the Huirou Commission meeting.

While these were cases of simple ethnic misnomers, others had more serious consequences. On the US army base in Korea, I was asked for my venereal disease card because a security guard assumed I was a hooker.  Syrian soldiers pointed their guns at me at the Lebanese border, shouting that I was an Egyptian terrorist and that my US passport “was obviously a fake.” Then there was the amusing rumor in the French village where I did my anthropological research that I was really a Vietnamese novelist gathering material about all of the families’ secrets. Since strangers have given me so many identities that were not the real me, I have developed a category of onion layers just for those purposes called “the me that can’t be.” Of course, we continue throughout our lives to add new layers as well.

Peeling away identities is easy to do and you can do it without crying. In fact, for many women who joined in a demonstration at the UN Fourth World Conference in Beijing (1995) or successfully rally around the “Half the Sky” campaign, the creation of a common Self, united across all differences, is a joyful empowering experience.

Women at the Fourth World Conference 1995
Women celebrate at the UN women’s conference, 1995.

If you have not had this particular onion peeling experience, you might still understand what I mean. Take, for example, pilgrimages that are historically among the most successful means to achieve the same effect. If you are a Muslim, the trek to Mecca is more than a holy journey. It is a joining together in a single place an international gathering of men of the same faith, united across differences in language and nationality, to be a single consciousness and being.

Members of the International Alliance of Women
Members of the International Alliance of Women

Yet, women have been able to be more than vegetables thrown together into a sack. We have stripped layers and layers of identity until we found common ground. Our consciousness as women is almost primitive, primordial, and fundamental enough to let us join hands with strangers from different nationalities and pledge allegiance to each other’s causes during the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women meetings in New York.

Whether we are English, Mohican, Zambian or Burmese, somewhere in our core we manage to find a common identity as wives, mothers, sisters and women. No matter that the issues we hold most dear vary from the promotion of breast feeding, protesting genetically modified foods to defending sex workers’ rights.  We often rally around each other’s issues with one voice.

It feels good to be an onion. And it feels even better to know that you are in the company of others — nearly half of the world’s population. I credit feminists for being able to pick an identity that, at least, is one of the biggest categories of the human species — no small tribes for us. We know how to be lovely personalities with several identities going on simultaneously. Maybe the more we have, the more we know that we are still growing. I wish that men could cross over the gender line just once so they could understand how much fun it can be to be female.