Gendered Illiteracy in Developing Countries

Photo curtesy Huffington Post

Today was our last meeting for the year and what way to conclude! Some of us almost did not make it to Yarden’s presentation but so many of us did and we hope that our inputs and comments are helpful. “Literacy” is such a slogan with in the development world that often and as is the case with immigrants in Israel as Yarden citied, it is taken in absolute terms without context. This is especially so among women who traverse boundaries (often not on their own volition) having never been exposed to the written word or signage to be “taught” how to read and write.

Examples were drawn from organizations like the “Madre” that used farming as a method to unite women in Africa in a relevant and meaningful way. Examples were suggested from Afghanistan, Indonesia and India about what would work for women and what is relevant to their lives. Oral traditions, daily life cycle charts and coffee breaks provide opportunities for women in remote rural villages possibilities for learning.

As a group we restructured Yarden’s forthcoming book! Some readable, simply constructed sentences were suggested for the target audience. Some of the tools I had wanted to share are as follows: Participatory Research Appraisal (PRA). You could also read Robert Chambers’ book on the same. Having used many of these in different situations with intelligent community members these are empowering ways to learn and teach.

On the other side of the spectrum I had mentioned Nancy Hafkin who spoke about digital divide and that women lagged behind in technology in her piece on ICT work in Africa. I have her book and will give it to Yarden just so you have the other perspective which might just go against what you are trying to propose. Find any of us if you need to talk more on this, Yarden and thank you for sharing your work-in-progress!

(Work-in-progress presentation by Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein, meeting summary by Rajashree Ghosh)

Women Scientists in Pre-Statehood Israel

In 2009, Israeli scientist Ada Yonath became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 45 years. Her success drew international attention to Israel and the issues surrounding women in science.

Following her last month’s presentation at UCLA titled “Models of Work-Family Balance in the Lives of Israeli Women Scientists“,  WCSG member Pnina Abir-Am provided the group with an overview on women scientists during the first decade of Israeli statehood, discussing the under-representation of women in science, societal difficulties in supporting work-family balance, and how statehood affected women scientists’ career and personal choices.

WSRC_WCSG_Abir-Am_pic-Ada_Yonath_Credit-es-m1v

Weizmann Institute of Science‘s Ada Yonath, 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Photo: Wikipedia

Summarizing the presentation, Rajashree wrote:

Despite braving a time crunch and technical issues, Pnina’s talk on women scientists in the first decade of Israel’s statehood was eye opening. Esther Herlinger, Anna Weizmann, Ora Kedem and Pnina Elson were remarkable contributors to science and technology and could not be dismissed as just names. Pnina drew our attention to the context and historical and political landscape in which they operated. The challenges of women achievers are globally acknowledged but the particular experiences of these women were certainly rooted in Israel’s political and cultural ambitions. She also spoke about what contributed to these women’s achievements was that they belonged to families who were professionally vested in the sciences. This made me think of Bourdieu’s “cultural capital” and the family endowments that serve as key determinants of educational probabilities. It seemed like there was so much more to know and learn but thank you Pnina for leading us on the path to seeking out more. I, for one am grateful for your shedding light on the context and that part of Israel’s history that does not often get shared.

Maasai Stoves & Solar Project

World Cultures Study Group members and guests welcomed Brandeis faculty member Robert Lange who is also the Founder and President of the International Collaborative to share his innovative work with the Maasai in Tanzania. Joined by Elise Willer, student SID/Heller, Bob presented an informal discussion on his project “Maasai stoves and solar project” that has had profound impact on gender, environment and health among the Maasai.

InternationalCollaborative_-MSS_Bobnwomen_top

Bob’s project focuses on what really makes a difference which in this case is removing smoke from homes. Collectively working with the community in developing stoves Bob brought the science and its practice to result in cumulative changes in the lives of women, men and children. As Elise very appropriately said, it is a “holistic” development approach with different components such as water harvesting, tourism, education – all of which make this effort very dynamic. (Rajashree)

Photo courtesy of International Collaborative. To learn more about Bob’s initiative visit: http://internationalcollaborative.org/about-us/

Democratization, Women and the Arab Spring

Democratization, Women and the Arab Spring with a special focus on Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Algeria was the topic of speaker Val Moghadam’s recent talk. A professor of sociology and director of the International Affairs program at Northeastern University, Val has spent most of her academic career studying gender and politics in the Middle East.

WSRC_WCSG_2000px-Islamic_Feminism_Symbol.svg

photo: Wikipedia

As summarized by Rajashree in our follow up meeting:

 It was such a pleasure to be part of our meeting today – despite the weather so many of us were there and reflected on Val Moghadam’s talk last month – all of it made it very lively and special.

Smriti set the tone for the discussion that ensued in that she stated that Val’s stance in presenting the Arab women as heterogeneous and representation of the feminists in the Maghreb region as “modern, educated, feminists.” The presence of these strong women resulted in positive, democratic outcomes for countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

Nur shared her experiences from the collective of Muslim women where many of the leaders have made a separation from religion yet anchored in ideas of women’s rights. The reverse is also present. These views correspond with Val’s writings where she firmly believes that “Islamic feminism” needs to widen its boundaries and be open to western feminism. At the same time she acknowledges the presence of “feminisms” around the world as political strategies trying to bring about changes where women’s rights are concerned.

Marguerite, Ruth and Yarden shared their thoughts on varied issues relevant to today’s theme- whether religion and/culture determines who we are; can we be religious and be feminists in our different religions which the group members belong to; can change be brought about individually and/or collectively; can we all say we have participated in the feminist movement and feel that we have made strides in our personal lives…

In her post-talk comments, Smriti reflected:

What struck me was the emphasis on the diversity of outcomes for women in the Arab-Muslim world. I think the speaker really tried to challenge the notion of the undifferentiated ‘Islamic World’ that fundamentalists of all stripes embrace right now.

I was also struck by how uncritical she was of the concept of “modern” and “modernity”. I suspect she has little patience for post-modern or post-colonial ideas of culturally specific feminisms (with an ‘s’.) It has been a long time since I heard a speaker who did not put quotes around the word “modern”, so that was very interesting to me.

Women and Islam in Indonesia

The World Culture Group Study held a discussion, on October 30th, on Women and Islam in Indonesia led by Siti Nurjanah (Nur). Nine members of the group discussed a range of issues from how the power relation between men and women is influenced by the natural environment and how political Islam affects women’s life in Indonesia. Nur proposed that there are definite consequences of environment for cultural and society, including gender relations. Radical Islam uses a standard of morality and security that justifies the exclusion of women from the public sphere. But Indonesia’s tropical environment has allowed women to oppose this standard. Women have dominated most traditional markets in Indonesia, as sellers and buyers. Indeed, Indonesia has the highest percentage of women in the work force in the region. A simplistic understanding of Islam facilitates extremists’ distortion of Islam; it allows extremists to define Islam in ways that are exploitative of women.

Nur described how until the early late 1990s many Indonesians lived with a syncretic mentality. Suharto’s departure to hajj in 1991 – an attempt to diversify his power base away from the military and to court support from Islamic elements – marked the politicization of Islam. This was followed by overwhelming influences of Islamic elements into the educational system, banking, and the media, which altered social-cultural norms toward the pseudo-Islamic. At the same time, political Islam has been challenged by women’s freedom of expression. Many women belong to religious and non-religious organizations and actively engage in community building, including family planning, health and sanitation, child nutrition and immunization, income generation, lending circles, and other family-oriented welfare programs.

Linda Bond and Ruth Nemzoff raised questions about the role of women in family planning programs and men’s imposition of morality on women. Discussion focused on how gender insensitive policy-making trigger exploitation and gender biased social norms. The family planning program was a failure until the government invited Islamic leaders to help to ease the worries of women. In this case, Islam contributed significantly to human development and women’s welfare.

Submitted by: Siti Nurjanah

Indigenous Women

At our recent meeting our study group focused on indigenous women in different parts of the world and the numerous challenges they face in a rapidly changing world. Tracing indigenous traditions, Elinor Gadon  explained what makes people tribal rather than Hindu as she shared details on her research work with indigenous women in different parts in India:

salia

Culturally they have always been part of Indian civilization. Unlike most tribal peoples outside India, they have maintained trading and ritual links with city-based, ‘civilized’ society for well over two-thousand years. Hindu civilization did not on the whole seek to displace or convert tribals, although there was certainly often conflict, and tribes were forced to retreat to the remotest areas: the forests and mountains between Hindu kingdoms.
The defining features of tribe anthropologically might be given as a close, ritualized dependence on the natural environment, especially the forest, a strong egalitarian social organization based more on clans than on caste or class, and a high degree on until at least recently of economic self-suffiency and political independence. Drums, dancing and song are at the heart of tribal culture. They do not worship the gods in temples of with the aid of brahmin priests, but at shrines in the forest. All their deities are closely connected with nature, identified with features of the local environment or natural forces including diseases. As well as priests they have diviners and shamans who go into trance to communicate with spirits.
Equality  is a powerful ideal. Land is usually divided equally among household, unlike Hindu villages which tend to have large divisions between landlords and landless laborers. Elders carry more weight in village councils than young men, and women do not usually take part, although they may have decisive influence from the sidelines. On the whole women are much freer than in Hindu villages. They speak out openly and are not bound by double standards of sexual morality, as free as men to have love affairs. Divorce is relatively easy; divorcees can marry again without any stigma. This emphasis on equality goes along with tribal villagers sefl-respect, self-sufficiency in fulfilling most of their own needs.
(Submitted by Elinor Gadon, from Felix Padel, “The Sacrifice of human being: British Rule and Konds of Orissa” New Dehli: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp17-19. Photo curtesy of WSRC/GaiDI)

Looking at issues of gender-based violence and inequality among indigenous women in a different part of the world, Marguerite Bouvard  spoke about her past experiences as she recalled her ties to Mayan women in Guatemala:

o23_84_99-m  My presentation was on the International Indigenous Women Forum and its work in leadership and human rights training, and building alliances between the Indigenous women‘s movement and the global women’s movement. Specifically I spoke about indigenous women in Guatemala, the generation that was subject to General Rios Montt’s genocide and the younger generation of Mayan Kakchiquel’s program. Lisbeth Coloc developed three programs for 60 women and their families that included strengthening the community and political advocacy, economic development, how women can become self-sustainable by building their own businesses and psycho-social help. The program works with community groups in five municipalities and is the largest indigenous group in Guatemala.

* * *

News from our members: Marguerite will be reading poems from her new poetry book, The Light That Shines Inside Us on March 20 at 12:30. A quote from the blurb by Steven Kessler, “Across cultures, and languages, wars, brief intense joys and relentless suffering, her poems radiate compassion and a universal humanity. “

Violence Against Women With Disabilities

women-disabilities(image: PSC Crisis Connection, Disability Support Services, 24-hour Hotline)

The World Cultures Study Group had the pleasure to welcome Ana Maria Sanchez, who is currently working on her PhD in Public Policy, for a very interesting and stimulating talk on violence against women with disabilities.

Ana presented her work which is concerned with women with disabilities, a demographic that, she deplores, has generally been overlooked by the feminist researchers and activists. Focusing on two countries, Mexico and India, Ana strives to investigate the ways in which the various women’s rights organizations in these countries address, if they ever do, the problem of violence against women with disabilities.

The talk was a consciousness raiser for many of us, as Ana explained that the very word “disability” is unequivocal and resists a simple definition, even more so when it is used in different cultural contexts. She also underlined the difficulties she encountered in studying women with disabilities in Mexico and India, because they are a somehow invisible group first because they are a demographic minority, which does not make them a primary concern for government officials, then, because they are often hidden or isolated from the rest of society. Ana showed the importance of thinking about women with disabilities with a gender perspective and the necessity to raise awareness that women with disabilities are entitled to women’s rights.

Ana sent two links that she wanted to share with the members of the group, here they are:

Why Should Disability Spell the End of Romance?

For Different Indians Disability Means Different Things

The World’s Cultures Study Group would like to thank you again, Ana, for sharing your work with us. I hope this brief does justice to your inspiring talk. (Submitted by Maryline)