My mother grew up in Turkey in the 1950’s. What I loved most about her was her flowing hair that reached down to her waist when she was a young girl. She reminded me of a goddess from the old Hollywood movies.
I remember watching her apply her makeup in the mirror, praying that one day, I would be beautiful, like her. There is a photo of my mother that looks like a Botticelli Venus. It is how I want to remember her forever and ever.
When I think about my mother’s hair, I think about what it means to be woman. Lately, I have wanted to embrace my femininity. But what does that really mean? Often, as women, we veil our own true selves to appear a certain way to others. I find that we are all actors in some way in every situation.
We can’t be “too feminine” lest we not be taken seriously. We can’t be “too masculine” because that would make us threatening to both male and female. Women, in general, are programmed to please others, to nurture, to love, to give way. They are strong and resilient in the face of adversity, complex, intuitive and empathetic.
There was a time when the female image was revered and worshipped. Ancient cultures came from a matriarchal society, where the creative, holistic feminine right brain ruled, in contrast to the linear and analytical masculine left brain. Eventually, the matriarchal society of the goddess evolved to patriarchy.
In The Alphabet versus the Goddess, author Leonard Schlain contrasts the feminine right-brain teachings of Buddha and Jesus to the masculine thought process that evolved when the human brain began the act of writing. He asserts that one of the visible ways women lost their power was by having to cover their hair, or in some cases, cut their hair off once they were married because the hair was considered a thing of beauty.
Is a woman’s hair her power? It is her choice whether she wants to cut off her hair or cover it. Think about the story of Samson and Delilah. Samson’s power was in his hair. And when it was cut off, he lost his strength. But hair is symbolic of a deeper issue. The issue is our free will. A women’s right to choose how she wants to live her life, how she wants to appear to others, but most of all, how she perceives her identity stems from our free will.
On March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day, a global day of recognition for the economic, political and social achievements of women; we celebrate our strength, courage and resilience. Women are critical for the advancement of peace and democracy in a world where inequalities continue to exist across every aspect of our lives.
How I ask, is this possible in the 21st century? Haven’t human beings evolved to a higher realm of consciousness? How do we change this?
These questions fueled my fire of wanting to be part of a socially just and kind world. But what could I, one person, do, in the face of the hardships that so many women endure throughout the world?
Over the years, I have met numerous heroic women who are not afraid to do the work to create a world of parity for all.
One organization that welcomed me many years was the International Women Associates (IWA), a not for profit established in 1978 in the living room of a dashing woman with a Katherine Hepburn accent. Doe Thornburg. Doe Thornburg founded IWA to connect women who were either born or lived outside of the United States, or who traveled extensively as Americans and had diverse international backgrounds and cultures.
When I asked Doe what made her establish this group of women, her response was, “I wanted to start it on a spiritual basis, believing that everyone is a sacred person. You must understand that everyone is equally worthy of their highest self.”
Today, IWA has nearly 500 members from 60 countries. They share their experiences and global understanding through programs that encourage cross-cultural exchanges and most of all, friendship. They share the mission of establishing universal human rights, especially for women and girls. Doe Thornburg remains a compelling visionary for women, forever an elegant and gifted speaker at 94.
IWA was the beginning of my initiation to what it means to be a global woman. Born in another country and raised in the United States since I was 6 years of age, I recall wanting to belong like my natural born friends. I was embarrassed to be a foreigner with olive skin (something I now cherish as a friendly elixir for the years on my face!) and my mother speaking to me in our language in front of my friends. On the school bus, obnoxious little boys would take my seat and call me Mexican, as though it was an expletive. I wanted to respond, “I am not Mexican. I am Turkish.” But that would have been even worse, since they had no concept of geography and would have called me a turkey! Children can be so cruel. Oh, how I embraced my Mexican friends, who never had an unkind word for me. I was an American citizen who still felt like an outsider living far from the beautiful Mediterranean coast that no longer held a spot for me either. I had no roots.
As I grew older, I met my first real international friends at university and immediately felt at home. My ugly duckling demeanor vanished along with my insecurity and baby fat, and I blossomed into a secure young woman; determined to surround myself with a myriad of cultures.
What began with my education in college congealed into a sense of family with the women from IWA. They confirmed my American-ness in a way that embraced patriotism and my Turkish roots. The IWA cultural programs opened channels of discourse about global injustices endured by women and girls. These injustices persist but thankfully many men and women are working together are making inroads.
Women are powerful but cannot do this alone. We need to educate men at an early age to support women if we are to ensure that children are raised to respect and honor one another’s sanctity. Otherwise, there will always be a wall between the two genders.
When we celebrate the collective potential of women, as the following examples do, women are powerful game-changers. There are many women and men who are doing the work, carving a manifesto of equality for all.
Nobel peace prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, reaffirms this in his in his book, Creating a World Without Poverty. Yunus promotes micro-financing as a powerful way to bridge the poverty gap for women who struggle to achieve economic and social parity. Giving loan money to people who had nothing, especially to women, translated into a repayment rate of over 98%. This value proposition is echoed in the Half the Sky Movement, where “Women comprise 70 percent of the world’s poorest people and own only 1 percent of the titled land.” Statistically, 80% of income earned by women goes back to the family, but only 30% of money earned by men is reinvested.
Laura Rose, CEO and cofounder of Greenheart International, emerged into my life serendipitously one spring evening as I was setting up an outdoor sign in front of my gallery. We became fast friends as she explained to me the work she and her husband, Emmanuel Kuntzleman, do with Greenheart, a not for profit supporting a variety of initiatives that connect people and planet to create global change.
Laura and Emmanuel are dedicated to raising environmental awareness, promoting cultural understanding and advocating for world peace. Since 1985, they have partnered with some 250 organizations in 97 countries, providing educational opportunities and scholarships that teach young people to become world leaders.
I think of the love chakra when I hear the words “green heart.” This is exactly what Laura told me when I asked about her inspiration and goals in life.
“The creation of Greenheart was an act of love, of our love for humanity and all of its enormous potential. When we focus that potential to empower young people to not only enrich their own lives, but the lives of others, amazing acts of generosity and kindness occur. We accomplish this by helping to expose our communities, families and participants to the values of social justice and environmental sustainability, creating opportunities for self-reflection in which powerful shifts in perspective occur.”
We have gone far in the last one hundred years, yet there is still much work to do. International Women’s Day celebrates and honors the essence of that which is woman. We celebrate the grandeur of our mothers and grandmothers, and our daughters and granddaughters. We honor those women who do not have the opportunities of education or freedom to choose their lives and live it in peace and serenity.
Although International Women’s Day celebrates women, the day also recognizes empathy, compassion, and overwhelming love. By advocating for justice, opportunity and freedom, we celebrate all humankind.
Michael Ondaatje, in his novel The English Patient, wrote, “We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves….We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.”