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In Their Own Words

The women’s conference in Beijing brought forth many issues of concern to women globally. What got lost in the reporting was the way in which women came to know each other as “fellow” women, struggling with everyday issues of family and work. In this look back at the conference, some of those women share their life stories.

During three recent weeks in China, thousands of women gathered for the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women and the NGO Forum on Women ‘95, held in Beijing and nearby Huariou respectively. They came from all walks of life - tribal villages, rural towns, bustling cities. They came as mothers, daughters, wives, grandmothers. Their purpose was to help craft a guiding document that would guarantee women’s rights into the next century. Here are a few of their personal stories.

Afaf Ahmed Abed Alraman lives in Sudan, in the city of Khartoum. She is a Muslim who abides by the strict codes of female dress mandated by the Islamic religion. While she does not wear the “hijab” - the black veil that covers all but the wearer’s eyes - in public, she always dons a head scarf, long dress and long sleeves.

Alraman says this makes her feel safe. “I feel I am more respected. It gives me dignity. I don’t feel as female.”

She has a degree in economics and politics and a postgraduate degree in international relations, but she only works part-time so she can spend more time with her three young children. Most women in her country go to college, but many opt to stay home and be wives and mothers, she says.

“In our society, men do not work so much in the home. Usually the mother and the daughter serve the husband and brothers.”

She explains how the prophet Mohammed gave instructions on how to eat, dress, talk, walk, pray, buy and sell. The traditional dress serves “to move a woman from being a servant, a sexual object, to a human being. The sexual is very dangerous. It destroys the family but also builds the family, for without sex there would be no family.”

Every rule, every law, she says, is about safeguarding the family, which in turn safeguards society. In her country, men and women cannot swim together. Abortion is illegal. The punishment for adultery is death.

Only married women are allowed to use contraception, and no woman is allowed to travel without being accompanied by a male family member.

Lungkiam Dambul Minudin grew up in a small, impoverished village in Malaysia. There were no paved roads, no running water and no electricity. Her father was a peasant farmer. She spent her days helping her parents and 10 siblings scratch out a meager existence.

But she was smart, and her good grades in primary school allowed her to go to a government boarding school. In this way, she escaped the fate awaiting most of her peers - usually an early marriage, repeated pregnancies and the hard-scrabble life of a farmer’s wife.

“My parents could see very far ahead, and they didn’t discourage me to go to secondary school, as so many of the other parents did with their daughters.”

A government scholarship enabled her to go to a university. She became a teacher and eventually earned a doctorate in education. She married a young man from her village, and together they came to the United States on scholarships. They took turns taking care of their small children.

“Being in America was very good for my husband,” says Minudin. “It made him less of a … what do you call it? Male chauvinist pig.”

Now she is the head of an educational counseling section of a big company and a consultant in Malaysia. She feels lucky to live in a country where there is no “obvious” discrimination against women. But there are still some lingering discriminatory rules. If a woman marries a foreigner and has children, for example, they are not considered Malaysian, and in a divorce she can lose custody.

With her blond curls and Scandinavian looks, Ingunn Aagard could be a Norwegian poster child. Her life testifies to the equality that has made Norway the envy of feminists all over the world.

For the past 15 years, Norway has been led by a female prime minister; women hold more than 40 percent of Cabinet posts. Most women go to college and work, and most women have small families, she says.

“It’s an equal society in many respects,” Aagard says. “The men help with the housework, with the tending of children. … You’ll just as often see a child crying for father as crying for mother.”

Still, it’s not perfect, she says. Aagard is the adviser in the equal opportunity department at Trondheim University. Although many women teach at her school, a mere 5 percent occupy upper professor positions, especially in science and math.

Because of this, her department has started a recruiting program aimed at getting more women in the upper academic echelons. Nobody in Norway complains about affirmative action program, she says.

People are also very open about sex, says Aagard, who has lived with the same man for 10 years and has two young sons. Sex education is taught in schools.

“There is a lot of discussion formally and informally about how to combine equality and sex, who is to decide what to do, how to be respectful, to know another person’s limits, to behave responsibly.”

She is baffled by the approach to sex in the United States, where people seem “puritanical” about the subject but at the same time obsessed with it.

Growing up in northeast Brazil, Suzana Maranhao enjoyed the privileged life of a doctor’s daughter. She had servants and private religious schooling. She was insulated from the misery that surrounded her in one of Brazil’s poorest regions.

Then she went to college. “I was awakened to injustice,” she says. “My eyes were opened to the begging on the streets.”

When a dictatorship took over her country, Maranhao became the leader of an underground student resistance movement. She married the leader of a communist revolutionary group, and the two did their best to stay one step ahead of the police.

During this time Maranhao had a baby, a little girl with a mental disability. She cared for her for a year, then turned her over to her parents. “I had to go into hiding from the police, and with a child it would be too easy to find me,” she explains.

She and her husband fled to Chile, then to Paris, where they lived for eight years. While there, she had two more children and became one of the 1,000 or so Brazilian refugees who participated in the first awakenings of feminism in France.

She and her family returned to Brazil after an amnesty movement took root. She became a founder of a feminist socialist movement focusing on workers’ rights. Today Maranhao works in the Brazilian slums, trying to make life better for the women and families who live there.

Priscilla Olekambaine lives in the city now, but her heart belongs with her clan, in a small tribal village in Tanzania. She grew up as a member of the Masai, a nomadic tribe. Her people are known for their seriousness, their forthrightness. A Masai never “dilly-dallies,” she says.

“What really governed our lives was the idea of dignity and respect regarding your age and sex,” she says. “We put tremendous value on the family. … As you grew, you were tied socially to your family, and from that you were tied to your clan.”

After a woman married and had children, she was regarded as superior. “Engitok” is the name for this elevated status that only women can attain.

“Although the men would go out to war and rustle the cattle, at home the woman reigned. She was the wife and mother, and head of the allimportant job of maintaining the family, which was the key to everything.”

Olekambaine is atypical of the Masai, because she has a college degree and has traveled to Paris and England. Today she is the director of the Ministry of Community Development/Women and Children’s Affairs and lives in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam with her husband, also a Masai, and their four children.

Tuten Ayla Ang of Istanbul, Turkey, looks like everyone’s favorite grandmother. But beneath the gentle smile and dancing eyes lies a fierce intellectual mind. Ang was raised in a “cultured” family, she explains, where a physician father and teacher mother encouraged two daughters and a son to hone their minds. Life was filled with violin lessons, plays, reading and studies.

In 1938, a man named Kemal Ataturk spurred a revolution in her country that allowed such freedoms, she says. Though Muslim, he discarded the use of the veil and ordered the use of the Latin, as opposed to the Arabic, alphabet. For the first time in Turkey, she says, religion lessons were not taught in the schools.

In this progressive environment, Ang thrived. She went to the University of Istanbul and earned advanced degrees in philosophy and literature. She spent 11 months in England on a scholarship.

For six years she taught at Istanbul University, then served as a psychologist for the Ministry of Health. Her husband and two children are also university professors.

But she worries about the increasing stirrings of Muslim fundamentalists, who want to bring the veil back and reinstitute religious instruction in the schools.

“I want to be optimistic, but these movements seem very much against women,” she says.

Anyone who fears young people today have lost their ideals should sit down with Serin Houston, 17, for a few minutes. It’s hard not to get caught up in the young American’s enthusiasm about wanting to make the world a better place. She’s not sure exactly how she’s going to do it - environmental science, maybe, or perhaps a focus on women’s studies - but she’s definitely going to do it.

“I’m going to take a year off before college, though, and travel as much as I can before I throw myself into my studies,” she says, handing a cookie to a gurgling young nephew, whom she helped care for during the Beijing conference.

Houston graduated a year early from high school in a leafy, idyllic rural town in Vermont called Craftsbury Common. It was a picture-postcard kind of place, she says, but “many of the people there are somewhat limited in their view.”

She later allows that some people in her hometown are “racists” and “homophobic.” Fortunately, she says, she was able to take refuge among the professors and professors’ kids at the small agricultural college at which her father was dean.

“It really allowed me to blossom,” she says of the college atmosphere.

The family moved from Chicago as urban exiles when Houston was 3 months old and started a llama farm on 50 wooded acres.

She found a mentor at her high school in the 10th grade, a woman who “opened the door” for her on women’s issues like domestic violence. She began volunteering at a battered women’s shelter and participating in marches.

But as a “smart kid” and class valedictorian, Houston had to deal with the kind of pressure that comes when you don’t go along with the crowd.

“In eighth grade it was really bad,” she recalls. “People would say things to me like, ‘Why don’t you just fail? It’s much more cool.’ “Today I totally believe in myself,” she says, smiling. “I survived pretty good.”

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