On the day before International Women’s Day, I spent the afternoon at the State Department with a group of fabulous women. They were the winners of the new International Women of Courage Awards, created by three State Department women: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky, and Andrea Bottner, the senior coordinator for the Office for International Women’s Affairs.
The awards are part of a brand-new program that asks American embassies around the world to nominate women who have shown exceptional courage and leadership advocating for women’s rights and advancement. Eighty women were nominated and ten were chosen. Nine women were in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department to receive their awards. One of the ten couldn’t make it. A Latvian journalist named Ilze Jaunalksne, she had broken a big story about a vote-buying scandal that involved prominent national political leaders. She was harassed, and her work was disparaged. Then she made even bigger headlines when she took the government to court, successfully suing officials for illegally tapping her phone and then releasing the tapes. She couldn’t attend the ceremonies at the State Department, but she had a good excuse: She’s about to have a baby.
Each of these women had an amazing story to tell. Dr. Siti Musdah Mulia is small and pretty and was elegantly dressed in a sparkly blue outfit. She is a Muslim feminist from Indonesia, the first woman to earn a PhD in Islamic Thought from the State University of Jakarta. She has used her knowledge of the Koran to advocate for women’s rights. For instance, she helped draft a version of Indonesia’s Islamic code that included recommendations for banning polygamy and child marriage. Because of this, she has received death threats, but she continues to inform Indonesian women about what she believes are their rights.
Another awardee was Dr. Samia Al-Amoudi from Saudi Arabia, another remarkable woman with an inspiring personal story. An obstetrician and gynecologist, she diagnosed her own advanced breast cancer. Even though she was a well-known doctor–a former vice dean of a medical college in Jeddah–she had to struggle to get appropriate treatment for her disease. She was the first Saudi woman to publicly share her personal battle with breast cancer, since it is a taboo subject there. By breaking the silence, she has helped many Saudi women seek earlier and better treatment.
At the ceremony Secretary Rice said, “It is not possible to think about democracy without thinking about the empowerment of women. One of the nicest gifts that I’ve ever gotten was a t-shirt from the women of Kuwait, shortly after they were given the right to vote, and it said, ‘Half a Democracy is No Democracy at All.’” The future of the Middle East perhaps depends more on improving the status of women than on any other factor.
Two of the recipients of the award came from Afghanistan and two from Iraq. The Afghan women, Mary Akrami and Aziza Siddiqui, both run programs that help protect women from violence. Both have also received death threats. Ms. Akrami runs a shelter in Kabul while Ms. Siddiqui travels the countryside, encouraging girls to attend school.
The two Iraqi women seemed to reflect some of the differences in their own country. Dr. Sundus Abbas is a journalist and a director of the Women’s Leadership Institute. She was dressed in a sleek pants suit. Shatha Abdul Razzak Abbousi is a teacher specializing in both biology and Islamic studies. She was dressed very modestly, with a head scarf and a long coat-like dress. Both are involved in their country’s politics and in important reconciliation efforts.
Last week I spoke to a class at Harvard about women voters and the presidential election. At one point, a woman asked me how I could say there are so many opportunities for women in America when no woman had ever been president. I replied that that wasn’t the point. The fact is that America gives opportunities to many, many women, and not just the ones with political ambitions. Yesterday it was clear once again that part of what is so great about this country is that women here do not need exceptional courage to do a job or speak about an illness or help other women achieve. But it is inspiring to know that in other places there are amazing, courageous women. They deserve our attention and our support.