Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Greatest Stories Seldom Told

This is a question I have been asking for a long time. I am not referring here women made famous or popular by virtue of their physical appearance or social status but to female achievers who broke the rules and challenged the status quo in order to raise our collective awareness or improve our standard of living at some level.

We are familiar with the token few like Indira Gandhi and Rosa Parks who have made the male-dominated honours list over the years and we respect and admire them for their courage and achievements. But where are the thousands of others who have beaten the societal odds stacked against their success? It would appear as if they been forgotten or relegated to the shadows of obscurity while their places are taken by usurpers like spiritually-duped female suicide bombers, the fashionistas or misguided femme fatales of entertainment, desperate to be cast as an object of desire in a male fantasy world.

Is this the face of “self-realized or idealized” womanhood that is being continually projected to the young women of colour around the world? If these are the exemplars who are favoured or fawned over by the media, then the face of womanhood that is projected to the world is disfigured and incomplete.

I am not denying the right of any woman to have her moments glory in the limelight. The unfolding story of womanhood must be told with all its characters and each woman's role is significant in our collective evolution.

However, an increasing number of women are breaking through the glass ceiling to find places as decision makers at the highest levels of business, formal education, science, technology, entertainment, community development and government. Yet, the females who are most frequently highlighted in the popular media are those who shock or titillate us with their sexuality or erratic behavior rather than the ones who inspire, uplift and educate us as a society.

It is almost becoming a media-manufactured reality devoid of balancing elements to make the picture complete. My research has uncovered thousands of female achievers past and present, whose notable and sometimes awesome accomplishments have been underreported or overlooked over the years in favor of the “It Girls” or preferably “The Bad Girls” whose tabloid-worthy antics are now being headlined in the so-called respectable media with alarming frequency.

One such woman whose accomplishments fascinate me is Dr Alonda Oubr, a medical anthropologist, writer, and research consultant. Over the past twenty years she has worked relentlessly to bridge the gap between orthodox modern medicine and complementary alternative healing practices. She is one of the few African-American scientists trained in ethnopharmacology, defined as the study of medicinal plants and other natural substances for pharmaceutical use.

During the 1970's, she studied traditional Chinese, African, Native American and Hawaiian herbal medicines with a goal to integrate these non-Western healing methods into traditional Western medicine. In 1992, she joined Shaman Pharmaceutical as a staff scientist, becoming perhaps the first full-time medical anthropologist for a pharmaceutical company. Her studies in physical anthropology and human evolution have added new dimensions to the complex subject of race and race relations.
Why haven't we seen or heard more about her or her invaluable work?

Much has been written about the Bollywood beauties in the international media but the world knows very little if anything at all about Sarojini Naidu, who defied caste and gender discrimination in colonial India to fight for the emancipation of women and welfare of impoverished Indians. She spoke five languages and excelled at universities in India and England. In 1925, she was elected as the President of the Congress, the first Indian woman to hold the post. She was an ardent patriot and an outspoken critic of British rule in India and colonial exploitation elsewhere in the world.

Naidu visited New York in 1928 and expressed outrage at the unjust treatment of African Americans and Native American Indians. In 1930 after returning to India she was arrested for her radical, anti-colonial stand and she along with the great Mohandas Gandhi spent several months in jail. In 1942, she was arrested again on orders from the British authorities during the “Quit India” protest and spent 21 months in jail with Gandhi. In 1947 India became independent and she was appointed Governor of Uttar Pradesh. She died two years later with the honour of being the country's first woman governor.

What about Abay, a young woman from Ethiopia's Muslim Afar tribe. The Afar "circumcise" all their girls by the time they are 12, a practice they claim to be ordained by Islam. Abay refused to accept this practice fled her village at the age of 10 to live with her godfather in Addis Ababa.

Eight years later she returned to her tribal community as an outreach worker for a humanitarian organisation and decided to campaign for the end of female genital cutting. She was threatened by men of the tribe who accused her of attempting to destroy their culture. Abay however, did her research and showed them it was never written in the Koran that girls must be circumcised. Using graphic footage of the painful ritual, she single-handedly convinced the all-male village elders to end female genital cutting in the village. Now she is working hand in hand with others to end the practice in neighbouring Afar villages.

Not too many women outside of India know the real story about Shahnaz Husain, chairwoman of Husain's Herbals, who was married off at 15 years of age and became a mother one year later. She started her business from humble beginnings at her home in New Delhi using knowledge her grandfather taught her about ayurveda. This is an ancient Indian system of herbal healing involving the use of herbs for medicinal as well as cosmetic use. These traditional products have been used in in most Indian homes for hundreds of years but Husain was the first entrepreneur to recognize the immense marketable potential of ayurveda remedies. After several years of challenges and hard work, Husain's determination paid off and today she ranks among the top twenty billionaires in India.

These are the stories of four amazing women randomly plucked from the thousands waiting to be told or retold in a jaded, wounded world desperately in need of genuine feminine softness and strength. Unfortunately, this very real face of womanhood is being denied widespread and consistent expression in today's popular media.

I felt goose pimples on my skin as I read about these women. It made me realize that with the right inspiration and some psychological support a woman can transform her circumstances, her community and by extension her world. It is in her DNA; she is genetically predisposed to creating, nurturing, inspiring and healing. But too often she stands alone against her difficult circumstances and the siege of negative stereotyping all around her. She must be reminded of her her worth and potential and it can begin with more stories describing women of substance and their journeys to self-realization.

-Carol Ann Mohamed

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