8 myths to offload so we can really give a shit about women’s rights right now…
I’m sitting in my shower, wet bum on the cold, damp floor, water puddles left over from the morning are soaking through my thick winter leggings. I’ve got a broken kitchen stool in front of me, duct-taped together just a few minutes before. My phone is propped precariously on the stool, one little tap and it will topple. And I’m facilitating a zoom session.
I’m in my shower because it is the only quiet place in the house, a house that is currently under (minor) renovation. I’ve got three guys outside hammering away, and I’m in the shower talking about “doing what lights you up”. It’s a conversation with life-coach and women’s leadership expert Cherine Kurdi, my friend, about her new book, literally Do What Lights You Up. She calls it an unconventional tiny book about finding your passion and purpose. It is anything but tiny because its scope — and its power — is actually massive.
The idea is this: as women leaders, we expect a great deal of ourselves, and society expects much of us. We hold ourselves to account, and seem to put ourselves under a great deal of pressure to “get the job done”. Even if it means using your shower for zoom calls.
Very often, as a result, our own passions, purpose, priorities fall by the wayside. Particularly now, as our lives have been tossed around and tossed out like last week’s salad, wilted lettuce and all.
The zoom session covered the stuff we love and value, the stuff we want to do, and the stuff we must stop doing. We told participants to bring a notebook, pen, and an open mind. We planned a 90-minute guided conversation. And ended up going to almost 120 minutes. No one wanted to leave.
I remember when I met Cherine, maybe eight years ago in a quiet little bookstore-café in Beirut: red curly hair, red heels, heart on fire — even the dullest books were jittery with enthusiasm! I knew she was onto something, something to give to the world, to women — and to me.
There’s something about these workshops on finding your passion and purpose. It’s a rare opportunity to look inward, to hold up a mirror, to see what’s really there. To unpack the inner uglies, I call it. To find the message in the mess.
And there’s been no greater mess in our lifetime than this moment. We’re still hungover from the brutal intoxication of 2020. It sent jolts through our previously-solid systems — politically, personally, pandemic(ally). It’s the tornado no one expected. The dumpster fire no one actually lit — and no one can put out.
And then there was Lebanon. That’s where Cherine and I met, where I lived for four years, and where she still lives. 2020 was an unprecedented disaster for this tiny Mediterranean mass. Government disfunction, civil unrest, an economic crisis, political collapse. That was the foundation even before the pandemic. And then March 2020 brought us COVID, totally rupturing an already-fragile public health system. And then August 2020 brought us the so-called “Beirut Blast” — the third biggest ammonium nitrate explosion the world had ever seen — tearing through the city and destroying homes and lives. My old place used to be right there. No more.
So it’s been a tough year. Of course we want to process it, to collectively reflect, to mourn, to reconnect, to rebuild. To figure our shit out. We all want to come out of this stronger. And that’s what Cherine’s book does. I know, because I read it. Because it’s the kind of book I want to read every year to remind myself of what I really want — and don’t want. And I’m not the only one.
Nearly 300 people registered — about half showed up. Still, a huge turn-out. I was amazed — but maybe I shouldn’t have been. These days, we need such conversations and connections more than ever. Participants did not stop engaging. The chat space was buzzing with courageously honest contributions about people’s achievements, loss, frustrations, fascinations, and promises to themselves. It was powerful.
But it left me thinking. How is it that an event like this gathers 300 — while events on women’s rights (or lack thereof) might barely attract 30 people? Is it a distinction between support-of-self and support-of-other? It might not be that simple. Still, this says something about us, what we think, what we need, what we care about. I want to figure this out.
It is understandable that we are all lost and looking for ways to better understand (and fix) ourselves — certainly before we try to understand others. But it might not be either/or.
I asked Cherine.
“People want to serve themselves first. It’s human nature. Those who want to be there for events on others want to be change agents. Not everyone is interested in that. Even “survivors” don’t necessarily want to be change agents — only because their circumstances might compel them to”.
Yes, that makes sense. But I want to figure out what moves people, what inspires them, what gets them to care. I’m a creator and a curator and a connector by nature — all in service of women’s rights. I want to find out what sets off our collective give-a-shit-o-meter. There’s a secret switch somewhere, I just gotta find it.
The thing is, I am already doing what lights me up. It lit my fire when I was fourteen, and I’ve been burning for this ever since. Because it’s unbelievable that, with 3.7 billion women in the world, we STILL have to argue for equality!
I’m not just talking about equal rights in the law. Sure, that’s important. But I’m talking about our fundamental human right to live lives that are rich and full and fair — to go where we want and be who we want and wear what we want and love who we want (in a consenting-adulty sort of way). Someone please tell me why that’s so difficult to understand?!
Go on. I really wanna hear this.
While some are cooking up excuses and creating obstacles, I’m going to keep going. And I’m not alone. I want to ignite everyday activism in everyday people to build a better world for women. I believe everyone should be involved. I want to figure out how. My hunch is that the only way we ever will succeed is if we see that it’s personal. The reality is that it’s all around us, this inequality, this injustice. It’s not “other women over there” — it’s right here. It is you and me and all of us.
And this understanding might be the entry point to gaining more traction for women rights. “Start where you stand”, I told people in my 2015 TEDx talk. I’m not sure it went very far, but what I wanted to say was that if we all stood up and looked around and understood what was happening, we’d invariably start to care. And when we care, we ACT. It’s when we see that other women ARE us — and we are also other women. The ways in which we are broken might look different, but our desire to be full, recognized, respected human beings is the same.
No one feels sufficiently “fixed” or complete — especially not right now. But there are a few myths we must debunk if we’re going to light our collective fire for women’s rights:
1. This doesn’t apply to me
All women are impacted by our reality of inequality. Even if we don’t feel it directly, we might eventually. Either way, it always is closer than we think. Violence, wage inequality, stereotypes, discrimination, bias, “locker room talk” — you get my point. And once you see it, you can’t possible un-see it.
2. I’m not personally at risk
There’s a danger in assuming that we’re immune to these risks. We’ve internalized our risks so much, we often don’t even recognize them. Curbing our freedom is a reflex — walking in pairs, “call me when you get home”, looking over our shoulder in a parking lot. We spend so much time restricting — shrinking! — our own lives, we’ve begun to think of it as normal. It’s NOT.
3. I’m safe
I want us to believe that safety is a right, but these days it feels like a privilege, because too few have it — although everyone should. It would be naïve to believe that none of this could happen to you or me. For instance, we know that one in three women and girls worldwide will experience some form of violence in their lifetime. No country is immune — so no one is safe.
4. This doesn’t happen to us
It is easy to dismiss stories and situations when we hear about them happening to “other women, over there” — detaining women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, killing female judges in Afghanistan, abuse of protesters in Myanmar, bans on women’s reproductive rights in Poland. These things seem easy to “other”, but we are no different here in the US. Certainly no better.
5. This can’t happen here
No country in the world has achieved full equality. No, not even Iceland. And certainly not the United States. Yes, this happens everywhere. If the above were true, we’d be free from violence, paid equally, and represented in all positions of leadership and decision-making — are we?!
6. We are protected
Do we have laws that protect us? We actually don’t have all of them — and where we do, they remain incomplete or ignored. For instance, the US has not signed the Equal Rights Amendment, which would protect individuals against discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation. In some states, women don’t have rights to make decisions about their own bodies. In some states, child marriage is still legal. Yes, in the US.
7. We have systems and support
Women’s spaces, shelters, support, services are too few — and are very quickly lost or repurposed. Response to the COVID-19 pandemic has done just that, in fact. Public health emergencies aside, services and spaces for women are chronically underfunded. We still turn to our own social safety nets — friends, family, etc. — rather than external sources for support.
8. We took care of these issues ages ago
Considering the abysmal state of women’s rights in this country and around the world, I would argue that we have not yet “taken care of” these issues. We only just got our first female Vice President! While this is news to celebrate, it’s also worthwhile asking why these baby-gains take so long and remain so highly contested. We have ages to go, in fact.
In 2015, I stood on a little red circle for my TEDx talk and told people to “Start where you stand” because yes, inequality and injustice are right here, right now, you, me and all of us. Taking it personally is the only way we’ll ever be able to do anything about it.
And then maybe we’ll have 300 people at the next event on women’s rights too. Only, I won’t be taking that call from my shower.