The striking juxtaposition of the preternaturally perfect Angelina Jolie, waifish and wispy in a ghostly gown, and the scrappy Pakistani schoolgirl Malala, her face cruelly misshapen by the effects of a Taliban bullet to the head, captures the confluence of feminine power assembled here to “lean on” the world to save women and girls.
Not lean in, as you’ve heard incessantly the past few weeks, referring to Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s book about empowering already empowered women. While Sandberg wants to help women crash through glass ceilings, Tina Brown, supernova of her own galaxy, wants the civilized world to lean on governments and corporations to scrape women and girls off the dirt floors of their man-made prisons.
Brown’s fourth annual “Women in the World” summit at Lincoln Center is testament to what one woman can do to change the world. Disclosure: I am a Tina Brown fan and sometimes write for her publications, Newsweek and the Daily Beast. But I became a fan the old-fashioned way: She has done something I admire. This summit and those assembled — courageous women and girls who struggle for basic human rights — would convert even the most committed cynic into a born-again feminist.
This confab isn’t about getting women into country clubs; it’s about letting girls go to school without risking a bullet to the head. It’s about letting women leave their homes to go to market. It’s about changing cultures that treat women like animals (or worse) and saving them from honor killings and abuse.
Yes, there are celebrities: First-namers such as Angelina, Meryl, Oprah. “Homeland’s” Claire Danes made an appearance. Barbara Walters, journalism’s eminence grise, led a no-nonsense panel on why Americans should care about women in Syria. And yes, where there are stars, there is a red carpet. But these particular stars lend their high profiles to a cause greater than themselves.
Why should Americans care, indeed?
At dinner, I sat next to a tiny woman I recognized from Jody Hassett Sanchez’s human trafficking documentary, “Sold.” Sunitha Krishnan is a former Hindu nun who rescues girls and women from the sex-slave trade in India with little help and dangerous recognition. Though she has been beaten for her work, she perseveres for such beneficiaries as the 8-year-old girl who was locked in a room with a snake until she submitted to prostitution.
Our conversation circled around why more Americans don’t care about honor killings, systematic rape and human trafficking of women, girls and even boys. Perhaps it is in part tragedy fatigue, I suggested. These stories are so overwhelmingly awful that emotional exhaustion sets in. Besides, we have our own challenges and, well, you can’t save everybody.
True, but when you save one woman, you save an entire family. Eventually, you save a village, and a society and finally a nation. More to our immediate interest, women’s security elsewhere corresponds directly to our own security.
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton summed it up this way in remarks Friday at the summit: “It’s no coincidence that so many of the countries that threaten regional and global peace are the very places where women and girls are deprived of dignity and opportunity.”
Among the many inspirational speakers from around the world, two of the most captivating were young Pakistani women who became activists for girls’ education, creating schools of their own, when they were just teenagers themselves. Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoyshowed clips of one of the young women, a mere slip of a girl at the time, facing down village men, explaining to them that they thwart girls’ education because they feel threatened by independent women.
For a woman or girl to even talk to such men is a revolutionary act, requiring bravery of an incomprehensible order.
Why should we care?
We should care because, finally, we may have no choice. But more important because, as Clinton stated way back in 1995 at the Women’s Conference in Beijing, we should care because women are human beings, too. Yet even now, she said Friday, “too many otherwise thoughtful people continue to see the fortunes of women and girls as somehow separate from society at large. They nod, they smile and then they relegate these issues once again to the sidelines.”
Fighting for women and girls isn’t “a nice thing to do. It isn’t some luxury that we get to when we have time on our hands,” said Clinton. “This is a core imperative for every human being and every society.”
Amen, sister. Lean on.