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Daily Beast gathers ‘Lionesses’ to Empower Women

By Tom Watson on March 19, 2010No Comment

Women in the WorldWomen in the World, which unfolded last weekend at the historic Hudson Theater just east of Times Square – where Arsenic and Old Lace made its Broadway debut in 1941 – was the energetic vision of one of New York’s most connected women. Tina Brown, proprietor of The Daily Beast (where I occasionally contribute), assembled this town’s old guard media tribe and then some: Barry Diller, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour, Diane Sawyer, and Charlie Rose mingled with Queen Rania of Jordan, Meryl Streep, Madeline Albright, Donna Karan, Nora Ephron and the ever-present Diane Von Furstenberg.

“My hope is that it will help grow this important message of economic empowerment for women as the key to prosperity, and help spread this message around the world,” Brown told USA Today.

This latest gathering brought together what Brown referred to as “lioness leaders” in the cause of telling stories, getting prominent people (including corporate and media types) more involved, and building a movement. In fact, this movement clearly dates to 1995, when Hillary Clinton famously told the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women that “women’s rights are human rights.” Yet it’s a decade and a half down the road, and the horrors that women endure in fields of conflict, throughout the developing world, and just down the block continue to shock and sicken on almost a daily basis. Just a day before Women in the World opened, a young woman was savagely beaten in the bathroom of a club only a few blocks from the Hudson Theater – reportedly for refusing to dance with the man now charged with her attempted murder.

“Sexual terrorism” carries different meanings in different settings – yet it’s the terrorism part of the phrase that should get more attention. Gender itself is so vast, so seemingly non-organizable. It was no accident that Brown named the Daily Beast’s conference Women in the World; “of” is untenable, yielding more of a soft-touch 1964 World’s Fair exhibit of a title than a call to action. No, this gathering, for all its glamour, had a sharp point with a barbed tip. The barb that stayed caught was the quest for political and economic power. Time and again at Women in the World, I heard speakers talk about meaningful participation in governance and the world economy. This was a gathering of women not content with traditional philanthropy and corporate hand-outs, with slogans and ribbons and rubber bracelets.

Yet story-telling is so important. One of the real highlights was an evocative reading (directed by Julie Taymor) of Seven, a play that is a collaboration between Vital Voices and seven award-winning women playwrights, which profiles seven women leaders from the Vital Voices’ Global Leadership Network. Meryl Streep added Oscar-worthiness to the ensemble cast, which also featured Marcia Gay Harden, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Stephanie Okereke, Archie Panjabi, Julyana Soelistyo, Lauren Vélez. Over 90 minutes, Seven moves its protagonists from the desperation and powerlessness to activism and achievement. But the overarching theme isn’t organizing – it’s bravery.

From Inez McCormack, a civil rights leader in Northern Ireland (portrayed by Streep with humor and a believable Ulster brogue), to my personal hero, Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan, who was played effectively by Aghdashloo, the willingness to court more violence in the pursuit of justice pervades the reading of Seven, whose stories were subtly propelled by sparse sound effects and strong photograpic images on the large screen behind the actors. Seven women, speaking for billions. Seven stories to mobilize half of humanity.

Yet in chatting with Rebecca Lolosoli just before the reading of Seven, I was struck by how quickly village-level organizing can attain a bigger profile – and with it, more of a say in the halls of power. Rebecca is the founder and director of the Umoja Uaso Women’s Village, a community of survivors fleeing domestic abuse and arranged marriages in Kenya. She wears the brilliant colors and beaded necklace of the Samburu and, though Vital Voices, has become a recognized voice for changing traditions that make women into victims. We were talking about the violence in Kenya, and she said that real political power remains elusive.

This echoed the words of Suraya Pakzad, executive director of Voice of Women, which provides women in Afghanistan with shelter, counseling and job training. “Don’t think of women’s issues as a project – women are not a program,” she told a panel on women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakzad, who courageously risks her life to run her shelters, argued that women belong at the table for peace talks. And this echoed the top global issue facing women identified by a coalition of leaders who gathered last fall in Florence under the Vital Voices banner: Lack of political will and accountability.

That technology can help even the playing field is taken as an issue of faith at gatherings like Women in the World. And indeed, the growth of cell phones and networked organizing is changing the landscape quite a bit. As I wrote in the Daily Beast last week: “The systemic challenges facing billions of women in the developing world defy easy, clickable solutions. Yet from linking remote villages via increasingly ubiquitous mobile-phone messaging to improved water safety and cooking tools, technological innovations are changing the lives of women and their families for the better, around the world.”

I heard many people say over the weekend that the network really matters to them – the ability to connect women in remote developing regions to colleagues in NGOs, corporations, and government provides a shorter path to recognition. Cherie Blair talked about her partnership with the GSMA association of mobile operators to get inexpensive phones into the hands of more women in developing nations, where there remains a demonstrable technology gap between the genders. But technology can also bear witness. At Women in the World, the word “Congo” bore as much emotional power as “Katrina” or “9/11″ do for many in the U.S. and the reason to me seemed clear: horrific cell phone images of the victims of infamous mass rape.

“Congo” has become short-hand for sexual terrorism.

Yes, images do matter. In introducing Seven, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the story of her recent visit to Guatemala and the request of an American diplomat there when she met with a a civil rights leader. The ambassador’s request to Secretary Clinton was simple: take a picture with her. “They’re trying to kill her.” A photo with one of the world’s most famous and powerful women carries some power. “Here’s a woman who is putting everything there is on the line.”

The story provided the perfect lead-in to Seven, which is about women who have done just that – and with success. Yet Secretary Clinton warned that “extremist voices against women’s rights are growing louder.” And she took a moment to update the language of her 1995 declaration:

“Women’s progress,” she said, “is human progress.”

Tom Watson, author of CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World (Wiley, 2008) is Managing Partner of CauseWired Communications, a consulting firm advising nonprofits and causes. He can be reached at tom@causewired.com.

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