March proudly presents Women’s History month. With that is March 8, International Women’s Day, which is celebrated all over the world including right here at UW-La Crosse. International Women’s Day celebrates mothers, wives, daughters and their economic and political gains as well as their contributions to society. Last Thursday, UW-L celebrated early by hosting a panel of local international women who shared their personal journeys about overcoming barriers in their home countries.
The panel was developed to help open eyes to the life of different women all over the world. As the women shared their stories, they also opened eyes to 8 realities, some troubling and some inspiring that all range from women inequalities to the power of Oprah.
Reality 1: Equal pay for women is getting worse in some places of the world.
In 1945, women of Croatia gained their rights to vote, the right to work and the right to equal pay for the same position and education level as men. Considering women in the United States are still fighting for equal pay today, this is an impressive achievement for the women of Croatia. However, after the war in Croatia that ended in 1995, there has actually been an increase of gender discrimination. Now, women are paid 11 percent less than men and 22 percent of women are unemployed. Native Croatian Martina Skobic said, “It’s really interesting how some things are reversing for the worse. I really hope that women, because they are so strong and so educated, will fight back to have equal rights and positions and be paid the same.”
Even though equal rights for women in the U.S and other places of the world are getting better, Skobic reminds us that the fight for women’s rights isn’t over. The U.S. has yet to achieve total equality between men and women and in the case of Croatia, the direction towards women’s rights has actually been reversing for the worse.
Reality 2: You can pick yourself up and achieve great things, even after losing everything.
Skobic was living in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war and eventually escaped with her daughter and husband, but not after losing completely everything aside from a few basic things. Skobic had to start an entirely new life but eventually rose above it all. She moved to the states in 1995 where she had a newfound desire to start life from the beginning. She is now the Director of the MBA & International Program at UW-L with more than 25 years of domestic and international legal, business consulting, teaching and graduate education management experience. Skobic’s achievements after everything she’s been through taught us that even after losing everything, a fresh start might be just what is needed to rise above defeats and achieve even more than you had before.
Reality 3: “Women play an important role and are the backbone of society.”– Martina Skobic
In Croatia, 57 percent of master degrees and 54 percent of doctorate degrees were awarded to women in 2011, and 60 percent of the physicians there were women; Ninety-two percent of elementary educators, 65 percent of high school educators, and 46 percent of professors at the university level were also women. More than that, living in a traditional society Croatian women are the ones to take care of the house, to cook and to clean. According to Skobic, “women play an important role and are now the backbone of society.” According to the statistics, it seems Skobic may be right.
Reality 4: “Women are so very underrepresented.”– Kedibonye Carpenter
In Botswana, women are starting to make a change and have much to celebrate this month. Where as in the past women in Botswana were only seen in the kitchen or doing laundry, they are now breaking into the foreground. Women in the tourist business, Botswana’s largest industry, can now be seen as guides and interacting with tourists. Botswana has a tradition of hearing all voices, yet women are just starting to get a voice in politics.
However, Botswana native Kedibonye Carpenter unravels another reality—that “women are still so very underrepresented.” Carpenter remembers seeing women in meetings but never hearing them speak. “Women have issues too,” said Carpenter,” but they are just too afraid to speak up.” The reality is that while women are making changes in the world, they are still very much underrepresented in societies all over the world, not just Botswana.
Reality 5: “Education is Power!”– Kedibonye Carpenter
On a lighter note, women have the power to overcome these barriers through education. As Skobic said earlier, women are strong and educated, and because of this she has hope that they will use their education to succeed. Carpenter is one woman who has used education to succeed in life and said education has always been her priority. As a child living in Botswana, however, education and access to school was a struggle. Carpenter had to learn English on her own, but by taking the initiative to get ahead in life she opened doors to the rest of her life.
After moving to the U.S, particularly to La Crosse, Carpenter took advantage of the education that she didn’t have in Botswana, going on to become the first college graduate in her family. “I’m so proud to be a UW-L graduate and to have come so far in my life,” she said. After she graduated, a professor of hers told her “this is only the beginning,” and he was right. Carpenter is now making a difference in the lives of African Americans as a Statewide Family Engagement Coordinator and hopes to pursue a Ph.D in the future. Learning to speak English on her own and pursuing an education that was unusual for many women in Botswana allowed her to become more successful and make a difference in the lives of others.
Reality 6: “A discouraging society is not good, but maybe it makes you more determined.”– Sheida Babakhani Teimouri
Iran native and UW-L assistant professor Sheida Babakhani Teimouri was top of her class at the university she attended in Iran. When she decided to apply for graduate schools in the U.S, however, her peers were not as supportive. “Everyone told me that I’m crazy; that there is no way I could go to America. Even if I were to get the admitted, there is no way I could get a scholarship or a visa,” Teimouri said.
Teimouri said the most difficult part was getting recommendation letters from her professors who wouldn’t write her any because she was a single woman. “I grew up in suppressive society where people discourage women,” she said. Teimouri so badly wanted to prove that she could pursue this dream of hers. When she finally got a recommendation letter from someone, she was accepted to West Virginia University on a full-ride scholarship. Teimouri cried as she said that this was the happiest day of her life and that she wanted to wave the letter in all of her professors faces. Teimouri is an inspiration and example of a woman determined to rise above a society that was discouraging to both herself, as a woman, and her dreams.
Reality 7: “Oprah is [still] an inspiration.”– Sheida Babakhani Teimouri
Teimouri didn’t learn English until she was eight years old, but growing up she really liked Oprah. She would watch Oprah with her family on their satellite T.V. She didn’t know why she liked her, as she couldn’t understand her, but once she started to learn more and more English it started to make sense. An African American had made it to the top and this was inspiring to her. If there was one thing that all of the speakers at the International Women’s Day Panel had in common, it was that each of them noticed that even cultures on the opposite side of the world have things in common. Apparently, Oprah is one of them.
Reality 8: “Women are one.”
The Intentional Women’s Day Panel event started out with a United Nations video called “Women are one.” The video involves women of different countries singing the same song in different languages. The song is about women of all cultures and backgrounds coming together in order to achieve women’s rights in the world. Gulnara Dreier of Kyrgyzstan said, “I would like people to be close to each other and to understand we are the same. We are one people. We have the same values. And the more we learn deeply about each other, a better world will be around us.”
The international panel taught us many things about the women of this world, but if there were one certainty to take away from their stories, it would be this—that women are one and together they can make a difference in the world for themselves and for others.