Sunday, May 10, 2009

Addressing a Women's History Month Assembly

Originally posted in Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, March 21, 2007

The Women’s History Month Assembly at my daughter’s school was coincidentally scheduled for March 8, which was also International Women's Day. Another parent and I were asked to address an assembly of Kindergarten to 5th grade students. We both followed a group of fifth graders, who celebrated the contributions of some very eminent women.

I was asked to bring an international perspective to the presentations, and I did that by sharing a bit of the personal and the political.

I shared some of my defining experiences - of growing up in Bombay, India, now called Mumbai, where my sister and I had our dreams nurtured by supportive parents, who strongly believed in education. We went to a girls’ school, where the female teachers, principal and student leaders nurtured our ability and potential– we were given every opportunity and encouragement. My sister went on to become an architect, and I a chemical engineer, and both of us came to the United States to attend graduate school.

I shared with the kids the one constant of my childhood – Indira Gandhi, the first woman Prime Minister of India, who held elected office from 1966–1977, and then again from 1980. Her presence made it possible for us to imagine female leaders, much like for the kids of Iceland, who saw a female President, Vigdis Finnbogadottir from 1980–2000, and the kids of about fifty other countries that have had female leaders.

I also shared with them some of the other facts about the world we all share..
That New Zealand was the first country to grant women the right to vote in 1893, and that women in most countries have had the right to vote since the 1950s.

That, today, Brunei and the U.A.E. do not give men or women the right to vote.

That today, Saudi Arabia is the only country where women cannot vote at all and that in Lebanon, women can only vote if they have at least an elementary education.

That the country which elected the first female head of state, in modern times, was Sri Lanka – they elected Sirimavo Bandaranaike as Prime Minister in 1960 - her photo is the one appearing above.

That of the 192 countries in the world, approximately 50 have already had female heads of state – and these include countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Dominica, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Yugoslavia.

That only two conditions are needed for anyone running for president in the United States – that they are natural born US citizens, and that are more than 35 years of age.

I of course hope that all the kids at that assembly realized that women can become president today, and little girls can aspire to it, if they so wish.

I also recommend to all adults and kids, two wonderful creations, that I came across during this journey – they might reshape our ideas of how a leader would look., a site by a Danish journalist, which allows you to take in images of leaders from around the world, and “Madam President,” a picture book by Catherine Thimmesh, which details the “Extraordinary, True (and Evolving) Story of Women in Politics” in the United States.

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