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Iron jawed angels

Despite gains over the years,women have more to strive for

Despite gains over the years,women have more to strive for

March 18, 2007|by PEPPER BALLARD

At her home in Afghanistan, Wasima Naseer could not have stepped outside after dark without a man by her side.

Naseer, who is studying economics and international studies at Wilson College, a women's college in Chambersburg, Pa., said she was "scared" the first time she walked alone after dark nearly a year ago in Oregon.

Naseer, 22, said that now, running errands and stepping outside by herself has become "normal."

It has been more than 80 years since women in the United States won the right to vote and it has been about five years since women in Afghanistan broke with some of the country's male-dominated traditions.

Despite the many gains over the years, some women interviewed for this Women's History Month story believe there is still much to be gained in the United States.

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"Men aren't the enemy here. Sexism is the enemy," said Julie Raulli, sociology professor at Wilson College, referring to the ideals of bell hooks, a feminist cultural critic who was born Gloria Jean Watkins on Sept. 25, 1952.

On March 8, which was International Women's Day, Raulli was wearing a T-shirt that read, "Well-behaved women seldom make history."

As Raulli spoke, Wilson students were perusing a display showcasing similar T-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers for sale to promote women's awareness. "Sweet Honey in the Rock," a female African-American a cappella group, played softly in the background.

"Women are still paid less, there are still issues of sexual harassment, domestic violence and sexual assault," Raulli said.

She said that although Nancy Pelosi was elected Speaker of the House and Hillary Rodham Clinton is the first viable female presidential candidate, the congressional makeup is not representative of women. Less than 15 percent of U.S. senators are women, she said.

"I think that says a lot," she said.

'Eye-opening experience'

To Nepal native Sumayal Shrestha, a Wilson College junior who is studying economics, studio arts and sociology, living in the United States for the past two years has been an "eye-opening" experience.

"We have more freedom back home than we have here," Shrestha said. "People think our culture is oppressed. When I came here, I knew nothing of feminist ideas."

She said that in India, women are equally represented. While she's been in the United States, Shrestha said, she has looked inward and has become empowered not just in her gender or in her sexuality, but in her nationality.

She said she hopes to work for a development bank in her country when she returns to Nepal.

Naseer, the Afghan woman, said she hopes to return to her country, too, but not until the violence there has ended.

Women are gaining freedoms in Afghanistan, she said, adding that she won't return until she is allowed to walk and drive by herself - freedoms she's enjoyed here.

Boys and men always had more choices than girls and women in Afghanistan until about five years ago when forces invaded the country as part of the war on terror. The Taliban regime prohibited women from many freedoms, Naseer said. Since the invasion, more girls are attending school in her country and more women are speaking up. Still, rapes and forced marriages continue, she said.

"The trend is to become equal," she said.

Her family suffered when Naseer left her country alone. Naseer said her parents have been labeled "liberal" for allowing their daughter to be independent.

"Neither in the U.S. nor in Afghanistan, are the rights between men and women equal," she said. "If you could take the positive points in the U.S. and those in Afghanistan, then a good society will be established."

'Further to go'

In the United States, women "have come a long way, but they still have further to go," said Maryland Commission for Women Executive Director Dory Stacks.

The Commission for Women, which is made up of 25 volunteer female commissioners appointed to four-year terms from across the state, focuses its work on reviewing legislation involving women's issues, offering women's services, encouraging political activism and acknowledging women's achievements.

Stacks said recognition of women's achievements has not reached the point where a month is not needed to recognize their importance.

"I think that women throughout history have not been acknowledged, for instance, in history books. I think it's important to know how women helped," Stacks said.

Looking to the future, Stacks said the Commission for Women is watching women in "the sandwich generation," who not only have to care for their children, but for their elderly parents, and state legislation that would increase work benefits to enable them to do it better.

She said the Commission for Women is concerned about women's awareness of postpartum depression and is watching for future legislation on a vaccine for HPV, a sexually transmitted disease linked to cervical cancer.

The Commission for Women also would like to see increased penalties for child sex offender predators.

The legislative process

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