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Soon-Young in Indian dress
Soon-Young with indigenous peoples' caucus in Rio


Navigating the Boundaries of Identities

“If every path you take comes back to you, then you will never move ahead” (Kung Fu Panda)


I never thought that potatoes and onions would ever attract my intellectual curiosity, but lately, these two legumes have turned into a giant metaphor about gender and politics. Potatoes as a cornerstone of political analysis appeared long ago when Karl Marx wrote about French peasants as “potatoes in a sack.” Marx didn’t think much of the French landed peasantry as an ingredient in his recipe for class revolt. If anything, this highly individualistic, entrepreneurial group symbolized everything he didn’t like about citizens who would never unite as a class to defend their own interests. He turned his attention instead to the industrial working class. He hailed factory workers – and their potential for direct action – with flattering metaphors, none of which were vegetables.

A gender perspective on Marx’ metaphor about potatoes and peasants exposes a gender bias in his assumptions. As feminist scholars have often noted, he had only one gender in mind: They were all men. Taking his analysis one step further, we can raise the level of unflattering analogy to outright insult. The exterior of the potato holds its main nutrients, seeds, and cellular complexity. The innards on the other hand are dismissed as uniformly bland. Drenched in gravies, curries, sugar, and spices, their true flavors are hidden. As the ultimate culinary chameleon, the potato’s essence is kept hidden from view.

My latest thought about women is that we are not potatoes, but rather a flavorful collection of onions. For women, the complexities of private life are much more exposed. Each of us carries around layer upon layer of identities.

Being a woman is just one way I see myself as an onion. Peeling away other identities to arrive at this is not only possible, but it can be done without crying. In fact, for many women who join in a demonstration or successfully rally around International Women’s Day, the creation of a oneness that is united across all differences is an empowering experience.

The world’s women and girls have become more than vegetables thrown together into a sack. We have stripped away layers and layers of identity until we found a common identity. Our consciousness as women is almost primitive, primordial, and fundamental enough to let us join hands with strangers from different nationalities and pledge allegiance to each other’s causes. Whether we are English, Mohican, Zambian, or Burmese, we manage to find a common bond at our core as wives, mothers, sisters and women. We often rally around each other’s issues with one voice, no matter the various issues we hold most dear, from promoting of breast feeding to protesting genetically modified foods to defending the rights of victims of sexual violence during conflict.

It feels good to be an onion. It feels even better to know that you are in the company of others – in fact, a little more than half of the world’s population. I credit feminists for forging this mass sisterhood. We picked an identity that is one of the biggest categories of the human species. Maybe the more we have, the more we know that we are still growing. I wish that men could cross over the gender line just once, so they could understand how much fun it can be to be female.

For an elaboration of this idea, read the article on “How to peel an onion without crying”. You can also watch the video.

Mothers and Sons

Did you ever hear the riddle about the boy whose father was a famous surgeon? The child grew up fine and strong, but when he was 15-years-old, he and his father had a car accident. By chance, they were taken to different hospitals. The boy’s critical condition required immediate surgery. When the surgeon was called, the doctor said, “I can’t operate on him. He’s my son.” (Hospital rules prohibited physicians from operating on members of their own family.) The mystery is: Who was the doctor?

Give up? The surgeon was his mother, and she could not treat her child. If you took more than ten seconds to answer the riddle, you probably should admit that you’re struggling with gender stereotypes. Don’t worry. Women do not typically think of surgeons as female either. In most countries, they’re not. High-level medical specialists, hospital administrators, and ministers of health are – on the average – male. On the other hand, nurses, lab technicians, and medical secretaries are mostly women. This gender hierarchy in health reflects a general trend in the sciences, such as engineering, environmental sciences, physics, and mathematics. The same holds true in the multibillion-dollar health industry where women work mostly in the lower paying jobs.

The UN Commission on the Status of Women recommends that governments take stronger measures to end the gender gap in science and technology education. However, this will take considerable effort, because we must undo centuries of male biases. For example, Britain’s elite Royal Society, established in 1662, did not admit women until 1945. Unequal access to education, cultural biases against science and technology careers for girls, and other lifelong limitations have contributed to fewer women at the top of their scientific fields. By 2020, only 23 women were Nobel Prizes winners in the sciences and medicine compared to 599 men.

We have to learn more about how boys develop positive gender values. We hardly know enough about this process cross-culturally. It would be fascinating to conduct an anthropological study of sons with mothers who are professionals in medicine and the sciences. Do these boys adjust well to the idea that a woman can compete in a man’s world? When sons grow up, are they more likely to be supportive husbands of working wives? Do they become better teachers and encourage female students to pursue any career they want? My intuitive response is an optimistic “yes.” The opportunity is there, at least.

Besides the influence of UN and government policies, changes in men’s attitudes can make a difference. In Sweden, the women’s movement has stimulated a men’s movement for gender equality. This men’s movement is certainly an interesting trend that merits more attention. Women who have achieved recognition in the sciences and technology can also influence a generation of young men to give gender equality for women and girls a chance. Boys need women as role models too.

Competing on a Level Playing Field

Our Daughter learns Taekkwondo

When my daughter was 12-years-old, she came home proudly holding broken blocks of wood. She held them like prize plaques, one in each hand. “Guess what? I broke this with my foot today at Taekwondo class.” I stared in amazement at the one-inch-thick pieces with their stone-like surfaces. She swore that it was easy if you hit the block fast and hard enough. At my request, she demonstrated the martial arts motions. She clenched her fists in boxing style as the right side of her torso swiftly twisted upward. Her knee locked, then released with an aggressive snap into the air. Only the blood-curdling cry of triumph was missing. I moved aside to give her more room to repeat the kick.

Judged by traditional Korean standards, her body movements could hardly be called “feminine.” Conventional social rules dictate that female gestures should be close to the body – inward and folded, not splitting apart in the air. A hand should cover the mouth when laughing. The knees should be together when sitting. These conventions of poise and modesty become part of a corporal repertoire that the body learns from early childhood. Playing sports helps the body widen its range of personal expressions and identities. That’s sufficient justification for citizens to support public sports programs for girls.

There are more good reasons to support girls’ sports programs. When girls are allowed to compete equally with boys in sports, their self-esteem seems to gain ground. Fathers should not hesitate to make sure this happens. In the 1920s, when my mother was in high school, she created a scandal in Pyongyang by playing sports. Her long Korean skirt got a little in the way, but she chased a ball around the courts, just like boys. Swimming in the river was also on her list of after-school activities. Her confidence to pursue these interests got a boost when my grandfather publicly supported her “tomboy” behavior.

I’m not suggesting that girls should fight their way through a hockey match or take up violent sports just to prove their worth. Emulating these “masculine” behaviors are low on my list of what sports should teach girls. However, many lessons, like team playing, leadership and discipline, are invaluable life skills. Research shows that sports can help girls feel more secure about their bodies, mostly because they are evaluated for how they perform, not just how they look.

Courage is another character trait that a challenging physical activity can contribute to girls’ self-image. Many children who study Taekwondo can’t strike the wood (or a brick) forcefully enough because of a natural childlike fear of self-inflicted injury. As my daughter overcame her apprehension, she pushed herself into the unknown. In so doing, she took an important step forward to improving her self-esteem: She took a chance. That gave her a high score in my books for sportsmanship. However, we should add 10 points for what really counted. She bet her right foot on the possibility that she could succeed. That show of courage is the real reason I installed her broken pieces of wood, with historic dates inscribed on the bottom, to the family Hall of Fame on a high shelf for all to admire. It reminds us that one glorious day, she hit a target just right and broke a block of wood, opening a space that would always be hers.    

Big Bindi

During a meeting at the Asia Institute for Science and Technology in Bangkok, Thailand, I approached a student to ask about Canada’s foreign assistance in South Asia. However, the topic of conversation quickly changed. I couldn’t take my eyes off the black plastic dot that decorated her forehead. Known as the “bindi”, the dot is a common accessory for young Indian women. In this case, its large size almost overwhelmed the symmetry of her eyes.

“That sure is a big bindi,” I said. She laughed and lifted her eyebrows to animate the bindi into a playful wiggle. Everyone has a distinguishing trademark, and this was hers. “I’m known for my big bindis,” she explained.

I asked her opinion about the origin of the bindi. “For most modern Indian women, it is just a decoration like a nose ring or bangles,” she said, “but I suspect men invented it to distract other men’s attention away from their wives’ beautiful eyes. For me, a bindi is a decoy. It’s the first thing that strangers see before our eyes meet. It gives me a chance to give them a quick look-over.”

The foreign aid debate was put aside. The origin of the bindi had to be settled. A small group gathered around to listen as I laid out my theory. I had heard that the bindi originated in religious rituals. After prayers, Hindu priests always bless the devotees with red powder. In that setting, both males and females wear the mark called the “tika.” Some scholars say that the tika is a religious symbol representing a drop of blood of demons killed by the goddess Durga, a marker of  the victory of good over evil. Now that’s the kind of cosmic power everyone should be proud to carry around on their heads.

What about the bindi from a feminist perspective? According to custom in rural India, only married women have the right to wear it. Young girls are not allowed, and widows must give up their bindis. The discussion was rapidly turning into a feminist critique of the bindi. Why shouldn’t widows have the right to adorn their heads any way they wish? One observer pointed out that maybe widows were happy to be free from the mark. “I think the bindi was originally used to mark slaves,” said a student, “and married women in India are slaves to their husbands.” That promoted a lot of muttering in the affirmative, and it looked for a moment as if these students were going to take to the streets in a mass revolt.

However, cooler heads prevailed, and there were no demonstrations. Some young women noted that old taboos are changing these days. Who knows whether the bindi symbolizes women’s spiritual power, marital bondage, or maybe some kind of natural fashion sense? The bindi is obviously in the eye of the beholder. Whatever its origins, this simple plastic dot on a person’s forehead is clearly full of cultural meaning and deeply embedded in issues of identity. More research needs to be done. For now, my conclusion is simple: Bindi is as bindi does – and big bindis do it better.”    

Hairy Tales and Rebellious Girls

Soon-Young at Halloween 1990

If you are having a bad hair day and want to try red highlights or some other radical look, you might want to consider how such a dramatic makeover might be received in other cultures. In some societies, your haircut reveals your cultural and possibly even your political leanings. Our coiffures are like billboards, sending instant messages like “I am willing to compromise” or “Don’t you dare tell me what to do.” If you revolutionize the outside of your head, you could be projecting what is going on inside.

Girls throughout the ages have changed their hairstyles as a sign of political rebellion. You would be surprised how some patriarchal authorities reacted. Take the famous case of the students in Sichuan province during the 1920s. At the time, girls wore long braids and did not cut their hair until marriage. Dejun Qin, a believer in equal rights for women, had other ideas. She joined a progressive group called the Intuition Society and thereafter began to dress like a man. One day, she cut her hair short, and two other female students did the same. Her style, known as the “Napoleon”, was straight and very “unfeminine.”

According to a report in “Women in China”, Dejun’s mother caused a scene, because she believed that cutting hair before marriage revealed corrupt morals and violated Confucian teachings. The girls had to leave school. One was sent back to her hometown. Another was forced to marry against her wishes. Dejun left home and joined the Students’ Autonomous Association at another girls’ school. Social reformers had heard about her outrageous short hair and rallied to her cause. The association even organized a play about her haircutting incident.

“Napoleon” and “Washington” hairstyles eventually turned into a movement that swept the province. Conservative parties rallied against the students and alerted the police, saying that if the girls were allowed to continue, their rebellion “would affect the morality of the state.” As a result, the police issued a prohibition on short haircuts for girls. Unfortunately, for parents, placing a ban on hairstyles rarely lasts. If you ever walk the streets of modern Beijing, you can easily assess which side of this controversy won.

There is a boys’ side of this hairy tale as well. In most cultures, since girls’ femininity is identified with long hair, boys who let their hair grow out are believed to have crossed the gender line. In several cultures, long hair for boys is taboo. Before Princess Diana’s visit to Nepal in 1993, Nepalese police rounded up long-haired boys in the streets and shaved them into crewcut in an attempt to make them more “respectable.” The move backfired, and the young men earned a lot of public sympathy. Newspapers carried editorials with titles like “Spare my hair” and “Long live long hair.” There were also serious stories about the boys’ human rights and hair rights.

If you think making decisions about your hair are important, you’re dead right. Also, if you live in a society where you – and not the police – are the ones to decide how your hair looks, be thankful, live it up, and try something new. I hear that Jello makes a good green.

The Nurturing Instinct

Chinese Man with child in Beijing 1995

A father bends over to look at his tiny newborn daughter, and his nurturing instincts stir inside. To give her a head start on a future career as an actress, he tries to teach her his favorite folk song. In public, he barely looks at the infant, but in the privacy of his home, he plays age-old baby games, like peekaboo or clicking his tongue to get a reaction. If the baby should accidentally gurgle, he declares that she recognizes him. In his eyes, she is already the most intelligent child in the world – and she is only three days old.  If this baby should turn out to be a genius, her father will probably deserve some credit.

We used to think that children’s brains were genetically determined by the time they were born. Thanks to positron emission tomography (PET), which images the brain, it seems that nurturing activities, like rocking, singing, and talking to babies, actually stimulates the brain’s development. This can start very early in life. According to some researchers, babies in the womb can recognize their parents’ voices. A child only four days old can tell the difference between the French “Bonjour, mon petit choux.” and English “Hello, my little cabbage.”

Some traditional childrearing practices in developing countries may even have unusual positive effects on brain development. For example, in most Asian, African, and Latin American cultures, there is prolonged physical interaction between parents and infants, particularly in poor households where mothers do not hire caretakers. In Latin America and Southeast Asia, many mothers carry children all day as they work. African families often sleep with children, so it is rare for a child less than three years old to be alone. From the “Western” point of view, this continual contact with the child might seem excessive. As one American woman said, “Doesn’t the baby need a break from all that attention? Maybe a little privacy?”

Knowing this, what happens to victims of domestic violence, refugees, or street children? Scientists report that trauma inflicts irreparable damage to the brain’s neurotransmitter and that stress hormones wash over the brain, contributing to the possibility of abnormal brain development. Does this mean that all children less than three years who have lived through wars will be intellectually disabled? What happens to those who are nutritionally deprived? In Bangladesh, it is estimated that nearly one half of babies are born malnourished and with a low birth weight. We know that this puts them at a disadvantage for proper physiological development. However, does this mean that these children will also have learning problems?  Probably not. The truth is: We do not know. In particular, we don’t have definitive answers about how cultural differences in child-rearing influence the intricate interaction between the social environment and childhood brain development. Until we have answers, we must avoid falling into the facile cultural determinist view that disadvantaged children are a “lost cause” because of poverty.

Even in extreme poverty, grandfathers, fathers, older brothers, and other male family members can help mothers with child development. Men can promote healthy intellectual growth from day one. This doesn’t mean that the men have to use flash cards or high-tech learning aids with their infants. It only takes the usual “goo-goo, ga-ga” fun, loving care, good nutrition, and...well...maybe more of that singing.

What Men Can Do as Feminists

At the UN, the governments of Iceland and Suriname sponsored a “barbershop conference” for male ambassadors, so they could “let down their hair” and talk confidentially about male behavior and gender identities. Greta Gunnarsdottir, Iceland’s former ambassador to the UN, thought of this unconventional event because she wanted to see what role men could play in combatting violence against women and gender discrimination. I overheard one ambassador say, “The majority of men don’t beat their wives, so we need to start by talking with other men about why this is happening.” This speaks to the problem I’ve always had with women’s fight to end violence against women. We are not the source of the problem, so why do we think it is our sole responsibility to fix it?

Good politicians have learned that women leaders do not like men to speak for them. However, there is a lot that men can do to speak for themselves. Spokesmen in the male-dominated arenas of politics, economics, and cultural and social life can and should take a more active role in reforming men’s attitudes about girls and women. Groups like Man Up and the White Ribbon Campaign are setting excellent examples of how men can validate and support the women’s movement by taking the lead in reforming themselves.  

Men can also contribute to gender equality by re-examining their roles as husbands, fathers, and sons.  In the biographies of many outstanding women leaders – including my revolutionary aunt – there is an approving and encouraging father, uncle, grandfather, or teacher. When it comes to a decision on inheritance, marriage, or education, a father’s strong stand on equal financial help for girls in the family can turn the tide of a family quarrel.  

It should go without saying that all men should loudly condemn both the practice and practitioners of spousal or child abuse. Sons and brothers can be particularly effective allies of girls in their families. Men should be encouraged to join in the UN’s battle against domestic violence through awareness training and human rights education for boys. And this should start at the highest levels of the UN and government because men’s leadership for gender justice matters.  

The next generation is changing, and more young men are sympathetic to – and even calling themselves – “feminists.” Young men and non-binary people who become involved with the women’s movement are markedly more courageous than men of the older generation. Some are enjoying the new experience. One young Arab man volunteered to photocopy documents for me during a meeting of women’s organizations in Amman, Jordan. I asked him how he came to help at a women’s meeting. Laughing, he said "Look, when I told my friends I was going to help at a meeting with 1,200 women, they all asked where they could sign up."  

He would be interested in the definition of gender. Gender is the social relations between men and women and patterns of behavior which are cultural, not biological.  If unequal treatment for women is learned behavior, it can also change. This gender concept can work to men’s advantage as well. Some women are coming around to the idea that men are not destined to be male chauvinist pigs by nature. Now, isn’t that a reason to take heart?

Racism is Thin Skinned

They say that you have to educate children about racism, but sometimes kids can teach a good lesson to grown-ups. When my daughter, Song-Mee, was four years old, she asked me how to tell who was Korean and who was not. Trying to keep it simple, I told her that most Koreans had black hair. A few days later, my Ethiopian friend, Belkis, visited. Song-Mee came running to me after meeting her and was very excited. “Oma (Mother),” she said, “Belkis is Korean! She has black hair!” Until she was seven years old, Song-Mee continued to classify people by their hair color.  

In some ways, she was scientifically correct – or at least as incorrect as almost everybody else. In anthropological terms, “race” based on skin color doesn’t exist. The criteria for the classification of the human species is arbitrary and often contradictory.  Pick a hair color in any classroom, and you might have three so-called “races” of red, brown, and blond students. Use skin color as the indicator, and many Brazilians would be in the same category as Egyptians. If we use a blood type for classification, we would be divided into “races” of A, B, or O types. The bottom line is that if we rely on scientific evidence, race as a biological phenomenon does not exist at all.  

However, racism does exist, and among other things, it challenges the feminist and women’s movements to take action. At the 1995 NGO Forum on Women in Beijing, women of many cultures went beyond condemning racism. They truly confronted the issue of diversity in the women’s movement and turned it into a rallying cry for unity.

How different this was from only a decade before, when governments agreed on the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies passed in 1985. In that document, various “special groups” were discussed at the end of the document, almost literally as an afterthought.  These “special groups” included youth, indigenous peoples, older women, and refugees. In contrast, the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) emphasized the diversity of women’s needs, backgrounds, and circumstances. It recognizes that although all women may suffer discrimination as a whole, some are at a greater disadvantage than others.

Much of the credit for this shift in emphasis goes to women of color who were not content to have racism mentioned as just another human rights issue. Indigenous women in particular saw racism as a key factor in the creation of their poverty and political inequality. During the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, they worked long into the night to bridge the gaps between their significant cultural differences and to arrive at consensus statements.

The lesson from the BPfA is that putting diversity in the limelight can help build unity. In the “real world”, racism and other forms of discrimination like those against non-binary people still exert their power, but the international feminist movement is strong and determined to counteract. For my part, I tell my daughter that she has the right to be any color she pleases. She just should make the most of it.

Our Bodies, Our Surgically Improved Selves

Noelene Heyzer and I walked the tropical beaches of Rio de Janeiro in a very Asian fashion, huddled under an umbrella to shield ourselves from the hot sun. In this setting, we were the oddballs. The Brazilians seem to cast aside all cover-ups on these shores. Right before us was a happy young woman, her bare roundness in what is known locally as a dental floss bikini. Her sweaty, lean back was a perfect piece of physical form. No doubt, she had a place of honor in the species of beautiful beings. Not far away, young men stood in small herds, playing games of body gazing. Tourists like us were recognizable, because our jaws dropped in amazement.

At first, Brazil’s blatant body cult seemed quite innocent and even fun to me. I soon learned its dark side: The less you wear, the higher the probability that your best parts are the result of a surgical makeover. Brazilian servant girls are known to spend their life savings on cosmetic surgery. It seems to be the craze. Sometimes, plastic surgery is used to lift the nose, just a little, to give it that tantalizing movie star quality. The medical processes can also be more serious and costly. Breast implants are as common as the removal of unwanted bulges and a realignment of the silhouette. Plastic surgeons have become as central to beauty treatments as pedicurists and hair stylists. In the end, the operations leave you barely recognizable, which seems to be the point of it all.

Most psychologists would agree that an obsessive preoccupation with redoing the imperfect body is a reflection of deep insecurities. Trying to live up to someone else’s unreachable ideal is a sure way to undermine your self-esteem. The problem is that women internalize superficial societal ideals, then blame themselves if they come up short.

Ironic, isn’t it? Even the sunbathers who are proud of their “au nature“ look may be unable to express their natural personalities. Insecurities may be so deeply internalized that any cover-up personality is welcome. All kinds of wrong “looks” are put on. Yes, it sometimes gets hot in the feminine psychic closet. Maybe that’s what brings us out to walk the beaches.

Women’s views about body image and identity are poorly understood, partly because of the traditional male bias in psychological studies. We could protest against mental health treatments that traditionally judged women against male personality standards. On the other hand, we could also develop a higher standard of our own. Becoming a “self” that is dependent on looks is probably self-defeating. Our surgically improved bodies will eventually abide by Mother Nature’s laws: sagging in all of the “wrong” places and revealing our real selves. Wouldn’t it be better to put less emphasis on body image and upgrade the whole “self” – mental and physical?

I am reminded of a Buddhist philosopher’s insight that much of the chaos in the world reflects a similar state in the human mind. If human beings expect to promote harmony with nature, they must surely come to better terms with their first ecology: their bodies. For women, that means becoming more self-confident and setting their own standards. For men, the solution is surely the same.

A Child of the Twenty-First Century


Mazin Gabriel Kanafani, my nephew’s first child, was born on August 21 at 11:30 PM.  A slight 6 pounds and 13 ounces, the baby was nevertheless an evolutionary wonder, combining Arab, Korean, and German-American traits into a single DNA power pack. Upon his birth, everyone could see that he was the most beautiful child in the world, but we struggled to decipher his family resemblance. His father claimed that his softly curved nose, oval ears, and determined mouth were from the Kanafani Palestinian blood line. Rising to the challenge, I pressed my sister – Mazin’s great-aunt – to make sure that the Korean side of the family also staked its claim. However, except for his warm skin tone, my sister could not find a single feature that resembled her own. His dark brown eyes seemed like possible candidates, but they turned bluer every day.

Arguing that looks aren’t everything, I scrambled for the anthropological angle. I was sure that many excellent features from our Korean ancestors were embedded in young Mazin’s genetic code. For example, he must have inherited the cold adaptation that North Asians have developed through natural selection. The fatty layer under the skin and slightly recessed eyes will be a great survival advantage, particularly if he has to migrate on foot with animal herds across the Bering Straits. This had barely landed when counterbids from Mazin’s mother’s family, the Orshelns, poured in. They declared that the baby’s light brown curly locks came from their hearty Northern European-Germanic line. On that point, we all agreed.

Growing up in America with multiple cultural identities will prove challenging. Mazin’s father always respected his own Islamic heritage, but his son, like many Arab-Americans, will be raised as a Christian. Mazin’s parents hope that their boy will live up to his name – Gabriel, or “strength of God.” The first signs were promising. In his first photo shoot, he resembled a Buddha with his eyes closed and long fingers folded into a prayer.

His family outings will include typical American holidays, like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween, although he may encounter an unusual linguistic jumble. My brother’s grandchildren only understand Korean. Mazin’s paternal uncle’s children, who once lived in Denmark, speak Danish better than English. While communications across language barriers will prove trying, Mazin will enjoy the culinary variety of his multi-cultural family. He will be treated to Thanksgiving turkey dinners that include exotic dishes, like Lebanese kibbe, Korean kimchee, and a Scandinavian dessert.

If he becomes curious about the dynamics between the “foreigners” in his family, I will tell him that some of his relatives were independent pioneers. They placed love above racial and religious differences and courageously trespassed across cultural borders. Psychologists could easily predict a looming adolescent crisis, but this mixed bag of identities should not be seen as a liability. Quite the contrary; it is a precious gift of global citizenship, a birthright that puts Mazin in the social avant-garde of the 21st century. Some day, he may travel in faraway lands, looking for his roots. He will smile when the family contest of claims begins again. His relatives in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia will all greet the young American with open arms and say, “Welcome home.”

Feminism and Faith

Feminists often respond to political events as emergencies, not unlike firefighters rushing to the rescue. Calls for help on urgent matters such as dowry deaths and climate change light up the NGOs’ switchboards. The responses are swift and often effective, yet there remains a backlog of issues. Ethics and spirituality are among the most serious that have been put aside. Many feminists would agree that these intangibles are the essential elements of raising awareness and personal commitment, but few feminists volunteer to give these topics the attention that they deserve. If you asked an average French feminist her thoughts about religion and women’s futures, she is likely to respond, “What’s faith got to do with it?”

The answer might be different if we asked women from Brazil or Argentina. The secular branch of the Latin American women’s movement has been forced to admit that religion has a lot to do with feminist politics. Women in fundamentalist movements have steadily grown in influence, fanning fiery international controversies in the process such as those surrounding early “menstrual regulation.” Many Roman Catholic women have supported legislation to imprison women who have had abortions. A broad coalition that includes some Protestants and Muslims, they rally under the banner of “family values” that upholds traditional gender roles. Ultimately, fundamentalism tests a woman’s willingness to be obedient without question to husbands, fathers or religious authority.

This is no trivial power play. I am concerned that such values are gaining a large following partly because they fill a personal void. Our quarrel with institutional religions has been so entangled in opposition politics that we may have neglected our own spiritual challenge.

A small group of women has veered from this secular trend. For example, women in Pakistan and Tunisia are reinterpreting Islamic doctrine to uphold women’s rights. Buddhist women have worked in the women’s movement for years. Within the Catholic church, dissidents advocating reproductive rights have rebelled against papal authority on other issues, like women in the clergy. These dedicated women have been active in the international movement, but their religiosity has not always been welcomed into the secular mainstream.

Years ago, at a meeting on the Earth Charter in Boston, I saw a glimmer of hope. The participants at the Boston Research Center meeting called “Women and the Earth Charter” came from both religious and secular women’s groups. These groups exchanged views on a wide range of questions as broad as “Why do we live?” to “How do we relate to nature?” and “Where does a women’s perspective fit in?” Maximo Kalaw, former director of the Earth Council and the founder of the Earth Charter initiative, said “In the Philippine tradition, we have a saying that in each and every person, there is a ‘looh’, an inner self where the heavens and the earth come together. This is the only space where one can speak a truth for all.” The group delved into topics that were not often discussed at feminist meetings, such as inner and outer harmony, spiritual balance, and ethics. We defined religion in our own terms – not as patriarchal institution, but as beliefs and values.

If spirituality is measured by the strength of one’s faith in life’s creation, then I believe that the international women’s movement is the one of the most spiritual experiences of our century. Either that, or we are all unhinged. The facts suggest that women have little cause to hope. Nevertheless, whether we are atheists or God-lovers, we ultimately believe that Good triumphs over Evil.

Faith has everything to do with feminism. It is only a matter of correctly defining our terms. We should bypass the traditional notion of institutional religion and focus more on the inner life. Women have nurtured and empowered a spirit that affirms an irrational faith in the goodness of humanity. In a world that is quickly losing hope, that could make all the difference

How to Peel an Onion Without Crying

I am a global citizen who has worked for the United Nations most of my life. My work has taken me to every continent. I talk about countries as if they were people and I keep track of ten world clocks on my iPhone. In the past 12 months, I have attended meetings in Geneva with the World Health Organization and joined demonstrations at the Conference of the Parties meeting at the Paris Climate Change conference. Last month, I helped train women’s organizations in Cairo, Nairobi, and Beirut.

In every country I have visited, I have to answer the question: “Who are you?” You might think that the answer is simple. But if you are working in remote rural areas of Africa or Latin America and you look like me, the answer gets pretty long.

Me: I am the UNICEF consultant.
Rural woman leader: Yes, but where are you from?
Me: I live in Hoboken, NJ.
Rural woman leader: No, where are you really from?
Me: Oh, I was born in Pyongyang, North Korea, but I grew up in Ann Arbor Michigan. (Here, I do the “hand thing” to show the shape of Michigan.)

Truth is, no matter what I said about originally being from Korea, most villagers in Africa or Latin America that I met would be talking the next day about this Chinese UN official they met. What have I learned as a global citizen about who I am? I am an onion with many layers of identities. Some are true, some are even imagined by myself – and many are just wrong. The real me is somewhat hard to define because it is evolving all of the time. The real me is – from one situation to another – subject to change.

When we are born, we obviously have no control over our identity. According to Korean tradition, my grandfather gave me my name in Chinese characters (see slide) that mean “peace forever.” In many ways, growing up was a process of defining more and more of my own identity. Throughout high school, I was the prime achiever as a cheerleader, vice-president of my class, and art editor of my yearbook. Then came the rebellious years of my university days as an anti-Vietnam War activist. Long days and late nights were spent raising money to get my friends out of the Washtenaw county jail. That was when I nearly failed an anthropology class. The one constant theme in this part of my life – in varying phases – was that I was a student.

Then came abrupt changes in my life [that] was my transition from student learner to teacher. This transition – from university to work – can be very jarring. One day, you are the student, asking the tough questions someone else is supposed to answer. The next day, you are the grown-up who is supposed to have the answers. I remember the first time some introduced me as an “anthropologist”. Was that really me now? It was – and there was no turning back.

My life in anthropology didn’t get off to a happy start. I couldn’t stick with a teaching job in East Lansing, Michigan, because I couldn’t imagine myself settling into a professor’s life. It seemed like a very confining space, one that might close doors to the real world. I had lived in the United States most of my life, but my universe – the one I really lived in – was the whole world. Reading helped me imagine myself in French villages, the Trobriand Islands, and Thai villages.

I wanted to change that world – hands on – and not just by writing books. When I really dug deep into my emotions and wondered where I would be happiest, I realized that I had to try to work at the United Nations. I was trying to match what was inside with how I would spend the rest of my work life. Where would I start this international journey? Even though I didn’t speak Korean, I packed my bags and left to teach at Ewha Womans University. Korea, after all, was where I started my life and where I might just find a new one.

I had an interesting experience during my early days, teaching at Ewha Womans University as a Senior Fulbright Scholar. One day, my soon-to-be husband and I decided to go the US army base to have dinner. He is my biological opposite – over 6 feet tall, blond, and of Anglo-Irish descent.

When we got to the gate, the guard looked as us, ignored Rick, and never even asked him for proof so he could enter the compound. Instead, he turned to me and asked me for my venereal disease card. At that time, this ID was required of Korean prostitutes visiting the US Army base to prove that they were disease-free. I was totally puzzled, but I showed him the only ID I was carrying with me that allowed me to enter the grounds. It was a US Embassy pass with my photo on it. The guard let us in.

Here’s another case of mistaken identity that was not as funny. In the 1970s, I was travelling to Jordan with a Palestinian couple in my new French car. At that time, all of the borders were heavily guarded, because the week before, a Japanese woman traveling with a Palestinian couple driving in a foreign car had bombed a hotel in Amman. When we got to the Jordanian border, I rolled down my car window to give the soldier my passport, and suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by armed guards, guns pointed at our heads. They made us get out of the car, and for the rest of the day, they stripped my car nearly bare, tore out the lining of its doors, took out the back seat, and opened every bottle and package they could find in my luggage.

When I asked why we were being detained, I was told something I will never forget. The soldier holding my passport, waving it in my face, said, “This is a fake passport. You are obviously Egyptian.” I was an Egyptian terrorist in the company of a Palestinian couple, on my way to bomb another hotel in Amman. We got out of this mess only because my friend was an officer in the Jordanian Air Force. By evening, someone came to our rescue.

So, I know how it feels to have a serious disconnect between my real identity and what others think of me. What is the one lesson to learn from this? Even if you can’t change how others see you, you can decide what you make of it. Will you be utterly destroyed? Is your identity totally wrapped up in what work you do? What defines your worth? I think one of the hardest battles in life to hold on tight to our own identities no matter how many times our jobs may change.

If you are wondering what to do with all these layers, try to peel your onion. I promise you can do this without crying. In fact, it may even make you happy. Being a global citizen means that sometimes you peel away all layers – of nationality, age, ethnicity and even gender – until you reach the core as a human being.

When I held a UN laissez-passer (the UN equivalent of a passport), I travelled as a UN citizen, not as an American. I had to think and act on behalf of every man, woman and child--in all their diversity--in every culture, on earth. I had to stand up for human rights, and my responsibility was to make choices fit for all of humanity.

In the development work I have done, whether digging water wells with UNICEF or advising governments about women, health and tobacco, my sense of purpose was always focused on how the UN could bring hope and dignity to those it served. Ultimately, what we strive for as global citizens is to give everyone a chance and a right to discover and fulfill their own potential, free from prejudice, poverty, and violence. What we wish for everyone is the right to define his or her own identity.

Everyone can peel away his or her layers of identities. At the opening of the NGO Forum during the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, I looked around the stadium at the faces of 10,000 women and men, boys and girls, and asked myself, ‘What are they doing here? Why have they come?’ For the next few weeks of that meeting, I looked for my answer – and then I found it.

One day, I walked into a tent at the NGO Forum and saw a group of women dancing the hokey pokey. These women could not understand each other’s languages. They came from different religions and cultures; they were different ethnicities and ages. But there they were, celebrating their oneness as women. They had stripped away all identities until they found a common one. And they had done this on purpose of their own free will. Somehow, through this gathering of fairly ordinary women, victims changed their identities to advocates. Those who thought they were alone felt connected to millions of women around the world. And the international feminist and women’s movements gained a momentum that cannot be stopped to this day.

So, you can see why I like being an onion. We have the power to change our identities, but we also have the power to help others be true to theirs. My parting words to you who wish to make the world a better place is this: If you want to change the world, learn more about who you are – and who you can be.

For a further elaboration of this idea, you can also watch the video: