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On May 8-13, I travelled to New Delhi, India to receive the Iconic Woman Creating a Better World for All award at the annual summit of Women Economic Forum 2017 titled “Women: Creating, Innovating, Understanding, and Driving the Future”. On the one hand, I was really looking forward to meeting women leaders from all over the world. On the other hand, I was wondering what I could possibly say in my award acceptance speech to relate to women and men of so many different backgrounds. The annual summit of Women Economic Forum 2017 attracted over 2,000 delegates from 150 countries: Australia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cote D'Ivoire, Czech Republic, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, India, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Morocco, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, UAE, UK, USA, to name only a few. The delegates spoke on an exhaustive range of topics such as business, economics, politics, finances, entrepreneurship, social change, education, media, spirituality, and many others. At first, the task of relating to such a diverse audience seemed impossible. However, by the end of the summit, I observed a few common questions and themes emerge in all the talks and discussions among the delegates, regardless of their nationality or occupation.
All voices could be heard
‘Women’s Economic Forum is a supportive platform where women from all walks of life can come to enhance their skills, attitudes, and networks. This year, 18 Women’s Economic Forum events are organized across the world, with the purpose of giving a greater voice and visibility to women worldwide. This is, indeed, the century of women and the caring and cohesive spirit they bring. We need to celebrate the spirit and values of women, because we need those in our troubled times to regain our balance and drive our future with sustainability’, Dr. Harbeen Arora, Founder and Global Chairperson of Women’s Economic Forum (WEF), said before the opening of the annual summit.
The spirit of sharing, openness, and cohesion was, indeed, a driving force of the summit. By bringing together women and men from all walks of life, WEF managed to create a space where all voices and opinions could be expressed, heard, and appreciated, which gave impulse to many open and important discussions.
Women face inequality as early as childhood
‘Listening to many of the talks, I often got a feeling that women competed with men’, Tabish Muzaffer, an Indian filmmaker, shared his impressions of WEF 2017, ‘Why?! Women are inherently superior to men: they are more beautiful, stronger, smarter, and more empathetic. They don’t need to compete with men at all. I don’t understand why they do’. Although Mr. Muzaffer was probably the only man among the summit participants to express his thoughts so boldly, the question that he posed ran as an undercurrent in the speeches of many male delegates of the annual WEF summit.
The many possible answers to this question, in my opinion, were best summarized by Shamsiyya Mustafayeva, Management Development Consultant and Trainer for the United Nations Development Program in Turkey and Azerbaijan: ‘Women face inequality since early childhood. For example, in Azerbaijan where I come from, if a family can only afford university education for one child, that child will always be a boy, no matter what the girls in the family have to say about that. I can speak from my personal experience too: when my brother was a young adult, he crashed three of our dad’s cars, and my family didn’t say a word to him because he was a boy. Whereas I had to walk through my life as an acrobat on a trapeze: any step to the side could be seen as fatal damage to my reputation by my family and, especially, my dad. When women have to face such injustice since as early as they can remember themselves, they want to rectify it and fight for their right to have the same opportunities as men do’.
Fight against inequality begins with a personal struggle
The spirit of fighting, indeed, dominated every session of the annual WEF summit in New Delhi. Different delegates fought for different things in their lives, depending on their nationality, profession, social class, race, and age: equal pay, opportunity to break into professional fields considered ‘male’, the right to choose motherhood or share household chores with their husbands, but most importantly, to be visible, heard, and valued for who they are with all their choices, scars, and human complexity. ‘In our society, women over 50 become invisible. It doesn’t matter how much you achieved professionally or how much useful experience you’ve accumulated, as soon as you stop being seen as a sex object, society is over you’, claimed Marija Ausrine Pavilioniene, a former member of the Lithuanian Parliament. Women from other countries as different as Canada and India immediately empathized with this personal experience of hers.
Personal experiences were at the core of most of the talks delivered at the summit. Almost every speaker had a personal trauma that helped her discover her power and gave her strength to live her authentic life, despite what anyone might say. For instance, Jane Turner from Australia became a best-selling author and writing coach only when she lost her secure civil servant’s job at the age of 52. Neslyn Watson-Druee became a leadership expert in the UK and beyond when her boss told her that she would never get a promotion, because she is competent, intelligent, and black. Jeanette Falotico from the US founded her own enterprise when her husband died and she became a single mother of triplets.
‘My friends call me Wonder Woman’, Jeanette writes in her blog. This definition fit all the delegates of WEF 2017. All superhero fiction fans know that every superhero, be it Wonder Woman, Superman or Batman, have to undergo a major trauma to discover his or her superpowers. However, according to the most delegates, discovering her superpowers is not the biggest achievement of a super heroine. Exercising these powers every day against all odds is. Jeanette put it in words beautifully: ‘It’s hard to watch your husband be zippered into a bag and taken away by the coroner. It’s harder to tell your children, “Your father’s dead”. That’s fortitude. Expecting your mother-in-law to live with you and share in the joy of your kid’s lives forever, that’s honor. Buying a home based solely on your earned income to debt ratio; that’s freedom. Getting out of bed every day; that requires a strength that even I can’t describe’.
The importance of engaging men
So what can be done to ease the daily day struggle of women to have an opportunity to choose their path and live their authentic lives? Is there any way to unleash women’s superpowers without exposing them to traumas and ordeals of epic proportions? ‘Engage the men!’ suggested H.E. Mr. Thorir Ibsen, Ambassador of Iceland to India, in the WEF plenary session “In Conversation with Diplomats”. He gave a convincing personal example of such engagement. H.E. Mr. Thorir Ibsen, it turns out, grew up in a family where he had to share all household chores equally with his mother and sisters. Thus, he knew how to cook, sew, and clean since his early childhood. It wasn’t until he started going to university that he discovered that jobs and chores are divided into male and female. However, this discovery didn’t change his worldview that was formed by his family: all chores, jobs, and talents are equally important in the world, thus they should be equally shared by women and men. This personal experience has led H.E. Mr. Thorir Ibsen to believe that if we want to create society with equal opportunities for men and women, we have to engage men in the process since the day they are born.
A better world for all is not created single-handedly
During the five days that I spent at WEF 2017, before I had to give my award acceptance speech, I came to understand that no one can create a better world for all on her or his own. We can only build thriving society if we rely on each other’s talents, generosity, and goodwill. It is our ability to understand and help a person in need regardless of that person’s gender, nationality, race, age or social class that is the true superpower of the human being.
So in my acceptance speech, I said: ‘I speak in different places: big international conferences and the most remote villages of the world. All people to whom I speak in these different places acknowledge that art has power over them. But when I ask them, “Why do you appreciate art? Why do you go to theatre, cinema, concerts?” People more often than not reply, “To escape our lives”. And this reply bothers me for two reasons. First, how do we manage to create ourselves a life that we need an escape from? Second, why do we use the power of art to escape our lives? Why don’t we use that power to create ourselves a life that we don’t need an escape from? And that’s what I’ve been doing with my life: I have been making art that creates powerful life for me and the people around me, the kind of life that one doesn’t need an escape from.’
To conclude, after long deliberations and observations, I arrived at a simple and straightforward point: no matter what we do and where we live, no matter what our talent and gender is, we all can do our part for creating a better world for all where everybody can live powerful lives. I could see that all delegates of WEF 2017 related to that.