People amaze me. With their strength; their courage; their resilience; their tenacity; their compassion. I think there’s nothing more powerful or empowering than feeling inspired by the personal story of another – learning from their struggles and triumphs, gaining strength from their patience and determination, feeling emboldened by their resolve and commitment. As a writer of personal stories, and as Chief Inspiration Officer of MoverMoms, I have the privilege of learning people’s stories and sharing them with others — from a man at a homeless shelter, a former mayor of an African town, writing a book to encourage young people to dream big; to hundreds of girls in remote villages in Pakistan and India clutching their pencils as tight as their dreams; to Nobel Peace prize winners starting a movement by planting a seed or raising their voice.
Our 13 year old son Zayd has always loved tinkering – making things out of rubber bands, paper clips and cardboard that he finds in his desk drawer, coming up with science experiments to prove his various theories, rummaging the woods for supplies to build backyard shelters for creatures, doing snap circuits in every conceivable permutation. He especially loved tinkering with his grandfather, the engineer; you can imagine the joy this gave my dad. Last time we went to visit my parents, my dad bequeathed to Zayd a book that I always remember seeing around our house growing up: The Reader’s Digest Fix-It-Yourself Manual. He signed it to Zayd, “Take good care of this book. I am very impressed with our work.” I hope Zayd continues to tinker to his heart’s content. I hope he creates, and invents, and experiments, and concocts. And when he comes up with something really cool, I hope he takes it to school to share with his teachers. And I pray that they are amazed.
Here’s a letter Zayd wrote to his school administration.
When I heard about what had happened to Ahmed Mohamed at his school in Texas, I felt something that I can’t really put into words. It’s like the feeling you get when you study for a test for a week, stay up until 11 the night before trying to understand everything, and then end up flunking the test – it’s a mix of anger, sadness, and being confused. How can a 14 year old boy, just like me, be arrested and forced out of his school in cuffs for bringing in a clock? I’m pretty sure if this was anyone else of any other faith, name, or background this wouldn’t have happened. This looked like a clock, it worked like a clock, it was a clock. Anyone else would have been commended heavily for creating something like this at 14; but his name was Ahmed, so it must have been a bomb. How can Ahmed’s teacher listen to the blatant lies that the media is feeding the world about Islam and Muslims. What is even more remarkable is that even after Ahmed was arrested and interrogated and not given his rights and found not guilty, he was still suspended from school and the mayor of the town he lives in still defended the school’s decision. Now that this has finally taken heat on social media, there is a bright side. People can now see how foolish and utterly unacceptable it is for religious stereotypes to go to such an extreme. Of course you cannot get rid of all stereotypes, but to go so far as to arrest a 14 year boy just because of his religion is wrong and hopefully people all around the world can see this now.
I’ve always loved to experiment and make things, especially circuits with my grandfather and all sorts of contraptions out of things I’d find lying around. This weekend, I went to the Maker Faire and was inspired by all these young inventors. It was amazing to see kids even younger than me, make drones that take pictures, a 3D version of checkers, and a laser baseball speed sensor with a patent pending. Maybe one day I’ll invent something really cool too.
Twenty years ago this week, I attended an event that changed my life. On the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and on the anniversary of Hillary Clinton’s speech there, I wanted to share my reflections on an inspiring and unforgettable experience.
Twenty years later, the images haven’t faded: women in saris, business suits, colorful African dresses, and abayas wading through ankle-deep puddles, carrying arm loads of pamphlets and materials, searching for meeting sites on incorrectly marked maps. For eight of our ten days in Huairou it poured. Tents set up for our meetings hung limp and damp. There was no drainage. Hastily laid pavement blocks succumbed to the ever-softening mud. But the women were undeterred. Huddled under canopies and umbrellas, cardboard boxes and shared raingear, we discussed, mobilized, advocated, educated, and negotiated.
In late August 1995, over 30,000 of us gathered in Huairou, China at the non-governmental forum for the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women.
We arrived from every corner of the world. Many had never before left their villages or towns. Some spent their life savings to make the trip. We journeyed to Huairou to focus world attention on issues that matter most in women’s lives: access to health care, education, jobs, credit and the right to enjoy basic legal and human rights.
I traveled to China in August 1995 as a representative of the Commission on Global Governance, an independent group of 28 leaders from around the world. I flew Finnish Air from Geneva via Helsinki to Beijing. It was a packed flight. Not a single man was on board (except perhaps the pilot). The energy was contagious – plans were being made, experiences shared. There was a sense of impatience, of urgency. As we landed, someone shouted from the back of the plane. “Let’s make history.” I had goose bumps. Little did I know that my journey had only just begun.
The Chinese organizers tucked us away in Huairou, 40 miles north of Beijing, fearing we would be too annoying in the capital, would run around naked in Tiananmen Square or hang our “unmentionables” on hotel balconies. Many of us stayed in Beijing, waking up at 6 am each morning to take the bus to Huairou. Dropped off at one end of town, we would trek what seemed like miles in the rain, lugging our boxes of flyers and programs through the maze of tents, buildings, and half-finished concrete apartment blocks, hurriedly converted into shopping centers. The organizers probably hoped we would give up and go shopping instead.
The women in Huairou were just like you and me – homemakers, teachers, lawyers, policymakers, and doctors; mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, workers, and leaders. They were strong, passionate, articulate, and committed. Each had a story to tell. I wanted to hear them all. I met a young Muslim woman from Turkey. She was probably 25 or 26, bright, eloquent, and positive. In one of the workshops on women in Islam she spoke so honestly about the hijab and why she wears its. I met another woman from Tibet. She was determined to be the voice for all her Tibetan sisters. She spoke to me about taking responsibility: “All of us in the free world, we take so much for granted every day,” she said, “our ability to choose how we live our lives, our rights, our freedom.” Her message was clear, and echoed what Hillary Clinton would later say: those of us who had the opportunity to be in Huairou have the responsibility to speak for those who could not make it.
Hillary Clinton, then First Lady, gave what many still regard as her most powerful remarks. Her words still echo loudly in my conscience: “I believe that, on the eve of a new millennium, it is time to break our silence. It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights… If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, it is that human rights are women’s rights. And women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”
My emotions ran high. For so long, perhaps all my life, I had been able to hide – behind my gender, my family, my culture, my husband. There was nowhere to hide in Huairou. I felt exposed. I had to confront myself, alone. What did I stand for? What am I passionate about? What do I believe in? And what am I going to do about it.
These questions haunted me in Huairou. I wanted to talk to as many women as I could to learn from their experiences: how do they raise their families? How do they balance their work and family lives? What inspires them? What gives them courage? What makes them cry? I let their stories wash over me, hoping I could imbibe their sense of purpose and determination.
Perhaps for the first time I understood the incredible gifts women share: their capacity for compassion and self-sacrifice, their courage and perseverance, their patience and tenacity, and their tremendous ability to love and connect. And that however different we may be, we are joined by common circumstance.
I would later discover, that I was six weeks pregnant while I was in Beijing. Maybe that’s why I felt such a sense of urgency. My daughter is going to live in the world that I am helping to shape for her. She’s going to benefit or hurt from the choices I make, from my action and inaction.
Twenty years later, I still don’t know all my answers. But at least I know better what questions to ask. I ask myself every day. And now, my daughter asks her own set of questions.
Sometimes it takes only one person to open your eyes and make you think. In my case it took 30,000 … and one.