10 Fascinating Quotes From Women Around The Globe

I recently completed a half-year journey around the world where I visited twenty different countries across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In each country I visited, I interviewed women to understand their perspectives on what life is like for women in their countries. I asked women to tell me about the greatest challenges women face where they’re from as well as what being a woman has meant in their own lives. Many women were hopefully optimistic about the state of gender equality in their country while others were more cynical and pointed out that while laws may guarantee rights for women, culture and tradition often usurps legal protections.

While I attempted to diversify my sample in terms of age, race, and region (I interviewed women in cities, small towns, and villages), these interviews are in no way representative of women at-large in the countries I visited. However, they do provide an interesting snapshot of women’s lives across the globes. They also remind us that despite women’s differences, in some ways the challenges we face are universal. Issues like domestic violence, workplace discrimination, and sexism in politics are happening everywhere, though the extent to which women can stand up and safely resist these threats to equality vary by country.

I am grateful to the more than 40 women who took the time to talk with me and answer my questions. Here are 10 of the most fascinating quotes from women around the world:

1. Egypt


“The Middle East in general is tough for women, though Egypt is getting better. It’s not so much the laws but the tradition. The Constitution gives women rights but the problem is the Constitution in people’s minds. But it’s getting better…women now have the right to be president, that’s a pretty good step. When I first became a tour guide my family became really angry with me, because it’s not proper for women to travel all the time. But now they are so proud of me. So it’s getting better…women are stepping past the lines in Egypt and they might get pushed back in, but they keep crossing them anyway.”

2. Jordan


“Everyone can do anything in Jordan now- dress, talk, and do what they want because it’s a tourist place so it’s more open. Education is the most important thing for boys and girls, and girls are going to the University now too. Without education, there are no opportunities.”

3. Sweden


“Men at work definitely talk more. In meetings I often want to say things but can’t get to it because the men are talking. But personally, I have always been surrounded by men who think gender equality is important. I could never date someone who didn’t want to actively be a part of the change. That is a core value for me, and it would need to be the same in any partner I have. Otherwise I would lose respect for them.”

4. Rwanda


“We had good leadership after the genocide. Before 1994, there was a lot of gender inequality, but since then the government has promoted women in all spheres of life and has empowered us in education and jobs. Women are now taught to be producers rather than just consumers. When I was a child, we thought official jobs out in the world were for men only, but now we can do them too. Women in Rwanda are happy leadership recognizes that women matter a lot in every sphere of life.”

5. Myanmar


“Because of religion, people get married right away, like 18 or 19 years old. All of my younger sisters got married at 18. I’m 28 and still single. I have ambitions and I need to make money. Life is getting expensive here, and having children will cost a lot. My grandma still lives with us, so I need to be able to take care of her too, with money and with love. I want a boyfriend but a boy isn’t going to be happy about me going around the country as a tour guide. He will want to know my schedule and I can’t give him one. I want to be free.”

6. Norway


“Norway is very equal on paper, but even though we have the 40% quota there are still more men that are mayors than women. Leaders of big companies and leaders of boards are still men too. I became the Mayor of this town by gaining respect of the people. I was already known around here because I worked in the bank for 20 years. I also didn’t have any children and my husband has passed, so it was easier for me in that way. But if women or girls are willing to take the challenge, there are more possibilities. You have to really want it. And in order to make it as a female you have to be flawless; if you know you aren’t, you hesitate. When I took the step to become Mayor it was very fun. And it has been an honor.”

7. Indonesia


“I own my own business, a lot of women in Bali do too. Patriarchy might be strong in the countryside, but in the city it’s pretty modern. I opened this place 2 weeks ago, I’m excited!”

8. Mozambique


“One of the biggest problems for women in Mozambique is the ‘lobolo’ tradition- when a man marries a woman, he has to pay her family money. But if they get divorced, she has to find a way to pay him back the money. So that creates bad situations where women are forced to stay in marriages when they can’t pay back their lobolo.”

9. Namibia


“In Namibia, women basically have equal rights in employment…there are no gaps. All jobs from security to jobs in the kitchen are pretty equal. The biggest challenge women face is in the home- abuse. The rate of ‘passion killings’ is high in Namibia. And this is a challenge that men must face too.” (Note: ‘Passion killings’ is a term used for murders of women by intimate partners)

10. United States

United States

“When I was young, I worked off the books in a restaurant. I was just grateful to be working, because my family needed the money. But because my wages were never put down, I wasn’t paying into Social Security. I worked for years and years but it’s like all that work never happened, because my employers didn’t put it on the books. So now I’m a widow but my Social Security check is very little. I wish I had known better, but they didn’t teach girls to look out for themselves in jobs back then- we were lucky just to get hired at all.”

Visit the Women of the World Blog to see more interviews and photos of women around the globe.

Travel Notes: The Pain of Beauty

In many societies around the world, being beautiful involves engaging in practices that cause physical pain and in some cases severe health consequences. That is, the endurance of pain is intimately connected with cultural standards of beauty.

In some Ethiopian communities, women are whipped with sticks until their backs bleed in a testament to their commitment to the men of their village; the scars they develop from getting their backs slashed open are considered beautiful and desirable.

In Myanmar and Thailand, female members of the Padaung tribe (so-called “giraffe women”) wear brass rings around their necks to make them appear longer. The rings are so tight that over time the clavicle becomes deformed which is what causes the appearance of a lengthened neck. At one point the tribal members claimed that the rings offered women protection from tiger attacks, but now that tigers are no longer a threat the practice still continues in the name of cultural beauty.

I can’t help but also notice the silencing symbolism in placing the coils around the throat, thereby restricting vocal cords.

The governments in these countries have attempted to outlaw and curtail these cultural practices, but with limited success. Tribal members have resisted these efforts, claiming that perpetuating these practices is a way to preserve their culture.

In defense of these practices, tribal members will invoke the concept of freedom: if women want to participate in these beauty rituals (and ostensibly, they do), then why is the government interfering with our right to carry out our own traditions? Importantly, women’s consent is critical to the perpetuation of such practices. Ethiopian women participating in the whipping ceremonies literally beg the men to whip them more, as the deeper the scars the more beautiful they become. Similarly, women in Myanmar and Thailand are proud of their coils and enjoy wearing them.

Of course, the extent to which this “consent” is the result of a free and informed decision is highly suspect. When a culture defines beauty—and therefore, womanhood– by the endurance of painful rituals like whipping and the neck coils, women must comply to be accepted in their societies. The consequences of abstaining, of deviating from deeply ingrained cultural norms, are often far too high.

In Myanmar at least, I’ve heard reports of younger generations of girls refusing to wear the neck coils, which may indicate progress on the horizon. But we cannot place the burden of stopping these harmful behaviors on women alone—men also need to push back against the idea that a woman must suffer pain in order to be considered beautiful.

See more of what I’m learning on my 6-month trip around the world on my blog, Women of the World.

We Need to Change our Voting Systems to Elect More Women to Political Office

For many people interested in gender equality, the election of Hillary Clinton to the U.S. presidency would have been a significant achievement in the movement to secure more power for women. A female president would have represented a historic signal of equality, and the U.S. would no longer hold the ignominious reputation of never having elected a female head of state, a marker of progress 63 out of 142 nations in the world have already surpassed.

But as we all know, Clinton lost the presidency and the chances of the U.S. electing a woman president in the near future remain uncertain. However, it’s critical to realize that even if Clinton had won, the U.S. would still be extraordinarily behind other countries when it comes to gender parity in politics. In the U.S. House of Representatives, women hold only 19% of seats, and in the Senate, only 20 out of 100 Senators are women. In fact, the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks the U.S. as 104th in the world when it comes to the proportion of women serving in government, ranking right behind Bulgaria and Madagascar.

The dearth of women in politics is a problem for a plethora of reasons, not the least of which is what it says about how well our country actually reflects core American values of equality, fairness, and opportunity for all. But the low number of women in politics also has practical ramifications in policy outcomes. A whole literature of research indicates that women officeholders behave differently from their male colleagues: they are more likely to introduce and advocate for legislation that advances the interests of women and families, and they are also more likely to work collaboratively and build consensus, making them more effective as legislators. Electing more women to office will produce better outcomes for American families, outcomes that will be accomplished with dignity to boot.

Although a lot of people agree that we need more women in politics, there are far fewer people doing the kind of work that is essential to getting them there. Some organizations hold trainings for potential women candidates and work to encourage more women to run for office. These organizations are guided by the belief that women need more encouragement and support than men to take the initial step to run for office, and research backs this assumption up—several studies find that women are less politically ambitious than men and are less likely to believe they are qualified to run for office. Therefore, it is not voter sexism or discrimination that keeps women out of politics, it is women’s own reluctance to run in the first place, these organizations say (and research confirms).

But while working to close the political ambition gap between men and women is critically important work, on its own it is insufficient to achieve gender parity in politics. The reasons for this lie in the fabrics that make up American political institutions. Simply put, women do not have enough real opportunities to run for office and win. In elections for the House of Representatives, over 95% of incumbents get re-elected, limiting the opportunity for anyone who is not a white man to gain power.

Because of extraordinarily high incumbent re-election rates, women and other non-traditional candidates have the best chance of picking up seats in open contests, when there is no incumbent competing. But in 2016, out of 435 elections in the House, only 45 were for open seats. This is the primary reason why the percentage of women officeholders has stagnated–there are too few chances for women to run and win. In fact, without changing the voting institutions that guarantee the incumbency advantage, gender parity will remain an elusive dream.

Women in other industrialized nations are not inherently more ambitious or confident than American women; they live in countries with political institutions that open up more opportunities for nontraditional candidates to emerge and hold power. Studies of women’s representation in other countries have shown that different electoral systems—like proportional representation—are much more favorable to the election of women. That is why of the top 20 countries for women’s representation, 19 of them have election systems based on proportional representation. 

In the U.S., candidates in congressional elections run in single-member, winner-take-all districts, meaning only the winner—the candidate who gets the most votes—gets elected. But some state legislatures use multi-member districts, which means more than one candidate can win a seat. In many districts, one party dominates elections again and again, leaving voters who support the opposing party completely unrepresented. In multi-member districts, members get elected according to their party’s vote share—for example, if one district has four seats, and 50% of the vote is for the Democrats and 50% for Republicans, two Democrats get elected and two Republicans get seats too. This scenario also allows for the emergence of third-party candidates, who actually have a shot at picking up seats as well.

Multi-member districts create more opportunities for non-incumbents and non-traditional candidates to run for office and win election. Ten states in America currently use multi-member districts in at least one legislative chamber, and these states rank among the highest for women’s representation among state legislatures. Multi-member districts help to reduce the advantages incumbents enjoy, thereby creating more opportunities not only for women, but for people of color and third-party candidates.

So if we want to get serious about addressing the embarrassingly low number of women in politics, as well as the low number of other non-traditional candidates (people of color, third-party candidates), we to change the institutions we use to elect our leaders. We may also find that doing so not only opens more opportunities for new candidates to emerge, but that voters themselves benefit from increased choice and new ideas. Many voters complained that the 2016 presidential contest presented them with two inadequate choices for candidates: 63%–nearly two-thirds of American voters–said they were dissatisfied with their choices. Oftentimes, this feeling of having no real choice produces voter apathy and disengagement, threatening the health of American democracy. Using voting reforms to open the door for different types of candidates might also help engage voters by giving them more and better choices.

Generation Protest: In the Wake of Trump’s Election, a New Wave of Political Activists Rises Across the State

This article was originally published in Connecticut Magazine’s March issue. It is available online here.

Donald Trump’s election and his subsequent actions as president have spawned a wave of political dissent across the U.S. and abroad. The day after Trump’s inauguration, millions of women and male allies marched in cities all over the country and the world, protesting Trump’s treatment of women and sending the message that women’s rights are human rights. After Trump issued an executive order banning refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, groups of citizens denounced the move in demonstrations outside capitol buildings and at airports across the nation.

Acts of political dissent are happening in Connecticut, too, where the Hartford Women’s March drew 10,000 participants and hundreds rallied at Bradley International Airport to protest Trump’s travel ban. And while the participants of these protests and marches have included people of all ages, many of them are youthful citizens — millennials and members of the younger Generation Z. In fact, some media outlets are already giving a new name to these political activists: Generation Protest.

Connecticut members of Generation Protest have a reason to be disaffected — 63 percent of them voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in November’s election, compared to only 30 percent of voters under age 35 who voted for Republican Trump. Many of them say Trump’s shocking victory was a “wake-up call” to be more politically active than they might have been previously.

Brenna Doyle, 31, operations coordinator for NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut, says the fear she felt after Trump’s election is what motivated her to get more involved with politics. “After the election, I feared for those who would be immediately affected and whose lives would be put in danger by this new regime,” the Vernon resident says. “That’s what drives me to keep showing up, to stay involved, and to not back down.”

Alicia Hernandez Strong, who identifies as black, Latina and Muslim and is a Muslim community organizer, says the people she works with are “scared, very scared.” The 20-year-old activist from New Britain works to educate the Muslim community about political issues. She says that while many Muslims opposed Trump, they were shocked by his travel ban. “I think Trump was very underestimated and people didn’t expect him to keep his campaign promises,” Strong says. “So it’s waking more people up. I have people emailing and messaging me asking how they can support Muslims and resist Trump’s policies.”

Others say they are resisting Trump’s policies because they are antithetical to their core values and what young people today care about. Dorian Lockett, 32, a black man and president of Connecticut Young Democrats, says Trump’s refugee ban and his call to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico demonstrate that the president does not reflect Lockett’s values. Lockett calls Trump’s policies “attacks” on what makes America great. “Trump’s attacks on what makes this country great is what has re-energized me; his lack of understanding that our diversity is our strength and by knowing and understanding our neighbors is how we make our country safer,” the East Hartford resident says.

Thirty-two-year-old State Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, says he has been struck by the number of young people who have come to him since the election asking how they can get involved in politics. Albis, who is the deputy majority leader of the Connecticut General Assembly, believes much of this inspiration is coming from young people’s sharp disagreement with Trump’s policies and what he stands for: “I think young people want to engage politically right now because they see proposed policies and recent executive orders that are the opposite of what they want — an increasingly connected global society that works together to solve major problems affecting us all, like climate change. The drum of progress is now muted.”

While protests may get the lion’s share of media attention, young people in Connecticut aren’t just holding up signs in the streets. They’re also engaging in what might be thought of as old-fashioned activism, like calling their representatives. Indeed, Christina Cerillo, 27, of Branford, says that since the election, she’s “never called my representatives more in my life!” Cerillo also started a social media-based group called Feminist Connecticut, which aims to be a central location for local news that is specific to women and women’s issues. The group also publicizes feminist events across the state. For Cerillo, part of her activism is rooted in a desire to bring people together. “My main focus with Feminist Connecticut post-election is to make sure that Connecticut’s women and their allies know that they are not alone, and that there are many ways to get involved and stand up and be counted in a political climate that really just wants all dissenters to sit down and shut up,” she says.

Cerillo draws her strength and energy from her connections with other activists fighting for the same causes. “Personally, I find it very comforting to see folks out and protesting, calling, gathering and fighting for our country.”

For some young activists, Trump’s policies have had a very personal effect. Eric Cruz Lopez, 21, of Bridgeport, is an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. with his family at age 7 from Oaxaca, Mexico. Lopez is a student at the University of Connecticut, where he studies secondary math education, and hopes to one day teach algebra and geometry at the high school level. Lopez is an organizer for CT Students for a Dream, a group that advocates for the rights and interests of undocumented students in Connecticut. Lopez says Trump’s election has made people like himself realize that his rights are not guaranteed. “This election has activated people who wouldn’t otherwise get involved,” he says. “People who have thought that things were OK are now beginning to realize that our communities are under attack. The blatant attacks on our community have awakened people’s political consciousness.”

While Lopez says he is encouraged so many young people have mobilized against Trump’s policies, he hopes this wave of activism continues long term so that “solid, concrete and sustainable wins” on immigration issues are possible.

Rep. Josh Elliott, 32, D-Hamden, also hopes the wave of activism is here to stay. “I am hopeful that a new generation of people will become aware that being engaged is not like a week-long diet fad,” he says.

He speculates that Trump’s administration will roll back civil liberties “just enough to get a wave of active participants who will take these next four years as a lesson.”

But not all younger Connecticut residents have been swept up in the anti-Trump wave of resistance. As of this writing, the Connecticut Young Republicans Facebook page had 649 “likes,” which is half the number of the Connecticut Young Democrats, but still shows sizeable support. And Connecticut Right to Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group, reportedly sent five buses to the March for Life event in Washington in late January.

John Waite, president of Connecticut Right to Life, says many of the participants were young. Waite told the Hartford Courant that seeing the passion of young people is what inspires him. “Seeing all those kids down there so on fire for this issue, it energizes you for the whole year,” he says.

Other younger Trump supporters don’t feel it’s necessary to attend counter protests and believe Trump won’t be swayed by the demands of the left. For this Trump faithful, the strategy is “wait and see” and hope that Americans will give Trump an opportunity to prove himself before they write him off. A Trump supporter in his early 30s who declined to be named in this article said, “I think that everyone deserves a chance. Trump might be the one thing this country needs to pull itself out of the hole that past presidents have put us in.”

Some could argue that it is not so much Trump’s election, but the characteristics of millennials and Generation Z themselves that have sparked this surge of political activism. In this sense, Trump’s election provided the context for generations already known for their brazen confidence and belief they can solve the world’s problems by figuring out innovative and new solutions. And the ubiquitous use of technology among these generations has also made it easier to connect with each other, communicate and organize.

But perhaps more than anything, it is the unabashed trust in themselves that drives Generation Protest. For Lopez, it is the confidence that he is doing the right thing that makes him fearless. “I want to do this and I will fight for this because I am undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic about my status, my class, my race and my vision,” he says.

How Leaving My Comfort Zone Changed My Outlook On Life

This piece was originally published in ThoughtCatalog on January 9, 2017.

I was never much of a “doer.”

As a child, I rejected my parents’ encouragement to get involved in “activities”—things like French Club or our church’s youth volunteer program.

My favorite thing to do as a teenager was get into a car with my friends and drive around our small town, maybe stopping at a party or the beach (to meet up with more friends driving around in their own cars). But ask me to go to the movies, see a concert, or participate in any other pre-scheduled, planned event, and my answer would probably be no.

This trend of not really wanting to “do things” continued as an adult. I belonged to a gym, but I could never quite get myself to sign up for group classes, preferring to drop-in and hop on a treadmill on my own schedule. I worked in the political science department at college, but was reluctant to join any of the clubs or organizations my school offered, even ones that worked towards issues I really cared about, like gender equality.

In fact, the question “what are your hobbies?” that I’d receive at job interviews or from a new acquaintance always filled me with anxiety—does going to brunch with friends on weekends count?

Sometimes my antipathy for doing activities caused rifts in my relationships. While I was perfectly content with doing little to nothing after work save for ordering dinner and watching Netflix, I’ve dated more than one man who resisted against my penchant for vegging out. I would be asked to go to Broadway shows, listen to live music at a local bar, and take cooking classes. While I mostly refused these invitations, the few I accepted I attended begrudgingly, and often dreaded the very act of participating.

I’m not quite sure what caused my rejecting of doing. I wouldn’t consider myself a boring person, and in fact I have done things—big things—in my life, like completing a doctorate in political science and building a successful career in the consulting industry. At times I rationalized my need to do little more than watch Law & Order SVU marathons as a consequence of the amount of time and energy I put into my job—I work in the public opinion research and consulting industry, and most of my days are spent creating work for my clients—perhaps this act of producing all day meant that all I could do was consume in my downtime, whether that meant watching TV, reading, eating, or drinking (or sometimes all four).

And even though very few people would guess this about me because of the confidence I project to others, I’m somewhat of an introvert. I don’t get energized from being around large groups of people and need to step away and be alone after a few hours of socialization. Many of the “doing” activities outside of work require a level of extroversion that I save for events with friends and meetings with clients.

For a long time, I felt like something might be lacking in my life. On paper, everything was great—I had an amazing career and was living in one of the best cities in the world—and fairly comfortably at that (something very hard to do in New York City as the middle class slowly disintegrates). I had good friends, a family close by, a cat, and as of October 2015, a husband. But producing all day long just to go home and consume for a few hours before bed didn’t always feel great. Sometimes it got pretty boring. And I increasingly felt a need to really do something and force myself out of routine and complacency.

So—my husband and I did the whole clichéd “quit your job and travel the world” thing. It makes me cringe a little to write that, precisely because it’s so hackneyed. It’s also something that might be more acceptable to do when you’re fresh out of college, not a decade out, like me. But I think we both felt a strong need to do something out of the norm and shed the predictability of our lives. Traveling wasn’t the only answer to our problem, but it sure was a fun one to entertain.

We left New York on a journey set to last six months. The beginning was hard. When you decide to shake things up like we did, you don’t always anticipate how the transition to that sort of lifestyle might be just that—shaky. I was so used to my routine and especially the producing part of it, that walking around cities and visiting sites was a complete 180—total consumption. I found myself trying to “schedule” time to write blogs, or to keep up with my professional networks, anything to feel like I’ve accomplished something. Without work, I was in some ways lost.

But this feeling didn’t last long, because I actually started doing things, in addition to consuming. And the things I did were productive in that they helped me work toward a better version of myself. I’ve never gone camping in my life—even as a child, I’d pitch a tent with my siblings in our backyard and last an hour in a sleeping bag before running back inside to the comfort of my own bed and room. So when I camped in an Omani desert in a straw hut with sand as the ground and an outhouse (read: a hole in the ground) for a bathroom, it’s safe to say I was lightyears outside of my comfort zone. But sitting under the stars that night sipping tea with other foreigners and talking about everything from the joys of traveling to what it’s like to have kids, I felt a sense of accomplishment—not only could I survive, but I could thrive and really enjoying doing something totally new for me.

In Egypt, we visited to slums of a river town not far from Luxor. I thought I had seen the “third world” on trips to Central and South America, but nothing I’d seen was even close to the devastating poverty I saw on my walk through this town. I had to step over mounds of mosquito-infested trash that included feces along a street adorned with makeshift huts that consisted of slabs of wood and a piece of cloth for the roof. But what surprised me most was how happy and satisfied the villagers seemed. We walked through a market and watched some fishermen fry up the catch of the day while they hammed it up for the photos we took of their labors. The children loved to run up to us and scream the only English word they know—“Hello!” while they wave and jump up and down, trying to get our attention. And they just kept smiling—everyone in that town had a smile on their face, laughing with their families and friends as they went about their day amid conditions most of us in the Western world could scarcely imagine.

And the best part of visiting these towns was talking with the locals, who were more than eager to practice their English and share their thoughts on life in their country. I also learned that most people in this world are fundamentally decent humans who will really try to help you if they can. I was amazed by how many locals would stop to ask if we needed directions or try really hard to communicate with us even if they didn’t know English well. I hate to say it, but I personally wouldn’t have gone out of my way to help strangers prior to this trip. I shudder to admit that I actually say no when tourists in NYC ask me to take their photo when I’m rushing to get to my next work meeting. The philosophy of individualism that dominates in America—the idea that we all need to pull ourselves up by our boot straps and make our own way in the world without help—is not felt as strongly, if at all, in other countries. I was so humbled by the generosity so many showed us, and it inspired me to give back in my own life by adopting a more empathetic stance toward others.

My experiences on this trip taught me that doing things in life that have nothing to do with how you make money can teach you a lot—about yourself, about the world, about humanity. I do feel changed from participating in different cultures and experiences that I never would have sought out had I not taken this trip. Many of my friends and family who have followed my journey on social media have made comments like “Who are you?” when they’ve seen pictures of me riding camels in the desert or slathered in mud at the Dead Sea. My uncle even said to me that my pictures on Facebook are “not of the Brittany I know.” But far from betraying who I am as a person, I am expanding my set of experiences and growing because of it. In fact, those comments made me feel embarrassed—had I really limited myself that much by not doing things in the past?

But luckily, the journey isn’t over yet—my husband and I are leaving for a tour of Eastern Africa in just a couple of days. He wants us to trek through the wilderness and explore the parts of Africa that are hard to get to for most travelers. As you can probably tell about me by now, that’s also pretty far from my comfort zone. But you know what? I think I’m going to do it.

3 Lessons I Learned About Gender In The Middle East

As part of a round-the-world trip I’m on this year, I recently traveled throughout the countries of Oman, Egypt, and Jordan. While these three nations are distinct in their own ways, all three rank toward the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, which ranks countries based on the difference (gap) between men and women on economic, political, education, and health indicators. Out of 145 countries included in the index, Oman ranks #135, Egypt #136, and Jordan #140. For comparison, the United States ranks #28 while Scandinavia occupies the top spots for gender equality.

As a long-time advocate for women and student of global gender issues, I was excited to see what I would learn from my travels to the Middle East. The lessons I took away from the experience surprised me, and called into question many assumptions I (and other Westerners) hold about gender in the Middle East.

1. Gender ideology varies widely

One of the major lessons I learned from my travels is that there is little homogeneity when it comes to opinions about gender and the role of men and women in society. In Egypt, I had the pleasure of spending time with two different tour guides—both Egyptian men. The first I met in Luxor, Egypt, which is a city of about half a million people. The tour guide, Mohammed, grew up in a West Luxor village but was college-educated in Cairo and spoke excellent English.

Mohammed* was our tour guide for several days, so I had the opportunity to have deep conversations with him about his life and his views on Egyptian society. Mohammed was quite conservative in his attitudes toward gender. For example, he told me a story about how he was briefly engaged to a woman but he broke it off when she began asking too many questions during one of their meetings. In some parts of Egypt, an engagement involves a short courtship of several “meetings” between the man and woman (usually in the woman’s father’s home) when the couple gets to know each other and make sure they both want to go through with the marriage. Mohammed told me that during the courtship period, the woman is supposed to “act shy” and let the man do the talking. Apparently, the woman he was engaged to did not adhere to these norms of behavior, and so he broke off the engagement.

Mohammed also told me that when he sees women arguing in the street of his village, he feels it’s his duty and right to step in and break up the argument. He commented that women shouldn’t “behave” like that in public, and it is his right to stop them and make them go inside.

Several days after our time with Mohammed, I met another tour guide in Aswan, a city of about 300,000 people, in lower Egypt. Hassan* was around the same age as Mohammed (late 30’s) and also college-educated. But their views on gender couldn’t have been more different.

Hassan believes strongly in gender equality as a principle and in practice. He encourages his wife and his sisters to get educated and work outside the home and believes Egypt would benefit with more women in political office. Hassan was very liberal in his attitudes toward gender roles, and even takes on a lot of the domestic work in his own home, a fairly progressive practice for Egypt.

One factor that would explain the differences between Mohammed and Hassan’s views is where they grew up. Despite both of them being college-educated, Mohammed’s upbringing in a small village may have contributed to his more conservative views, including his paternalistic attitude toward women. These villages are more isolated, less educated, and thus more likely to harbor and perpetuate strict gender prescriptions.

I also encountered different opinions about gender in Jordan, among women themselves. In Amman, I stumbled across the Arab Women Organization of Jordan and stopped inside to meet the staff. I talked to one woman there who told me this about the status of women in Jordan:

“We work toward empowering women, ending discrimination, and encouraging political participation. Women face a lot of problems in Jordan, but the biggest one is that society does not believe in women. They don’t think women are capable. They don’t think women can make decisions for themselves. So we are working towards changing that.”

While this particular woman had a more dismal view of gender equality in Jordan, others I met believed women were more liberated than ever. I met two sisters who worked at a tourist shop near a mosque outside of Amman, and both talked excitedly about how Jordan is the land of freedom and that all people—men and women—can behave anyway they want. Notably, both sisters did not wear the hijab and were dressed in Western-style clothing. They talked about the many opportunities for women in Jordan, including education, and overall felt positively about the direction of the country toward liberty for all human beings.

So in sum, Middle Easterners differ vastly both in their experience of gender and their beliefs about women in their societies. There is little uniformity when it comes to gender norms and expectations, which may be contrary to the stereotype of the Middle East as the bastion of gender inequality. More liberal, egalitarian ideas and behaviors are definitely present, which is a good sign for the future.

2. The meaning of the hijab is complex and often misunderstood

Most women I observed in the Middle East wore some form of the hijab. In Oman, I saw more burkas and abayas, while in certain cities like Cairo and Amman, women were more likely to don Western-style clothes with a simple head covering. Islamic tradition requires women to dress modestly and hide signs of their sexuality and femininity, including their hair.

Many Westerners believe that the hijab is the ultimate sign of gender inequality in the Middle East, and that women who wear the hijab must be oppressed by their husbands, fathers, or other men in their lives. And for some women in the Middle East, that’s exactly what the hijab represents. Some choose not to wear it, though many more wear it despite their personal feelings because of the immense social pressure to do so.

However, not all women feel negatively toward the hijab. One woman I talked to told me that she takes pride in wearing it, because the type of veil she wears signifies the region of Oman that her family is from. Others use the veil as a fashion statement and wear beautiful hijabs of different colors and patterns to match their outfits.

Some Muslim women believe they benefit from wearing the hijab, because men will focus on their minds rather than their bodies. They want to be valued for their intelligence instead of their looks, and wearing the veil is a way to ensure no one credits their success to their sex appeal over their personal merit.

I met several Westerners on my trip who would comment on how “tragic” and sad it was to see so many Muslim women wearing the hijab. I found these comments to be judgmental and condescending, because they allow only for one interpretation of the veil, when in fact there are many.

3. Contact between members of the opposite sex is limited

As an American, I’m used to striking up a conversation with my barista, bartender, or taxi driver. But in the Middle East, contact with the opposite sex is limited to family members. In fact, it would be considered highly inappropriate for a Muslim man to talk with a woman who was not of familial relation. Even cousins of the opposite sex do no more than wave hello when they see each other, as anything more would be considered taboo.

There is a little more leeway when it comes to tourists in the Middle East, as contact with the opposite sex is necessary in many cases. But whenever I was with my husband, the men we interacted with would only address him, basically ignoring me. This was the case with taxi drivers, hotel staff, bartenders, and restaurant servers. It almost felt awkward when they would ask him questions about our experience but only expect an answer from him, not from me. I often felt invisible during these interactions, and couldn’t help but interject my own opinions from time to time. When I did, some of the men would become visibly uncomfortable and avoid eye contact with me.

The day I left Egypt, I really wanted to hug one of the tour guides who we spent a lot of time with. I had really gotten to know him during our week together and felt a connection with him. I asked one of my fellow travelers if it would be appropriate for me to do so, and she said that even though I was a tourist, a hug would be way out of bounds for a Muslim man. I took her advice and settled for a handshake. But not being able to express my (platonic) affection for another human being really bothered me—it felt like someone had put a cage around my emotions, and all I could do was slide a finger or two between the bars.

An interesting corollary to the custom of limiting contact between the sexes is that for members of the same sex, affection is actually very common. I saw many instances of men holding hands in public as a sign of friendship—something that would actually be rare to see in the United States.

While my travels to the Middle East were by no means comprehensive or representative of the Middle East as a whole, they did offer me glimpses into different mindsets and traditions that I otherwise would not be privy too. Overall, I felt very welcome in the three countries I visited and am grateful to the Omanis, Egyptians, and Jordanians that took the time to talk to me and teach me about their beautiful countries and their customs. Learning from the locals challenged my preconceived notions about gender in the Middle East and taught me that like most issues, gender in the Middle East is nuanced, complex, and varied.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

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Why Connecticut Should Consider Ranked Choice Voting

This post was originally published in The CT Mirror on 12/22/16.

While voters and political pundits alike are still hashing out what exactly happened on November 8th, there is one conclusion about the election that most cannot deny: many voters felt they didn’t have adequate choices.

In fact, this conclusion could have been drawn early on, in the months leading up to the election—in July, before the major parties even declared their nominees, a solid majority (58%) of Americans said they were dissatisfied with the choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, according to a Washington Post/ABC News Poll.

Dissatisfaction with the names on the ballot persisted up until Election Day, when even among those who voted, only 41% strongly favored the candidate they voted for—32% had reservations about their candidate, and 25% said they voted that way because they disliked their chosen candidate’s opponents (CNN exit polls).

Connecticut voters were not immune to the national wave of ennui about their choices—a Quinnipiac poll conducted in June showed that 55% and 61% of voters felt unfavorable toward Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, respectively, mirroring national distaste toward both candidates.

As someone who collects public opinion from voters for a living, I have sat in countless focus groups over the years listening to voters lament their lack of good choices in elections. The resounding wish I’ve heard from voters around the country is to walk into the voting booth excited to cast a ballot for a candidate they believe in and that they feel confident will represent them in government—a wish that increasingly seems like a distant dream for many.

But rather than wait for “good choices” to pop out of the nether regions, there is something we can do now to make sure elections like 2016 do not happen again. A potential cure to the ailment of bad choices is in reforming the way in which we elect our leaders, through a system called Ranked Choice Voting (RCV).

The system works like this: instead of voting for a single candidate, the voter ranks the candidates by their preference—their first choice, second choice, third choice, etc., for a given office. If no candidate wins a majority after the first round of voting, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the contest. If that candidate was your first choice, then your second choice will be applied to the second round of counting and so on until a candidate wins a majority of votes.

The system offers many advantages: first, it ensures that only a candidate with majority support can win the election. This also changes how candidates campaign, since they must reach out beyond their core base in order to win. Secondly, RCV allows more candidates to compete, thus giving voters more choice. Voters also don’t have to worry about casting a “spoiler” vote for a third party candidate, and thus are free to express their support for the candidate they truly think is the best. This allows more diverse candidates with new, fresh viewpoints to emerge in addition to more traditional candidates.

The electorate in Maine just voted to approve a measure that would institute RCV into all elections across the state except for presidential contents. RCV is already used in 11 cities across America, and many other cities and states are considering this change.

Data on the effect of RCV is limited, but some research (Rutgers Eagleton Poll) conducted among voters in cities that have used the system in local elections found that voters were more satisfied with the conduct of candidate campaigns and perceived less campaign negativity (a natural consequence of candidates having to reach out to a broad swath of voters rather than rely on riling up their base).

Connecticut could be a pioneer state to adopt this type of reform to give voters more choice and make sure that the people who get elected to office truly represent the will of the voters. While not a panacea to the disease of apathy toward politics that our current system produces, it’s a move that may help assuage voters’ desire for more, and better, choice. As we move forward from November 8th with a list of priorities and to-do’s, I hope that structural reforms like RCV near the top.

**For more information on Ranked Choice Voting and other reforms, check out Fair Vote and Representation 2020**

4 Ways Life Overseas is Different (and maybe better) than in America

For the past five weeks, I have been privileged to take some time off and travel the world with my husband. Our journey will last about six months in total, and will take us across every continent except for Antarctica. In the process, I have been interviewing women and their families in different countries to better understand the issues women face abroad and how they are both similar and different from those experienced in the U.S. I’m documenting these interviews on my blog, Women of the World.

So far, I’ve traveled through Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Italy. Some of these countries are the most progressive in the world when it comes to gender equality, and I’ve learned valuable lessons not only about gender, but about ways of life for Europeans that in some ways seem to be healthier, happier ways of being compared to how we live in the U.S.

The 4 things I’ve learned about life overseas are specific to my experience—they are not meant to perfectly represent life for everyone in these countries, but rather provide a snapshot from the people I’ve talked to and my observations so far.

1. Work is NOT the center of life
In many of the countries I’ve visited, work is not as intimately bound up with one’s identity as it often is in the U.S. Many European professionals go to work at about 9am in the morning and return by 4 or 5pm. And when they come home, they’re done with work—there’s no incessant need to check e-mail after-hours or even talk much about work at all. Instead, things like time with family and outside hobbies are more important. But work isn’t unimportant to Europeans—in fact, every person I talked to takes a lot of pride in their work, it just doesn’t take center stage in their lives. And in addition to working fewer hours, Europeans get more vacation time too—in fact, it’s a law that every country in the European Union provide 4 weeks of paid vacation to employees. To me, this seems like a way more balanced way of living.

2. Parental leave is amazing
Parental leave is not just a lofty policy ideal like it is in the U.S., but a real benefit that both women AND men are entitled to in many countries. For example, parents in Sweden get 480 days of leave at 80% pay that parents can split up however they choose, and that’s after 18 weeks reserved just for new moms. Additionally, dads get 90 days of leave reserved specifically for them. In Estonia, parents get more than a year—435 days—to share after maternity leave ends, and are paid the average of both their wages.

Caregiving is valued in many countries, and government makes it a lot easier for families to combine work and family– in addition to generous parental leave, childcare is also way more affordable. In Finland, government-funded childcare is free to all parents with children age 7 and under. And if parents choose not to use childcare and stay at home to care for their children, they get paid for it.

"Work/life balance is still probably my biggest challenge. But I think it's a big challenge for men too, not just women. We all work outside of the home and inside too and it's hard, it's a lot for anyone." -Finland
“Work/life balance is still probably my biggest challenge. But I think it’s a big challenge for men too, not just women. We all work outside of the home and inside too and it’s hard, it’s a lot for anyone.” -Finland

3. The idea of a level playing field actually exists
In the U.S., we believe that all men and women are created equal, and that there is opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard. But in reality, not all opportunities are created equal. For example, where you can afford to live greatly impacts the quality of public schools available to your children, and there are stark differences between wealthy and poor neighborhoods around the country in terms of educational attainment and success. And with skyrocketing costs of college, many Americans either can’t afford to go or, if they do, are then saddled with crushing debt that affects their economic security for the rest of their lives.

In places like Finland, public schools are more or less equal in quality and even state universities are free. Students in Norway typically pay a fee of 50 euros per semester at public universities. In these countries, making education more or less equal regardless of family income or background is the solution to leveling the playing field and giving every citizen a truly equal chance.

4. Men have more freedom to define their own masculinity
In the U.S., we’ve made a lot of progress toward breaking down gender roles and prescriptions about how men and women ought to behave. But compared to some European countries, we have a long way to go. In my travels, I have been struck by how some of the men I’ve met seem much more willing to express emotions and talk about things we almost never hear men talk about in the U.S., like mental illness and eating disorders. I met one young man who had taken sick leave from his job because he was struggling with depression. He talked about his challenges so openly and honestly, without an ounce of embarrassment or shame. And the fact that he actually could take months of leave from work to deal with his mental illness is amazing itself—as he put it: “We might pay a lot in taxes here, but when you get sick—physically or mentally—our country will take care of you.”

It’s true that the way of life for Europeans is due in large part to their bigger governments, and therefore, higher taxes. Yet, working families often don’t feel strained because of it—in fact, Norwegians enjoy a higher disposable income than the average working family in the U.S. For many Europeans, providing these benefits is a part of their culture—they truly value caregiving, family, and equality and couldn’t imagine life any other way.

While I absolutely love my country and am proud to be an American, I think it’s a good idea to look beyond our borders and take some lessons from other successful countries back to the U.S. Bringing more balance and fulfillment into American lives can only make us stronger.

Please LIKE my blog on Facebook to see and read more about what I’m learning on the rest of my journey.


I Was Viciously Harassed by Misogynist Internet Trolls for Defending an Anti-Republican Ad

I wrote an article for Xojane about my experience being harassed by hateful online trolls, just for expressing my opinion. I connect my experience to the problem of sexism and misogyny writ large in America, and encourage women to keep talking, shouting, and having their voice.

Here’s an excerpt:
“This election has unearthed some of the most painful diseases of American society, including misogyny and sexism. The reaction among women has been one of empowerment, of motivation to speak out and up, without fear. I am hopeful that, despite the outcome — and perhaps because of it — we will continue to amplify the voices, interests, and concerns of women everywhere.”

Read the full article here.

4 Fascinating Ways My Relationship Changed After 1 Year of Marriage

This piece was originally published on YourTango, 10/28/16

When I got married a little over a year ago, I assumed nothing would really change in my relationship post-nuptials. After all, at that point my now-husband and I had been together 3 years before we got engaged, and 4 years total before we said “I do.” And for two of those years, we lived together, sharing a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. So wouldn’t marriage simply be an extension of the life we had already built together?

In many ways, the answer to that question is yes—for me, marriage did not change the day-to-day of our relationship, and I suspect that would be the same for most couples who cohabitate before matrimony (as half of American couples do). But in other ways, I did feel changes to our relationship, albeit subtle ones that had more to do with how I felt about things rather than the circumstances or logistics. I also think that the lessons I learned can apply to any long-term committed partnership, not just a marriage. After all, some of these changes were lessons that I was learning over time throughout the relationship, but that solidified once we married. So here are 4 ways my relationship has changed in the first year of marriage:

1. I learned the importance of picking your battles

No matter what stage of a relationship, a couple can benefit from the mantra, “pick your battles,” and, I would add—pick them wisely. When you share a life together there are bound to be disagreements, conflict, and frustration. I learned early on in my relationship that not every disagreement is worth arguing about, but this lesson only intensifies in a marriage. I guess it’s the feeling that because you’re in it for the long-term, keeping the peace and limiting negative energy is just necessary. This does not mean I would ignore my feelings if my husband did something to bother me, but it did mean that I could no longer speak without a filter, as I had done for a long time. Taking a step back or a deep breath before you decide to bring up an irritation or perceived wrong can go a long way toward keeping the marital accord.

2. I learned what acceptance means

A corollary to the lesson of picking your battles is the idea that acceptance of your partner’s ways of doing things is essential, and goes a long way toward minimizing conflict. For example, while I thrive on checking things off my to-do list, my husband often completes projects or tasks in a round-about, drawn out way that usually takes a lot longer than if I had just done it myself. If I asked him to put up a piece of artwork in our apartment, for instance, it would get done, but not right away and not without several reminders from me. At first, I would take his slowness and laidback attitude personally—like he didn’t care I wanted something done and would do it in his own sweet time. It really irked me and was the subject of several battles, especially when we bought a house and fought over the length of time it was taking to complete the renovations. But I began to realize that my husband’s way of doing things is just that—how he does things, how he lives and operates in the world. He does not value efficiency as I do, but he does prize doing things well and right, even if that means it takes more time. Sometimes those values compete with each other, but that’s OK. And neither way is right or wrong—they’re just different ways of living. Accepting what’s important to your partner and allowing them to live the way they want to live (so long as it’s not destructive) prevents strife, and is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our partners.

3. Our fights became “cleaner”

I’ll admit it, my husband and I have had some pretty awful fights. The ones that you don’t get over the next day, the biting words of which you carry with you, breeding resentment. Those are the worst kinds of feuds—the ones that linger, and—if left unchecked—can poison your relationship. Once we got married it became more clear to me than ever that these kinds of altercations—the ones that inflict relationship damage—just can’t happen. When we’re angry and hurt, it’s easy to want the other person to feel as bad as we do, especially when we blame our partner for making us feel that way. But in long-term relationships, one of the best things a couple can learn is how to fight “clean”—that is, how to express disagreement without going overboard and causing damage to the relationship. When my husband and I married, I think we both realized the importance of tempering our arguments and not saying things that we would later regret.

4. My notion of “winning” changed

In a marriage or long-term partnership, there is no individual “winning” anymore—you’re now a team, and the happiness of both people is necessary in order for the relationship to work. In the past, I thought that winning meant convincing my husband to do what I wanted to do, or persuading him to see things my way. That’s no longer true, because I found that winning in a relationship often means compromise. My husband and I are very different in certain ways. Take our vacationing styles for example—while I am perfectly content relaxing on the beach with a good book all day, my husband likes to do more cultural activities and explore the surrounding area. In the past, I would try to convince him that because we work so hard in our normal lives, a vacation means time to unwind, not walking around museums. But laying on the beach all day didn’t make him happy, and when your partner is unhappy, that affects the overall health of your union. So now on vacations we do a little bit of what we both like—a few days on the beach, a few days in museums. Instead of fighting against each other, we have embraced our differences, and have learned to navigate them in ways that make us both happy. And while true happiness may lie within one’s self, life is a lot better when your partner is happy too, and making that effort to address their needs will not go unnoticed.