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:
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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!”
“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.”
“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
“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.