Sarah Azavedo, left, introduces panelists to discuss women’s issues in the March 2 LEAD NOW event, “The Role of Women: A Global Perspective,” in Lenfell Hall.
The first LEAD NOW event of the spring semester was presented at FDU’s Florham Campus on March 2. Faculty, staff and students gathered in Lenfell Hall for a panel discussion titled “The Role of Women: A Global Perspective.” The goal was to talk about the roles of women in countries around the world and how these roles compare to those of women in the United States. The panel discussion was hosted by the Office of Campus Life and led by Sarah Azavedo, director of campus life operations.
Before the discussion began, Jennifer Lehr, associate dean of Becton College of Arts and Sciences, gave a brief introduction about Women’s History Month, which takes place in March. Going over a little bit of history, Lehr highlighted the importance of Women’s History Month and how it is time for “celebrating the achievements of women throughout the U.S.” and “being thankful for the accomplishments that they have had and also their contributions to history,” or to some, “her-story.” She also mentioned how recognizing women’s history first began in 1982 and was only held for a week.
Lehr went on to point out that the discussion was meant to further acknowledge the importance of education, especially a global education, for women and encouraged the audience to listen carefully to the “terrific stories” the panelists would present.
Azavedo followed Lehr’s introduction and presented all seven panelists: Luz Huertas, lecturer in history and adviser to the Latin American Student Organization at FDU; Kiron Sharma, professor in the Department of Mathematics, Computer Science and Physics and the University Core director; Nandita Ghosh, associate professor of English; Francesca Degiuli, professor of sociology; Junezhe Li, a senior international student from Shanghai studying at the International School of Hospitality and Tourism Management; Loretta Amaning, a psychology student with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience; and Nu-Kermeni Kermah, a sophomore communication studies major and president of the Pan-African Culture club.
Each panelist came from a country outside the United States and discussed what life was like as a woman in that nation, whether through her own experience or that of her family.
Huertas was first to discuss her time growing up in Peru and how women had an important role in society. She said that one of the main characteristics about Peruvian women was that many of the women are single mothers and are in charge of raising families, but are encouraged at young ages to get an education. However, many of these girls who start going to school also have to work at the same time in order to help their families earn a living.
“As a woman it might be difficult, but that’s the reality,” said Huertas. Noting these difficulties, Huertas kept saying how grateful and lucky she was after coming to the United States, where women can study without having to work at the same time, with the help of financial aid and scholarships. “The fact that I’m teaching here today is the result of that,” she said, meaning getting scholarships and opportunities here in the U.S.
Sharma was the second panelist to talk and she went into detail about the Indian perspective versus the U.S. perspective on Indian women and gender roles. Sharma first asked the audience if anyone had a perspective on gender issues in India and one student responded with “Slumdog Millionaire.” Sharma highlighted some specific points people might get from a media perspective like that, such as how women are seen as being dependent on men and “always in the home.”
Sharma described her home life growing up in New Delhi in an “upper-middle class home,” and how she got many opportunities to educate herself, but she noted that she “could not say the same for everybody.”
One topic that was a big difference between her upbringing compared to other women was arranged marriages, which actually became more popular as early as 500 B.C. Sharma noted that 1,000 years before that, women had more power and had more of a say in society. But as time passed and colonialism became more prevalent, what she referred to as “outside occupation,” child marriages and arranged marriages became a way to “protect your women.”
Although these circumstances still happen in places like India and other Eastern countries, and there are still problems in rural areas where education rates are lower and oppression of women is higher, Sharma noted that “cultural changes are slowly coming about.” An example she gave was the fact that in 2015 a bank opened in India that just gives loans to women to help them possibly start businesses. Out of these culture changes, Sharma said that “self-reliance is one thing that young women in India are now learning.”
Ghosh, who also came from India, was brought up in an upper-middle class family and never directly felt gender discrimination in her immediate family. She agreed with a lot of points Sharma made, and decided to expand further and discuss how marriages that happen in more rural communities have some aspects to them that are similar to marriages in the United States.
She noted how arranged marriages abroad are formed based on interests related to kinship, class, region, etc. Ghosh also said that divorce in India for a long time “was not common” and often “came with a social stigma attached to it.” She then related these aspects to American life that she saw when she came to the U.S. in the early ’90s, and how women felt “quite pressured to date,” especially someone with similar social interests. Overall, she asked the audience to think about how are these kinds of marriages differ from marriages in Western culture.
Degiuli, who made it clear that she had been away from her home country of Italy for 20 years, described some aspects of the culture that she remembered when she lived there and how it affected the way she raises her children. Back in the mid-1970s, divorce became a new prospect for couples living in Italy, and for many people, Degiuli included, there was a new population of people that was growing up with divorced parents. With this fact in mind, she discussed how because she and her friends had single mothers raising them, it gave her a different understanding of “what it meant to be a woman.”
With this knowledge growing up, Degiuli said she has been trying to keep this idea of strong, independent women alive by teaching it to her own daughters, in order to “try and make them empowered beings,” even though it has been difficult.
One aspect of gender issues that she noticed was different from Italy compared to the U.S. was body image. In Italy, Degiuli said the idea of the “perfect woman” is more structured and could be described as what is seen in magazines. However, when she came to the United States with so many different cultures present and other ways of living and dressing, Degiuli said it “formed a certain kind of freedom,” in her mind and she felt that she was more free to live how she wanted. She also noted that the opportunities for women in academia were much higher than in Italy.
Finally it came time for the student panelists to give their own perspectives, Li being the first. Li described her perspective on the evolution of a woman’s role in China based on three generations of women in her family and how their lives were so different from one another.
She began with her grandmother, who was born in 1935, a time when “society was unstable, the country was poor,” and she lived in a small village in northern China.
Education was not seen as a necessity, and for most of her life her grandmother got married, had children and worked without an education. Even though this was the case, however, she was seen as the “most inspirational” in her family.
Li then went on to talk about her aunt, who was born in 1956 and grew up during the time of the cultural revolution, when education was banned, especially for women.
However, Li noted that her aunt was the “odd one,” and kept on studying as much as she could until she eventually became a professor and taught at universities both in China and in the U.S.
When she finally got to herself, Li said she was proud of the fact that she was “just a girl from Shanghai.” She highlighted the importance of education, saying that it is “a key to the entire society and it opens a woman’s vision.”
Amaning presented next about growing up in Ghana, but mainly discussed the role of women as seen through the eyes of her grandmother, who was queen of a province in Ghana.
Amaning said her grandmother had a “strong, independent presence,” and reflected the point that “women are the backbone” of the household.
A point that she emphasized especially, however, was how difficult and valuable education was for women in Ghana, where school isn’t free and is more often provided to boys than to girls. Amaning even said that girls are sometimes required to drop out in order to help their families, or pushed into programs that are more of a “woman’s job.” Therefore, Amaning was proud of the education she has received and said, “you educate a girl, you educate the whole nation.”
Kermah was the last panelist to present and discussed her experience with women’s roles in Liberia.
Growing up, the women in her family were in high positions of power, with her grandmother working in the government and her mother working as a nurse in one of the top hospitals in the country.
According to Kermah, a woman’s role is important in society in her country, with women working as vendors in stores, teachers and even religious leaders. However, upon coming to the United States she learned that over here is a “different world,” where there are more opportunities and women “are taken a bit more seriously.”
Toward the end of her discussion, Kermah also made a point to say that her family was important to her, especially having her mother who raised her well and taught her valuable life lessons. She emphasized that “women are very important, even if they are caretakers.”
The panel ended with a brief question-and-answer session and comments from the audience.