Iron Butterflies are revolutionary women. They have a will of iron and the touch of a butterfly, Birute Regine writes about her book, Iron Butterflies: Women Leading in a New Era, which will be released in spring 2010. This is an excerpt from the book.
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Ada Aharoni grew up in Egypt with two grandmothers who held opposing views. While her maternal grandmother, Regina, believed that a girl's value equaled a boy's, her paternal grandmother, Esther, with whom Ada's family lived with for a while, saw men as the rulers of the world and women as their servants. Given Esther's view, her astonishment to see her seven-year-old granddaughter Ada playing the strategic game of chess with her nine-year-old brother surprised her. Ada's brother, who had taught Ada to play, made his moves swiftly, gliding his pieces across the board, confident that he would decisively beat his little sister. But instead, clever Ada checkmated him. "I thought he was going to kiss me because I won," Ada recalls with a chuckle. "Instead he slapped me across the face. I was so astounded. Instinctively, I slapped him right back." Grandmother Esther watched in shock as this wisp of a girl slapped the future man of the house! "She grabbed my arm," Ada told me, "looked me in the eye and said, 'you have to remember a boy is worth sixty girls, and in your life, don't you dare raise your hand to your brother or any man. You have to understand this if you want to live in peace in this world.'"
When Ada asked her grandmother why sixty girls equaled one boy, her grandmother grappled for an explanation but nothing convinced little Ada. "I am not going to live this way," Ada declared as she stomped her foot down. "I am worth one boy!" When Ada's mother and grandmother Regina heard of the incident, they backed up Ada's conviction; she was worth one boy. "So, I became a feminist at the age of seven!" Ada proudly told me.
Today Ada, a professor, author, poet, and founder of The International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace, lives in Israel. In her seventies, she is as vibrant and passionate as ever, refusing to let anyone extinguish her fiery desire to be whole or to block her work to help bring peace to the Middle East. Ada has created conditions for peace between Arab and Jewish women by having them come together and gain knowledge of each other: they learn about each others culture by sharing stories of peace.
I love the spirit of little Ada who stood tall and refused to heed the old adage "little girls should be seen and not heard" and was not mesmerized into thinking of herself as less than her brother. We can learn so much from Ada and all other young girls whose sense of fairness makes them unbending in the face of gender discrimination. Like little Ada, we should all resist monolithic authoritarian beliefs that stereotype males as the leaders, females as their followers. By refusing to walk behind her brother, Ada thwarted indoctrination into a domination culture that wanted nothing more than to silence and subdue her. It's not just men who perpetuate the traditional view. Women, such as Ada's grandmother Esther collaborate in sending the message of domination and submission to their daughters and granddaughters. By propagating beliefs and behaviors that sabotage women's power, women like grandmother Esther help perpetuate systems that oppress women. Why do they do it? Because, in a misguided way, they believe their view will insure peace in the household, and, by extension, peace in the world. But peace at what cost?
Although Ada's momentous chess game took place more than fifty years ago, the inequality of women continues in as many households throughout the world as it did then. For instance, in Afghanistan today, women have made some progress, albeit fragile, towards equity and have begun to participate in the political arena. And yet we must wonder about the quality of that participation. On one occasion, women delegates protested that no women had been appointed as a chairman's deputy on any of the committees, thus excluding women from any leadership positions. Although the head of the assembly, Mojaddedi, grudgingly picked a female deputy, he also rebuked the female caucus by reminding them that it took the opinion of two women to equal that of one man.
That may happen in a country like Afghanistan, you may be thinking, but surely not in a democracy like the US where women enjoy equal rights? The answer begins in the United States Constitution, which does not mention equal rights for women. The Equal Rights Amendment, most recently promulgated in the 1970s and 80s, failed to pass because conservatives opposed changing the Constitution.
Birute Regine is a developmental psychologist from Harvard University, a psychotherapist for 25 years, a visiting scholar at Wellesley College’s Research Center on Women, a workshop facilitator, business consultant, and public speaker.
My Peacebuilding - Ada tells about her journey as a peace builder