Grit and glitz - welcome to Tina Brown's Women in the World summit

April 7, 2013

(Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

"Too many people see the fortunes of women and girls as separate from society at large." - Hillary Rodham Clinton

Last week I spent an intense day and a half at the Women in the World summit. This is a yearly gathering at Lincoln Center in New York put on by Tina Brown, former editor of The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Talk, and now of Newsweek/The Daily Beast. The gathering was full of luminaries including Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep, and Oprah Winfrey, and highlighted issues concerning women around the globe. Some of the topics focused on the workplace, but to be honest the most arresting panels were about the kinds of things most of us reading this don't - thankfully - come up against regularly ourselves.  

I say 'intense' because these issues are some of the most serious and depressing affecting women worlwide, from 'honor' killings of supposedly undutiful daughters, to women being sold into the sex trade, to the number of women around the world who still die in childbirth. One of the best panels was on Friday and concerned sexual violence in India - we all know about that terrible gang rape that took place in New Delhi in December, which ultimately claimed the life of the rape victim, a young medical student. The discussion began when moderator Cynthia McFadden interviewed a young Indian rape survivor (her preferred word) about her experience of being raped and trying to bring her case to court. The young woman sat with her back to the audience, as she needs to keep her identity secret to guard her safety. The subsequent panel was made up of three women and one man, all Indian, talking about the pervasive problem of male and female attitudes to women in India and just how much has to change before society as a whole begins to shift its mindset.

(Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Just to show you what the women of India are up against, here's a snippet of what panelist Shoma Chaudhury (in the bright red jacket) said. You can read her piece on this in the Daily Beast here.

"The police are habitually callous...There is an endemic idea that women ask for what happens to them...One judge said, 'All marriages have some level of beating…get used to it.'"

Incredibly inspiring was a panel featuring three young Pakistani women - one filmmaker and two activists - who are trying to change attitudes to women's and girls' education in Pakistan. These women are risking their lives to try to convince men with frankly medieval mindsets that girls deserve an education. One of them knows personally Malala Yousafzai, the teenager shot in the head by the Taliban last year for advocating for girls' education. Christiane Amanpour moderated that panel (below, with 24-year-old Humaira Bachal of the Dream Foundation Trust). Humaira has her work cut out. We saw some film of her in a village talking to local men about letting women go to school. The men laughed and explained it simply wasn't an option. Women had to stay indoors where no one would look at them. Going out just caused stares and whispers. If any woman defied them, they said, 'that would mean the bullet.' 

(Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

After this, Angelina Jolie appeared at the podium, almost Virgin-Mary-like in dress, honoring Malala and introducing a video where Malala herself talked about a new foundation in her name that she will dedicate to girls' education in Pakistan. (This combination of grit and glitz summed up the conference.) 

Hillary Clinton encompasses both. She had begun the day on Friday by talking about some of her efforts to advocate for women and girls around the world, and how little appreciated they were when she started. Here's a bit of what she said:

"Too many people see the fortunes of women and girls as separate from society at large...I’ve seen it, I’ve been kidded and ribbed, challenged in boardrooms and official offices across the world. But fighting to give women and girls a fighting chance isn’t a ‘nice’ thing to do. It isn’t some luxury…it is a core imperative for every human being and every society."

Delighted though many were to hear Clinton speak live, there were literally squeals of excitement in the press gallery moments before Oprah Winfrey came on stage. People leapt to their feet, applauding wildly when the legendary talk show host appeared.

(Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Sitting next to her is Dr. Tererai Trent, a Zimbabwean educator (somehow 'teacher' doesn't seem enough here), who Oprah - well it is Oprah after all - calls her hero. Trent already had three children by the age of 18 (she'd had another, but the baby died as she couldn't produce enough milk). But she transformed her poor and frankly very unpromising beginnings into a tale of hard graft in Zimbabwe and the US, where she got her education while sharing a trailer with her abusive spouse and, by then, five kids. These days she, too, is devoting her life to education, but not just of girls

"When we educate boys, they will be so respectful of girls."

At least that's the hope. A lot more happened at the conference, but these were some of the highlights.