Danville Express

Column - January 19, 2007

Diablo Views: Learning about others

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

What was your life like when you were in your 20s? Were you beginning a career or starting to raise a family? Were you in a refugee camp?

Paula Goldman, founder and director of the International Museum of Women, headquartered in San Francisco, has done a study of women around the world asking these questions and more. From the millions of responses, she compiled a book called "Imagining Ourselves, A Global Generation of Women" that includes 105 young women from 57 countries. Goldman was scheduled to speak this month to the Danville-Alamo Branch of American Association of University Women on what she has learned from these women.

Goldman's Web site details many fascinating projects, but one especially caught my eye: Yemen Dialogues. When I was still in my 20s, I moved to Jeddah, and one of my most memorable trips during the three years I lived in the Mideast was a few days spent in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. I went with my Danish friend, Ingrid, whose main objective was to purchase silver jewelry and artifacts at the souq. Our hotel was a renovated palace, and a large stone staircase wound round and round to our room on the fourth floor with views of fields in one direction and the ancient Arabic city in the other.

As temporary residents of Saudi Arabia, Ingrid and I yearned for the illegal pleasures of pork and alcohol, so after arriving in our room we picked up the old black telephone and called room service to request, "Two orders of bacon and eggs - with beer!" Our pleasure in our "forbidden" meal was a bit tempered by feelings of guilt because it was carried on a huge tray up all those steep stairs by a solemn-looking man in flowing robes who could only be described as ancient. However we did overcome our guilt to call for seconds.

We accomplished the goal of the trip after several days of dedicated shopping in the souq, but I now regret that we never made the effort to talk to any of the women. We saw them, floating through the marketplace veiled from head to toe in outer garments as concealing as those in Saudi Arabia but colored blue with red and while circular patterns rather than black. In Jeddah I was always fascinated by the lovely feet of the women in the marketplace, their perfectly polished toenails visible in sandals. Sometimes our eyes would meet through their thick veils, and we would smile tentatively at each other.

Goldman was in the midst of collecting stories from young women artists in Yemen in 2003 when they stopped communications as a protest against U.S. foreign policy when we invaded Iraq. Wanting to understand this action, she initiated a dialogue between young women here and in Yemen, asking what stereotypes they had about each other. A Yemeni woman studying in Canada said she had found the stereotype to be true that many Americans have little concern about world issues although some surprised her with their knowledge of the Mideast. Another woman from Yemen said she was shocked to learn there were large protests in the United States against the war and felt with this knowledge she was being introduced to a whole new world. "When many people here in Yemen refuse to deal with Americans, it is prejudging and a mistake," she wrote.

Goldman noted that as the bloodshed in Iraq continues, she realizes this exchange was "just a small drop of water in a vast, unfriendly ocean," and she needs to find more powerful ways "to ameliorate violent conflict." She was born to an expatriate family in Singapore and also lived in Jakarta before moving to Southern California; she graduated UC Berkeley and earned a master's in public affairs from Princeton. She's currently working toward a doctorate in social anthropology at Harvard. And, guys, she is currently looking for input from young men about how their roles are changing and their unique challenges and opportunities. Visit imaginingourselves.imow.org.

Goldman's AAUW speech had to be postponed and will probably take place in the fall. But I'm glad I heard about it now; it sparked wonderful memories of coming face to face with women in other cultures.

-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.

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