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Igniting a Spark of Power

The politics of women's liberation in North Africa
An interview with Donna Zajonc
by Jessica Roemischer and Elizabeth Debold

The higher the educational attainment of a nation's women, the greater is that nation's overall prosperity. Remarkably, according to UN reports, for each year that girls go to school beyond fourth grade, family size drops twenty percent, child mortality drops ten percent, and income rises twenty percent. In recognition of this, from across a wide-ranging global political spectrum, nations are encouraging girls and women to learn in ways that were literally unthinkable within their societies a few short decades ago. In fact, between 1995 and 2002, the World Bank has lent approximately 5.3 billion dollars for girls' education to countries where women may typically have few rights to self-determination. However, at the same time, little is being done to influence the traditional belief structures that form the very fabric of these societies.

What will happen to these women whose minds are beginning to reach far beyond the four walls of the homes that shelter their families? Providing them with education, and sometimes even the trappings of democratic representation, all while they're still living within extremely traditional contexts where custom may forbid them from going out of the house alone—it may prove a volatile mix. This is an experiment in the acceleration of cultural evolution at an unprecedented scale.

Donna Zajonc, former Oregon state representative, author, and political leadership coach, had an opportunity to glimpse the potential of this evolutionary experiment. Invited by the U.S. State Department to colead a seminar in Tunisia, "Partners in Participation: Women's Campaign Initiative," she had the privilege of teaching basic political campaign techniques to sixty Muslim women from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia-respectively, a fragmented republic, a constitutional monarchy, and a republic that has become a progressive dictatorship, if that isn't too much of a contradiction in terms. But, as Zajonc discovered, the real learning had little to do with politics. Not only did "all hell break loose" when the women came together, but something was unleashed that holds a radical promise for the future. WIE spoke to Zajonc immediately upon her return from North Africa.

WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT: I'm very curious about the cultural context in Tunisia within which the Women's Campaign Initiative was operating. There seems to be an acknowledgment, at least theoretically, of the importance of a democratic society, but the inherent structures that are in place don't embrace it.

DONNA ZAJONC: Yes, the women call this "the mindset"—and that word was known by every woman there. It means, "Yes, we've been given opportunities; we're able to vote, we're able to hold office, we're able to have an education, we're able to work in the workplace. However, the mindset really hasn't changed." It was a new kind of suppression that I hadn't even thought of before.

It's important to note that this is Northern Africa, which is a more liberal Muslim region, more influenced by Europe. But in these countries, even though both women and men are working, the men don't do anything at home. The men, because of their mindset, do not help with the house or with the kids. One of the few things that Islamic men in Northern Africa are starting to do is help with the shopping, because the men can go out to the market more freely than the women can. So there's a new level of tension between the men and women, as women become more involved in society and are also experiencing a deathly exhaustion from overwork.

WIE: Can you explain a little bit about what you were teaching them?

ZAJONC: The Initiative is based on the belief that the best way to help women get involved is to have them more visible in elected office. To do that, they have to understand how to run campaigns, how to speak, how to concisely get a message out. So we taught traditional campaign kinds of things. For example, I taught a coalition-building session—how do you learn to work together to further a combined cause? This is important for them because in Algeria and Morocco, respectively, they have twenty-six and forty political parties. And these are parties that are geared around one very powerful individual who has just surfaced and created a party and a two- or three- or four-year movement—they don't even tend to stand for anything particular. Or to take another example, we taught them to create text messages on cell phones. They don't have regular phones because there are no landlines, but almost everybody has a cell phone. So they're learning how to campaign based upon the infrastructure of their community.

Those were the kinds of skills we worked on. But as I got to the end of the week, I actually started realizing that the real goals of the Initiative had nothing to do with what was being taught. The staff were really much more interested in the women gathering. They understood how important it is for women simply to gather in a protected environment so they can cross-pollinate, so they can nurture and excite one another about being women together. Usually, because they're not allowed to gather, even in the more liberal areas in Northern Africa, these women just don't share together. That's the mindset again.

What did you observe between the women? This was an opportunity for them actually to be together without—what? Without a man present?

Without Islamic men in the room. They seemed to be fine with Western men. You see, not only do they not gather that much because Islamic men are suspicious of women gathering, they just don't have the opportunity. And gathering across country lines was really unusual, truly a first. These were heads of NGOs, women active in political parties, two or three mayors of rural towns who were all saying that it was just so fantastic to meet, to be together. So what I saw was an exchange of commitment to stay in touch. Even though there was some pontificating from one country to the other, and they would get upset at each other, they'd end their sentence with, "And we're so glad you're here and we're learning." Having the experience of meeting women from neighboring countries was very valuable to them.

So what was it like to have all these women meet? What was the palpable feeling in the room?

Some of the women were very strident and very angry and they would get up and make speeches that might turn off some other women, but in the end they all understood their common struggle. Even though there were some sparks, when we said good-bye to each other after the last session, they didn't clear the room. Suddenly people who had been yelling at each other were exchanging addresses, saying, "Oh, let's keep in touch." I felt I was back in the women's movement of the sixties.

Although we as trainers may have given them one or two new ideas, the power of the week together came from the women listening to each other's stories, giving hope to each other. I think most all of them went home feeling like something's beginning.

There was this sense of igniting a spark of power, because these women are on the threshold. And it could explode—I don't know in what way. They had a taste of freedom and they just want more and more. They want to be free, to be who they are, to express who they are, to love in the way they want to love, to create in the way they want to create. There was a suppressed anger, and yet a joyfulness that was definitely palpable. Gratitude—a gratefulness to be there—there really was that. They spoke about that all the time: "Thank you, thank you," they'd say, and then immediately they might challenge us, "And why are you doing that?" It was the oddest combination. But the expressiveness of the Islamic world, the expressiveness of the women—including their dance and their music—is fantastic.

We have to hold the paradox that this situation is both very complex and very simple. On the one hand, what is going on with each of the women, each country, and each culture is very complex. But on the other hand, the one-on-one contact of women coming together is simplicity itself. We have to begin with that simple idea and trust that their desires and yearnings for the feminine energy to come forward will manifest themselves in all forms.


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