Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. One of the most life-changing classes I’ve ever taken was a class at Stanford taught by Anne Firth Murray, called International Women’s Health and Human Rights, which examined the lives of women from birth to childhood to adulthood to old age, especially focusing on women in the developing world. I have wished many times that every human being could take a class like that - it was so important in my education as a citizen of this world. So I was thrilled when my friend Becca Archibald gave me a book for Christmas last year, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, and I discovered that this book covered so many of the same topics as that class, with clear, precise language and a multitude of gripping stories from Melinda Gates’ humanitarian work all over the globe. I added it to the reading list, and I was so excited when my friend Sara Abbasi agreed to be my reading partner for this book. Sara and I met in that class on women’s health and human rights, and listeners will see why she is such a treasure of wisdom and experience on these topics. Thank you so much for being with us, Sara!
Sara: Thank you, Amy! It’s an absolute pleasure and honor to participate in your podcast!
Amy: Could you introduce yourself and tell us where you’re from and what makes you who you are?
My name is Sara Abbasi.
I was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and grew up around the world.
I spent the first 9 years living in different cities across Pakistan - we moved almost every other year as a result of my father’s job.
When I was 9 years old, my family moved to Brussels, Belgium. We lived there for about 4 years. In Brussels, I attended a French, Catholic all-girls school in Brussels. This was quite an experience -- I did not speak a word of French. I had attended English schools in Pakistan. And being in a French school was quite a challenge at first. But within six months I was fluent in French. I still remember during school recess, some of my classmates teaching me how to say the alphabet and numbers in French. In the context of the book we are about to discuss “The Moment of Lift,”, I think that probably was one of the first instances of “lift” in my life -- girls helping girls!
When I was 13, my family moved yet again. We moved from Brussels to Manila, Philippines.
I attended the International school in Manila. That was a truly international school -- I had friends from all around the globe, and had this wonderful exposure to different cultures and religions.
I came to the US for university. I attended Bucknell University for 2 years. During my first semester at Bucknell, when I was 18, I got engaged in an arranged marriage, and married 2 years later.
I moved to California right after my wedding.
I was able to transfer to Santa Clara University where I completed my undergraduate education.
My husband and I started our family soon after.
We now have 3 children.
They are all grown, and out of the house.
Over the years, I served on the boards of various NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) based in the US and Pakistan.
*One of the NGO’s I’ve been involved with for over 20 years, is called Developments in Literacy (DIL) DIL also means “heart” in Urdu.
DIL is a US based non-profit working to establish schools for girls in Pakistan.
In 2000, I met DIL’s CEO at an event and offered to make a donation. She asked if I would instead start a chapter in San Francisco -- to raise awareness about DIL’s work and to raise funds.
I got a small group of friends and started the chapter in 2001. We organized annual fundraisers for DIL.
I served on the international board of DIL for 13 years. As a board member, I made annual trips to Pakistan to visit our schools and meet with our students, teachers and parents.
I also completed the MLA program last year. Even though my graduation took place during lockdown, it was a very special occasion as my youngest son graduated from Stanford at the same time as me. He earned his undergraduate degree while I received my Masters.
Amy: What does “breaking down patriarchy” mean to you?
To me, the term “Breaking down patriarchy” means changing traditions and practices of a system where men determine all the rules of behavior, and women follow; to me it’s a culture which considers men to be superior to women: superior in intellect, ability, and authority. And “breaking down” those traditions means creating a culture that is more egalitarian. Where women and men have equal say…..work as partners.
Let me share a quick anecdote about how I experienced that in my family:
*when it was time for me to attend university -- father’s friends’ comments about my studying @ Manila Univer vs brothers in US
*My dad’s response: if my boys will go to America to study, so will my daughter.
Amy: Before we start discussing the book, I’ll briefly introduce the author.
Melinda Ann French was born on August 15, 1964, in Dallas, Texas. She is the second of four children, and her father was an aerospace engineer; her mother, a homemaker. She is a Catholic, and attended Catholic school, where she was the top student in her class. At age 14, French was introduced to the Apple II by her father, and a school teacher who advocated teaching computer science to the girls at her all-girls school. It was from this experience that she developed her interest in computer games and the BASIC programming language.
French graduated as valedictorian of her high school, and then she earned a bachelor's degree in computer science and economics from Duke University in 1986 and an MBA from Duke's Fuqua School of Business in 1987.
Her first job was tutoring children in mathematics and computer programming, and then she became a marketing manager with Microsoft, being responsible for the development of multimedia products. Melinda began dating Microsoft CEO Bill Gates in 1987, after meeting him at a trade fair in New York, and they married in 1994. They have three children: Jennifer, Rory, and Phoebe Gates. In 2000 Bill and Melinda Gates launched the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was reported as of 2020 to hold $49.8 billion in assets. As co-chair of the foundation, Melinda sets the direction and priorities of the world’s largest philanthropy. Just a couple of the multitude of amazing things the foundation has accomplished: The foundation has donated billions of dollars to help sufferers of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, protecting millions of children from death at the hands of preventable diseases, the foundation assisted in the eradication of polio, the foundation’s vaccination drives were responsible for helping to reduce deaths from measles in Africa: measles-related deaths have dropped by 90 percent since 2000.
Melinda French Gates is also the founder of Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company working to drive social progress for women and families in the United States.
Melinda and Bill Gates divorced in the summer of 2021, but she still goes by Melinda French Gates.
Amy: So let’s discuss this book! As usual, we’ll take turns sharing passages that stood out to us, and I must say, it was really hard to narrow it down. I literally wrote 20 pages of notes, so I highly recommend that listeners buy this one and read the whole thing. But we’ll discuss just a few key points.
Intro chapter; pg 7:
So, the first point that stood out for me was when Melinda Gates describes the meaning of a “feminist”: “Being a feminist means believing that every woman should be able to use her voice and pursue her potential, and that women and men should all work together to take down the barriers and end the biases that still hold women back.”
I completely agree with this definition. And I’d love to share two personal examples of how this definition of a feminist came to life in my family:
*Story about my paternal grandmother Jamila.
She was born in an Aristocratic family in Jalandhar, Punjab, India in 1895. She married young but separated from her husband when she was 18.
Jamila did not want to sit at home being pitied by her extended family for having separated. She wanted to get an education.
But her maternal grandfather was opposed -- he did not think it was appropriate for a girl from his family to attend school.
Jamila was determined and applied and got admission at a boarding school in Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh (about 700 miles away).
Jamila was helped by her mother and older brother. Her mother gave her the train fare. Her brother took her to the train station.
Quite remarkable considering this was in 1913 -- not many women even in the western world attended university.
After completing her high school, my grandmother enrolled at the best women’s university in the state, Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow. After graduation, she worked as the Minister of Education for the Begum of Bhopal -- one of the small princely states in British India.
My second example is of my parents: my mother was married very young to my father. She was only 16 and still in highschool. After my parents were married, my father and my grandmother, Jamila (whose story I just told) encouraged my mother to study and complete her high school. With their support, she went on to earn her Bachelor's and Master's degree. And when we were in Manila, she earned her PhD.
To me, both these examples highlight Melinda Gates’ definition of a feminist.
Amy: Chapter 1
“I remember driving outside one of the towns and seeing a mother who was carrying a baby in her belly, another baby on her back, and a pile of sticks on her head. She had clearly been walking a long distance with no shoes, while the men I saw were wearing flip-flops and smoking cigarettes with no sticks on their heads or kids at their sides. As we drove on, I saw more women carrying heavy burdens, and I wanted to understand more about their lives.” (14)
My church has had great success among women in such cultures because the “angel in the house” version of patriarchy is so much preferred to this abusive chauvinism! We have a document that says that the man presides over the home, so he’s responsible for his wife and children, and he needs to provide for them, and basically be the protector. Church culture is also quite chivalrous, treating women as “angels.” This is such an improvement for women who are treated like donkeys. But I insist that there’s a third option where women are not abused, and not coddled and shielded and condescended to and “presided” over. It’s a false dichotomy that those are the only two options… although it might be true that you have to pass through them in consecutive steps as culture evolves. Not sure.
I completely agree Amy. There is a third option, where women are seen as equals.
Chapter 2; pg 46:
Another moment in the book that stood out was when Melinda shares the story of the midwife Ati Pujiastuti. Melinda met Ati during her trip to Indonesia. She describes Ati as a 19 year-old trained midwife working in a remote village in Indonesia. Many of the villagers were distrustful of Ati. Melinda writes: “When she arrived in the village, she wasn’t welcome. People were hostile and distrustful of outsiders, especially young women with ideas of how to make things better. Somehow, this young woman had the wisdom of a village elder. She went door-to-door to introduce herself to everyone. She showed up at every community event. She bought the local newspaper and read it aloud to anyone who couldn’t read. When the village got electricity, she scraped up the money to buy a tiny TV and invited everyone to come and watch with her.” Melinda goes on to describe how Ati slowly began to earn the trust of the villagers and work in their village as a midwife.
Earning the trust of people you are trying to help is so important. I know from personal experience in my work with Developments in Literacy.
DIL works to establish community based schools, primarily for girls, in villages throughout Pakistan. Right from the start we were really particular about meeting with local villagers, with local families to identify a local teacher. We knew that we had to choose a teacher from within their village who spoke the local language, someone who understood and was familiar with local customs and traditions. It was important for us at DIL to build trust within the local communities so that community members and parents of students would see the schools as their own as opposed to outsiders trying to influence their girls.
Another passage that stood out for me is a quote from her second chapter when she writes about understanding the daily lives of the poor. She writes:
(Chapter 2; pg 49)
“When you begin to understand the daily lives of the poor, it does more than give you the desire to help, it can often show you how.”
Example of DIL schools: over time discovered that a lot of students were not attending classes at certain times of the year. When our team in Pakistan looked into it, by talking to parents and teachers, we discovered that a lot of the students were missing school because they were helping their families in their farms during harvest season. The children were needed as extra help. So we adjusted the school day to accommodate the needs of the local families. We realized that in order for our schools to be successful, we need to understand the needs of our DIL families.
This chapter stood out to me too! One story particularly struck me is this one, which happened in a rural village in India. And then I want to ask you about it:
Historically, the mothers in the community would go to the Brahmin, a member of the priestly caste, and ask when to start breastfeeding, and he would say, “You can’t let down milk for three days, so you should start after three days.” False information is disempowering. Mothers would heed the advice of the Brahmin, and for the first three days of the newborn’s life, they would give the baby water - which was often polluted. Vishwajeet and Aarti’s team had prepared for this moment. They gently questioned traditional practices by pointing to patterns in nature that were part of the villagers’ way of life.” [They cited the example of a calf and its mother. ] (43)
It’s a delicate thing to initiate change in a traditional culture. It has to be done with the utmost care and respect. ...If love were enough to save a life, no mother would ever bury her baby - we need the science as well. But the way you deliver the science is just as important as the science itself.” (44)
I’m curious if the women felt anxiety about disobeying the Brahmin. I wonder if they got a lot of pushback for disrespecting him, whether he was a beloved community member or a tyrant - it’s hard either way.
**Have you encountered this, Sara? How do you help empower women to make changes within entrenched patriarchies? In some cases it can even be dangerous to encourage women to go against patriarchal traditions, right?
Yes, it can definitely be dangerous. There are so many instances of violence against women who have challenged patriarchal traditions.
*Briefly describe the honor killing of Samia Sarwar for seeking a divorce (covered in my MLA thesis).
Samia Sarwar’s murder in 1999. A very public killing that took place in a prominent lawyer’s office in Lahore.
Samia was born into an educated, wealthy family in Peshawar, in Northwest Pakistan.
Her father was a successful, wealthy businessman. Her mother was a practicing ob/gyn.
Samia’s family was conservative, patriarchal:
*Men as head of household; responsible for all decisions related to the family.
Decisions such as who to marry. Samia had an arranged marriage at 18.
Unfortunately, her husband was abusive…
And after a few years, Samia decided to separate and move back to her parents home.
Samia’s father supported her decision to separate…
And even barred her husband from visiting.
But a few years later, when Samia decided she wanted to get a divroce, her parents were against it.
Her father said “divorce was not done” in their family and that it would shame the family.
Even though divorce is allowed in Islam and under Pakistani law, in Samia’s community, divorce was considered taboo.
But Samia was resourceful and at her law school she found out about a lawyer who could help her file for divorce and about a private women’s shelter...