They sit in a semi-circle, fully attentive. Some wear hijab, looking like Botticelli-painted nuns. Others reveal their hair, perhaps a headscarf wrapped loosely around their necks. Some are married and mothers, some are single, one is a foreign student earning her Ph.D. studying art as social commentary among Middle Eastern women. A few are struggling to find their way to feminism in a Middle East context while others celebrate their arrival into the world of like-minded women. They are studying for a master's degree at the University of Jordan in Amman, where I was invited to speak about the history of the women's movement in America and beyond.
The young women gazing at me remind me of something I have known since I became engaged in, and committed to, feminism: The world is full of feminists, fledging or fully developed. They reside in every continent and community and likely have been there for a long time, although we may not have called them that in their day. They remind me too of women I met in Nairobi at the final UN Decade for Women conference in 1985, some who came knowing they would be severely punished when they returned home, and yet they came, 14,000 strong.
They remind me of women I met in Beijing ten years later at the Fourth World Conference on Women, some of whom came with male chaperones, and yet they came, 40,000 strong. They remind me of women who came to give testimony, to offer analysis through the lens of gender, to speak truth to power, to inspire and advise others.
Women in the thousands -- each representing many more from their communities - came to these places far away from home to address issues of poverty, violence, human rights, the environment, economic security, peace, justice and more. They came because as one feminist said, "It is clear that the world we live in is driving us mad by limiting our possibilities and insisting on our second class status." They came to declare that "We are here, there and everywhere, and we are not going away."
The women I met in Jordan reminded me of the diversity of feminists and "feminisms," and of the ways in which all feminists make a difference. Laila al-Atrash, for example, is a novelist and media figure recognized by the Arab Human Report as a writer who has influenced her society in meaningful ways. Her works have been incorporated into university curricula and adapted as movies.
Rula Quawas, the professor of American Literature and Feminist Theory who invited me to Jordan, founded the Women's Studies Center at the university in 2006 and served as its director for two years. "I look at the classroom as a site of resistance," she says. "We discuss, debate, raise awareness. We need to ensure that grassroots women know what is going on and that they are no longer silent or silenced. It is essential they be part of the fabric of society," says the beloved teacher. Four of her students recently produced a documentary video about sexual harassment on the campus of their university. It was considered an outrage by many people. Dr. Quawas and her students were threatened, but their courage opened a dialogue that never would have occurred had she and her students not brought the matter to light.
Rawan Ibrahim, an academic in social work who attended high school in Vermont, is researching the stigmatization that many orphans face in Jordan, especially the circumstances of those born out of wedlock. She works to change attitudes and provide social services to this vulnerable population. She also works to support the Jordanian government's effort to deinstitutionalize children through the development of the first formal foster care program in the region.
Then there is Abeer Alshroof, a young woman who with her husband is active in an initiative designed to help orphans and underprivileged families secure basic necessities. "One of our main purposes is to see that the children continue their education instead of having to work in order to help their families," Abeer says. "We want the children to know that they be whatever they want and that poverty will not stand in their way."