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Standing My Ground: A Personal Journey for Women's Rights and Leadership

A few years ago, I was standing in line at the Court of Justice in my hometown of Amman, Jordan, waiting to get documents notarized when I noticed a few men, some wearing legal garb, others in plain clothes staring at me and shaking their heads. I ignored them. A few minutes later one of these men approached me and said, you may be more comfortable here, pointing to the parallel queue. I asked why and he said with a smirk: “This queue is for men and the other one for women as you can see.” I responded rather firmly, but politely, “I don’t see any signs pointing me to think that there are sex segregated queues here.” He repeated: “it is only for your own comfort” to which I responded, “I am comfortable exactly where I am.” I stayed in line while a few men and women gasped and shook their heads until I got to the notary who smiled at me and said, “Good for you!” It felt so good to stand my ground, but I also felt so frustrated that in a country whose constitution states clearly that men and women are equal and where there are NO laws that separate men and women in the public sphere, sociocultural norms, instead, rule society’s attitudes and behavior toward girls and women. This is one of many similar incidents that strengthened my drive to work for and on women’s rights in the Middle East and beyond and an acerbic reminder of the importance of knowing your rights. It is why I am dedicated to not speaking up where and when needed to give voice to girls and women and to stay true to myself as a feminist, now a mother and wife and a career woman.

As we commemorate Women’s History Month, as well as International Women’s Day on March 8th, globally, I encourage you all to take a few moments to think of a moment of challenge to your gender identity, honor your feelings, and take a step to understand your rights and educate others by sharing your story as I did here with you all.

👉 Here is how you can support the rights of girls & women in three simple ways:

🗨️ Talk to your colleagues, friends, or family about what you know and what you don’t know regarding the state of girls and women in the world

🗞️ Take a few minutes to click on a news story that tackles issues pertaining to girls and women to learn more about the challenges, the progress, and the hope

👸 Write down the names of the women who inspire you or who have made a difference in your life and honor them in your own way this month

🙋‍♀️ Advancing Women’s Rights in the Adaptive Leadership Framework

One of my favorite leadership frameworks that has helped me in my career is Adaptive Leadership, theorized by Harvard Kennedy School Professor Ronald Heifetz. Heifetz distinguishes between two types of challenges that those who exercise leadership confront: “technical challenges” and “adaptive challenges.”

A “technical challenge” can be fixed quickly with “authoritative expertise” while an “adaptive challenge” can only be “addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties.”

These two types of challenges can be applied to women’s rights today. In many parts of the world, there remain many laws that are discriminatory to women. That is a technical challenge. Accordingly, women’s movements worldwide work tirelessly to reform these laws. Some have succeeded with these legal amendments, others have not. However, as in my story above, sometimes, even if the laws are firm in stipulating equality, social behavior dictates a different reality; that is an adaptive challenge. The adaptive challenge of advancing women’s rights entails a cultural shift, that requires taking an approach beyond authoritative expertise, encourages new learning, confronts entrenched beliefs, and builds the basis of social transformation. Adaptive work takes time, patience, and persistence. It is how change happens.

🚀 Action

✉️ Send a thoughtful message to one or two of the women you admire in your life and share what they mean to you. Words of gratitude come a long way!

💡 Additional resources to learn more

📰 The Gender Gap Index published annually by the World Economic Forum gives you a glimpse of the gaps between males and females in four categories: Education, Health, Labor Participation, and Political Participation. Learn more here

📚 Book: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz

📜 Check out my favorite story repository Story Corps and this month’s theme on Women’s Stories

👂 Take a listen to one of the top podcasts on Women and Leadership

We are very grateful to our guest contributor for this week: Merissa Khurma

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