Your Woman on the Scene

Women’s Advocate: Hillary Clinton

hillary on stage


Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Hillary Clinton speak at the San José State University Event Center on my campus, and I must say the experienced politica—a former first lady, New York senator, and secretary of state for Obama—possesses quite the presidential presence.

While researching Champion of Choice, the biography of Dr. Nafis Sadik, I interviewed Nafis about her work at the UN Population Fund and her collaborations with Hillary. Nafis talked about her admiration of Clinton’s speaking ability as the two women both headlined at the Beijing Women’s Conference. Nafis said to Hillary, “I notice that you never look at your notes.” And Hillary replied, “Yes, after a time, one does develop a knack.”

That knack was clearly in effect last night as Clinton spoke extemporaneously with nary a note in sight. In fact I will go so far as to say that she is the best public speaker I’ve ever encountered, including her hubby, who while President Bill Clinton, gave a phenomenal commencement address when I graduated from Penn State. For those of us who speak for a living, like any craft, its practitioners analyze the skills of others and Hillary ruled the packed 7000-seat auditorium, receiving two standing ovations.

When her host, Santa Clara County tax assessor Larry Stone, (described as an old friend of the Clintons), asked if Hillary had any announcements to make—i.e. that she was running for president in 2016—the crowd roared.

I was curious about Hillary’s choice of theme last night: women’s rights. But she was no doubt speaking to her base, as the crowd was predominantly female. Accommodating her message for her Silicon Valley audience, she made note of the enormous gender disparity in high tech, noting that only 20% of the workers are female. That disparity exacerbates as the stakes rise, with only 11% on the boards of technology firms being women.

Last night Clinton seemed intent on establishing her long-standing record as a women’s advocate—showing she’s not a newcomer to the game—as she continuously referred to her participation at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. While everything Clinton said about her participation there is true, she didn’t mention that all the work she and the U.S. team did at Beijing was based on the diplomatic successes of the previous year at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where 179 governments reached an agreement on females’ rights to education and reproductive health. In Beijing the Americans’ greatest goal was simply to protect the advancements for women made the previous year.

Actually Hillary was not well-received by the Chinese in Beijing in 1995. Then First Lady, she arrived at the conference hall to great fanfare, wearing a pink suit, her shoulder-length blonde hair styled into a smooth wave framing her face. In her address Clinton touched on many of the human rights abuses for which the Chinese had been excoriated in recent years; her comments clearly disparaging them were not well received, considered improper behavior for a guest in their country. Yet Clinton boldly addressed the issues head on at this global summit—with the international press corps recording. She referenced China’s one-child policy and their coercive tactics toward women to enforce it. That takes real guts when you’re on stage under the spotlight of the nation’s capital.

Last night, Hillary quoted her hero, Eleanor Roosevelt’s line: “Every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as a rhinoceros’s hide.” That trait will no doubt serve Secretary Clinton well if folks continue to lob shoes at her—as they did in Las Vegas last week. But she just ducked, cracked a joke, and carried on…acting very presidential indeed.


Champion of Choice

Cairo: September 5, 1994

Over the course of the coming week, dignitaries from around the globe will be arriving for the International Conference on Population and Development, their limos gliding down a grand circular drive lined by palm trees and a colorful cornucopia of national flags. They will stop at the VIP entrance to the conference center, a sleek white circular building featuring arched windows—a design reminiscent of a space-aged Roman Coliseum. When the passengers exit their cars, they’ll look out upon a wide expanse of green lawn and manicured trees. Peeking up above those treetops, they’ll be able to see the point of a contemporary pyramid marking Anwar Sadat’s grave—a poignant reminder of the risks those dignitaries will face when they enter this facility.

Egyptian president Sadat may have won the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts, but that didn’t save him from dying in a pool of his own blood when terrorists machine-gunned him as he sat a short distance from this conference center, watching a military parade. In the reviewing stand alongside Sadat that day were the future secretary-general of the UN, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and the man who would become the new president of Egypt before that day was done: Hosni Mubarak. Thirteen years later, as this Arab nation’s head of state, he would be responsible for protecting twenty thousand dignitaries from violence by the same type of fundamentalists who had murdered Anwar Sadat.

So for Mubarak—who had served as a military man for three decades, who had been seated just to the right of Sadat and watched him die, who had himself escaped multiple assassination attempts in his lucky thirteen years as president—the importance of security during ICPD was a very real concern, not just another perfunctory item on his administrative checklist. With four thousand journalists in town and the eyes of the international community focused on Cairo, he did not want any deaths—least of all his.

Part of the president’s strategy to prevent this was to station ten thousand armed troops around the city—circling the conference center, along the streets, at the airports—and to position soldiers and metal detectors at every hotel. A member of the U.S. delegation said the omnipresent security could border on the comical at times: “Our entire delegation and other invited guests spent one night on the Nile for dinner, a sort of relaxed evening. And ringing us on the river were police boats. They were just cruising around us, good and slow, making sure that nobody else came close.” In the meantime the leader of the U.S. team, Tim Wirth, wore a bullet-proof vest under his suit jacket.

Stirling Scruggs, as one of the UNFPA spokespersons handling the conference, remembered being coached on what to do in case someone was killed or taken hostage. “The White House Advance Team and the Secret Service from the U.S. government came in and laid out this map to show me where the U.S. was involved and where the vice president’s escape routes would be if there was an attack, or anything like that. There were fundamentalist threats against the U.S.—some of the dignitaries and Al Gore—but there were also threats concerning the issues.” Gore, hobbling around on crutches after surgery to repair his Achilles tendon, had better hope he didn’t’ have to beat a hasty retreat on foot.


Dr. Sadik flew in three weeks prior to the conference opening, and as soon as she hit the tarmac, she was under the watchful eye of Mubarak. As she traveled throughout the capital, UN bodyguards sat in the car with her. Two others, holding automatic weapons, hung out the windows of her limo on either side; this dynamic was repeated by the Egyptian security in the lead car in the motorcade and the car to the rear. As she walked around the conference center she became a very popular woman indeed, followed by four men: one in the front, one on either side, and one to the rear. They searched the ladies’ bathroom before they permitted her to enter; they accompanied her at lunch and sat at another table, with some staring at her throughout her meal while others scanned the perimeter; they monitored her conference command headquarters, which became a real nuisance as she was running this enormous event. “My office had two doors, one to enter and one to exit, and once I went out of the entrance door to look for some staff members. My security opened the door for something and when they found out that I wasn’t there, they went crazy and shut everything down. They said, ‘You can’t do that, you have to leave from this door and we have to see that you’re leaving.’ I said, ‘Well, obviously, you should have had somebody guarding the other door!”


An excerpt from Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik (University of Nebraska Press 2013)

© Cathleen Miller

Champion of Choice

Welcoming the Girls


We have all questioned the luck of the draw that shapes our destiny, examining how fate favors one girl born into a wealthy family that gives her every opportunity versus another girl who comes into this world as chattel to be traded for cattle. Although there are as many theories for shaping personality as there are philosophies and religions—from karma to reincarnation to environment to genes—for those who believe in the influence of the stars, we must consider what it means to be born a Leo, the lioness of the zodiac.

On the eighteenth of August, 1929, Iffat Shoaib gave birth to the couple’s first child. The baby was a girl, a situation that normally would have prompted grief and condolences in most traditional Indian households, but not in this one. After the Shoaibs christened the newborn “Iffat,” like her mother, they always called their daughter “Nafis,” meaning “precious or extraordinary.”

Following the child’s birth, acquaintances all asked the proud parents: “Does the baby have light skin?” referring to a desirable trait in Indian culture. No, she did not. The infant’s gender and complexion had both failed to pass the mark, because Nafis had dark skin and a temperament to match. However, her family—particularly her grandfather—adored the child all the same.

The patriarch of Nafis’s family, Mohammed Abdulla, had left his village in the United Provinces in eastern India and moved to Jaunpur, located about two hundred miles west of Calcutta, to practice law. There he built an impressive estate surrounded by gardens and fields, which would serve as the home of three generations and dozens of extended family members. He ran an open household where a constantly changing diorama of characters came and went: servants, sons, their wives, grandchildren, cousins, second cousins, and relatives with such a tenuous thread to the family fabric that no one could quite remember how they were woven in. The visitors arrived with their baggage and bunked in spare rooms, the children’s rooms, wherever there was room. They stayed for weeks, months—sometimes long enough to get a college education. It was the patriarch’s concept of noblesse oblige that prompted his generosity, a concept his son would later emulate.

A private inner courtyard served as the heart of Mohammed Abdulla’s whitewashed brick house. It was surrounded by the numerous rooms of the family’s private residence, which included separate quarters for his sons and their wives and children. A broad, shady verandah rimmed the second story.

As his legal practice thrived, Mohammed became such a respected member of the community that he designed a special room to receive guests who came seeking advice and favors. He made his headquarters a study that had an outside courtyard, and on the door to these chambers the gentleman placed an enormous photographic portrait. The subject was an unlikely representation for such a grand work: a one-year-old baby Nafis, with a couple of teeth and a shaved head—the shearing a practice that was thought to encourage a lush, full head of hair upon regrowth.

Nafis’s grandfather died when she was just seven years old, struck down by kidney failure. As was the custom of his generation, Mohammed Abdulla had not kept track of his age, but his family believed him to be in his sixties. Nafis remembered that “he always had his arms outstretched for me to run to him.” He doted on his granddaughter, bragging about how clever she was and prompting her to recite for guests. Perhaps this was because his two female babies had died in infancy and a third daughter had succumbed to tuberculosis in her twenties. Nafis’s grandmother had wailed, “There are no girls in our family!” Thus when her son Mohammed produced a daughter, the baby was joyously welcomed into the family. This fact was unusual in a society where the news of a girl’s birth was frequently greeted with pity: “Maybe you’ll have better luck next time.” Instead of being treated as a second-class citizen, Nafis was celebrated for her gender; as she grew up and went about the world, she found the absence of this fact in other households as unnatural as she did intolerable. On the global stage she would spend the rest of her life promoting her family’s vision of the fundamental worth of girls.



An excerpt from Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik (University of Nebraska Press 2013)

©Cathleen Miller 


Champion of Choice

A true story of fistula in Ethiopia

Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa

Excerpt from Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik
by Cathleen Miller

Zadia Birru*
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

[*A pseudonym has been used to protect this girl’s privacy.]

Probably no other rite of passage is capable of changing a woman’s life like giving birth–an event that can alternately propel her into the joys of motherhood, provide caretakers for her old age, earn her the respect of a community, ensure her place on a nation’s throne, offer undeniable proof of an illicit affair, trap her in a miserable marriage, maim her for life, or kill her.

No group knows this better than the patients lying here in the hospital ward in Addis Ababa, a room that is so clean that upon entry, the viewer has the momentary feeling of being snow-blinded. The whitewashed walls and ceiling gleam, reflecting the sparkling sunshine that flows through polished windows. Two facing rows of hospital beds covered in sky blue blankets line either side of a central divider. This hygienic atmosphere presents a refreshing contrast to the patients lying in those beds, all of whom have dwelled–some for as many as fifty years–in the constant filth of their own bodily waste as a result of giving birth.

I see them recovering in the ward and walking around the lovely parklike grounds, all draped in handknit shawls, the contribution of a ladies’ church group from Australia. Most of the patients are mere girls, like Zadia Birru. She doesn’t know her age, but she looks about thirteen or fourteen. If she had been born in different circumstances, this classic beauty could have easily been a model. With her dark wavy hair pulled into a French braid, her face possesses an elfin charm, a gracefully curving jaw line, large expressive dark eyes, a full-lipped heart-shaped mouth and a beauty mark that highlights her café-au-lait colored skin. Her smile sparkles, transforming her face like sun bursting through clouds.

Zadia’s tiny frame measures around four foot eight; draped in a pale blue cotton nightgown and a handknit shawl of primary-colored squares, her body hunches with pain. Through the opening of her gown I can see that her breasts have stretch marks, a detail that seems strangely out of place on such a waif-like girl. But when I hear her story, I learn the reason for the telltale puckered lines.

Zadia had never been to school when her parents arranged her marriage to a farmer from their community. She doesn’t know how old she was when she wed her husband, but they had been married for three years before she started her period. In the beginning their relationship was good, but during the fourth year–with no access to birth control–she learned she was going to have a baby. This was when her husband began seeing someone else. The couple quarreled constantly, and when Zadia was four months pregnant, he left her.

The child bride returned to live with her parents in the village of Aju. When it came time for her delivery, she was in labor for two days at home with unbearable back pain because the baby was unable to pass through her tiny pelvis. When she started getting weak, her father decided to take her to the hospital. The family loaded her onto a bench and walked two hours, carrying the child to a district health center. Precariously balanced aboard the plank, she thrashed about in labor.

At the health center Zadia finally gave birth to a stillborn son. Later she learned that ironically his death had allowed him to be born. The fetus, which cannot withstand the rigors of days of obstructed labor, detaches from the placenta and dies. At this point the bones soften, and the baby shrinks enough so that it can pass through the birth canal.

Zadia herself nearly died and was unconscious in the hospital for fifteen days. When she came to, she learned that the stressful delivery had ripped a hole between her vagina and bladder, a condition called obstetric fistula, which permits waste to leak uncontrollably into the vagina. Like an infant herself, she was constantly soiled and reeked with the stench of urine. At this point her doctor referred her to the Fistula Hospital.

Unfortunately Zadia’s experience is not a rare occurrence in Africa, where one in twelve births results in the mother’s death. Although the choice to marry has been enshrined as a human right since 1948, in much of Africa half-starved girls as young as six are married off by their families. The poverty-stricken parents look at them as a commodity to be traded for livestock or other goods. In most cases they feel they’re doing their daughters a favor to try and place them in stable homes where they’ll be provided for. And when these girls become pregnant–as they immediately do without birth control–their young bodies are too small and frail to withstand the rigors of childbirth.

This combination of events results in an untold number of cases of obstetric fistula per year, but thousands and thousands of victims have come forward for treatment. The force of delivery on these slight, malnourished bodies can rip the fragile birth canal and tear holes between the girls’ rectum or bladder, allowing feces and urine to flow uncontrollably into their vagina. In the vast majority of cases the husband divorces the girl because she is unclean and unfit for sex. Zadia was one of the lucky ones whose family was willing to take her back. In many instances the family refuses, and the girl–whose only crime was obeying her parents and then her husband–is turned out into the street with no home, left to live in daily humiliation as a social outcast who scavenges for food like an animal.

I hear similar stories to Zadia’s from the other patients: a childhood marriage, an early pregnancy that results in a fistula and stillborn delivery, followed by divorce….

© Cathleen Miller, 2013