2015 Summit

An electrifying Women in the World Summit hits the ground running

And day two of the Summit promises another slate of big names and moving stories

From “jihadi brides” to unspeakable truths in India and the Middle East to the star power of Meryl Streep, Ava DuVernay, and Jon Stewart, the first night of the sixth annual Summit brought together a cross section of women’s rights champions from across the globe.

Hundreds of women, and men, poured into a cavernous theater in Lincoln Center Wednesday for the opening night. “I promise you over the next three days you’re going to meet some extraordinary women you’ve never met before,” said Tina Brown, the founder and CEO of Women in the World, who began a partnership with The New York Times this year. “And also some women you know but haven’t seen like this before.”

A packed house got a taste of what they could expect from conference events in the coming days: an outpouring of powerful narratives from those who have witnessed atrocities, pushed back against oppression, and used creative engagement, determination, humor, force and ingenuity to advance progress for women, girls, and society as a whole.

The program quickly dove into the heart of the matter with the first panel, in which a Somali woman living in Sweden made a tearful plea. Saida Munye’s daughter ran away from home and joined ISIS in Syria. The young woman has yet to return: Munye bravely ventured as far as the Turkish border with Syria, only to receive a message from her daughter that it was no use and that she should go home.

“The media likes to call them jihadi brides, but are they really that or are they girls being manipulated into being used as weapons of war? “ asked Barkha Dutt, the prominent Indian journalist who acted as moderator. Dutt was joined by Yassin Ekdahl, of the Foreign Fighters Family Hotline in Sweden, and Dr. Edit Schlaffer of SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) and Women without Borders.

An estimated 550 women from the West have left to join ISIS in Syria and Munye’s daughter, Fatima, was one of them—part of a group of seven girls who met men in Sweden, went to Syria, married, and are now pregnant. Her mother recognized early on that this man practiced a warped vision of Islam and tried, unsuccessfully, to dissuade her daughter from leaving.

Nevertheless, mothers are the first line of defense, and have an advantage over the extremists if only they can find ways to communicate with their vulnerable children. “The jihadists are in competition with families, they fear the families,” said Dr. Schlaffer, who has worked tirelessly to reunite young extremists with their parents. Military force can work against this effort, she said. “To the governments: stop droning. We are losing hearts and minds to the drones. This has to stop.”

Picking up on the theme of change, which underlies many of the stories at this year’s summit, Aamir Khan, a Bollywood megastar and, more recently, a television host and activist, received one of the biggest laughs of the night:

“Women keep changing,” he said, “But men don’t manage to change.” Moderator Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International and Nida’a Productions, called Khan bigger than James Bond and George Clooney. Despite his undeniable charisma, the audience at the summit was even more enthralled by his social agenda: he tackles mostly women’s issues on his widely popular talk show, Satyamev Jayate. From female feticide to the crippling effect of hefty dowries (80 percent of bank loans in India are for weddings and dowries), Khan has leveraged his status to get Indians talking about untouchable topics.

The night then transitioned from tackling taboos to forging unthinkable relationships.

Two women from the Middle East, one Israeli, one Palestinian, told the story of their unlikely friendship and alliance. Both of their sons had been murdered by “the other side,” and both decided to forgive in order to make strides toward peace after meeting and joining Parents Circle-Families Forum.

“Some say I’m selling my son’s blood, but I’m not; I’m buying the blood of my other kids,” said Bushra Awad, the Palestinian woman who’s son was killed during a demonstration. Seated by her was Robi Damelin, whose son was killed by a sniper. She turned her grief into a humanitarian tool, and found a path to healing by reaching out to the Palestinian family of the man who killed her son.

A South African who immigrated to Israel in 1967, Damelin took her country’s lessons to heart. “South Africa was a big reference for me,” she said. “I understood very early that this man didn’t kill David because he was David. After I wrote the first letter to the family of the sniper, that’s when I became free.”

A very intimate moment between the mothers gave way to a stage packed with star power when Jon Stewart introduced a panel including Meryl Streep, Ava DuVernay, and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. In their work, all four deliver messages through imagery.

“So much of the art around this idea of the political as personal has a vibrancy now where you can see the interconnections,” said DuVernay. While Streep just finished up a movie about voting rights for women in the United Kingdom (Suffragette), DuVernay earned critical acclaim for her film Selma, which portrays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Obaid-Chinoy continues to document strong women fighting for basic human rights in Pakistan. All of these women grapple with the ubiquity of media in a saturated world. Are we in danger of experiencing “cell-phone blindness?” asked DuVernay. “The footage has to be more violent, more crass, more evil to even make a headline. At what point do we start to tune out because it seems to be too big? It didn’t stop from 1965 to 2015; there just wasn’t a camera on it.”

The women all agreed that they make a statement by simply doing what they are doing. “When a woman makes a film, that is a radical act in and of itself,” said DuVernay. “Our very presence is our political statement.”

“I wanna be Tom Sawyer,” added Streep, “Not Becky.”

The panels ended on a high note: Streep shaking hands with women who rushed to the front of the stage, while activists and celebrities mingled and the hum of conversation filled the theater. Brown was flanked by her co-hosts: Diane von Furstenberg (who has been a stalwart partner since the first summit), Donna Langley, Angélica Fuentes, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, Judith Rodin, Jennifer Bremner, Shobhana Bhartia, Abigail E. Disney, Jack Hollis, and Freida Pinto. They came from all over the world and some were meeting for the first time tonight. But by the end of the evening, they were sisters.

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