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I’ve lost track of panels I’ve attended with women leaders and activists – who are invited to speak about their careers, accomplishments, and lessons learned – where the conversation almost inevitably skews to questions about work life balance. And quite often, the questions are asked by other women (often younger women) who want to know how to achieve similar success, but also have a life at home.

But rarely have I attended a panel about careers where men are asked how they manage to balance their life at home with their career ambitions. And I don’t think I can recall a single instance where young men in the audience have asked questions about balance, or sought advice on managing family and work in their own lives.

Work life balance is undoubtedly important, but these are questions we should all be asking and answering.  Balance, and the need to care for family members, is a problem that affects both men and women.  Although it affects everyone, it is unfortunately (and inaccurately) perceived as a “women’s problem.”

In her new book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, Anne-Marie Slaughter notes that a 2013 Pew study on parenting showed that 50% of fathers, and 56% of mothers with children at home said that they find it difficult to balance the responsibilities of work with those of their family. Slaughter writes,

“…both women and men who experience the dual tug of care and career and as a result must make compromises at work pay a price. Redefining the women’s problem as a care problem thus broadens our lens and allows us to focus much more precisely on the real issue: the undervaluing of care, no matter who does it.”

She goes on to note that “it’s easy for employers to marginalize an issue if they label it a ‘women’s problem.’ A women’s problem is an individual issue, not a company-wide dilemma.”  But if it is a broader, more systemic problem of valuing care, it suddenly becomes much more pressing of a challenge for businesses and workplaces.  Slaughter also underscores that journalists, the media, business, and industry all choose to frame issues of care, and work life balance, as “women’s issues.”

Indeed, attending events and asking female panelists questions about how they manage to balance work and life — and failing to ask male panelists the very same questions — shows our bias as a society, and further perpetuates this myth that care and balance is “women’s work.”

So the next time you attend a panel (and particularly if you are male!), why not pose the very same questions to male panelists? Ask them how they managed to achieve career success, while also managing to balance family and care.

Only by posing these questions equally can we start eradicating the assumption that balance and care is for women alone. It may not solve the problem, but it is certainly a start.

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The open letter from the protestors will always stick with me:

For 108 days, we have continuously been admonished that we should “let the system work,” and wait to see what the results are.

The results are in.

And we still don’t have justice.

This fight for the dignity of our people, for the importance of our lives, for the protection of our children, is one that did not begin Michael’s murder and will not end with this announcement. The ‘system’ you have told us to rely on has kept us on the margins of society. This system has housed us in her worst homes, educated our children in her worst schools, locked up our men at disproportionate rates and shamed our women for receiving the support they need to be our mothers. This system you have admonished us to believe in has consistently, unfailingly, and unabashedly let us down and kicked us out, time and time again.

And this is the heart of the matter – the real truth of what’s happening.

We can talk about the Ferguson decision. There was a lot of injustice in this case; as I understand it, a grand jury should almost always be able to indict in such a case, and the evidence presented certainly meets the probable cause standard. But the prosecutor simply didn’t try, and he may have been biased – I believe – due to his own family background and relationship with the police. We didn’t have an unbiased grand jury hearing here. The fact that we couldn’t even get to a trial where there is clear evidence that Darren Wilson shot a young man — Wilson has admitted to this himself — clearly shows that something was up. Something was wrong.

This case is emblematic of the larger issue of injustice and structural racism in our courts, our deeply flawed justice system which always works for the rich and never for the poor, for the White but never for the Black. We have an issue of racism in the justice system in this country.  This is why the famed Bryan Stevenson supposedly wrote and filed a “Motion to Treat My 14 Year-Old Client As a 75 year Old, White, Privileged Corporate Executive.”  Because our system is not neutral. The law is not neutral and it is not just. The system is actually skewed from beginning to end against Black people and racial minorities, because most of it has been created and perpetuated by White people.

But let us also not forget that this is a matter of structural injustice. Yes, it is about racism and police brutality, the brutal racism that causes a cop to view an unarmed young man as a threat, that makes the police consider a man as an animal who “charged” at him and looked like a “demon.” It’s racism that is making cops view a 6’4″ Black man automatically and inherently as a threat. And then it’s racism built into the very fabric of our laws and court systems that makes him be able to get away with this.

But it’s also about the broader subjugation of African Americans in this country since slavery. It is about the continued legacy of subordination and discrimination and oppression. As the protestors wrote, we are in this position because we have never fully ended the harms of slavery. This ‘system’ is continually making sure that Black people are sent to prison at high numbers, unemployed, in the poorest housing and in the worst schools. Michelle Alexander writes in the New Jim Crow about this legacy and about how the mass incarceration of Black people is just a continuation of the Jim Crow laws, but in another name. And the foundation is racism: which allows the justice system to see Black people and Black men as threats, as dangerous, and as criminals. This is just another system, a system of keeping Black people in the underclass of our society. Ferguson is about Mike Brown, it is about all the people killed unjustly  by police brutality. But it is ultimately (I think, echoing only what the protestors say and not trying to displace their movement!) about structural injustice and racism in our country in every arena that works so hard to subjugate Black people in America, decades after the civil rights movement.

The results are in. And we still don’t have justice.

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I wanted to share a fantastic TEDx talk I just encountered focused on why you should care about access to justice. I think he articulates, pretty well, why I think access to justice is simply so important and why governments should prioritize and fund legal services for the poor. I also loved his idea of a universal legal services/access to justice fund; though I don’t think we’re there politically, it sounds like a fantastic suggestion.

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As part of a legal report I’m currently writing covering Muslim women’s legal rights in India, I have had to deal with the considerable and overlapping laws relating to child marriage, as well as the reality and commonality of child marriage here in India.

This new report by international women’s rights organization, Equality Now, “Protecting the Girl Child” provides an excellent overview on how we can utilize the law to end child, early, and forced marriage. One thing I keep struggling with is the implementation gap, and this report provides some great suggestions on turning the laws on the books into reality. Check it out below, and click here to read the original.

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lean-in-book-review

In reading Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, I found many lessons that were highly applicable to my own life. Her words provided encouragement to stay confident and to push forward for my dream career rather than stepping back at a young age to focus instead on family and marriage. And yet, I found myself ultimately deeply skeptical of her intrinsic argument for a variety of reasons.

 First, although Sandberg herself acknowledges this, her book largely applies only to the 1% — to privileged women who have had the opportunity to pursue higher education and who have the option of building a successful career. Her lessons do not apply to the vast majority of women in America or even around the world, who are poor, struggling to even find minimum wage jobs, who are subject to domestic and gender-based violence, who are new immigrants lacking basic financial security. Her arguments also make the assumption not just of economic advantage, but heterosexuality. Lean In is entirely targeted towards women in traditional, heterosexual relationships, who desire to have children and have a traditional conception of ‘family.’ But what of women who do not fit this mold?

 I do agree that a criticism of feminism through the portrayal of (and attack of) the “wealthy white feminist woman” is itself a stereotypical construction, since the majority of white women are also poor and systematically battered in their homes. Much of the gender violence occurring today in the U.S. to white women – such as the recent rape of Daisy Coleman in Maryville, MO – is no less horrific than what is happening around the world to women of color. And yet, Sandberg is specifically targeting heterosexual women of privilege, not just white women. She focuses on getting women who are already economically privileged into the top positions; in the process, she not only ignores the needs of women who are in positions of socioeconomic disadvantage, but she also misses a key point, which is that simply placing already advantaged women into the topmost leadership positions will not change much about our society. Inequality will only be reduced if we address the roots of inequality, and focusing on getting privileged women into positions of even greater privilege does not do so.

Second, Sandberg’s critique is a highly individualistic one that serves to perpetuate inequality through our country’s capitalist structure. She buys in completely to our capitalistic economic model, focused on getting ahead rather than a true balance of work and life. She never pauses to ask the question of whether our current model is even the right one. Most of all, she places the onus squarely on women themselves to correct the power imbalances in our country and to right the dismal statistics showing so few women in positions of top leadership in business, finance, law, academia, and politics. Sandberg urges women to remain confident, not to step back too early from a burgeoning career to instead care for family, and to find the ‘right’ spouse who will be supportive and shoulder an equal burden at home.

Yet, for all this to happen, the opportunities have to be there in the first place; societal expectations and our current socioeconomic structure must change. A dramatic societal shift is needed: currently, far fewer men than women stay home to take care of children, and men generally do not spend equal time on household chores. The reality is that the majority of men “do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job,” as Anne Marie Slaughter observes in her piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” As she notes, every male Supreme Court justice has a family – but two of the three female justices are single with no children. Although men are regularly supportive and encouraging, on a statistical scale they are still less likely to take a step back in their career to prioritize family. Yet, there are reasons for this too: employers penalize men who attempt to cut back their careers for personal reasons. Further, social stereotypes and expectations continue to preference rigid gender roles for both men and women.  I believe the blame lies more in patriarchy as a whole than the attitudes of individual men.

But any societal shift towards a more equitable division in household labor will only happen if our policies radically shift. Our government must, to begin with, provide equal paid parental leave for mothers and fathers.  Currently, mothers and fathers are not guaranteed any paid leave, and only 11.4% of workplaces in the U.S. provide paid parental leave. Since employers tend to assume women shoulder the burden, maternity leave is more common than paid paternity leave, leading to further inequality. In comparison, France and the Netherlands provide 112 days of paid maternity and paternity leave at 100% pay. As noted in the article, “In Sweden, Men Can Have It all,” a shift in the laws related to parental leave and childcare could easily lead to a significant societal shift over time by normalizing and legitimizing the decision of men to spend more time at home, thus lessening the burden on mothers and making the choice of leaning in actually possible.

Yet, Sandberg does not pay much attention to such need for structural reform, instead choosing to focus on the individual. This parlays into the prevalent idea of the American dream – that if women work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they can achieve anything. Sandberg’s philosophy – assuming women can choose from various prime job options, that they can choose a truly supportive spouse, that women can even choose when exactly in their career to have children – is premised on those very same ideas of individuality, freedom and liberty. Unfortunately, the reality is very different than Sandberg’s construction of choice, opportunities, and freedom, and most women throughout the world lack real choice in making decisions related to their own careers and bodies due to historical disadvantage including an intersection of racism, sexism, poverty, and violence.  Without addressing the root of this disadvantage, putting privileged women into positions of greater power will not necessarily make our society fundamentally more equal.

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Fall Collage

October has slowly crept in, enveloping me in Boston’s fresh and crisp air, leaves that are slowly changing to a deep red or a bright yellow that crunch beneath my feet. Autumn may bring with it many cliches – like pumpkin spice lattes, the smell of hot apple cider, and the bringing out of scarves, boots, and leggings.

Yet, in some ways, I am still in denial, continuing to wear sandals and flats, and refusing to take out my fall jackets. Perhaps I have not yet let go of this summer; I am not yet ready to move on. Sometimes, it is hard to believe that only two months ago, I was in a different universe – in a small town in rural Sierra Leone, completely disconnected, and yet more connected than ever. In Sierra Leone, I let down my guard, and the wall that sometimes seems present between myself and others was dissolved. I spent hours each day with a family and especially two young sisters in their early 20s, chatting with them about their daily lives. I was there to listen to their squabbles among friends, boyfriends, and cousins, family drama, their hopes and dreams of pursuing further education after they raised enough money by running the family roadside shop. I watched videos with them of Salone artists on their phones, sampled street food, and watched Nigerian films with them in the local generator-powered ‘movie theatre.’ We discussed religion, and I listened to their gossip about marriages, divorces, relationships, and quarrels in the village.

In many ways, it feels like summer was so long ago, and yet, just yesterday. There are many things I have not yet come to terms with about returning to the U.S.: it is more difficult to be truly ‘present’ here when you are faced with constant pressures to ponder the future. It is more difficult to step outside your comfort zone. Most of all, it has become more difficult to be truly vulnerable, to dissolve those walls amongst people when you are separated by the twin invisible bars of technology and being ‘busy.’ In the face of losing this sense of peace I gained over the summer, I cannot help but be enveloped in nostalgia. When running between dozens of classes, meetings, and projects, my mind wanders back to summer – which brought out from me some of the rarer qualities of my self, a certain authenticity that comes from living honestly, and fully, deeply and presently.

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Fall has also brought me new traumas before old ones have fully healed. I am still grappling with questions from cases witnessed in Sierra Leone — like what institutions can best serve survivors of domestic abuse who are too often re-victimized by police and traditional authorities, told to pay for medical care before a prosecution can be pursued, and sometimes told that the husband has simply ‘been warned’ and has ‘agreed to stop beating you’ and that it is time to go back home. And how it can be that I, or we, failed the survivor of violence who was simply told that the police could not find her husband (although he was in the neighboring town), or the young 14-year old girls who were already deeply jaded and had become prostitutes servicing military men, or the young child suffering from a heart disease who was unable to find medical care. These are traumas not only of witnessing tragedies and heartbreak, but fraught with feelings of guilt and personal failure. The questions I struggle with are, how much responsibility is on me? And how much on the institutions that failed these young women? And perhaps more so, how will things change?

And suddenly, before any of these questions have been resolved, the fall has plunged me into new difficulties, echoing and illuminating many of the same inquiries. My classes involve constant reading about rape, sexual violence, and sexual harassment. We discuss the intricacies of inequalities arising from race, class, and gender, and we delve into theories underlying violence. In my clinic, I represent domestic violence survivors in their family law cases, and this too, involves understanding cycles of violence, listening to stories, and serving as an advocate.

These questions are deeply interrelated, indeed inextricable, from what confronted me in Sierra Leone. In both places, the questions are of how violence against women can be stopped, addressed, prevented, and how survivors can be supported. The cycles of abuse are the same everywhere, and the failure of institutions have some commonalities as well. Things work much more so in our backyard, and yet, one in three women still experience some form of abuse – so there is something still to rectify in the system itself, and in culture too. As different as these countries and places are, the roots of the problems are similar. And so the questions I faced in the summer, never really disappearing, are now accompanied by more and more. Perhaps fall’s most redeeming quality is that: the deepening of understanding, the solidifying of personal relationships, the power of stories, and the burgeoning of ideas and dreams to address these thorny complexities.

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With autumn, finally, comes the fear of forgetting. I worry that someday soon, I will begin forgetting the people I met in Salone — their faces, their voices, their names, their personalities, their exuberance. I worry that I will forget the motorbike rides through the countryside, the lush greenery outside the capital, the empty roads and the pounding of the rain. The taste of grilled corn on the roadside. The dancing and singing. The daily mende greeting on my way to fetch water. I worry that slowly, these memories, experiences, will fade from my mind.  That they will be replaced, or worse, reshaped. I want my memories to be accurate and truthful – yet, I know they are fuzzy around the edges and perhaps, romanticized.

There is nothing, really, like being somewhere. Once you leave, it seems as foreign as ever — and this foreignness is my very fear.

Perhaps, then, the only solution is to keep returning. And to bring those memories back to life before it becomes too late.

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I could’ve been there — I could’ve been at the marathon, cheering on friends and strangers as they crossed the finish line. I could’ve been there, marveling at the resilience of the human spirit, celebrating the strength and determination and passion that the sport of running demands. Marathons represent some of the most incredible things about humans — hard work, dedication, the ability to go on when things get really hard. The bombing destroyed a day of celebration and excitement, of positivity and patriotism as well. I could’ve been there, and the victims could’ve been people I knew. Perhaps that’s what made it so chilling. This was a bombing in our backyard, not far away, affecting our communities, not ‘them.’

In the wake of the disaster, what has been most heartening has been the reaction of this community — my new home, in Boston. People created a spreadsheet to offer up beds at their houses for marathoners who were stranded, and perhaps most inspiring — some marathon runners kept running after the finish line and went straight to the hospital to donate blood. I admire the first responders, the people who took time and money to help others in a time of need.

My heart goes out to all those affected, and I mourn those who were killed or are in critical condition at the hospital. Attacks like this should never happen, and I only hope there will be no stereotyping, no backlash against minority groups as a consequence.

And the reaction that I loved most, perhaps, was this photo project by a filmmaker/photographer in Kabul: To Boston, From Kabul, With Love. It really represents the best of humanity — it shows compassion from people for whom these kinds of attacks are a sad daily reality. It reminds us how connected we all are, how much others can care about us in the U.S. despite the hardships they have encountered. I only hope that we send them the same love, back. 

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(All Photo Credits here, Click here to read more about the project).

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Check out ArtWorks Project’s Afghanistan exhibit.All the images below are copyrighted to their website. Incredible exhibit…showing the different sides of Afghanistan:

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It hasn’t worked out properly yet for me, but I hope, hope and hope to return someday… to this amazing, diverse and multifaceted place. Afghanistan’s women are beautiful, in all the struggles they face. Check out the exhibit to witness this strength and diversity.

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