Tillman Tuesday: Celebrating Women on an International Scale with Adiba Hassan

Blog, Women's History Month, Tillman Tuesdays | 03/15/2022

2020 Tillman Scholar Adiba Hassan grew up in Bangladesh, with little opportunity to celebrate women and the advances they’ve made — in honor of Women’s History Month, we asked her to share her story of witnessing the celebrations of women on a global scale.

“I grew up less than a mile from a slum in Dhaka. On my daily rickshaw ride to school, I would pass women from the slums with babies wrapped around them sitting on brick piles hammering away to crush bricks for construction. These women fought daily for basic survival working long hours under extreme weather conditions, often returning to homes where they were subject to domestic violence for simply not affording a plate of rice on the table,” Adiba said. “The path to achieving equality can vary significantly even within neighborhoods, and that’s why it’s important celebrate at all levels, to show strength through unity, and speak out for women who may not have the opportunity voice their concerns.”

In 2013, Adiba had the opportunity to travel to Yaoundé, Cameroon, as global health epidemiology fellow with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work on prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS programs. Beyond her work there, Adiba had the opportunity to celebrate International Women’s Day for the first time with coworkers and local women, men, and children from across the country.

“On March 8, 2014, we are gathered at the U.S. Embassy in Yaoundé before heading over to the city center to participate in the grand International Women’s Day march. International Women’s Day is almost a weeklong celebration in Cameroon when the entire country unites to participate in conferences, debates, fairs, advocacy campaigns, films, and a march,” she explained. “The march is usually the highlight of the weeklong celebration with participation of the First Lady of Cameroon, Chantal Biya, in front of whom a grand march past occurs by various groups, organizations, and sport teams with banner messages in support of the theme—’Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls.'”

Adiba and colleagues dressed in “pagne,” a specially printed fabric dedicated to the theme of the year. The custom-made dresses and shirts made of pagne were worn by men, women, and children alike, representing the unity of all participants in support of the celebration and emphasis women’s rights for education and decision-making.

Growing up in Bangladesh, Adiba never had the opportunity to play sports, witnessed her mom being forced to give up her career, and saw family ending their academic pursuits after marriage. These lived experiences showed her the importance of what celebrating women can mean.

“The biggest lesson I’ve taken from my experiences in celebrating International Women’s Day in Cameroon is simply the importance of a celebration,” she noted. “The heavy societal pressure and burden that girls and women carry persists without being acknowledged. Having a dedicated day to celebrate progress and identify gaps allows for the opportunity to reflect and acknowledge these issues. I didn’t know there was a day to just celebrate women until much later in my adult life upon arriving to Cameroon. Seeing an entire country unite in celebration of advancements in social, economic, and political achievements of women, while highlighting the need to level the field in gender equality was powerful. Celebration allowed for a safe space for everyone to unite, temporarily break any barriers and generating a powerful momentum forward.”

This sentiment does not stop at the local level. Adiba shares with us why celebrating women has impacts that span from a local to an international scale.

“There is significant diversity in how women are affected, what they are fighting for, and what their journey to equality entails,” she said. “The celebration of International Women’s Day ranges from gratitude and love to justice and resistance, depending on the corner of the world. There is beauty in the harmony of empowerment and advocacy which radiates globally on international women’s day when you see topics ranging from gender-responsive budgets to right to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.”

While Women’s History Month is officially recognized in March, the celebration of the advances of women in society doesn’t end there. Adiba provides us with how we can continue to honor and celebrate all of the work of women throughout the year.

“We need to raise women’s status on every level in society, beginning at the individual level where every girl understands their self-worth, regardless of the environment they were born in,” she said. “It needs to continue at the community level where gender discrimination and enforcement of patriarchal customs and attitudes must be shifted. And lastly, we need to act on a policy level to accelerate economic empowerment and decision-making activities of women. It’s up to both men and women to take initiative in supporting these movements and speaking out when it is not the norm in their home, workplace, or social environment.”