Reflections on the CSW UN Women Celebrity Event
Many people still ask me about my experience at the CSW, so I decided to write some reflections below:
The 59th session of the Commission
The 59th session of the Commission
on the Status Of Women (CSW)
New York City
When I first received the invitation from UN Women to speak at the commemorative event of the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, I was a bit surprised. Surprised, not only because it’s me who was identified from the million young voices around the world but also because UN Women has finally taken this big step to provide such a crucial space for a young voice in this high level public event.
I’ve already read couple of days before receiving the email, that this celebrity event was expecting over 2000 people with Heads of State, the Secretary General of the United Nations, The Executive Director of UN Women, senior political leaders, eminent gender equality advocates, dignitaries, musicians, artists…
I opened the invitation letter with a lot of curiosity to know why me? And what is expected from me? Between opening the email and opening the invitation letter, I thought this would be another huge event where young voices are used to be the face that the UN celebrates to support their agenda, no more, no less. I also thought maybe I am nominated and chosen because I come from the region where recently people started to matter.
I was addressed as a distinguished women’s advocate and peace activist, just the way I identify myself but without feeling “distinguished”, because I believe I am doing the work with way more distinguished changemakers around the world, with whom I am inspired everyday to continue changing the reality of young women, our reality.
The invitation listed that I am “a great voice that will be raised to break the chains of gender-based discrimination, stereotypes and violence. Empowering women is empowering humanity!” the letter continues “We would be honored if you would join us at this historic event and advocate for a world without gender wage gaps and unequal opportunities, a world without low representation of women in leadership in the private sector and in public office, a world without child marriage, violence and other violations of rights of women and girls”.
It all sounded perfect, that’s the world we all want, but not really convincing of why my voice would be important? Why I shall fly from Tunisia all the way to New York when I have a lot of work on my plate already during March?
It is until I read… “Given the relevance of Tunisia as a relatively successful new democracy among the countries of the Arab Spring, yours is an important voice from the region. Yours will be the voice of the new generation of feminists”, … then, I actually decided, YES I have to be there. I have to tell them it’s not the “Arab Spring” but the “Revolution of Dignity”, I have to tell them we are not “new” feminists, we are a continuation of great feminists and history of struggles and victories of my region, and that we are not “relatively successful new democracy” but we have already had “milestones in democracy, freedom and dignity”.
The UN Women invitation has written great part of my talk already. This happens to me every time I feel challenged with these institutions. In order to accept such invitations, I have to make sure I am actually needed in New York at the UN stage more than where I was supposed to be at that moment.
I was given 3 to 4 minutes to speak; I couldn’t ask for more when I knew that Hillary Clinton has equal time to speak herself. I received the program and then realized I am speaking after Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Hillary Clinton, Bill de Blasio, Melinda Gates, Farhan Akhtar, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and before Patricia Arquette and other public figures.
And it was my time on stage,
Many people would tell you a lot of compliments following your talk when it’s powerful and when the words are chosen perfectly for tweets. But what really made me proud at the end of the event is that many people were telling me “I appreciate what you said” which means it was powerful but truthful. I didn’t want to deliver of perfect speech that says, “women’s rights are human rights” just like what Hillary Clinton said in 1995 and repeated in 2015. I want to say next year instead of “our stories shall not go unrecognized” that “our stories ARE now recognized”. We are a generation of no perfect wordings but rebellions with critiques, a generation that doesn’t use simple data in a complicated language or address simple people with complicated titles.
My highlight of the event was neither entering the pressroom with 10 cameras taking pictures of me while walking on the carpet, nor actually meeting all these celebrities and speaking on the same stage. My highlight was meeting the amazing Maysoon Zayid, on my way to the restroom. If you don’t know her yet you can’t miss watching her TedTalk I got 99 problems…palsy is just one. I was so happy to see her and started speaking in Arabic and she immediately started telling jokes with her lovely humor.
She has been on the stage few minutes after my speech and she said what made the whole audience stand “don’t leave women with disabilities behind”. While we exchanged contacts at the end of the event, she told me “I am already felling so proud of the lady I just met few minutes ago in the restroom”. Likewise, I was feeling so proud of her with the different image she presents for Arab Muslims and people with disabilities.
Unlike some of the events where I leave very frustrated from the slow process of the UN, perfect program for the perfect audience, and unsatisfying outcomes, this was one where my voice was heard and hopefully carried many of the concerns of my generation.
Following my return from New York, it has been very humbling to receive all the encouragement and support, endless requests for interviews and to be listed among the 12 best quotes of the event along side with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Hilary Clinton. However, the reward of this event was really to break the headline and change the narrative from the "Arab Spring" to "the Revolution of Dignity" at Uplift Connect, New Story Hub and Youth Post.
Aya Chebbi, July 2015