“Men, you CAN sit with us”

By Ludovica Martella

“Fighting for gender equality from the beauty industry to the United Nations. A conversation with NGO CSW/NY Gender Coordinator Houry Geudelekian”

About a week after the end of the 63rd Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), I sat with Houry Geudelekian, gender equality activist, mom, child marriage survivor, and unbelievable kind soul, between many things. Houry is currently the Gender Program Coordinator at the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, NY (NGO CSW/NY). This non-governmental organization (NGO) supports the work of the UN on its fight for gender equality, but especially, CSW, the yearly global gathering of women in NY, meeting to discuss and network on the topic of the year. For this 63rd gathering, the priority theme was “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” Houry is also UN coordinator for Unchained at Last, an NGO fighting against child marriage. I met with Houry to talk about her formation as a women’s advocate. Our conversation revolved around two main pillars: how the beauty and fashion industry can be demeaning to some women, and why men should help women achieve gender equality in the work space in the time of the #MeToo movement, where talking gender can be a scary subject for some men. 

 The beauty industry and the fight for gender equality. How both men and women should be aware of false beauty stereotypes

 Originally Armenian living in Lebanon, Houry came to NYC in the 70s, where she ran successfully her own business with her former husband for about 35 years, in the beauty and fashion industry. In her field, she started noticing images that demeaned women and girls. “When I went to press releases, I would always say that ‘beauty comes from within’ and that you don’t need to follow fashion to be beautiful. Obviously, there were people rolling their eyes at me but there were actually a lot of people who appreciated that. So I guess I could say that without knowing, I was for gender equality, but that was not intentional.” As many women (some of whom are not aware) both Houry and I have been victims of societal pressure to look a certain way. “They (beauty industry companies) make you feel less than you are just to sell you crèmes etc. and honestly, you don’t need all of that. The reality is, it’s a gazillion dollars industry and people need to make money.” Because of the monetary factor, but also because the human being thrives to be accepted by others, these standardized beauty norms are well integrated in our society. The trick to not get stuck in them is to call them out and realize they are money schemes and to truly start appreciating ourselves for how we are. 

Houry speaking on behalf of NGO CSW NY in New York City.

Houry speaking on behalf of NGO CSW NY in New York City.

But HOLD ON a sec, how is this connected to gender equality?

There is evidence that these schemes demean some women because of several reasons. First of all, women might not feel the freedom of being themselves and embrace their natural features. This can cause relevant stress and insecurities in a woman’s life, which in the worst case, can bring to mental illnesses such as eating disorders. Furthermore, being persuaded to feel the need to “look a certain way” is a substantial waste of time: a distraction from working on ourselves from within. As a result, some women run the risk of spending more time beautifying themselves rather than on working towards their life goals. “I went through months of sadness thinking that no one was going to touch me because I am not going to give into whatever it is that women have to adhere to,” Houry confessed. “But then I realized, I am not my body, I am thankful for it, because it carries me around, but I don’t need it to be perfect in order for it to be valuable” (hands clapping emoji here). Another way in which mainstream beauty and fashion industries also demean women is, unfortunately, in their representations in advertisements. As I always quote, “the medium is the message,” and considering that we are consistently fed with advertisements with photo-shopped women, these false beauty standards end up being digested by not only some women, but some men too. “There are not enough guys who want that (natural beauty). So, I think we need to keep on talking about the truth behind all beauty and fashion industry. And again, there are women who want to adhere to beauty standards, and guys out there who want that, and I am not going stop them” Houry commented. Obviously people are and should be free to do what they want, but I would say, let’s save the savable. By talking more and more about the false reality of the commercial standardization of beauty, we can protect young women especially, and encourage them to accept themselves for how they are and live a life with less stress. 

A recent Avon ad was criticized (here by feminist activist Jameela Jamil) for demeaning women and their perfectly normal features.   Jameela Jamil’s Twitter @jameelajamil

A recent Avon ad was criticized (here by feminist activist Jameela Jamil) for demeaning women and their perfectly normal features.

Jameela Jamil’s Twitter @jameelajamil

 If you are personally struggling with accepting yourself for who you are, I advise to follow these inspiring women on Instagram: @whollyhealed, @ownitbabe (who also has an amazing podcast, “Own it Babe,”) @mybetter_self , @jameelajamil and @bodypositivepanda.

Should men stand up with women on the fight for gender equality? (A.K.A. rhetorical question) 

In 2010 Houry decided it was time for a change. She got divorced and got fired from her business, which she now laughs about, then she stumbled upon NGO CSW NY through a friend who said an Armenian organization needed representation. She knew she wanted to work in social justice, and she admits that at the time, she knew very little about gender equality, but she accepted the job anyways and got involved with the UN. “I remember being in the room listening to Michelle Bachalet talk and say why they were creating UN Women and why it was necessary to have a separate entity to fight for gender equality and suddenly everything made sense, all of the world made sense. That was it. The rest is history”. From then on, Houry embarked a career working toward gender equality, a topic which involves not only the participation of women, but the one of men too. This prompted me to ask her about men supporting women in the time of the MeToo movement, which turns out to be, a tricky subject.

DO women want to be supported by men in achieving gender equality norms?

I personally stumbled upon some men who said to be “afraid” to stand up for women because these might take it as undermining their own strength (gentlemen, I would say, when in doubt, offer help: that is always appreciated). “The bottom line is,” Houry said, “we need to humanize both men and women. We are both human. At the end of the day, we are on similar quests. There are no reasons why no woman starting up as a secretary, and no man starting as an assistant, for example, can’t become the CEO of a company. To get to that point, there are a lot of steps you have to take. None of that is unique to male or to a female. So to me, the idea that a man shouldn’t support a female because she is ‘strong and independent enough’ is irrelevant. It has nothing to do with what we are talking about. Your genitalia should not make a difference on how you behave.”

“Here’s the million dollar light ball: men can be affected from patriarchal society as well. There are enough men out there who do not need to be patriarchal to achieve their goals. The problem becomes when those men who don’t want to be in that patriarchy system feel less supported even than the women. Because they become the bullied ones and they are the ones who end up saying ‘it’s not worth it’. They are not the ones going after the CEO position because they feel like they are not going to be supported, because they think differently. So can’t we just ask the controversial question, ‘can a human just support another human’ and not see it as gendered? 

The way we support people is by humanizing them. Slavery happened because we dehumanized the black skin. Or American Indians, or indigenous people. Violence happened because we dehumanized them. There is no gender there, but there is dehumanizing of humans, so you can control them. The same things happens with members of the LGBTQ+ community. We dehumanize them. We say, ‘no human being could be with another of the same sex, it’s not human, it’s not how God created us.’ To fight that, we need to humanize ourselves. To this day, the same thing still happens with slavery and there is so much more work to be done. It took 200 years to abolish slavery, but there is still much work to be done to end it. And perhaps it’s like that with gender equality too.” In fact, the fight against gender equality (just as the one against climate change, *sigh) is much younger, than, for instance, the fight against racism. “Perhaps this is a time where we are chipping away by giving good example on how an equal society should be, but it will take time. Look at the United States women's national soccer team. They are suing U.S. Soccer because there is no reason why a woman should be paid less of men for the same amount of work. The only reason why it happens it’s because these companies have been doing this for a long time. Furthermore, there are men who are starting to stand with us. Look at actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who claimed was going to refuse his role unless his female co-star would get the same money.”

Members of the U.S. women's national soccer team filed a lawsuit in March 2019 against U.S. Soccer, accusing it of gender discrimination.   Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Members of the U.S. women's national soccer team filed a lawsuit in March 2019 against U.S. Soccer, accusing it of gender discrimination.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Small gestures to stand up against inequality of any type, can go a long way, even if we live in a seemingly unfair society. Change though can happen, eve if slowly, and it could impact the lives of many people. So, when in doubt, let’s stick together for everyone’s success.

What do you think about these subjects? Feel free to leave a comment below.

You can look at the work by NGO CSW NY by clicking on the link or by following them on social media.


 Updated on April 23rd 2019 at 11:52 A.M.


Important Messages from Mary Robinson (a Rock Star on the Fight for Human Rights, Climate Change and Gender Equality)

By Ludovica Martella

Mary Robinson (right) with the co-founder of Company (left). Picture: Ludovica Martella

Mary Robinson (right) with the co-founder of Company (left). Picture: Ludovica Martella

On February 26th, Mary Robinson, former first female (!) president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, engaged in a conversation about her latest book, Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, at Company, a space that hosts tech start ups, but also, conversations, like this one. Throughout this conversation, Robinson not only dug into the obstacles that she faced and overcame during her impressive career in human rights, but also gave important advice to individuals, companies and tech start-ups on how to tackle climate change solutions. Climate Justice is a story book about the injustice of climate change. Most often, climate change effects are more severe for women and poor developing countries and communities all over the world (the worst effects are seen in developing countries closer to the equator). The 11 short stories in the book are evidence of these injustices. They tell the stories of women (and men) tackling the conditions of the changing climate they live in which is truly inspirational.

First of all, it’s important to provide a bit of a background on this inspirational woman and her formative years. Mrs. Robinson opened the conversation at Company explaining how she became a human rights expert from a very young age. She grew up West Ireland, which is know to be the poorest part of Ireland, “in a household with four brothers, all younger than me, a very interesting human rights situation” she laughs. “At that time, women were supposed to know their place, EVEN THE CONSTITUTION placed the women in the home. My parents who were both medical doctors ASSURED ME that I had the same opportunities as my brothers”. Apart from the rage that many of us could have by reading the sad reality about discrimination against women embedded in the constitution, I’d like to focus for a second on the fact that Robinson’s parents encouraged her to believe that she was EQUAL, despite the law and despite what the general cultural circumstances of the time were. This is not a detail to undermine. More often than not, people who have a strong support system that includes their parents or the people who raised them, are more likely to survive societal pressures that automatically tries to put them in a box. This happens through a process that is called neuroplasticity, and the work of mirror neurons (because this is not a mental health/psychology post, I will keep it brief but I will link some interesting information about these). How does this work? As author Mark Matousek explains in his amazing book Ethical Wisdom, “the role of mirror neurons is to match up our inner reality with the world around us” aka, our brains’ “plastic” adjusts to the environment around us, continuously, but most strongly in children. This is a mechanism that is at the root of our moral beliefs and attitudes. So, would Mary Robinson not be Mary Robinson today if it weren’t for her parents? It’s honestly hard to tell because, honestly, she is pretty awesome. But neuroplasticity is a real thing. That said, let us continue.

Mary Robison engaging in the conversation on her book “Climate Justice”. Picture: Ludovica Martella

Mary Robison engaging in the conversation on her book “Climate Justice”. Picture: Ludovica Martella

Similarly to what we are experiencing nowadays during this sad part of history, Robinson grew up during a wave of global violence. In 1967 she was a young law student at Harvard. Despite the terrible currents of violence of those times, Robinson recognizes that many of her contemporaries were starting to speak out, of all things, about the immoral Vietnam War. As a result, many of them were killed because of their civil rights work. “In April of that same year, Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated, and just after not long, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.” She claims that “desperate times bring the best out of people. Young people were doing great things, they were taking leadership and making a difference.” As she makes this point, she takes a moment to praise the young students in the US who are mobilizing for climate justice and who are organizing a major walk out of schools around the country on March 15th 2019. Mary was brave herself. After she graduated from Harvard Law School she went back to Ireland and started teaching and practicing law with this new activist wave as her motivating force. Through a combination of things, she ended up getting elected to the senate at the age of 25 (mainly because her elderly professors didn’t want to take the lead and push for radical ideas themselves). Between the many topics she had at hearth, she called for the legalization of family planning because women in Ireland at the time couldn’t use contraceptives unless they had a medical note stating they needed them to regulate their menstrual cycle. Despite getting numerous hate mail and being “barely able to walk down the street,” while having her bill called by the Bishop of Ireland “a curse on the country,” Robinson kept on going because change, in her eyes, was the only option. One of her favorite quotes from former UN Secretary general Kofi Annan is (rest in peace,) “you are never too young to lead, you are never too old to learn”. Amen.

Fast-forward through her presidency and to her role of Human Rights Commissioner of the UN, she realized the incredible connection between human rights and climate justice. This was only after her five-year term had ended. At this stage, she created a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Realizing Rights out of her frustration for the still very apparent lack of human rights around the world. The mission behind this organization was to support the ability of African countries to build capacity to provide basic human rights to their populations. This includes holding governments accountable for providing things such as health, sanitation, food, water, education and shelter. During her time in Africa, in 2002, she kept hearing laments from people there about the climatic conditions worsening. She recalls speaking to a climate-wise woman from a small village in Uganda who said “we thought God was punishing us, and then I learned, no it wasn’t God, it was the lives of rich people.” The greenhouse gasses  (GHGs) produced by developed countries for the purpose of industry and luxury were having devastating repercussions on her village. “That brought me to be aware of the injustice of climate change. (Climate change) is disproportionately affecting the poorest countries and the poorest communities” even if it is the richer countries who are majorly contributing to the mess. And obviously, poor communities in climate-delicate areas here in the US are being affected as well.

So, should we conceptualize the issue of climate change as a civil rights issue or keep it purely scientific? “It’s not either or” answered Robinson. “We have to try and make the discourse on climate change and climate justice people centered,” because the decline of our environment has increasing negative repercussions on humans as well. Sometimes people seem to not understand that until they are directly affected by it. Robinson concluded that what we should do is to take the climate problem to a personal level. Whether that means avoiding single use plastic and bringing your reusable bottle or/and mug everywhere (you can save money and even get discounts at some cafes if you ask them to use your bottle) or changing your diet to one with less or no animal products, for starters. (There is a wonderful tool by the BBC where you can track the green house emission of the food we consume, here). Also, she invites individuals to get angry with those who have the power to make change and are not doing their best to take action. For businesses and especially for tech, she invites them to think about the world we envision for ourselves.

The cover of the book by Mary Robinson. Picture: Ludovica Martella

The cover of the book by Mary Robinson. Picture: Ludovica Martella

Mary Robinson’s book Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future is a fast read and a small book that won’t add significant weight to your bag. I advise you to give it a read since it tells stories from people around the world that can be truly inspirational and give you a wider vision on the realities of climate change and how we can act on them.