international women's day 2015As with last year on IWD, I intend to continue with my personal tradition of celebrating a woman I admire. This year, it is Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the newly-elected democratic party in Burma and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Read on further below for more specifics.

Before that, however, I would like to say a few words about the 2016 campaign theme for International Women’s Day: #PLEDGEFORPARITY. This pledge is multi-fold and includes the following five categories:

  1. Help women and girls achieve their ambitions
  2. Challenge conscious and unconscious bias
  3. Call for gender-balanced leadership
  4. Value women and men’s contributions equally
  5. Create inclusive, flexible cultures

You can read about the specific actions/steps involved here.

While all of the above are important and necessary, I am drawn to category #2 the most. I believe that our conscious and unconscious prejudices and biases create dangerous gaps between our well-meaning intentions and our actions/behaviors, thus preventing us from making much progress in the other four categories.

There is a lot of literature out there re. cognitive biases. In particular, I recommend Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow‘ if you are looking for an in-depth and well-written exposition. If you are short on time, here are a couple of cheat sheets to help with self-reflection and self-analysis. Especially when you have what you think is a “strong gut feeling”, please do yourself a favor and pause to make sure that it isn’t just your cognitive bias or filtered thinking at play instead.

20 Cognitive Biases
[Source: Business Insider]
15 Distorted Thinking Styles
[Source: Thoughts & Feelings by McKay, Davis, & Fanning. New Harbinger, 1981]


Aung San Suu Kyi

There are many things about this woman that have inspired me over the years. Not only has she shown a wonderfully calm strength in enduring everything life has sent her way, but she has done it without giving up on her larger mission of bringing true democracy to a country that had gained independence around the same time as India had. To live under a constant threat to her life for pretty much her entire existence, to spend fifteen years under house arrest without her husband and children by her side, and to never give up that clear vision of what she needed to accomplish for her larger cause — these are the things that the world will always honor and admire her for. But, for those who do not know much about her, here’s a little background.

Growing up in India, we did not learn much about our neighbor, Burma (or Myanmar as it is also known). Our history books glossed over India’s role in the nineteenth-century Anglo-Burmese wars when the British colonialists took over the country, making it a province of British India. We also did not learn about how, after British colonization of Burma, Indians of all classes and castes — soldiers, civil servants, construction workers, and traders — flooded Burmese society and commerce. Where several chapters were dedicated to India’s freedom fighters and struggle for independence from the British, Burma’s own similar struggle at the same time got a small paragraph or two. Their leader, Aung San, even attended an Indian National Congress meeting in 1940 but had to run back to Burma due to the threat of arrest. With help from Japan, Aung San put a national army together to fight against the British rulers. He soon found that Japan was a more tyrannical overlord than the British had been. So, during the Second World War, Burma joined the Allies against Japan and Britain promised, in return, self-government. After his party won the general election, Aung San was assassinated in 1947 by the former Prime Minister of colonial Burma (with help from a British Army Officer).

Aung San Suu Kyi is the oldest daughter of this revered leader of Burma. She has dedicated her life to the country, even living under house arrest for fifteen years and refusing the opportunity to leave and never return. Her life’s goal of ensuring a democratic government (as opposed to a military rule) through non-violence and Buddhist concepts was accomplished last year when her party, the National League for Democracy, swept the general elections. However, as the widow and mother of foreigners, she cannot take on the Presidency — per Burmese constitutional law, which was updated in 2008 with these clauses to address just such an eventuality.

Among her many international honors, the Nobel Peace Prize is the most prominent. Her lecture at the acceptance event is worth checking out.

I have also enjoyed her personal essay collection, ‘Letters from Burma‘, where her love for her country shines through earnestly and beautifully. Alongside the history of Burma’s struggles, she shares her love for various things like detective fiction, cooking, and early morning walks.

Here are two quotes from her to ponder on this day.

For millennia, women have dedicated themselves almost exclusively to the task of nurturing, protecting and caring for the young and the old, striving for the conditions of peace that favor life as a whole. To this can be added the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, no war was ever started by women. But it is women and children who have always suffered most in situations of conflict. Now that we are gaining control of the primary historical role imposed on us of sustaining life in the context of the home and family, it is time to apply in the arena of the world the wisdom and experience thus gained in activities of peace over so many thousands of years. The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just, and peaceful life for all. [Opening Keynote Address at NGO Forum on Women, Beijing China (1995)]

Why is one of the most important words in any language. You have to know why the world is the way it is or you have to want to know. If you do not have this curiosity and if you do not have the intelligence in order to be able to express this curiosity in terms that others can understand then we will not be able to contribute to progress in our world. [Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought Acceptance Speech (2013)]

[NOTE: In the United States, the month of March is also Women’s History Month and this is how it all started. The 2016 Theme for NWHM is ‘Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government‘.]

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