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First and Ten Yards to Go: Women Reaching Milestones

I’ll start out by saying I’m a football fan, through and through.

When I say that, I mean American football, a derivative from rugby that actually gets its name because the game focuses so heavily on measurements and getting inches, feet, yards that the ball is a measurement in itself – a football is a foot long! This is why they call the sport “a game of inches.”

I recognize that American football is not particularly popular in many of the countries that we work.  When travelling on Sundays in the fall, I often find myself staying up late to catch the latest Baltimore Ravens game in my hotel room to the immediate interest of nobody else.

But, something happened this month that I think is truly notable in the world. On August 15, the Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs met to play a preseason game. Usually these games mean nothing. They’re really glorified scrimmages, where the starters are pulled very early.  The score doesn’t matter. The stadium was barely full. But that night, under the bright stadium lights, something historic happened. It sounds boring. An assistant coach went to shake the hand of a referee. Happens all the time to little fanfare. But look at the picture that captures this moment. One of these things is not like the others. What makes this moment special was that the Cardinals coach’s name is Jen Welter from the Cardinals and the referee’s is Sarah Thomas.

Both are women of firsts in the National Football League (NFL). Welter, on a six-week stint as an inside linebackers coach for the Cardinals, is the first woman to serve as a coach for an NFL team. Thomas has already reached national news this year as the first woman to be a full-time official in the male-dominated NFL. In such a testosterone-filled sport (the most popular in the United States), with men built like SUVs and some built like houses, these women are both in positions of authority. It’s absolutely a milestone that’s worth crowing.

Change like this is what IRI is in the business of helping others do in similarly male-dominated societies across the world. Changing minds, changing institutions and changing societies. Sure football is just a sport where people throw around an (sometimes) inflated ball, but this milestone is not too dissimilar to the milestones achieved by the women with whom IRI works, in much more difficult situations.

Think of this month. On August 22, Saudi women won for the first time the right to register to vote and run in municipal elections that will be held in December. While these are not slated to be the most free and fair elections, this is a huge step. In such a traditional society, to see women even being able to register to vote, demonstrates a significant change in how the regime typically approaches women.

Another milestone was reached recently, though 95 years ago. On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th amendment was certified as law in the United States, for the first time allowing women the freedom to enjoy their right to vote in US elections nationwide. Since Nixon, presidents have dedicated this day as Women’s Equality Day. Ninety five years later, two women, from opposite parties, are running in the primaries for the highest office of the land. Milestones have been reached in both countries, but in both the fight for women’s equality still goes on.

The NFL, Saudi Arabia and Women’s Equality Day are so varied and interesting cases of brave and powerful women making impressive strides in traditional societies. It makes me remember a story I read from IRI’s program in Jordan. IRI’s Jordan program has a women’s empowerment component which seeks to strengthen the skills and confidence of women in traditional and impoverished communities. Over this year, IRI worked with Jordanian women to help empower them to better engage in politics. Notably this involves giving them the skills to engage their male counterparts on an equal footing.

One woman from Dleil, Jordan discussed IRI’s contribution to her efforts in her community. Her husband was initially unsupportive of her attending IRI trainings, feeling that it was not within a woman’s role. Still, she went, feeling the need to learn to participate in politics and stand up for the interests of her community. When she came back, her husband said that the program noticeably improved both her confidence and approach, and he now supports her participation in the program. Just this change in the relationship dynamic would be a huge success. But it doesn’t end there. The woman explained that she had the opportunity to moderate a town hall, filled with a mostly male crowd, back in Dleil. According to her, IRI’s training gave her the courage to engage these men on changing their preconceptions about women. In a conservative, patriarchal society like Jordan, where democratic progress is slow, such a change is huge, especially in these traditional, rural communities. As she described, after getting a certificate from IRI at the graduation ceremony for the Empower Initiative, “I felt like I won an Oscar and now I feel more proud of myself every time I look at the certificate hung on the wall.”

As I mentioned earlier, IRI is in the business of this kind of change because it works with such inspiring women, and men, who know that their world can improve and that they can be a part of that progress. Across the over 60 countries where IRI operates, the Institute sees successes like these every day. Sometimes I fear we see it so often it becomes old hat. Since sports are really just a big analogy for life, returning to football, progress in the DG world is also oftentimes is a “game of inches.” Sometimes it’s just improving the confidence of one person, or providing skills beneficiaries may use one day. Sometimes those skills sit in waiting for years for opportunity to strike. Sometimes it’s just seeing that husband changing his mind about his wife’s role in politics. Small changes can have huge results.  At other times it happens in chunks and big plays. And, of course, there are always plenty of setbacks.

As results come big or small, IRI remains on the forefront, side-by-side with our beneficiaries as they seek to effect minds and hearts, as they transform patterns and institutions, and as they seek to change the world. It’s truly a fascinating journey. Contributing to it is a true honor. And every single moment of it should be raised to the light – one as bright as the ones Mrs. Welter and Thomas were under in Arrowhead Stadium to begin that preseason game.


Posted by

Dylan Diggs

Assistant Evaluation Officer, Middle East North Africa Division