A Woman with the Courage to Speak Up

By | August 25, 2010

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I wrote this en route, flying home after delivering Speak Up: Speak Out – Personal Power and Respect in the Workplace, one of most popular presentations I developed after publishing Road to Respect last year.

Speak Up: Speak out is intended to empower employees to speak up about disrespect at work. I make the case in Road to Respect that disrespect is a non-issue when workplace leaders make a strategic decision to build a values based culture where respect is a core value, where respect simply becomes “the way it is around here”. However, I also know that it is going to take a long, long time for respectful behavior to become a norm in most workplaces. In the meantime, I want to do what I can to empower employees, to ensure they realize that they have power, that they can make a choice to speak up rather than put up and shut up about disrespect at work. I challenge them at the end of the session to speak up, to take action to create a more respectful workplace for themselves and those they work with.

One of the factors that stops us from speaking up is fear. We are afraid of what might happen if we say something; things might get worse, we could have a confrontation, we might even jeopardize our job. These are realistic fears. The question is should we allow those fears to rule our behavior, to determine our choices? Should we allow fear to justify giving up our power, a decision which inevitably leads down the path to victimization?

Roman philosopher Seneca said “Courage is not lack of fear, but rather it is taking action in the face of, and despite, fear.” This concept has taken on a whole new meaning for me since reading two books by Ayaan Hirsli Ali, Infidel and The Caged Virgin.

Ms. Ali is a Somali born Muslim woman, who fled to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage. Her experiences there caused her to start questioning some of the cultural practices she had grown up with: female genital mutilation, the wearing of the hajib and abaya (cloak), the cult of virginity, the justification of gender inequity within some Muslim communities. She started to speak up, to express herself. She became involved in Dutch politics and made a film called Submission part 1 with Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.

One day in 2004 while riding his bicycle to work, Theo Van Gogh was murdered. A note, addressed to Ms. Ali, was found stabbed into his chest. It warned Ms. Ali that she would be next. Death was promised for those who dared to speak up about the issues that Ms. Ali focuses on.

The consequences of Ms. Ali continuing to speak up are much graver than any faced by my audience members in Speak Up Speak Out. Ms. Ali’s decision to continue to speak up has meant she had to give up her seat as a Dutch politician, and relocate from Europe to the US. She continues to receive death threats.

In spite of all this she continues to speak up, to speak out. In 2007 she founded the AHA Foundation to help protect and defend the rights of women in the West against militant Islam.

After reading Ms. Ali’s books, I felt overwhelmed and engulfed with despair and a sense of hopelessness. As an individual passionate about promoting respect and dignity for all, I was stunned to learn about the realities faced by millions of women on a daily basis. I was saddened and depressed by her stories of bigotry, hatred, abuse of power and suffering. It seemed almost pointless to continue to speak up to promote my vision of respect in light of this reality.

Then it occurred to me that while I only read about Ms. Ali’s experiences, she has lived through them, and yet she still feels hopeful. She makes a choice each day, in spite of what she knows, in spite of the fear she must feel, to continue to speak up, to speak out. In doing so she demonstrates true self respect, while working to promote respect for others.

Ms. Ali truly is a courageous woman and an inspirational figure. She embodies the idea of a hero as expressed by Lisa Hand. “That’s what it takes to be a hero, a little gem of innocence inside you that makes you want to believe that there still exists a right and wrong that decency will somehow triumph in the end”.

If human rights, gender equality and respect are subjects that interest you, I urge you to read Ms. Ali’s books. We must believe that decency will somehow triumph in the end, and work proactively to ensure that happens.

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