Wednesday, March 11, 2009


With his historic creation of a White House Council On Women And Girls, President Obama issued an Executive Order to all government agencies on Wednesday that was designed to:
  1. Improve women’s economic security by ensuring that each of the government's agencies is working to directly improve the economic status of women.
  2. Work with each agency to ensure that the administration evaluates and develops policies that establish a balance between work and family. 
  3. Work hand-in-hand with the Vice President, the Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women and other government officials to find new ways to prevent violence against women, at home and abroad. 
  4. Help build healthy families and improve women’s health care. 
In his comments prior to signing the Executive Order, Obama stated that:
"I sign this order not just as a President, but as a son, a grandson, a husband, and a father because, growing up, I saw my mother put herself through school and follow her passion for helping others. But I also saw how she struggled to raise me and my sister on her own, worrying about how she'd pay the bills and educate herself and provide for us.

I saw my grandmother work her way up to become one of the first women bank vice presidents in the state of Hawaii, but I also saw how she hit a glass ceiling -- how men no more qualified than she was kept moving up the corporate ladder ahead of her.

I've seen Michelle, the rock of the Obama family, juggling work and parenting with more skill and grace than anybody that I know. But I also saw how it tore at her at times, how sometimes when she was with the girls she was worrying about work, and when she was at work she was worrying about the girls. It's a feeling that I share every day.

So now it's up to us to carry that work forward, to ensure that our daughters and granddaughters have no limits on their dreams, no obstacles to their achievements -- and that they have opportunities their mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers never dreamed of. That's the purpose of this Council. Those are the priorities of my presidency. And I look forward to working with all of you to fulfill them in the months and years to come."
The only thing missing from today's festivities was this:

Two films being screened at this month's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival are very clearly focused on the challenges faced by minority women seeking respect in our society. The coincidence of watching these films the day before Obama's Executive Order made them more timely than originally expected.

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Brittany Huckabee's provocative new documentary, The Mosque In Morgantown, follows Asra Nomani's struggle for equal rights in her religious community in the university town where she was raised. Born in India, Nomani grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia. A professional journalist who was close friends with Daniel Pearl (and one of the last Americans to see him alive prior to his beheading), she is the author of Standing Alone In Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle For The Soul of Islam,

In many ways, Huckabee's documentary offers an excellent companion piece to the segment from Morgan Spurlock's television series, 30 Days. which was devoted to Muslims in America. Nomani's writings have severely criticized the extremism of some Muslim-American leaders. Whereas Spurlock's segment viewed American Muslims through a much more traditionally male perspective, The Mosque In Morgantown examines Muslim-American culture from a decidedly feminist standpoint.

Nomani's struggle to gain the right for Muslim women to pray alongside Muslim men sharply divided her community in Morgantown. With Muslim-Americans from India and Pakistan (as well as from several Arab states in the Middle East), her efforts led to increased friction between the moderate and conservative Muslims in her home town. 

Why? In most mosques, women pray in a room that is separate and apart from where the men pray. (ironically, this is the same tradition found in orthodox Jewish synagogues). In Morgantown, they must enter the Mosque through a back door.  Thus, it should come as no surprise to see a conflict arise when old world male-dominant Islamic traditions are confronted by the American credo of equal rights for women. 

Nomani's research has led her to believe that these so-called laws regarding gender separation are laws that were created by and handed down from men, not God. Convincing the men in Morgantown's mosque is not as easy as it sounds. While traveling around American on a book tour, she discovers that many Muslim women vehemently disagree with her liberated concepts.

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In Tze Chun's poignant new drama, Children of Invention, Elaine Cheng (Cindy Cheung) keeps trying against a tidal wave of bad luck to provide for her two young children. After her husband left her and returned to Hong Kong, Elaine has been trying to make ends meet by helping to show houses for a realtor in Boston and struggling to earn commissions from a variety of pyramid schemes.

As the film opens, we see her angrily confronting the marketing staff for a multilevel marketing company specializing in vitamins. After she is ejected from from the site where an "opportunity meeting" is being held, she gets evicted from her home because she can no longer pay the rent. A friend helps her move into an unfinished building's model apartment (stressing that Elaine can live there for a few months as long as she and her children do not draw any attention to themselves). 

As she struggles to come up with the membership fee to join another multilevel marketing scheme, her children do their best to cope with their newly transient status. The older child, Raymond (Michael Chen), is the kind of quiet boy who observes everything but says very little. His little sister, Tina (Crystal Chiu), has less patience. She just wants to return to their old home and still thinks her father is going to return for her birthday.

When Elaine gets recruited into a ponzi scheme which is trying to make inroads in the Chinese community, she ends up spending all of her time running from one appointment to another. One day, something goes horribly wrong. 

Attempting to stop by the home of the woman who recruited her, Elaine is nabbed by police who have busted the ponzi scheme. Elaine gets carted off to jail. She has no way of contacting Raymond and Tina (who are dutifully waiting for her at home with diminishing amounts of food). Nor is she helped by the fact that, while her children are natural-born Americans, Elaine is an illegal alien.

Raymond soon realizes that it has fallen to him to go to his mother's bank in downtown Boston and withdraw some of the money his grandmother had placed in a special account for him. With a cranky Tina by his side, he shows remarkable strength and resourcefulness.

Children of Invention offers an emotional roller coaster ride as the audience helplessly watches the desperate Elaine get manipulated by a Caucasian entrepreneur to a point where her long hours spent trying to earn a commission put her children at risk. The two kids are wonderful onscreen and will tear at your heartstrings without any mawkishness. If anyone could benefit from Obama's new White House Council on Women and Girls, it is a desperate single mother like Elaine. 

She doesn't just need a job and some financial help. She needs a little respect.

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