International Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time in West New York last Friday, when a panel of notable female professionals and activists participated in a panel at Hudson Hall on the role of women in an ever-changing society. The panelists spoke on various issues and encouraged young women in the audience to persevere beyond what is expected of them.
The event, which was sponsored by Mayor Felix Roque and the town’s Board of Commissioners, featured Commissioners Caridad Rodriguez and FiorD’Aliza Frias. Hasmig Tatiossian, a local businesswoman and activist, Pastor Tania Fuentes, a community leader, and musician and anti-bullying activist Veronica Kole rounded out the lineup.
International Women’s Day, celebrated around the world on March 8, was first observed in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. However, its roots were planted in America a few years earlier when, in 1908, nearly 15,000 working class women took to the streets of New York City demanding fair wages, shorter working hours, and the right to vote.
Gennarose Pope, an aide to Roque, organized the event, prefacing the speakers with an introduction describing the current state of women around the world.
“Women’s rights won anywhere is a victory for everyone. Each of our communities will be stronger for it. For us, it starts right here, in West New York.” – Hasmig Tatiossian
She shared facts that juxtaposed with the normalized attitude of American exceptionalism, including statistics from a 2012 report published by the World Economic Forum, which placed the United States 22nd its rankings of countries succeeding in closing the gender gap.
Pope also lamented the situation abroad, “where women face extreme discrimination and even violent opposition that we can hardly fathom.”
However, Pope said that the night’s program was designed in order to focus on the positives. The women who agreed to serve on the panel “have faced [these challenges], overcome them, and inspired others to grow.”
Local officials share their stories
Rodriguez and Frias spoke to the audience in both English and Spanish, discussing their professional lives as civil servants constantly scrutinized in the public eye and their personal lives as mothers, daughters and wives.
Rodriguez, who was the first female and Hispanic to represent the 33rd District in the state assembly when she was elected to that office in 2007, spoke about her journey from Cuba and the dual challenges, as an immigrant and a woman, she was forced to overcome. Inspired by the Cuban suffragist Elena Mederos, she had adopted one of Mederos’ famous quotes, “Service is the natural way of being,” as her own.
Frias ranked her different identities in order of importance, saying that above all, she is a servant of God, but that she is a mother and a woman before a public servant. A single mother of three, Frias revealed that she is a survivor of domestic abuse, and challenged all women to overcome the challenges in their own life.
“You have to ask yourself, are you a failure or a fighter?” she said.
The academic and the pastor
Tatiossian, who studied genocide and human rights at the University of California, Berkeley and once served as the Armenian International Women’s Organizations representative to the United Nations, spoke about “lenses,” meaning the beliefs we each have through which we view the world.
“We wear these beliefs, even beliefs that oppress us, and sometimes society doesn’t let us take them off,” she said.
Tatiossian shared the story of Renee Matthews, an African immigrant to the United Kingdom who was subjected to years of rape and domestic abuse before rising to become one of Britain’s most outspoken feminist politicians, and urged all women to follow the same path.
“Women’s rights won anywhere is a victory for everyone,” she said. “Each of our communities will be stronger for it. For us, it starts right here, in West New York.”
Fuentes, who runs the Dvine Konektion Community Development Corporation in West New York and once won Jersey City’s Woman of the Year Award, used props to illustrate the point of her speech. Comparing uncut swatches of cloth to a beautifully quilted pillow, she encouraged women in the audience to take each aspect of their lives and transform it to something beautiful.
“This pillow didn’t start out like this. It started out fragmented,” she said. “Women are similarly fragmented by society and prejudice. It’s up to you to make yourself whole.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org