“You don’t put ketchup on pasta!”…

Elena Bernini, Collegio Nuovo – Fondazione Sandra e Enea Mattei, Pavia, Italy 

-1 Elena Pic 

“You don’t put ketchup on pasta!” My Italian conscience and national-picky-pride wanted to scream as I saw my roommate abundantly squeezing it on top of my soon to be dinner. Yet, I didn’t say it. The proud smile she showed and the effort she put in cooking dinner convinced me to put aside my cultural shock and stifle my internal conflict.

This happened when, last Spring Semester, I was a Visiting Student at Barnard College thanks to a partnership with my College, Collegio Nuovo-Fondazione Sandra e Enea Mattei. It was certainly a challenging experience that required me time to adapt to a very different academic system.

That anecdote is an example of a cultural internal conflict, or two cultures clashing, I have to admit, on trivial matters, but despite these small differences in “to ketchup or not to ketchup” a wonderful friendship blossomed.

I wondered whether we, as women, are more conditioned by internal conflicts or external ones. I will try to answer  this question through some experiences.

A first insight into this dilemma came when I participated in Women Leaders in International Relations: Comparing Eu and U.S. Experiences, an affiliate program of the Women in Public Service Project that was held at the Italian Cultural Institute in Brussels in June 2013, in partnership with my college thanks to the effort of the former Director of the Institute, Federiga Bindi. The training sessions were focused on topics such as communication, advocacy skills and the need to harmonize working life and family life. The latter I think epitomizes the internal conflict that women still have to face due to national legislations that do not grant equal parental leave in many countries or do not grant paid time off for maternity leave (e.g. the United States). In my mind, the work-life balance conflict arises from external constraints dictated by gender roles and broadly by gender inequality.

Yet, in some cases what are felt as internal conflicts by women are self imposed limitations happening only in our minds, as it was exemplified by Marjorie Margolies, founder and President of Women’s Campaign International (WCI) and former Congresswoman.  She highlighted that the main obstacle that limits women’s achievements is the fear of making mistakes.  According to her: “You have got to be prepared to lose before you can win.”

Another insight into internal versus external conflicts came from the thought-provoking conference I attended last October at my college when Antonella Appiano, an Italian journalist specializing in the Middle East, and Giulia Daniele, an activist and researcher in Political Science at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna (Pisa), engaged in a debate with we students. Both of them have experienced and worked in situations of political and religious conflict: Ms. Appiano conducted a report in Syria right before and during the civil war, Ms. Daniele conducted her fieldwork in Israel and the Gaza Strip and was an observer during the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Ms. Daniele struck me as being a pragmatic woman not satisfied with the clichés proposed by mainstream politics to solve the problem of coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, but she believes women can offer a positive contribution in terms of non violent resistance or civil disobedience and creating a proactive network between villages.

Ms. Appiano went to Syria undercover first as an Arabic scholar, then as “a soap entrepreneur” in the months of riots against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, showing the acute awareness that the uprising was on the way of becoming a civil war. From this first-hand experience a book was written in 2011, “Clandestina a Damasco” (Clandestine in Damascus) and published by Castelvecchi.

To conclude, I believe that gender inequality can create internal conflicts difficult to handle and overcome. Nonetheless I was impressed with the bright examples of empowered women who were not afraid to speak up, showing that they are not conditioned by external conflicts.