THE BLOG
04/01/2014 01:35 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2014

What We Learned From Women's History Month and Katy Perry

Jason LaVeris via Getty Images

In the wake of this past Women's History Month, I'm reminded of that ridiculous old Virginia Slims ad showing that modern woman can smoke and exercise. Because if the recent flap over Katy Perry's declaration for feminism or the #banbossy campaign are any indication, we still seem to have only two options for female leaders, "bitch" or "bimbo." Much as I adore that there's already a hashtag, I'm not sure we're ready yet for Hillary 2016.

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As a career woman who lived in the so-called belly of the beast when it comes to women's rights, the Persian Gulf, the biggest culture shock I experienced was that we weren't as different as we like to think. Reading #banbossy coverage, and all the Katy Perry bashing, I'm reminded of 2007, when I returned from Qatar and saw how Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were portrayed in the media. At the time, I was regularly asked how I could have tolerated living in a Muslim country where they "treated women so terribly."

No one asked me that question since then (and I've gone back to work), so I suppose I'd have to credit that with bringing lady issues to the fore. But I still get the same blank stare when I tell people I don't think we're doing all that much better here. Not that I always felt that way.

Part of the reason I wanted to move to the Persian Gulf was to help empower my Muslim sisters. Show it was possible to be a career woman with a family or, at least as was the case for me, a husband.

My first sense that I might not be the empowerment sensation I'd hoped came when I realized how the clothing affected me. Surely, no one would choose to wrap herself in black in the blistering heat of the desert. After mere months in Qatar, however, I found myself at an airport in Germany, staring at a woman in a mini skirt. "Cover yourself," were the words that came to mind. My liberal American mind. No wonder they were offended by my wardrobe choices. Not that I wanted to give up my choices.

A while later, a student asked if it would cause problems to wear her headscarf on a school trip to Pittsburgh. Suspecting she might be testing to see if she could go without wearing it, I told her she shouldn't expect any trouble and that she didn't have to wear it if she didn't want to. That we'd be careful with pictures. She looked at me pityingly. "I do not wear the shayla for me. Or you. It is for God."

Then a colleague made an unwelcome pass at me. In the end, I decided to keep quiet about it. After all, I had gone to his room on a business trip. That would, I decided, make me look guilty. Besides, no matter what the outcome, I feared losing my effectiveness on the job. That was my choice.

The real error of my ways began to dawn on me shortly before my 40th birthday, when my husband ended our marriage. I felt too old to be viable on the dating market. My honest emotional response from my so-called advanced world view wasn't all that different from how their culture viewed women.

Qataris had plenty of female role models, older women who, with their child-rearing days behind them, were making careers at the highest levels of government. Unlike in our culture, where we imbue the women with the least amount of experience and available time -- thanks to the families they're raising - with the most power. And then we discount them, as Rush Limbaugh suggested when he famously asked of a Hilary presidency, "Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes?"

When I suggest we're not doing much better in this country, the most common reply is that here we don't stone women. Well, in Qatar they don't stone women either. It's also worth remembering, the Violence Against Women Act is something that's happened only in this generation. One in five women still experiences rape, and one in four will experience domestic violence. We've got a long way to go, and I'm not sure that a dogged belief in an egalitarian society serves that purpose.

The problem with equality is that it's not natural, it's something we have to strive for. Evolution favors the winners and we are hard-wired to want to prevail. By acting as if we've got this equality thing down, we do ourselves a disservice. Keeping these issues clear is the only way to overcome our inherent tendency to judge, which in turn drowns out more voices.

Even as I was getting my thoughts together to write this, a friend called to tell me she was getting a divorce and leaving the kids with her husband. My first thought was what a terrible woman she was. In the same instant, I knew if her husband had called with the news, I would have simply thought, typical jerk. Because I was thinking about these issues, I was able to spot my hypocritical judgment before saying anything to regret. Which is my point.

To move toward a more inclusive society, one that can accept a female president, it's not useful to pretend that we have solved the problem of equality or even that's our only problem. Challenges can only be overcome if we first accept they exist. One or two generations ago, covering was not so ubiquitous across the Middle East. But just as Planned Parenthood has lost tremendous ground here, conservatism has crept in there. In a climate where we believe we are so much better off, it's easy to lose sight of how far we have yet to go. Or worse, lose ground. But it doesn't have to be that way. The first step is to catch yourself the next time your thinking about a woman falls into either category, and then have a serious look in the mirror. Then stick your tongue out at yourself because too much seriousness will kill progress, too.