Features & Columns
Cathleen Miller: Champion of Choice
in the face of great obstacles
San Jose State University professor Cathleen Miller spent 10 years crisscrossing the globe to write Champion of Choice, her 500-page biography of women's advocate Nafis Sadik, and lived to tell about it.
In fact, "crisscrossing" doesn't even do Miller justice. Her path more resembled a 3D model of string art, navigating impoverished slum after slum, from the Third World to the First, and back again—all to chronicle Sadik's career as one of the 20th century's most powerful and tireless warriors for women's rights. As a work of dramatic nonfiction narrative, Champion of Choice is extensive, but accessible for everyone. Miller will talk about the book at SJSU on April 24.
For the uninitiated, Sadik, a nationalized Pakistani born in India in 1929, developed ambitions at an early age to become a diplomat and help victimized women all over the world. An obstetrician, she eventually took a post at the fledgling United Nations Population Fund in 1971, when the average global birthrate was six children per mother. By the time of her professional retirement in 2000, the average birthrate had been cut in half.
To date, her life's work as a doctor, educator and diplomat has provided women around the globe with the education and tools to control their own fertility. Her work has improved the lives of millions of women and infuriated the Vatican as a result.
In the book, Miller does not just write Sadik's story alone. That would have been too simple. Instead, she juxtaposes Sadik's career with vignettes from the trenches of female victimization in order to reveal examples of the very injustices that Sadik fights against.
She weaves in a tale from Ethiopia, for instance, where small, poverty-stricken girls are forced into pregnancy as early as 14, resulting in the gruesome circumstances of obstetric fistula. In another scene, she visits a hospital in Pakistan to interview a woman whose husband insisted on a sixth pregnancy solely because her first five were daughters.
At first, the United Nations actually asked Miller to write the book, since her previous work, Desert Flower, told the story of Somali activist Waris Dirie's worldwide plight to end female genital mutilation. The book was later adapted as a feature film and released in 34 countries, including a U.S. premiere at Cinequest in 2011.
The book sold 11 million copies in 55 languages and has played a major role in outlawing genital mutilation worldwide. It accomplished more than any group of politicians or diplomats could possibly have done.
Now, with the release of Champion of Choice, Miller says that interviewing Sadik, spending hours with her and examining her career was like getting a Ph.D. in leadership and diplomacy. In writing the book, Miller says she wanted to make sure she told the how-to and step-by-step details of how Sadik did what she did—not just what Sadik accomplished, but how she accomplished it. Thus the book also functions as a how-to manual for women who want to change history, a primer for how to raise your daughter to be a world leader.
"How many women get a chance to study with a mentor like Nafis?" Miller asked. "Not that many men have that opportunity either, but I've spent years watching this woman, meeting her, talking to her, analyzing her career under a microscope, and I wanted to pass along to women everything I've learned. That's one of the main reasons people read biography—especially biographies of successful people—to be on the fast track. We want to figure out how they did it."
For the free event on April 24, Miller says she will reveal lurid details about what's not in the book. Attendees will get behind-the-scenes vignettes about what she actually went through for 10 years. After all, the story of what happens in the author's life while writing the book is often more colorful than the published material anyway.
"I'm going to tell some funny stories about what I call the book behind the book," Miller explains. "This is a book that my friends encouraged me to write for years. ... And for years, I've been telling my friends these stories about what was happening with me while I was out there doing research on this book."
Cathleen Miller Reading
April 24, 7pm, Free
King Main Library, Room 225/229
Reception in the Steinbeck Center