Each year on March 8, a day is dedicated to women all around the world, a tradition that has been observed since the early 1900’s. In recent times, IWD has been about celebrating the contributions that women are making in the world, as well as the positive steps that have been made in gender equality, moving away from a history of observing how women receive inferior treatment. On IWD, events are hosted across the globe in order to encourage women to continue to dream, work and inspire as well as passing the message onto future generations of women that they can have a real impact in their immediate community, as well as beyond. This IWD, we have decided to share with you some inspirational women who we think emulate the spirit of this special day as well as being positive role models for women everywhere.
Aung San Suu Kyi By Alice McDonald
Aung San Suu Kyi is strong, eloquent and wise. But above all she is unafraid. Her steadfast commitment to her vision for Burma, through dark times that would push the best of us to breaking point, is nothing short of heroic. For me, if there were 3 things that Aung San Suu Kyi’s plight have taught me, they would be:
In 1988, Suu Kyi left her loving husband and two children in the UK when she returned to Burma to visit her sick mother. She was confronted by the iron-fisted rule of the junta dictatorship, in which its citizens were oppressed, destitute, and in a perpetual state of fear. Spontaneously and with no prior experience, she set up a pro-democracy movement and founded the National League for Democracy, despite being acutely aware of the risks.
In 1997, Suu Kyi’s husband, Aris, was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. Despite international outrage, the Burmese government refused to grant Aris a visa. They presented Suu Kyi with an ultimatum: leave Burma to be with her husband, or stay and never get the chance to say goodbye. She chose to stay, with the knowledge that the Junta would be unlikely to allow her re-entry. Giving up what many would believe the most important thing in life in order to take responsibility to fight for what you believe in. Now that’s courage.
Suu Kyi spent almost 15 out of 21 years under house arrest in Burma, cut off from all communication to the outside world. She fought the Junta’s oppression and somehow managed to remain an activist and grow her pro-democracy movement. Multiple times, Suu Kyi was offered a one way ticket back to the UK to be with her family, two young children and her husband terminally ill with cancer, but still she remained resolutely dedicated to her cause. Putting the needs of her people above her personal ones. We all have a little something to learn about hard work and patience from Aung San Suu Kyi; “I don’t believe in people just hoping. We work for what we want. I always say that one has no right to hope without endeavor.”
Aung San Suu Kyi feels a duty to the people of Burma. She left a prosperous and fulfilling life in the West to pursue a dangerous and gruelling struggle for democracy. She embodies what can come from the choice between what is right and what is easy. Her plight over more than 20 years puts our problems into perspective. Look at the bigger picture, what can you do to make someone’s life just a little bit better? As with Aung San Suu Kyi, everything starts at the grass roots. It’s about looking for solutions rather than problems. It’s about diligence and taking responsibility for using our skills to help others. It is being unafraid to have a dream and strive for it; “the only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear”.
Fitting with the tone of International Women’s Day, Aung San Suu Kyi stated herself that, “the education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.”
Aung San Suu Kyi is fearless. She is a visionary. She proves that one person can make a difference.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali By Rachael Young
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Dutch/Somalian feminist, political activist and outspoken defender of women’s rights in traditional Islamic societies. Ayaan’s father was a leading figure in the Somalian Revolution, and with him she spent her youth in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Ayaan’s experiences in her youth are common tales of female asylum seekers around the world. She had the traditional procedure of female genital mutilation performed on her at the age of 5. She spent time in refugee camps in order to help relatives that were trapped there. In 1992, her father arranged for her to marry a distant cousin. Hirsi Ali dreaded being forced to submit to a stranger, and spent her time desperately trying to devise a way to escape the impending marriage. She eventually told her family she was visiting a relative in the Netherlands, but upon arrival she claimed political asylum.
Living in the Netherlands opened Hirsi Ali’s world to new information and new moral systems not based on religion. In 2000 she gained a degree in political science at Leiden University, while working as an interpreter, often coming into contact with Somali women in asylum centres and hostels for battered women. Hirsi Ali became a member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006, wherein she worked on furthering the integration of non-Western immigrants into Dutch society and defending the rights of women in Dutch Muslim society. Ayaan eventually renounced Islam and became an atheist in 2002, thereafter becoming a vocal advocate against Sharia law and violence against women propagated by religious and cultural values.
Due to her beliefs, Hirsi Ali became the subject of death threats even before her political career. After writing the script and providing a voice-over for Submission, a film produced by Theo van Gogh, which criticised the treatment of women in traditionalist Islamic society, she was forced into hiding. Van Gogh was murdered for his role in the film, and a letter that served primarily as a death threat to Hirsi Ali was pinned to his chest with a knife. Even in the face of danger, Hirsi Ali has continued to speak publically and use her prominence to further the debate over the rights of women.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a controversial figure, subject to both criticism and praise. Whatever you’re opinions on Hirsi Ali’s arguments, she remains a brave woman who is willing to speak out on taboo subjects.
[youtube width=”600″ height=”365″ video_id=”AgkiNw98N8I”]
This video is an interview with Ayaan about the film submission and why she continues to be outspoken.
Dr. Hawa Abdi By Ashleigh Peplow Ball
Three women that inspire me are Dr. Hawa Abdi, and her daughters Dr. Deqo Mohamed and Dr. Amina Mohamed. I stumbled across Dr. Abdi and her daughters one morning when I was enjoying my daily TED Talk inspiration over breakfast. These three women are strong, compassionate and selfless. To me, Dr. Abdi and her daughters capture everything International Women’s Day is about: celebrating the biologically coded characteristics of women that make us so caring, loving and scarily passionate.
In 1983, Dr. Abdi opened a one-room clinic in her family farm in Somalia to help people who were in desperate need of care. Today, Dr. Abdi and her two daughters run a camp that houses 90 000 displaced people. Somalia is a nation that is mostly ignored by the international community. Most charities and aid workers deem it too dangerous to enter, and state leaders consider it a failed state beyond repair. Dr. Abdi and her daughters have shown fearlessness and courage beyond anything imaginable, to provide education, health care, a sustainable source of food and work opportunities for 90,000 Somalian people.
If you have 8 minutes to spare, I encourage you to watch the TED talk. If you want to hear more about this incredible family of women, Dr. Abdi has just released a book, titled ‘Keeping Hope Alive’.
Hillary Rodham Clinton By Sophie Saunder
Hillary Clinton is at the forefront of female politicians in the United States and serves as an inspiration for women across the globe that politics isn’t restricted to men. Having been First Lady from 1993 to 2001, Senator for New York from 2001 to 2009 and the United States Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, Hillary has achieved such a significant amount politically in her lifetime and is still continuing to strive for so much more.
Hillary worked as a lawyer before joining her husband, former President Bill Clinton in politics. Men dominate the American political world and few women opt into braving it, or struggle to attain the votes necessary to do so. Hillary is an exception to both of these perils for women in politics, she is strong, resilient and possesses a great deal of intelligence, and the combination of these three characteristics has earned her great respect from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Although her bid to become the Democrat candidate for President fell short, Hillary took this on the chin and forged on to support the victor, Barack Obama, and became his Secretary of State. In this role, she has heavily advocated for women’s rights across the globe, putting this high on her agenda in each country she visited. This included visiting a woman’s cooperative farm in Tanzania and meeting with women in Afghanistan. While visiting Beijing, Hillary famously stated, “Human rights are women’s rights. Women’s rights are human rights”. According to Kim Ghattas who was part of Hillary’s Secretary of State travelling press corps, Hillary went “very methodically and very relentlessly” about working for women’s rights.
Hillary is an inspiration that women can have a voice in politics too. She should serve as an example to women in Western nations that despite men dominating the political world, they can fight against this and truly make a difference for women in their own country, as well as around the world.
The following video is an excerpt of Hillary’s speech at the U.N. Women’s Conference Beijing (September 5, 1995), which she delivered while she was First Lady.
Somaly Mam By Remmy Clay
Born into extreme poverty and chaos in Cambodia in the 1970’s, orphan Somaly Mam craved finding her real family and had little hope for her future. At a young age, a man claiming to be her grandfather sold her into sexual slavery. She grew up working in a brothel, suffering abuse, humiliation and rape on a daily basis.
After witnessing a close friend murdered, Somaly showed true courage and fled, taking her life into her own hands. Where most people would run and never look back, she vowed never to forget those she had left behind. Somaly has rebuilt her life and dedicated it to saving others. She created the Cambodian NGO, Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire, devoted to the rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration of girls forced into prostitution. She has opened shelters, organised raids on brothels, and put pressure on international bodies to bring justice against perpetrators and end the cycle. She believes rehabilitation is key for these girls and takes them in has her own.
Somaly says her strength to carry on comes from love. She believes that love is able to mend even the deepest, unseen wounds. Always thinking of others before herself, she quotes in her book, The Road of Lost Innocence, “My story doesn’t matter, except that it stands for their story too, and their stories are why I don’t sleep at night.” She shares her stories, and provides hope for survivors. Proving your past does not define your future; she is a true inspiration for thousands of women.
Malala Yousafazi By Maggie Munn
As I write this, communities across the world are celebrating International Women’s Day. As they celebrate, many of them are doing so to pay homage to the women who inspire them on a daily basis. When I think about the women who inspire me, I think of my mum, Rosa Parks, my sisters, Hillary Clinton, my aunties, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Annie Lennox, and Malala Yousafazi. These women have influenced my life and made me passionate to fight for what is right, and stand up for my beliefs. Every single one of these women have made a stand against injustice, and created a flawless example of how to lead with dignity, grace and courage.
If I were to narrow it down to one particular woman who has recently made a significant impact on my life it would be Malala Yousafazi. At the tender age of 16, Malala is a passionate and perseverant women’s rights activist and equal education advocate. Already in her young life, she has received many international awards and accolades for her determination to promote peace and harmony, and most recently has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. For me, her achievements and her struggle to obtain them, serve as a reminder that what is right is never easy. Her dignity, grace and hunger for justice motivates me to make a stand, fight for what I believe in, and not stop until I have made a difference. Through everything Malala has suffered, and the hatred and ridicule she has been subjected to, she still provides a beacon of hope for women everywhere that so long as people like her never stop fighting for what is right, there will be justice in the world.
Simone De Beauvoir By Nicholas Kavass
While today we have Kanye and Kim Kardashian, the celebrity power couple of 1960s France was Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir. Together, they travelled the world as rebels with many causes and through their writing, forged the philosophical tract of existentialism, which inspired a post-war cultural youth movement throughout Europe, and established them as household names. De Beauvoir famously rejected the conventions of marriage and motherhood. However, despite a lifelong relationship with one of the most famous thinkers of the 20th century, De Beauvoir was not merely a feminine companion. She stood alone as a feminist icon, political activist and revolutionary thinker.
The Second Sex is De Beauvoir’s masterwork. It is the foundational work of the modern feminist movement and, fifty years later, the indelible legacy it has left undoubtedly rivals, and perhaps supersedes, that of Sartre. Drawing from existentialism, De Beauvoir posits that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” and prescribes a moral revolution to overthrow the social construction of ‘Woman’. According to De Beauvoir, men have entrenched women as the deviant or abnormal ‘Other’ through politics, philosophy and theology. Following a comprehensive expose detailing the systematic denigration of women throughout history, it is asserted that women are as existentially ‘free’ and as capable of choice as men. Therefore, if women choose this freedom, thereby relinquishing their historical dependence on man, they can transcend this socially constructed oppression and take responsibility for oneself.
Over half a century later, De Beauvoir’s philosophical insights are as fresh as ever and will undoubtedly inspire men and women for generations to come… perhaps even Kim and Kanye.
Here is an excerpt from De Beauvoir’s feminist bible The Second Sex:
Society in general – beginning with her respected parents – lies to her by praising the lofty values of love, devotion, the gift of herself, and then concealing from her the fact that neither lover nor husband nor yet her children will be inclined to accept the burdensome charge of all that. She cheerfully believes these lies because they invite her to follow the easy slope: in this others commit their worst crime against her; throughout her life from childhood on, they damage and corrupt her by designating as her true vocation this submission, which is the temptation of every existent in the anxiety of liberty. If a child is taught idleness by being amused all day long and never being led to study, or shown its usefulness, it will hardly be said, when he grows up, that he chose to be incapable and ignorant; yet this is how woman is brought up, without ever being impressed with the necessity of taking charge of her own existence.