Woman Warrior #31: Lili Elbe
Lili Elbe was a Danish transgender woman and among the early documented recipients of gender reassignment surgery. In fact, Lili Elbe, birth name Einar Wegener, was assigned male at birth, experienced what is now called gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is the feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics. Some think she may have had Klinefelter Syndrome (the presence of two or more X chromosomes in addition to the Y chromosome) but the destruction of medical records leaves these questions unanswered.
Born Einar Wegener, Elbe lived nearly her whole life as a man. Beginning early in the first decade of the 20th century, Elbe (then Wegener) studied art at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine and she was a successful landscape painter under that name. According to the book she actually wrote (under the pseudonym Niels Hoyer) she realized her true gender identity while posing as a woman for Gerda whom she met at the university and marry few months later. Gerda was a successful art deco illustrator and also a painter known for her slightly erotic. Fascinated by the “beauty standards” and the “image of the female beauty” , Gerda encouraged her husband, to pose for her as a woman. This is how Gerda’s journey through feminity began. During this time, she also presented as Lili and was introduced publicly as Einar’s sister. The young man fall very rapidly for this new personality and started to notice its very own uncomfort with his biological constraints. Increasingly frustrated with her status, Einar sold many of her paintings in order to finance a series of pioneering gender reassignment operations.
In 1930, Elbe went to Germany for gender reassignment surgery, which was highly experimental at the time. A series of four operations were carried out over a period of two years. After successfully transitioning, she changed her legal name to Lili Ilse Elvenes. The name Lili Elbe was given to her by Copenhagen journalist Louise Lassen. Elbe began a relationship with French art dealer Claude Lejeune, whom she wanted to marry and to found a family. She was looking forward to her final surgery involving a uterus transplant. Although she had accomplished her personal mission to physically become a woman, it was hard for other people to accept her new body. Consequently, Lili felt rejected by many of her contemporaries. One year later, following an unsuccessful final operation, the transgender woman passed away due to post-operative complications in Dresden, Germany at the age of 48.
Lili’s life was brought to the big screen in the 2015 movie “The Danish Girl” with Eddie Redmayne starring as her.
Woman Warrior #30: Sarah Hegazi
Sarah Hegazi is the embodiment of freedom of expression and resistance, she was an Egyptian gay feminist and activist. Sarah Hegazi is our woman warrior n°30. In Cairo, on September 22, 2017, Hegazi was attending a concert by the Lebanese alternative rock group Mashrou Leila, Sarah raised the rainbow flag of the LGBTQIA+ community. Her action was in defiance of the queerphobic laws in Egypt. Her picture holding the flag proudly and cheerfully was shared on social media.
In a subsequent interview with Deutsche Welle, Hegazi had mentioned that at that moment of liberation “I was declaring myself in a society that hates everything that is different from the norm.”
After her act of rebellion, Sarah and 74 others were arrested and detained. Sarah remained in detention for more than 12 weeks. During her detention, she went through different types of torture by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime. She was physically and sexually assaulted also tortured by electric shocks. Egypt does not explicitly prohibit homosexuality, but it is punishable by prison sentences for “debauchery”, “incitement to debauchery”, “offending public morality and sensibility”, “violation of religious teachings” or “propaganda of depraved morality and ideas” which are regularly used to prosecute LGBTQI people.
Sarah was charged with promoting debauchery and joining an illegal organization that threatens public and societal peace. When Sarah was released pending trial after being in a psychiatric hospital for post-traumatic stress disorder she found out that she was fired from her job and that her family rejected her. “The prison killed me,” Sarah Hegazi said in an interview. Two years later, Hegazi sought asylum in Canada. Her testimony after she left the prison was censored by the Egyptian authorities. Later on, when she was in Canada, Sarah wrote “The officer blindfolded me in the vehicle that drove me to an unknown location. Coming down the stairs, I smelled a foul odor and heard screams of pain. I was seated in a chair with my hands tied behind my back and a piece of cloth in my mouth. Shortly after, I felt seizures in my body and then passed out. I was electrocuted. I was threatened with harming my mother if I mentioned it. My mother died some time after I left. […] Then as if the electrocution had not been enough, the police officers incited the other inmates to me.”
Hegazi suffered from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic attacks. She attempted suicide twice. Sarah was struggling with the repercussions of her experience, she wrote “I haven’t forgotten the injustice that left a black hole in my soul and left it bleeding, a wound that doctors have not yet been able to heal.”
As mentioned in an article devoted to Sarah Hegazi by Radio Canada, Hegazi wanted to go back to Egypt and continue the fight against discrimination, Western imperialism, and capitalism. Hegazi committed suicide on the 13th of Juin 2020. Sarah Hegazi left one last handwritten word in Arabic before taking her own life:
“To my brothers and sisters:
I tried to find salvation … but I failed; forgive me,
To my friends:
The ordeal is hard and I am too weak to face it; excuse me,
To the world:
You were extremely cruel but I forgive you.”
In 2018, Hegazi wrote: “Anyone who is different, anyone who is not a heterosexual, Sunni, Muslim, and male who supports the ruling regime is considered prosecutable, impure or dead.” And again, on March 6, 2020: «In Egypt every person who is not male, Muslim, Sunni, straight and supporter of the system, is rejected, repressed, stigmatized, arrested, exiled or killed. All this is linked to the patriarchal system as a whole since the state cannot practice its own repression against its citizens without pre-existing oppression that begins in childhood ». Politically, Hegazi accused not only the Abdel Fattah al Sisi regime but also the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, and extremists in general: “In the end, they agreed with the ruling power: they had the same position towards us. They agreed on violence, hatred, prejudice, and persecution. Maybe they are two sides of the same coin. We have only found a hand in civil society, which has done its job despite the oppressive restrictions of the state on its activities.”
The death of Hegazi was tragic but Hegazi will always live in our hearts. Her courage and rebellion will always empower us to continue the fight for LGTQI+ rights.
Woman Warrior #29: Ahed Tamimi
An icon of Palestinian resistance, Ahed Tamimi, was born on January 31, 2001 in the town of Nabi Saleh, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Al-Tamimi comes from a family known for their struggle against the decades-long Israeli occupation. Ahed was only 8 years old when she became a symbol of the popular resistance as she participated in the weekly march in the village, showing no fear of the occupation forces and has been called the “Rosa Parks of Palestine.”
She received prominent media coverage internationally when in December 2017, she slapped and kicked two Israeli soldiers in the courtyard of her house. The video quickly went viral. And the young activist has turned into an idol of the struggle against the occupation of the Palestinian Territories. While she was in prison, an international campaign was made demanding her release. Several of her family members, including parents and brothers, have been repeatedly arrested by Israeli forces for their opposition to Israel’s invasion of Palestinian lands.
Since her early years, al-Tamimi, has participated in weekly protests in her town against Israeli occupation and settlement building in the occupied territories. During these rallies, the Palestinian woman used to confront and yell at Israeli soldiers in a show of courage against occupation troops. Ahed herself said: “Your imprisonment is torture in itself, to take away your liberty, your right to go out and play like any child. We only want to live a peaceful life. My dream is to become a football player. But the occupation prevents the children from being children.” She says that resistance is the only option for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation as any Palestinian starts resisting Israeli occupation from birth.
Al-Tamimi has taken part in several pro-Palestine conferences and festivals at home and abroad, most notably in Turkey, France, and South Africa. In one of her interviews, she insisted that “We inherit the revolution. Palestinians see themselves as fighters for liberty, not victims. So I hope that you too can see us as fighters for liberty.”
In 2012, Istanbul’s Basaksehir Municipality granted al-Tamimi the prestigious Hanzala Courage Award for defying Israeli soldiers who had just arrested her brother. Furthermore, a book based on her life story called “Ahed Tamimi: A girl who fought back” written by Paul Morris, Paul Heron, Peter Lahti, and Ahed Tamimi’s aunt, Manal Tamimi, was released in 2018.
However, Ahed Tamimi, has been discreet since her release from prison in July 2018, after eight months in detention for breach of authority.
Woman Warrior #28: Dior Vargas
Dior is a 33-year old Latina Feminist Mental Health Activist with Ecuadorian, Italian and Puerto Rican roots. She was born and raised in New York City. She was named one of the “15 Remarkable Women of Color Who Rocked 2015”. Dior holds a B.S. in the Study of Women and Gender from Smith College, a Masters in Publishing and a Master’s in Public Health Policy from NYU. She has consulted with several colleges, universities, organizations, and businesses over the years to address self-care, health, and other issues. She shares her life experience to support, educate and inspire others and is committed to normalizing mental health discourse. Dior travels around the country giving keynote speeches, organizing workshops, and participating in panel discussions.
Dior was diagnosed with major depressive disorder for the first time in high school. A few years later, she was diagnosed with anxiety, and more recently, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She speaks about the stigma around mental health within her family: “There was this idea that mental illness is a white person’s disease and that one would have to be privileged (which we were not) to take time out of their day and pay someone to talk about their problems. Or rather, complain about what’s going on in their life. It made me feel like this was something only I was going through, and that my problems were a sign of weakness. Because of that, while attempting to end my life multiple times from the ages of 8 to 18, I didn’t utter a word to anyone. I didn’t want to be a burden.”
Tired of feeling unfocused, Dior decided to concentrate more on mental health in 2013. She wanted to do some research on mental wellbeing to begin the process of telling her story. She quickly realized while doing online research that mental health is a very whitewashed subject. And famous individuals or actors who are listed as having mental illnesses are mostly, if not entirely, white.
In response to the “invisibility of people of color in media representations of mental illness”, Dior wanted to help change the representation of mental illness. In September 2014, she started the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project with her own photos and stories. People were asked to share the project and submit their photos. When reflecting back on it she says “It comes to no surprise that asking strangers to share their experiences with mental illness online is difficult given that mental health is very stigmatized.” Thanks to this project, a sense of community and safe space to discuss mental health was built amongst participants and communities of color.
Woman Warrior #27: Arora Akanksha
Arora Akanksha is a 34-year-old Indian-Canadian audit coordinator at the UN. She announced her candidacy to challenge incumbent UN Secretary-General António Guterres in the 2021 United Nations leadership election. She is the first woman and first millennial candidate for the position and the first known candidate to challenge an incumbent. If selected, Arora would be the youngest-ever and first female Secretary-General of the UN in its 76-year history.
Arora comes from a family of refugees. She was born in India, raised in India and Saudi Arabia and settled in Canada. She was hired by the current Secretary-General António Guterres to serve on the UN’s financial reforms in 2017. Prior to that she was a manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) Toronto, she was the youngest audit professor at University of Toronto at the age of 28 teaching audit at master’s level. She wrote audit standards for Canada and internationally. She wrote audit guides on campaign financing for Elections Canada.
Arora publicly announced her unprecedented campaign to run for Secretary-General on Feb 9, 2021. She is running because she believes the UN can fulfill its promise to the world and make the UN work for everyone.
Woman Warrior #26: Ada Lovelace
Ada was at first called Ada Gordon and was the only child of one of Britain’s elite couples, Lord and Lady Byron. However, that really means nothing because neither did the marriage last long or did Ada grow up in a loving, united family. Her mother raised her all alone, and made sure she didn’t see her father after she knew that he committed an incest with his own sister. She was also afraid that her daughter might turn out to be like her father, especially after an encounter with her private tutor. She therefore focused on teaching her science and mathematics and tried as much as possible to tame her love for poetry.
When Ada was still very young, she was already fascinated with engineering, design, and naturally eager to make new toys herself. She would make designs of boats and steam engines and would look at the industrial era machines for inspiration. When she was eight, and right after her dad passed away, Ada’s mother was in grief, and at the same time she just multiplied efforts to keep Ada away from her byronic tendencies. Following that, Anabelle encouraged Ada to fully immerse herself in mathematics and brought the best manuals and teachers to help her for that endeavor. This dedication only sharpened Ada’s skills and intellect, resulting in making her an exceptional mathematician and programmer afterwards. This encouragement from her mother not only helped Ada in shaping her future as an established scientist, but also provided a model and mentor for upcoming female scientists afterwards for generations to come.
Ada was a lifelong learner, fascinated with machinery in general and breakthrough inventions since her very early upbringings, as we mentioned before. However, one particular machine, which Charles Babbage made, as an early prototype of modern-day computers was “the analytical engine” fascinated her even more. IIn fact, his designs and breakthrough idea gained in popularity around 1842 when the italian mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea published an article in French about the machine, right after attending one of Babbage’ lectures. However, the paper didn’t really illustrate the functionalities of the Analytical Engine; so Ada came along. Following that, Lovelace worked closely with Babbage himself, and therefore wrote a detailed report translated to english, where she added her own annotations and great ideas about the intended design.
She explored how the machine could manipulate numerical input and make it into abstract notions like symbols; and she also tackled a computer program that would allow the machine to calculate Bernoulli numbers; which was really a breakthrough no one thought about before. Although Babbage himself had previously talked about some general programs for his invention, the ones Ada made were by far the most detailed ever published, earning her the title of “the first computer programmer” in history. Her unique ability to connect the logical and practical aspect to the abstract (which Lovelace referred to as “poetical science”) allowed Ada to develop the possibilities for a computer and contributed to the design of the Analytical Engine even more than its own inventor.
Given Lovelace’s incredible contributions to the field of technology, her work remains discredited and downplayed by some modern scholars. There are two main arguments for this: the first being that Lovelace struggled with calculus (and therefore would not have the logical capability to develop the algorithms within her annotations), and the second is that Lovelace’s annotations were actually misattributed to her with Babbage being the original author.
To say or claim that all Ada Lovelace work was Babbage’ work or that he had helped her out with all of the math isn’t unreasonable, but it’s something that Babbage himself didn’t take credit for. Furthermore, if Ada hadn’t been the one to write the Bernoulli annotations, how could she have ever “detected a grave mistake” on Babbage’ end? Critical thinking and peer review are both critical components for an engineer’s job description, which therefore means that Ada Lovelace by all accounts was a great engineer and programmer, a phenomenal one really! Given the evidence, attempts to argue against that can really be traced to deeply-rooted misogyny.
This is clearly not to say that Ada was discredited by many in the modern society. Nowadays, she is indeed widely viewed as a symbol for women’s contributions to STEM, many of which face similar criticisms as Lovelace’s work has. She gained a huge popularity among scholars for her contributions. Indeed, each second Tuesday of October, the date commemorate the female scientist contributions, and officially designated as Ada Lovelace’ Day. This day celebrates the achievements and contributions she made to the computer, to our lives, and how she pioneered a new era for women in science fields or STEM in general and was a major figure in that designated area of expertise.
Woman Warrior #25: Gisèle Halimi
Gisèle Halimi devoted her life to fighting for women’s rights. She is an ardent lawyer, author and feminist. She was brave and rebellious from a very young age. When she was ten years old, she decided to go on a hunger strike for approximately ten days in order to persuade her father to let her read and not adhere to traditional religious practices. She called this episode in one of her books “Her first feminist victory.” In addition to her political and legal careers, Halimi was also a distinguished feminist author. She wrote various books concerning the causes she was advocating.
As a lawyer, Halimi was constantly denouncing injustices and seeking justice for victims. Her cases constituted a landmark and enabled the changing of french laws and the improvement of women’s legal situation. Halimi made her name as a lawyer by defending militants and activists from the Algerian national movement (FLN). In 1960, she defended Djamila Boupacha, an Algerian woman of 22 years old, who was brutally raped and tortured by French soldiers. Djamila was sentenced to death by the French court, but she was later freed in 1962 when Algeria was no longer under french custody. Halimi wrote her first book, entitled “Djamila Boupacha” (1962), in which she was pleading the case of the young Algerian woman who was a survivor of rape.
She played a key role in the decriminalization of abortion in France. She earned national fame by fiercely defending a teenage girl who was on trial because she had an abortion after rape. Through this landmark case, Halimi fought for women’s rights to get an abortion, which was illegal in France, except when the mother’s life is in danger. Therefore, the minor Marie-Claire Chevalier was declared innocent, and the trial helped in the abolishment of this unjust law.
Halimi managed to mobilize public opinion to pave the way toward a decriminalization of abortion. She was also a prominent signatory of the 1971 Manifesto 343, signed by 343 women who had illicit, illegal abortions. This Manifesto significantly contributed to the decriminalization of voluntary pregnancy terminations, and the law was finally dropped in 1975 with the Veil Law. She founded the association for the right to abortion “Choisir la cause des femmes” along with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre.
In 1978, she represented two women whom three men raped. This emblematic trial significantly contributed to the adoption of a new law that recognizes rape as a crime. Halimi’s work and leadership helped strengthen France’s laws against rape and led to the abolishment of the death penalty. Until the end of her life, she remained loyal to her ideals and convictions, and she never committed the crime of silence. She will always remain a compass that guides us in our future struggles.
Woman Warrior #24: bell hooks
Bell hooks, pseudonym of Gloria Jean Watkins, was born in 1952, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, U.S., Hooks adopted her pseudonym, the name of her great-grandmother, to honor female legacies. She decided not to capitalize her new name in order to put emphasis on her work and ideas rather than her name.
Gloria is an American feminist scholar and activist whose work tackled the link between class and gender in society. She investigated the varied perceptions of Black women and Black women writers and the development of feminist identities. Her father, Veodis Watkins, was a janitor for the local post office, and her mother, Rosa Bell Watkins was at home raising Gloria and her six siblings.
Watkins grew up in a segregated community of the American South. She attended Stanford University on scholarship. She graduated in 1973 and went to The University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she received a Master’s degree in English literature in 1976. In 1983, she obtained her Ph.D. at the University of California-Santa Cruz.
Unsatisfied by the lack of interest in race issues by white women scholars and gender issues by black male scholars, she wrote her first major book at the age of 19, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, which was published in 1981. It was a tremendously influential book and remains a fundamental text in feminist literature. In this book, she focused on the intersection of race, sex, and class at the core of black women’s life, arguing that racism and sexism began with slavery which rendered black women the most tyrannized and marginalized group in American society. In the 1980s hooks created a support group for black women called the Sisters of the Yam, which she later used as the title of a book, published in 1993, celebrating Black sisterhood. In 1989, she published Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, which was dedicated to the impact of white imperialist, patriarchal domination in daily life.
She taught English and ethnic studies at the University of Southern California from the mid-1970s, African and Afro-American studies at Yale University during the ’80s, women’s studies at Oberlin College and English at the City College of New York during the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2004 she became a professor in residence at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. The bell hooks Institute was founded at the college in 2014.
Thus far, bell has published over 30 books exploring subjects such as race, gender, class, education, the role of the media in contemporary culture and how these topics intersect to produce systems of oppression and authority. Hooks is one of the most important intellectuals and writers of her generation. She will always remain a vital voice in the feminist movement and one of modern culture’s leading thinkers and authors.
Woman Warrior #23: Olympe de Gouges
As we’re coming into the end of this special Women’s History Month, it’s impossible to not talk about one of the pioneers of the feminist movement but that also was involved in the fight for slavery’s abolition, you surely guessed right, today we’re talking about Olympe de Gouges.
Olympe de Gouges was born in Montauban on May 7, 1784. She was involved in politics and literature, she was the writer of “la Declaration des droits de la femme et de la Citoyenne”, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen as an objection to the “Declaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen”, the Declaration of Men’s/ Human’s Rights and the Citizen, a juridical sacralized text till today in french society to assure the equality of human’s rights. Contrary to what we could assume, the French Revolution was not an amazing phase for women’s rights and gender equality, even if there has been some little achievement. In the 18th century, women saw themselves more and more limited when the Penal and Civil Code was created, as many laws required the husband permission for every step a woman could take, and penally speaking women were more sanctioned than men for committing the same infractions, especially regarding adultery and crimes where the woman would always take a bigger sanction than a man’s one. Additionally, to go to court and to defend herself, a woman would need her husband or her father’s permission.
Olympe de Gouges wrote this Declaration to Queen Mari- Antoniette to prove to the world that women can have a huge involvement in civil society and politics and also to explain why slavery should be abolished. Olympe de Gouges believed that gender equality was something that was in the heart of natural rights accepted, but that the society chose to ignore.
Olympe de Gouge was guillotined on November 3rd, 1783, as she chose to be free in a patriarchal world and fought on the behalf of the hope for an equal world, that’s why in our everyday life we should remember those women warriors that through history spent and even gave their own life to make our fight against patriarchy a little bit easier to build.
Woman Warrior #22: Rosa Parks
When we say civil rights movement without doubt we say Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks the mother of civil rights movement and the embodiment of resistance and rebelliousness is our Woman Warrior n°22. Rosa Parks triggered the civil rights movement in the United States when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955.
Alabama was ruled by segregation laws where policies for municipal buses were infamous. White citizens only were allowed to sit in the front, and black men and women had to sit in the back. On December 1st, no more seats were left in the white section, the bus conductor told the four African American riders to stand and give the white man a whole row. Three obeyed, Parks, our woman warrior, refused. “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true,” Parks said in her 1992 book, Rosa Parks: My Story. “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Parks was consequently arrested. She was released on bail later that evening but her actions sparked a wave of protests across the United States. The next day, Martin Luther King proposed a citywide boycott against racial segregation on the public transportation system. African Americans stopped using the system for 381 days. It was a very effective method to tackle the issue. In June 1956, a federal court ruled that laws calling for buses to be segregated were unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually agreed.
The Montgomery bus boycott was one of the first major movements that kicked off social change during the civil rights movement. At that time, coexisting with white people in a city governed by “Jim Crow” segregation laws was a burden. Black people had the right to only attend certain schools, could drink only from specified water fountains and could borrow books only from the “Black” library, among other restrictions.
Most people don’t know that the 1955 event, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, wasn’t the first time she’d clashed with driver James Blake. Parks rode his bus 12 years earlier, paid her fare at the front, then refused to commit to the law that specifies the rule that ensures that “black” people have to disembark and re-enter through the back door. She stood her ground until Blake pulled her coat sleeve and asked for her cooperation. Parks left the bus rather than give in.
Rosa Louise McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913. Parks moved to Alabama at age 11, and attended a laboratory school at the Alabama State Teachers’ College for Negroes, until she had to leave in 11th grade to care for her ill grandmother. In 1932, at 19, she married Raymond Parks, a self-educated man who was a long-time member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He backed Rosa in her efforts to earn her high-school diploma, which she eventually did the following year.
In December 1943, Rosa joined the NAACP and became chapter secretary. She worked closely with chapter president Edgar Daniel (E.D.) Nixon. In 1987, she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, to aid Detroit’s youth. After her retirement, Parks traveled to provide support to civil-rights events and causes and wrote an autobiography, “Rosa Parks: My Story.” She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, the highest honor the United States bestows on a civilian. Parks died at age 92 on October 24, 2005, she became the first woman in the nation’s history to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol. Rosa Parks will always be the symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end entrenched racial segregation.
Woman Warrior #21: Ursula von der Leyen
Ursula von der Leyen, a German politician for 29 years and a physician, was the first woman to serve as Germany’s minister of Defense in 2013, and the first woman to lead the European Union starting from 2019.Born in 1958 in Brussels of a European civil servant, she spent her first 13 years in Brussels and was bred there. After getting her Abitur in 1976, she studied economics in the universities of Göttingen and Münster as well as at the London School of Economics, and graduated in 1978 from the latter. Starting from 1980, she undertook medical studies at the Hanover Medical School of Germany and worked as a physician afterwards. In 1992, she moved to the United States to study economics in Stanford University and spent 4 years in there. Having been a member of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) since 1990, she became an active member in 1996 after her return to Germany, prior to her election in 2004 as a member of the party’s leadership committee. In 2005, she was appointed as a minister of Family affairs, senior citizens, women, and youth. And in 2009, she became Minister of Labor and Social Affairs and very quickly made her mark on the political and societal landscape, overturning the classic family model – mainly promoted by her own party – with a proactive family policy (14 months parental leave with a parental allowance and massive increase in childcare places for children between one and three years old). Making a name for herself as a progressive reformer dragged her party to modernity. Since then, she has regularly taken up subjects that have triggered heated debates (censorship of pages that are net at risk for children, revision of the amounts of social assistance for families or discussions about quotas for women in the economic world).
In 2013, von der Leyen became the first woman to hold the Federal Ministry of Defense in Germany, where she faced multiple challenges such as the Crimea crisis in 2014, and the Refugee crisis in 2015 during which she opposed the anti-immigration efforts and highlighted the distinction between refugees and terrorists.In 2019, when the term of Jean Claude Juncker came to an end, the European council had to select his replacement. When the negotiations ended up fruitless, Ursula emerged unexpectedly as a compromise presidential nominee (Spitzenkandidaten process), and she was narrowly confirmed, receiving 383 of 747 votes (with 374 needed), to be the first female president of the European commission since Walter Hallstein in 1958.
Her vision for the European Union consists of making Europe in the forefront of everything, from human rights to climate change, and supercomputing. Her position when it comes to the big issues, is quite progressive. In her first state of union speech as a commissioner, she spoke out against anti-LGBTQ policies in Poland. As for Climate change, within only few days of taking office, she promised a “European Green Deal”. And while selecting her team, she ensured gender balance by including 12 women at the top table. Topping this with the launch of The Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 in order to achieve concrete progress on gender equality in Europe.
During the pandemic, her response was assessed to be innovative and bold, and when the vaccine was ready, she made sure to lead her commission to ensure corona-virus immunization not only for the EU, but also for developing countries, all while making sure the outbreak does not distract her from the ambitious European project.This inspiring woman whose start in politics was late, was able to ascend to the EU’s top job and one of the most difficult missions in the world, being responsible for legislation affecting 700 million Europeans, and was entitled to be nominated by Forbes as the 4th most powerful woman in 2020, as well as our Woman Warrior #21.
Woman Warrior #20: Norma Merrick Sklarek
“No.” This is what Rosa Parks said when she refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, on December 1st, 1955. We all acknowledge the famous story of this civil rights activist, but do we actually realize how many Rosa Parks exist ? In each particular field, African-American women did have to fight for their own rights, especially in predominately white male professions. Today’s woman warrior is one of them : Norma Merrick Sklarek or most commonly known as the “ Rosa Parks of architecture.”
Norma Merrick Sklarek distinguished herself by being the first black woman to obtain a licence to practice architecture in the United States of America. Indeed, in 1954 (four years after graduating from the University of Columbia), she decided to take the licensing architecture examination of the state of New York, since she was facing relentless racism and discrimination in her search for a job in an architecture firm. She had been rejected by a dozen of firms : “ They weren’t hiring women or African Americans, and I didn’t know which it was ” she confessed to a local newspaper back in 2004. But our warrior of the day did not stop there, and in 1962, she also became the first African -American woman licensed as an architect in California. From there, she kept rising and gaining more distinction in the architectural world. Indeed, in 1966, she managed to reach the position of agency director, which was a first in such a closed environment.
The consistent prejudice and patriarchal mindset that was leading in that time pushed her out of her comfort zone. She never settled for less and in 1985, she co-founded an architecture firm (Siegel Sklarek Diamond) with two other women : Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond. Once again she was the very first black woman to co-own an architecture firm. In this only-old-boys network, being a women was “ as rare in Los Angeles as buildings taller than the 27-story City Hall ” stated the Los Angeles Times in 1986. Moreover, not only was she a pioneer at that time but she also gently opened and paved the way for a whole generation of young women and architecture enthusiasts. In fact, Siegel Sklarek Diamond became – in addition to the largest architecture agency run exclusively by women – the company that hired the most women in the United States of America.
Through her work, she advocates a building conception which is totally detached from the ego of the architect and which strives to address and improve the existing social issues. In the 90’s she devoted her time to teaching at Howard University and also Columbia, hoping to encourage young racialized women to obtain their license. She spent the end of her life trying to mentor and provide the guidance she was never granted with. Her dedication was not vain since to this day, the Howard University still offers the Norma Merrick Sklarek Architectural Scholarship Award for young architects of color. The hope of being the role model she never had is basically what pushes her to fight and overcome racism and sexism : “ In architecture, I had absolutely no role model. I’m happy today to be a role model for others that follow.” It is for sure that her talent, tenacity and passion still empower and inspire many young female architects.
Woman Warrior #19: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
“Justice is about making sure that being polite is not the same thing as being quiet. In fact, oftentimes, the most righteous thing you can do is shake the table.” was one of the most influential quotes that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez included in her speech in the 2019 Women’s March in New York City.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or, as most people prefer to call her, AOC, has been distinguished as the youngest woman to serve in the United States Congress as she took office at age 29. On June 26, 2018, she won the Democratic Party’s primary election for New York’s 14th congressional district which serves specific regions in the Bronx and Queens. It is important to note that in this election, she beat out Joseph Crowley who served for 10 years before AOC took his spot. Her success was, largely, thanks to how much she has been active on Social Media which heavily contributed to her national recognition.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born on October 13, 1989, in the New York City borough of the Bronx. Her father, born in the Bronx as well in a Puerto Rico family, was an architect and her mother was a house cleaner. After her high school graduation, she started her university journey at Boston University with a major in International Relations and Economics. During her college experience, she became an intern in the U.S. senator Ted Kennedy’s office in the department of foreign affairs and immigration issues. Finally, she graduated cum laude from Boston University in 2011. However, her father could not witness all of her University achievements as she lost him due to lung cancer in 2008 – when she was still a sophomore.
Upon her graduation, she has started working as a waitress and bartender to help her mother as she was fighting the foreclosure of their house. Nevertheless, after all of these obstacles that AOC has confronted, she has never ceased her efforts to achieve her dreams; later, she has launched Brook avenue press which is currently a publishing firm for books that highlighted the Bronx in a positive way.
Generally, politicians usually identify themselves as either Democrats or Socialists; however, AOC identifies herself as a Democratic Socialist as she is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). This identification points out that “both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few.” Ocasio-Cortez believes in several values and policies for which she is working consistently to achieve. Some of these policies include but are not limited to a tuition-free public college, Medicare for all, LGBTQ equality, and the Green New Deal. During recent years, for example, AOC has been working on proposals such as The Medicare-for-all proposal, which has been adopted by many Democratic 2020 presidential contenders, and the anti-poverty policy proposal that takes into consideration, when measuring poverty, the cost of childcare, healthcare, and new “necessities” such as Internet access.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s inspiring journey from her childhood to adulthood portrays how both determination and hard work leads to the concretization of individual or group’s dreams. Despite all of the obstacles that she has faced, she managed to reach the position that can allow her to fight for the values and policies she believes in and that is why she is our Woman Warrior #19.
Woman Warrior #18: Valentina Pitzalis
Our choice for Woman Warrior #18 is inspired by the 16 days of activism against gender based violence. Our Woman Warrior #18, Valentina Pitzalis is the epitome of gender based violence. For the last 9 years, Valentina has not only been suffering from the physical aftermath of her ex-husband’s attempt of murder but also from severe psychological torment caused by the trauma.
The story of Valentina, a young Sardinian woman, started on April 17, 2011, when she woke up in a hospital bed with a disfigured face, one hand amputated and the other severely damaged by the fire flames started by her husband, as indeed most of the rest of her body. But her agony started way before the day of the incident. It all started when her ex-husband convinced her to go to his apartment with the excuse of handing her some documents. When she entered the house he threw gasoline on her and set her on fire. Her ex-husband caught fire in his turn while Valentina after being burned for twenty minutes was rescued by the firefighters, but remains scarred for life. Not only she was suffering physically, she also was accused of killing her ex-husband. Disfigured throughout her life by her ex-husband who did not resign himself to the separation, she found herself under investigation for three years on charges of voluntary homicide. Valentina Pitzalis went from being the symbol of the fight against femicide to a suspect on the loose.
Not until recently she was freed from the accusations. The first of October marked an important day for everyone in Italy because of Valentina’s judicial case that has been ongoing for almost 10 years between debates and postponements which created a fuss. Valentina escaped an attempted fire attack by her ex-husband, but she did not receive any support from the society on the contrary she underwent an investigation with all that would entail from insults to shaming on social media. Valentina Pitzalis is woman warrior who was the victim of an attempted femicide that scarred her face and body and cost her an arm.
Valentina stated “It was an atrocious violence, in a cruel way, by the person who said he loved me. It’s hard to survive looking in the mirror without recognizing your own image. But what hurts me the most was losing self-sufficiency.” 9 years have passed since the tragic drama that marked her life. Today Valentina managed to find her smile again: “I consider myself a warning rather than an example, because I was lucky enough to survive…I had to fight against prejudice, parents often covered the eyes of their children in order not to frighten them, but nothing can take away my smile”.
Valentina suffered from a toxic relationship. Her ex-husband suffered from morbid jealousy, paranoia, and the need to maintain control over her. Once she decided to end their relationship, he kept on convincing her that he changed and he will treat her better but vain. Valentina Pitzalis spoke on a show and stated for the first time in 9 years after facing an attempted femicide that “During my marriage I experienced psychological violence without realizing it. I was blamed for the fact that I survived, because usually the victim dies. I was hoping to die because it hurt too much.”
In her book “Nobody can take away your smile” published in 2014, Valentina said these touching words “Valentina Pitzalis died on April 17, 2011. That day, my husband doused me with kerosene and set me on fire. That day the Valentina that I had always been, the pretty girl, full of life, prospects and dreams for the future, burned in the flames of a meaningless hell. I don’t know why all this happened to me. I have wondered too many times, just as I have repeated to myself, every day, that he was not a monster, but eventually what he did is a monstrous thing. But I know for sure that the person I am today is stronger than everything and everyone. I understood that in the face of hardships, in the face of tragedies like mine, what matters is finding the strength to react. I have chosen to react, I have chosen to live, I have chosen to be an example for those who believe that they don’t have the strength, because I … I cannot afford depression, not anymore. What gave me the strength to get here was the hope of being able to help all women who are going through, perhaps even without really realizing it, what I have been through. I am happy that I can only raise one hand, I am happy that my eyes have no lashes and brows, I am happy that my legs are covered with scars. Simply, sincerely, incredibly … I found the strength not to stop smiling and I’m happy to live! “
After years of physical and legal battles, now Valentina is free and perhaps now no one can really take away her smile away from her.
Woman Warrior #17: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man”. Whether you’re devoted to feminism or have been exposed even in the slightest bit to pop culture, it’s safe to say that you’ve probably come across a snippet of one of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most notable essays : “We Should All be Feminists.” For this week’s edition of Women Warriors, we will be taking a deep dive into the career of an author whose work has touched many lives through stories that transcends gender, race and class.
Born on September 15th in Enugu, Chimamanda has grown to become one of Africa’s most critically acclaimed authors, and to be even considered “the 21st-century daughter” of Chinua Achebe. The Nigerian writer was brought up in an Igbo family of eight that valued education, and after completing her secondary education at the University of Nigeria’s school with distinctions, Chimamanda pursued a medicine and pharmacy degree for a year and half before she left for the United States at the age of nineteen to study communication at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Two years later, she moved on to pursue a degree in communication and political science at Eastern Connecticut State University and graduated summa cum laude in 2001. She then completed her master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Chimamanda’s literary pursuit started much before her move to the United States. While still studying medicine and pharmacy, she simultaneously edited her university’s magazine The Compass, run by the Catholic medical student. She also used to write articles for the Campus Lantern journal at Eastern Connecticut State University.
Her first book Purple Hibiscus, which was published in 2003, was the fruit of years of labor as she started writing it during her senior year at Eastern University. This novel opened many opportunities for her as it was awarded the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book and was shortlisted for the Orange Fiction Prize in 2004. These opportunities took the shape of numerous fellowships in prestigious universities as well as other books she published such as Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) and Americanah (2013).
In addition to her well-received novels, Chimamanda has proven herself to be a great speaker. Her 2009 TED Talk The Danger of A Single Story is today one of the most watched TED Talks of all time. Not to mention of course her 2012 talk We Should All Be Feminists that ignited a worldwide discussion about feminism. With every novel and book, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie demonstrates the power that our own experiences and stories have and the impact they have on our perception of the world.
Woman Warrior #16: Benazir Bhutto
The American elections and Kamala Harris becoming the first female Vice President in the United States of America reminds us of the first female head of government in a Muslim Majority country. Benazir Bhutto Pakistan’s Iron Lady is our Woman Warrior #16.
Benazir Bhutto was born in Karachi on the 21st of June 1953. She was the daughter of Zulfikar Bhutto leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Bhutto studied for an undergraduate degree at Radcliffe College, Harvard University from 1969 to 1973. At Harvard, Bhutto majored in comparative government and graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts. In autumn 1973, she moved to the United Kingdom and started an undergraduate degree, in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. After three years, Benazir pursued a one-year postgraduate degree in international law and diplomacy at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. She returned to Pakistan in 1977, shortly before her father was overthrew in a military coup and executed. Alongside her mother, Bhutto took control of the PPP and led the country’s Movement for the Restoration of Democracy. She was repeatedly imprisoned by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military government and then exiled to Britain in 1984.
In 1987, Benazir returned to Pakistan and led the transformation of the PPP; from a socialist to a liberal one. Only a year after, the PPP won the elections. She served her first term as a Prime Minister from 1988 to 1990 and led the country’s Movement for the Restoration of Democracy; her first cabinet was the largest in Pakistan’s history. Following her election, a significant mistrust remained between Bhutto and the right-wing military administration; they considered her as a threat. The opposition leaders contributed to Bhutto’s inability to pass any major legislation during her first term in office. Nevertheless, she encouraged the development of civil society and lifted the ban on trade unions and student associations. She removed many of the constraints imposed on non-governmental organizations, and introduced measures to lift the media censorship. Her government was accused of corruption and nepotism and ended by being dismissed by Khan in 1990. Intelligence services arranged that year’s election to make sure that the conservative Islamic Democratic Alliance (IJI) will be victorious, at which Bhutto became Leader of the Opposition.
Benazir led the PPP to victory in the 1993 elections. During her second term as a Prime Minister, Benazir sought to advance women’s rights. She signed Pakistan to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. She was also a founding member of the Council of Women World Leaders in 1996. Bhutto created a women’s division in the government, headed by a senior female civil servant, as well as a women’s bank. She opened a series of all-female police stations, staffed with female officers, to make women feel safer in coming forward to report crimes. She established family courts with female judges to deal with child custody and family issues, and in 1994-95 the first women judges were appointed to the Supreme Courts of Peshawar and Sindh.
Facing all that success, her government was damaged by several controversies; a failed 1995 coup d’état, and a further bribery scandal involving her and her husband Asif Ali Zardari. Her government was dismissed in 1996. The PPP lost the 1997 election and in 1998 she went into self-exile in Dubai. Only in 2006, after 15 long years an Auditor General of Pakistan (AGP) report was brought forward when then-President Pervez Musharraf was trying to gain support from Bhutto. According to this report, Benazir Bhutto was ousted from power in 1990 under the request of then-president Ghulam Ishaq Khan. The AGP report conveyed that Khan illegally paid legal advisers 28 million rupees to file 19 corruption cases against Bhutto and her husband in 1990–92. Benazir returned to Pakistan in 2007 to compete in the 2008 elections. Shortly afterwards on 27 December 2007, she was assassinated. The Salafi jihadi group al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, although the Pakistani Taliban and rogue elements of the intelligence services was suspected of being involved in her assassination.
Twice Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto’s legacy will remain and she will always be the first woman of modern times to have ruled a Muslim country.
Woman Warrior #15: Yasmeen Lari
Bringing women’s voices into the table, here is the similarity between Politics4her and our Woman Warrior #15 : Yasmeen Lari, the winner of this year’s Jane Drew Prize that recognizes women’s contribution to architecture. She was born in 1941, in Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan, where she lived for 15 years before moving to London with her family. After graduating at the age of 23 from Oxford school of Architecture, she returned to Pakistan where she founded Lari Associates in Karachi.
Her career as a “starchitect” started as she was designing some of the major buildings of the Pakistani landscape, such as the Finance and Trade center (1983-1989), The Taj Mahal Hotel (1981) and or the Pakistan State Oil House (1985-1991). For 36 years, she was one of the main figures of the architecture landscape in Pakistan before seeing her journey taking an unexpected shift.
Indeed, in 2005 – five years after she retired from the construction field to dedicate herself to the preservation of the national Heritage – a tragic earthquake hit Pakistan, killing over 80 000 people and leaving 400 000 families without any shelter to protect them. This event signs the end of “the egotistical journey” of Yasmeen Lari, as she likes to mention it. The architect decided to turn the debris into new cost-effective and eco-friendly shelters for the populations who were then, homeless. Inspired by the traditional techniques, she privileges the use of local materials such as mud, lime, stone and bamboo. Lari gave the tools to those who had lost everything to rebuild their own houses in a safer way with a unique participatory approach of architecture. This initiative resulted in the construction of 40 000 zero-carbon shelters which proved their resistance to floods and earthquakes.
This experience changed the way she perceives architecture for ever. She truly started to see it as an opportunity to provide some social and eco justice to the poorest and marginalized communities. Yasmeen Lari believes in the importance of teaching them how to build for themselves as a way to free themselves, and to help them reach a certain degree of safety and independence. Her architecture now seeks equality and inclusiveness by meeting the actual needs of those who do not have access to the minimal comfort, namelya safe shelter, clean water or sanitation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic which “has also effectively demonstrated to theThird World that in order to ensure safety for all, the poorest of the poor must be provided a minimum standard of living.” This very special warrior also fights for our planet by designing eco-friendly and sustainable shelters, hoping that she is actually “atoning for the damage I caused with my earlier projects.” The impressive humility and dedication shown by Yasmeen Lari earned her the Sitara-i-Imtiaz (Star of Excellence) in 2006 and Hilal-i-Imtiaz (Crescent of Excellence) in 2014 from the Government of Pakistan. In 2016, she won the Fukuoka Prize which honors or celebrates the outstanding work of organizations, groups or individuals for the promotion and preservation of diverse cultures of Asia.
In 2018, she received the World Habitat award with her project of fuelefficient stove conceived to protect Pakistani women’s health. Despite her status of a retired architect, she continues to fight for her native country through nonprofit projects such as the community kitchens built in 2007 in refugee camps during the war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Her devotion should be taken as an example and we should all follow her advice and work together for a better tomorrow also for the other 99 per cent.
Woman Warrior #14: Mariam Kamara
“Design can be a Powerful Tool for Good” says Mariam Kamara, our Woman Warrior n°14. In politics4her we are today celebrating a founding member of united4design (isn’t it funny ? ). Born in Nigeria in 1979, Mariam Kamara was a software developer before or taking part in this collective of architects and founding her own architecture firm Atelier Masōmī in Niamey, Niger in 2014. In susu, masōmī means ‘‘ inceptions ’’ or the beginning of every creation. Indeed she joined The University of Washington in 2010 and already put a social dimension in her thesis by focusing on the issues of gender and public spaces in West Africa. Her sensibility and awareness of the social, economic and environmental dimensions that the African architecture embodies was noticed, which lead her to win her first award : a special mention in the Young Architects in Africa Competition of 2014. Her thesis was also presented the same year at the Milan Triennale for the exhibition Africa : Big Chance Big Change.
Her understanding of the Nigerian environment and climate probably started when she was 6 years old and moved from Niamey into the country’s vast Saharan desert. Through all her projects, she still makes sure that the environment is magnified and respected. She tries to highlight the actual context of each building by blending the local techniques to more innovative solutions. That is why Mariam Kamara is only working with 3 local materials : recycled metal, compressed earth bricks (a breathable material responsive to Niger’s desert climate), and cement.
Kamara’s approach of architecture also puts into perspective the problem of reproducing a Western modernism design that is definitely not made for African countries and which is far from taking into account their actual needs nor the climatical conditions. Moreover, it is neglecting the cultural and historical heritage of these countries since this way of thinking architecture was brought and spread during the colonisation. As an architect, Mariam Kamara aspires to dignify people’s lives and improve it by creating not only spaces that we live in but ones that play a major role in every aspect of our lives either economically, socially, politically. She sees architecture as an opportunity to have a positive impact on society : as a social act in itself.
In a field where women are underrepresented, Kamara gives hope to the vernacular African architecture by bringing it to the front of the International scene. In 2017, she won the LafargeHolcim Gold Award for sustainable building for Africa and the Middle East, and in 2018, she was awarded the Silver in the Global Competition for LafargeHolcim. 2019 was also a good year for our woman warrior since she was shortlisted for The Dezeen Awards that identifies the world’s best architecture and laureate of the Prince Claus Awards which celebrates creatives who have had a positive impact on society.
The devotion of Mariam Kamara can be considered as a tangible example for anyone who aspires to act for a better and more inclusive world, to be good for the sake of our precious planet.
Woman Warrior #13: Her Royal Highness Princess Lalla Meryem of Morocco
Today we are celebrating the birthday of Moroccan Royal Highness Princess Lalla Meryem. She is an inspiration for women in Morocco and abroad thanks to her commitment to improving lives and conditions of children and women. Her Royal Highness is passionate about helping the most vulnerable and her involvement started at an early age.
Her Highness Lalla Meryem was born on August 26, 1962, in Rome. She is a princess member of the Moroccan royal family, the first child of King Hassan II. After obtaining her baccalaureate in 1981, Lalla Meryem was appointed president of the social works of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces by her father. In 1984, she married Fouad Filali, son of the Minister of Information at that time. They had two children: Sharifa Lalla Soukaïna, born in 1986 and Moulay Idris, born in 1988.
Holder of many official functions, she devoted a large part of her activities to the social and cultural field. She is president of the Moroccan Association for Support to UNICEF, of the Hassan II Foundation for Moroccans Living Abroad, of the Moroccan National Observatory for the Rights of the Child and of the Hassan II Foundation for Works social services for ex-servicemen and veterans. In July 2001, she was appointed UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, mainly dealing with projects related to women and children. She is also a member of the honorary committee of the International Center for Missing and Sexually Exploited Children.
In March 2019, King Mohammed approved her nomination as Goodwill Ambassador of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the field of combating underage marriage and promotion of family values and the institution of marriage. Lalla Meryem holds the national honor of Knight Grand Cordon of the Order of the Throne, and her foreign orders include Honorary Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (UK), Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic (Spain), Grand Cordon of the Order of Merit (Lebanon), and Grand Cross of the Order of Prince Henry (Portugal).
Princess Lalla Meryem is a real example of devotion, kindness and humanitarianism. She continues to work on issues related to women and children, by being a fervent advocate for their rights in Morocco and at the international level. As a teenager, I got diagnosted with kidney failure. Her Royal Highness Lalla Meryem didn’t hesitate to take care of my treatment, making sure I was getting the best doctors in Morocco and France. Thanks to her, I was able to fight the disease and go back to living a healthy life. I am forever grateful for her, and she is an authentic treasure for Morocco and its citizens.
Woman Warrior #12: Aicha Ech-Chenna
Aicha Ech-Chenna is a Moroccan social worker and women’s rights advocate and activist. She was born year 1941 in Casablanca and grew up in Marrakech. She is referred to as the ‘Moroccan Mother Teresa’. She has also contributed in helping legalize abortion under certain circumstances. As a teenager, she embarked on her first voluntary action with the Child Protection League. As a registered nurse, she then worked as a health and social education coordinator in the Ministry of Health.
In 1985 she founded the “Female Solidarity Association”, supporting single mothers who had no access to rights. As a matter of fact, the distinction between legitimate and natural children still remains deeply rooted in Moroccan mentalities. Indeed, negative behavior makes it difficult for many children whose only fault is to be born out of the traditional family scheme. In her association, single mothers who were rejected by their families, benefit from training, literacy courses and work, so that they can be financially independent after a three years period.
Aicha Ech-Chenna is giving a chance to these single mothers in constant combat against an intolerant traditional society. She gives them the opportunity to run a restaurant, a hammam, a gym, a hairdressing salon, and kiosks. By standing up for children born out of wedlock for years and taking care of single mothers, Aicha Ech-Chenna has become an icon in the country. She shook Moroccan society and made it possible to pose this fact of hidden society not only in Morocco but in other Muslim countries.
The immense determination and courage of this great lady has been rewarded on numerous occasions. In 2000, Aicha Ech-Chenna received the Medal of Honor, awarded by His Majesty King Mohammed VI. Throughout her career, she has received numerous prizes including the Human Rights Prize of the French Republic (1995), the Grand Atlas Prize (1998), the Elisabeth Norgall Prize (2005) and the dedication, with the Opus Prize, awarded with a check for $1 million.
Woman Warrior #11: Nina Simone
“Prodigy musician, powerhouse singer, civil rights activist, billboard artist,” there are many titles to describe the legendary Nina Simone. She leaves behind a strong legacy of creativity, passion, and rebellion. Simone’s birth name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, born February 23, 1933, she grew up in North Carolina with seven siblings in a poor household. At age 3 she learned to play the piano. Growing up Simone sang and played the piano in her church choir. Early childhood is when she developed an un-distractable passion for classical music. Brahms and Beethoven were two of her favorite classical musicians. Her dream was to become a classical concert pianist.
After high school, Simone moved to New York to attend Juilliard School of Music. She taught piano and was an accompanist for other artists, but she was forced to drop out of school for a financial reason. Simone and her family then moved to Philadelphia in hopes of her attending The Curtis Institute Of Music. Despite being a previous Juilliard student and having a perfect audition, Simone was denied admissions. Early adulthood was tasking for Simone, she faced racial discrimination and economic hardship. Her dream of studying piano in New York came true, only to be taken away from her.
In 1954 she adopted the stage name, Nina Simone. Nina was a nickname, and Simone was inspired by the French actress Simone Signoret. Simone started performing in jazz nightclubs in Atlantic city to pay for her private piano lessons. Her performances were unlike anything at the time. The soulful depth of her voice and thundering piano was the perfect culmination of jazz, blues, and gospel. Her hard work eventually paid off, Little Girl Blue, was Simone’s first hit single.
By the 1960s Nina Simone was a music icon and she used her platform to demand racial equality. In 1963 Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddamn” in response to the 16th st Baptist Church bombing that killed four black children. This song became an anthem civil rights movement. Simon took part in the Selma to Montgomery marches and performed Mississippi Goddamn in front of 10,000 people. However, Simone did not align herself with Martin Luther King, instead, she believed in black nationalism and did not discredit the use of violence for revolutionary means. She even boycotted paying taxes to protest the Vietnam war. She also spoke out against European beauty standards that black women are subjected to in the United States. Four Women was a song about four black women and the stereotypes they are subjected to.
In the 1970s Simone claims that record labels boycotted her music and harmed her career. So she left the U.S. to live in Barbados. While living there she had an affair with the Prime Minister, Errol Barrow/ By the 1980’s Simon was a regular at Jazz clubs in London, and eventually moved to Europe. She lived in Switzerland, Amsterdam, and the Netherlands. Eventually, she settled in Southern France. At this time Simone was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Simone even shot her neighbor’s son after his laughter broke her concentration. Initially, Simone was sentenced to eight months in jail but was suspended after a psychological evaluation.
On April 21st, 2003 Nina Simone died in her sleep. Before this, she had been battling breast cancer. She was only 70 years old but had multiple lifetimes of success. Despite life’s hardship, she embraced her talent and used her voice to fight oppression. All while breaking billboard records and traveling the world. Hundreds of people attended her funeral and praised her for her activism. The government of South Africa even issued a statement saying: “She fought for the liberation of black people. It is with much pain that we received the news of her death. “
Nina’s Simone story is inspiring to say the least. A brilliant black woman way ahead of her time, living in the 50s white conservative paradigm. Regardless of poverty, race, or mental health issues Nina Simon thrived and changed the world for the better. Today she survives through her daughter Lisa Simone.
Woman Warrior #10: Nawal El Saadawi
Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian public health physician, psychiatrist, author, and advocate of women’s rights, born in 1931 in the small town of Kafr Talha. Sometimes referred to as “the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world, “El Saadawi is recognized as a major feminist figure whose writings and professional career were devoted to political and sexual rights for women.
She was educated at Cairo University, Colombia University, and Ayn Shams University in Cairo, and worked in the Egyptian Health Ministry until 1972. In 1962, she released her most controversial and renowned book “Women and Sex”, a poignant critique on female genital mutilation and other misogynist practices of her society. The release of her book and her revolutionary ideas caused her to lose her job at the ministry and the closing of her magazine HEALTH, which she founded in 1968. Her book was condemned and highly criticized by religious and political authorities. El Saadawi was jailed or two months in September 1981 by then-president Anwar Sadat after her outspoken criticism of his unilateral peace deal with Israel, and his domestic economic policies. She used that time to write her next book “Memoirs from the Women’s Prison” (1984) on a roll of toilet paper using a smuggled cosmetic pencil.
She founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA) and worked as the editor of the organization’s publication, Al-nūn in 1982. In 1991, the Egyptian government closed down both Al-nūn and AWSA mainly due to its opposition to the Gulf War. She was forced to flee Egypt in 1992, spending most of the decade in Western universities. Her outspoken opinions and beliefs continued to cause her recurrent legal confrontations from political and religious rivals including allegations of rejecting her religious faith.
Nawa El Saadawi was and is never afraid to denounce and criticize aspects of culture, all religions, and society that were considered taboo in the 20th century and still are today. She is very direct in her condemnation of genetic mutilation, and patriarchy as a whole. She believes that the veil is never a free choice or a religious one but rather a political symbol.
Woman Warrior #9: Fatima el Fihri
Fatima el Fihri was born during the 9th century. She is also known as Oum al Banine (mother of the children), and as the founder of el-Qaraouiyyin, the oldest university in the world still inactivity. Fatima is originally from Kairouan, Tunisia, and emigrated to Fez in Morocco, with her family. Her father, Muhamed Al-Fihri, is a wealthy trader. Fatima and her sister Maryam grew up fueling their curiosity and strolling together through the alleys of the souk. Coming from a pious and practicing family, the two sisters very early received a religious education, learning sacred texts and stories relating to the life of the prophet and those who accompanied him.
At the age of 19, Fatima married one of her neighbors. Together they had two sons. Their education then became her priority and wherever she went, the two young boys accompanied her. While they were living peacefully as a family, several tragic events shook their daily lives. Around the 820s, her mother died, giving an immense family sorrow as the maternal figure occupied a central place. Still, in mourning, the family had to face the violent riots that broke out in Kairouan, leading them to flee the insecurity and go into exile in Morocco. It was in the city of Fez, where already more than 800 Muslim and Jewish families from Andalusia had taken refuge, that they decided to put their bags in 825.
A few years after their arrival, Fatima’s husband and father died. The two sisters, therefore, inherited a substantial fortune. After reflection, they both decided to spend their inheritance in the service of the community to honor the memory of their father. Wishing to live in devotion and extreme simplicity, they devoted all of their wealth to the construction of pious works. In 859, Fatima undertook the construction of the Al Quaraouiyine, while her sister Maryam directed the construction of a mosque. Fatima fasted for three years and founded the Al Quaraouiyine mosque and an adjoining university, building the oldest university in the world still active today.
The university played a leading role in cultural and academic relations between the Islamic world and Europe. Thanks to Fatima, Al Quaraouiyine attracted scholars and students from all over the world, and of all faiths. Today, the mosque includes one of the largest libraries in Morocco and contains thousands of rare works. Fatima el Fihriya died in 880 at the age of 80. The Guinness Book of World Records and UNESCO notably promote it as the oldest university in the world, long before Bologna, Oxford, Salamanca, or La Sorbonne.
Woman Warrior #8: Angela Davis
Angela Yvonne Davis is an American political activist, philosopher, academic, author, and feminist. She was born in an African-American family, in Birmingham (Alabama, USA). Her youth was marked by racism, racial segregation, and violence towards the black community. As her parents were activists, she quickly acquired a political conscience. Angela Davis discovered the socialist movement and communism. She was fascinated by utopian experiences like those of Robert Owen considered as the “founding father” of the movement. She joined Advance, a Marxist-Leninist youth organization, and participated in demonstrations to support the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1962 Angela Davis was awarded a scholarship to pursue graduate studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She discovers the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. From the third year of study, she made several trips to France and Germany to study philosophy. Frustrated at not being able to participate in the militant effervescence of the struggle for the liberation of blacks, and in particular Black Power, she decided to return to the United States.
Angela Davis campaigns for black rights and quickly discovers the strong rivalries that run through the Black Liberation Movement. In 1968, she joined the Che-Lumumba Club, a section reserved for blacks of the Communist Party of the United States, as well as the Black Panther Party (African American revolutionary movement). At that time, she was under FBI surveillance. In 1970 Angela Davis was accused of having organized a hostage-taking that killed four people in court. Arrested and imprisoned, she was detained for sixteen months before being tried. She proclaimed her innocence and unleashed a vast movement of support in the United States and the world. Convicted by the jury of the court, she was then released and escaped the death penalty.
After her release, Angela Davis published essays and delivers radical speeches for peace in Vietnam, against racism, against the prison system, and against the death penalty. She also led a feminist fight against sexism, including in the Black Liberation Movement, because she thinks that we must fight against all forms of domination, the black man cannot be freed if he continues to enslave women. In 1980 and 1984, she ran in the American presidential elections as a candidate for vice-presidency alongside Gus Hall, leader of the Communist Party. She then became a History professor at universities.
Woman Warrior #7: Fatima Mernissi
Fatima Mernissi is a Moroccan sociologist, writer, and journalist. She is best known for being one of the founders of Islamic Feminism. Ms. Mernissi was born on the year 1940 in Fez, and passed away in 2015 in the Moroccan capital. Fatima Mernissi is a pioneer of justice for women, in Morocco and above, with a focus on the Arab World. She grew up in a domesticated harem, surrounded by women. In fact, her grand mother was her grand father’s ninth wife. Based on her childhood memories, she wrote and published “The Harem Within: Tales of a Moroccan Girlhood”, which will be forbidden in Morocco. She states there that women will rarely allowed to leave the harem, and were kept in so that outsiders wouldn’t lay eyes on them.
The Moroccan feminist first studied sociology at the University Mohammed V of Rabat before flying abroad to study at la Sorbonne Paris in France. Following that, she completed a PhD at Brandeis University in the US and shifted to teaching at universities. Professor Mernissi studied sexual politics of Islamic Scripture and released several books surrounding the topic. In her books “Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society,” (1975) and “Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern Wold” (1992); she promotes a moderate and inclusive Islam. Indeed, she claims that there is misinterpretation of the religion by male leaders in order for them to maintain the status quo: “Not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies,” (”The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam”, 1991).
In 2003, Professor Mernissi, received the Prince of Asturias Award for Letters, presented by the government of Spain. Fatima Mernissi was then extremely involved with organisations in Morocco, promoting women empowerment. She will always be remembered as one of the greatest feminist figures of the Arab World.
Woman Warrior #6: Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo is one of the greatest figures of the Mexican art of the 20th century. Author of several hundred paintings, including many self-portraits, she is famous for her realistic paintings, which are a reflection of her passions and her suffering, but also of Mexico. Frida Kahlo had a brief life. She was born in Mexico in 1907 and died there in 1954. An extraordinary life, which illuminated her country, her job, her condition, and her femininity. Life begins well for Frida but life turns badly at 10 years old when she contracted polio. Her right foot didn’t grow more. Another disaster hit her six years later, in 1925. A bus accident where Frida survived but got severely injured, with 11 fractures. Being severely disabled didn’t stop her from dominating her broken body. She started painting herself, with a mustache, by provocation, by nonconformity, by feminism.
In 1928, having almost recovered all her mobility, Frida Khalo enrolled in the Communist Party. That same year, she met the famous painter Diego Rivera and showed him some of her paintings. It’s the beginning of a tumultuous love story. In 1929, they married and settled the following year in San Francisco, where Frida met many artists. Unfortunately, she suffered two miscarriages in 1930 and 1932. She painted”Henry Ford Hospital” during her convalescence and wished to return to Mexico. In 1938, Frida Khalo met André Breton in Mexico City. Thanks to him, that same year, she was able to exhibit her works in New York. She sold many paintings. In 1953, the first exhibition of her work is organized in Mexico City. During the summer, she had to amputate her right leg.
She died in 1954 at age 47 and left many important works. Frida believed that even though she was damaged, she was beautiful. Her “destroyed” body didn’t stop her from anything. At that time, there was even more machismo, but it didn’t stop her from being a feminist, from being devoted to art. Corseted, operated several times, amputated, she painted while lying on her back. On her last painting, she wrote “Viva la Vida”.
Woman Warrior #5: Anna Eleanor Roosevelt
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York on October 11, 1884. She passed away on November 7, 1962, at the age of 78. Eleanor was the wife of the American Democratic President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and held the title of First Lady of the United States from March 4, 1933 to April 12, 1945. Much more than a hostess of the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt was the first wife of a president to hold a true political role. She was the first president of the U.S. Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and chairs the commission drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt was part of the American elite and embodied White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’s values. The Roosevelts are among the richest and most influential families on the East Coast. Her uncle was a former U.S. president: Theodore Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt leaves her role as a submissive wife to fully interfere in politics. Progressive and feminist, she advocates for the “American Civil Rights Movement” and contributes to the creation of the “Women Airforce Service Pilots”. Internationally, Eleanor Roosevelt developed unique qualities for diplomacy.
Woman Warrior #3: Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai is a young human rights activist. Malala was born in Mingora, Pakistan on July 12, 1997. She is a symbol of resistance in her country of origin, especially in the Swat Vally (northwest of Pakistan), an area caught between the Taliban and the Pakistani army. She is the daughter of Ziauddin Yousafzai, who is known for his positions against the Taliban. Malala Yousafzai appears at the age of 11 on the website of the British channel BBC. She testifies on the Taliban’s violence towards the girls who dare to go to school. In May 2009 she became a spokesperson, with worldwide recognition. Her school was even renamed in her honor once the Pakistani army took control of the region. Malala also received, at the end of 2011, the Pakistan Peace Prize.
In October 2012, the Taliban attempt to kill her when she was leaving school. She was injured in the head and transferred to a hospital in Birmingham, UK, where she continued her rehabilitation and fight. In 2013, she won Simone de Beauvoir prize for women’s freedom. In 2014, at the age of 17, she won the Nobel Peace Prize making her the youngest laureate in the history of this award. Today, Malala Yousafzai actively campaigns for gender equality, especially regarding girl’s education on social networks.
Woman Warrior #2: Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir is the essence of Feminist Theory. The author was born on January 9, 1908, more than a century ago. Until today, her impact has a huge influence on the fight for gender equality. Simone de Beauvoir is one of the leading thinkers in the 20th century. Her theses on the status of women remain at the heart of modern debates. French feminist theorist, she was closely related to another existentialist thinker, Jean-Paul Sartre. Although her writings were controversial at the time, they remain a philosophical reference on the debate related to gender equality. Since her young age, she started developing excellent writing skills. After studying literature and mathematics, she held a particular interest in philosophy. She became a philosophy teacher at only 21. As for her religious beliefs, she was an atheist and strongly opposed to marriage, developing her thoughts on the freedom and autonomy of individuals, especially women. She collaborated with other outstanding intellectuals of the 20th century such as Boris Vian, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and of course Jean-Paul Sartre. Adding to this, Simone helped to found the magazine “Les Temps Modernes”.
In 1949, she published her most famous book, “The Second Sex”. The book’s sales were a success as it advanced very avant-gardiste theses for the time. Simone faced both success and condemnation. She evokes the feminine condition, the situation of domination, the taboo of abortion and so on so forth. She also argues that the relationship between men and women is a social construction. “We are not born women, we become it” is the symbol of her thinking. This book and the ideas defended by Simone de Beauvoir are the ideological roots of the feminist movement. Simone marked the fight for women in the 1970s. Until her death in 1986, she will continue to approach the great themes of society such as love, death, euthanasia. In 2008, the Simone de Beauvoir prize for women’s freedom was created in her honor. Simone de Beauvoir is undoubtedly still occupying society today. The issue of the place of women and the reappropriation of their individuality is an ongoing fight.
Woman Warrior #1: Asmaa Sidi Baba
Asmaa Sidi Baba is without any doubt a strong, brilliant and committed Moroccan woman. She holds a BA from American University, Washington D.C. and an MA in International Affairs (MENA specialization) from Columbia University, New York. Following her successful academic career, she has worked in the UN ECOSOC Committee for a couple years before heading back to her homeland. Since then, Asmaa worked for the Moroccan National Office of Tourism in Paris, Ericsson, EMAAR, and Dakhla Festival in Morocco. Starting in 2011, she joined the UNFM (Union Marocaine des Femmes du Maroc-Moroccan National Union of Moroccan Women) as an Advisor at the Executive Bureau. Today she is Vice President of Rabat Regional Office. She has been involved mainly with women’s rights. Her goal is to empower women by creating cooperatives and helping them commercialize their products. This has allowed the creation of incomes, generating revenues in the rural areas. She also has designed clothes and accessories with Moroccan inspiration. As a matter of fact, she has taken courses during a year at Parsons School of Design, in New York. Her brand Lalla Coneta has been a success in the United States of America and Dubai. Indeed, she was able to sell clothes and accessories to celebrities such as Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, and the Gypsy Kings.
Regarding her personal life, Asmaa Sidi Baba is the mother of two young women she had to raise on her own after an early divorce. Let me introduce you to my hero: my mother. She often tells me that I should not refer to her as my role model because she wants me to do better (hard to believe, right?). However, what she does not know is that when I refer to her as my idol, it is thanks to her numerous assets. I see a mother but I also see a warrior. She is a brave and strong woman, always keeping a positive state of mind despite all the difficulties she has been facing. Mother, you are and will always be my role model. Thank you for teaching me so much. Not only you have a brilliant career, you also have a huge heart and incredible qualities. If I am the woman I am today, it is thanks to you. I owe you everything. Thank you for giving me everything I always needed. I could never thank you enough. I feel so grateful to have you as a mother, I could not ask for better. My main goal in life is to make you proud and I will brave all challenges to achieve it.
I love you more than anything.