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 organistions 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 #4: Lamia Bazir
Lamia Bazir is a change-maker and an advocate for women and youth. Right after completing her education at Sciences Po Paris and Columbia University in New York, Lamia returned to her home country Morocco where she worked for the Head of Government Office for more than 3 years on Education and Youth Employability. In parallel, she founded « Empowering Women in the Atlas » and launched several initiatives to break the isolation and poverty of rural women and girls and promote their leadership in the Atlas Mountains. Her latest actions include a program that enabled 100 rural women from the Middle Atlas to access university for the first time and get training, coaching, equipment, and seed-funds for their micro-enterprises. She also launched a school program for 200 children and an exchange program that enabled youth from the Middle Atlas Mountains to get a passport and leave their region for the first time, for a training on solar energy in Norway.
Lamia also cumulated a rich international experience while she was a student. She was a representative at the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations in New York and conducted political analysis for the Arab League, a consultancy with Transparency International, and field research in Niger. Her advocacy and achievements got her respect and recognition in Morocco and beyond. In 2015, she won the United Nations and MBC Award for Volunteering. In 2016, she is the youngest to be selected among the 60 women leaders of the kingdom of Morocco, by the National Magazine Challenge.
Lamia Bazir is a real inspiration for Moroccan and international youth. Her achievements are beyond incredible, we definitely need more Moroccan women as implicated as her. Thank you for inspiring us and thank you for everything you have been doing for our country. You represent Morocco and Africa in the best light possible. You are without any doubt a woman warrior!
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 of 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.