Throughout history and across cultures and traditions, women have been at the forefront of change. Whether it was the freedom movements or the fight for equal rights, women have questioned tradition, pushed for change, and made things happen against all odds.
What can we say about Malala that hasn’t been said before? The youngest-ever Nobel laureate, Malala is one of the strongest voices in the space of girls education. What makes all the difference is where Malala comes from – a small Pakistani district that was heavily influenced by the Taliban. She was only 11 years old when she started blogging on BBC Urdu about the Taliban’s threats against girls’ education by way of shutting down their schools. She garnered immediate attention and support around the world but, in the process, also became a key target of the Taliban army.
Malala was shot at when she was merely 15 years old, on her way back from school. That did not deter her and she went on to publish her autobiography, win a Nobel prize, and continues to be a prominent education activist. She also founded the Malala Fund, a non-profit organization for women’s education, started a school for Syrian refugee girls, has actively spoken about women’s right to education, has been listed on Time’s list of the most influential people around the world, and has been the subject of a movie. All of this before she even got to college, which she did in August last year.
An Iranian lawyer, human rights activist, and the first female judge in Iran, Shirin Ebadi bore the brunt of the Ayatollah’s revolution – she was dismissed of duties with immediate effect. But Shirin was unstoppable. She started a legal practice and started defending people who were persecuted by Iranian authorities. Shirin has defended several child abuse cases and she helped draft a law against physical abuse of children that was passed in the parliament in 2002.
Shirin has been at the forefront of protests against the Iranian regime and has been vocally critical of its authoritative and theocratic nature. A Nobel Laureate, Shirin has been a pioneer of women’s, children’s, and refugee rights. She is also the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel, an achievement that received mixed reactions in her native country – the erstwhile Iranian President even called it politically motivated.
Wangari Maathai was a renowned Kenyan environmentalist and political activist. She is the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree and has been responsible for founding the Green Belt Movement, an environmental NGO that focused on tree plantation, environment conservation, and women’s rights all the way back in 1977. An equal rights activist, Wangari walked the talk in her personal life when she campaigned for equal benefits for the women working on the staff at her workplace, the University of Nairobi. She tried to turn the academic staff association into a union in order to negotiate benefits, and although she was unsuccessful in doing so, several of her demands were met by her employers.
In the course of her career, Wangari was awarded the Right Livelihood Award and became the first African woman to become a Nobel Laureate. She was also an elected member of the Kenyan government where she served as the assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources.
Susan B Anthony was an American reformer and equal rights activist. She played a crucial and successful role in the women’s suffrage movement. She also successfully led the campaign for women’s dressing reform and property rights for married women. Susan’s work in anti-slavery started when she was just 17. She went on to become the state agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Manal al-Sharif is a women’s rights activist from Saudi Arabia, and anyone who understands the politics of the region would know that this is not just dangerous, but fatal work. Manal started the women’s right to drive campaign in 2011 and released a social media video of herself driving a car, which led to her detention and arrest over the next 48 hours. Manal has remained an active critic of the Saudi government. She actively tweets about the condition of imprisoned female foreign workers in the country to create awareness and has questioned the patriarchal and irrelevant Islamic laws in the country about women being under the guardianship of husbands.
Iraqi national Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, author, media personality and founder of Women for Women International (WWI). Her organization has supported women survivors of war around the world including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Kosovo. Under Zainab’s invincible leadership, WWI has touched the lives of more than 400,000 women in eight war zones around the world. Zainab’s work has empowered women through over $100 million in aid and microcredit, and rights awareness and small business trainings and support.
At 86, Dr Nawal El Saadawi from Egypt is unstoppable. She is a feminist author, psychiatrist, physician, and women’s rights activist. Dr Saadawi’s work focuses on the issues of women in Islam, especially in the space of female genital mutilation. Founder of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and Co-founder of the Arab Association of Human Rights, she has received recognition around the world for her humanitarian efforts.
Apart from human and equal rights activism, Dr Saadawi has also been the Director General of the Health Education Department, Ministry of Health, Cairo, Secretary General of the Medical Association in Cairo, Egypt, and the Founder of the Egyptian Women’s Writers’ Association.
Having two strikes against her as a Dalit woman in the Indian social structure in the 1800s did not stop Savitribai Phule from her efforts in women’s rights in India during British rule. She opened the first girls’ school in Pune run by Indians. Her most recognized work has been in abolition of gender- and caste-based discrimination through not just activism but also poetry. Savitribai Phule is one of the most important figures of the social reform movement in Maharashtra.
Anna Chandy was the first female judge in India. She was also the first woman to become a high court judge in the entire British regime. Anna was also the first woman in her state to receive a law degree. In her work as a barrister, she promoted women’s rights and published a feminist magazine, Shrimati, all the way back in the 1920s. Pretty much a first-generation feminist in India, Anna Chandy came face to face with fierce protests and hostility when she contested the Shree Mulam Popular Assembly in 1931 – and she won. Anna Chandy is responsible for single-handedly starting a new era for Indian women in politics and law, especially for women with no political backing and family connections but just intent, grit, and talent.
The first-ever women’s health professional and a feminist, Marie Stopes was a British author, palaeobotanist, and an activist for women’s reproduction rights. In her work as a palaeobotanist, she actively contributed to coal classification and became the first-ever female member of the faculty of the University of Manchester. But her most memorable contribution has been the Marie Stopes Clinic, the first-ever birth control clinic in Britain, which today is a global phenomenon. She published a book called Married Love that brought birth control to mainstream healthcare and sex education discourse. Marie also created pregnancy healthcare awareness among the underprivileged through her free-to-distribute work, A Letter to Working Mothers on How To Have Healthy Children and Avoid Weakening Pregnancies.
Sometimes, our history textbooks forgot these amazing women. Sometimes, their contributions were overshadowed. But nothing can take away from all that they did, and all that we need to be thankful to them for, including things that are now commonplace – primary education for girls, the right to own property, and the right to not be made a slave because of the colour of skin or our gender. They are true trailblazers and their lives will serve as inspiration for generations to come.