Women Leaders Who Are Transforming the World

How could the mainstream U.S. media possibly have overlooked a powerful
movement occurring today around the world?  Those of us paying attention
are witnessing the emergence of transformative leadership on the part
of women.  They are engaged globally in making social change, both at
the grassroots level of rural villages and at the highest level of their
As I had mentioned in my August post Uniting Distant Stars Has Gone Supernova, I am dedicating this one to some incredible women who have defied the inequalities and injustices in their nations. Though these women did not meet the criteria of Forbes The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, they are a force to be reckoned with.
What excites me about these women leaders, is that they are championing the issues of gender inequality, poverty and war in some of the toughest patriarchal societies in Africa and Asia. This post will highlight the eight women that were included in my June presentation to the Miss Liberia Contestants of Minnesota. Furthermore, this post will close with a special recognition of one special young day who has inspired a generation of girls.

1) Immaculée Ilibagiza, Rwandan Genocide Survivor

Immaculée has inspired me since I heard her share her incredible story of survival in Liberia in 2009 and then read her books “Left to Tell” and “Led by Faith” when I returned home in 2010. This young Tutsi woman spent nearly 90 days in a three by four foot bathroom with seven other Tutsi women in the home of a Hutu pastor. When these women emerged from their cramped quarters, they were sleep-deprived, wasted from hunger, and overwhelmed with grief for the loved ones that had been killed. For Immaculée, she lost her parents, two of the three brothers, and countless friends and family. It was from this terrifying ordeal that she found her faith and the capacity to forgive.

In finding refuge by reading the Bible, she was struck by the words that Jesus said up on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” She saw how this statement rang true for those committing the senseless butchering of their neighbors. This gave her the reason to forgive the killers of her family. After some time of mourning and securing a job at the UN, she went to the prison to forgive the killer of her mother and one of her brothers. The Tutsi man in charge of the prison became so outraged with her and questioned why she did it. Being apologetic, she explained that she was just one Tutsi so if she was wrong then there was nothing to worry about (Immaculée). 

Surprisingly, one year later this same prison official came to the UN to meet with her. She was taken aback by his visit and wondered why he wanted to talk to her. She was overwhelmed when he started off by thanking her for changing his life. He then shared how his wife and children had been killed, and how this consumed him with so much hate that he would beat the Hutu prisoners daily to get some temporary relief. Yet, he repeated this same cycle every day. So it was her example that allowed him to forgive and let go of his hate and sorrow. This gave him the peace and freedom to move on with his life, which he was now remarried and they were planning to have children (Immaculée).

Zarifa Qazizadah, Afghanistan’s First Female Village Chief

Zarifa is one who puts a smile on my face, because she fulfilled a promise that secured the vote of men in her village. One may not believe that this woman had the capacity to be a leader. She was married at age 10 and had her first of fifteen children at age 15. She was destined to be a housewife and servant to her husband’s family. However, with some personal sacrifices she was able to provide a necessary service to her village–Naw Abad–that exemplified her leadership capabilities (Hegarty).

It all started in 2004 when she was seeking political office. Zarifa made a promise to the village men that she would connect the village to the electric grid. They of course laughed at her believing that this was impossible for woman. She did therefore lose the election, but kept her promise. So, she re-mortgaged her house and borrowed money to buy the posts and cables needed to connect to the main electrical supply. She succeeded that same year in supplying every house with electricity (Hegarty).

This 50-year-old grandma of 36 grandchildren, was voted in as chief by the same men who shunned her. One of her male supporters explained his reason for voting for her, “she does the type of work that even men are not capable of doing.” As chief she has taking on some other initiatives such as sponsoring the building of the first Mosque where both men and women can pray together. She also heads the local women’s council and encourages other women to follow her example. Zarifa is no ordinary woman, because she owns and rides a motorcycle [1], and uses a gun to protect the people in her village (Hegarty). This formidable woman has started the process of change in her nation.

Dr. Hawa Abdi, Somalia’s 2012 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee

Dr. Hawa is another inspiring woman who shares her property with approximately 90,000 refugees just 15 miles from Mogadishu. In order to accommodate the people seeking refuge, she has transformed her one-room clinic on her property to a two-story hospital to serve the people. She also added an 800-student school and adult education center. She opened some of her land to families to farm and purchased a small fleet of fishing boats as a means to feed everyone (Ibrahim and Gettleman).

Dr. Hawa’s sacrifices have not gone unnoticed by the people she serves. On May 5, 2010, 750 armed Al Shabaab [2] militants surrounded her hospital. The commanders held her at gun-point for several hours while their minions, mostly teenage child soldiers, ransacked her hospital and tore up records. She was enraged by their unwelcome occupation that she told them that she would not leave and then yelled, “You are young and you are a man, but what have you done for your society? (Ibrahim and Gettleman).”

Consequently, she was placed under house arrest for the next five days forcing her hospital to close and causing two dozen malnourished babies to die who were left in the bush by their fleeing families. Suddenly, hundreds of women living on her property gathered together to protest against the militants along with many Somalian expatriates that forced them to relinquish control. She then insisted that they apologize in writing, which they did begrudgingly (Ibrahim and Gettleman). It is amazing how she got these young men to apologize, so I wonder if she used the certain motherly tone that makes children stop in their tracks.

Manal al-Sharif, Saudi’s Founder of Women’s Right to Drive

Manal really impressed me with her bold action in starting the Women2Drive campaign. In May 2011, this divorced mother of one son risked it all by driving around Khobar while being video taped in a nation that forbids women drivers. Her creative protest did not go unnoticed by the police, because she was arrested the next day and then held with no charges for nine days. Luckily, she was finally released after a great deal of international pressure (Sutter).

Her public protest was not centered on women having the right to drive, but on all the gender inequalities in her nation. Women in Saudi Arabia need their male guardians’ permission to “get married, leave the country, go to school or open bank accounts.” She believes that if women defy one of these unjust requirements such as driving that they would have the courage to speak up and take appropriate action (Sutter).”

Regrettably, her work has come at a cost both professionally and personally. She was forced to quit her job and her six-year-old son has been harassed and bullied by his classmates for her public activism. Though she was not able to find the right words, she tried to explain to her son why she was doing this and that some day he would be proud of her. For now she is saving the clippings and awards she has received, so that when he is older he can decide whether is mom was making a difference or a “sinful, dangerous woman (Sutter).” Manal has created the spark that is lighting the fire of other women in her nation to take a stand for their rights.
President Joyce Banda of Malawi, Africa’s 2nd Female Head of State

President Joyce Banda is clearly a woman to watch. What piqued my interest about her, is how she was able to stop a coup d’état with one simple phone call. The former President Bingu wa Mutharika had suddenly died of heart attack in April 2012. Mutharika had planned to have his brother Peter succeed him as President instead of Joyce the Vice President who had been voted in and the natural successor as stated in the constitution (Smith).

On April 7, the cabinet ministers, parliament members along with the chief justice and some other judges were waiting at Peter’s house for the court order to swear him in. Knowing that this meeting was occurring, she called the army commander, General Henry Odillo, and asked if she had his support. He answered yes. This phone call forced the hand of the ministers and parliament, who quickly left Peter’s house to avoid any appearances of treason. The chief justice, a staunch supporter of Mutharika, protested her swearing in by saying he did not have his wig or robe, but a car was sent to fetch him to perform his duties (Smith).

Since becoming President, Joyce has taken her role seriously as Southern Africa’s first female head of state. She made this point clear when she said, “It’s heavy for me. Heavy in the sense that I
feel that I’m carrying this heavy load on behalf of all women. If I
fail, I will have failed all the women of the region. But for me to
succeed, they all must rally around (Smith).” She definitely has her work cut out for her and it will be interesting to see how she transforms her nation.

Major Liu Yang, China’s First Female Astronaut

Liu’s triumph makes me think that girls may be becoming more valued in China than we thought.  As her parents’ only child, her accomplishment may significantly change the status of girls in her nation (Grammiticas). We have all heard about the China’s one-child policy and the “missing girl” factor. That has caused us to over-generalize this nation’s vast population. We must acknowledge the fact that there are other parents like Liu’s who appreciated their daughters and believed in their potential.

Another exciting aspect of this story is how Liu was vying with another woman of the same age, Captain Wang Yaping, for final position on the three-person crew. Both of these women were revered as heroines by their fellow citizens, because they were proud of what they represented in the history of their nation (Grammiticas).

Remarkably, her success in becoming China’s first female astronaut has helped women surpass a famous old Chinese maxim “women hold up half the sky (Branigan).” Without a doubt, Liu has reached the stars and will be an inspiration to other girls in her nation. She made this clear before the launch in June when she told the reporters, “I am grateful to the motherland and the people. I feel honoured to fly
into space on behalf of hundreds of millions of female Chinese
citizens (Branigan).” We will need to pay closer attention to what effect her achievement will have on the next generation of girls in China.

Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna, Liberia’s Straight from the Heart Center Founder

Agnes is the one leader that I talked to personally in May 2012. Though we had never met, she contacted me after reading my comment on Leymah Gbowee’s (Liberia’s 2011 Nobel Laureate) Facebook post about President Taylor’s conviction and how more work was needed in the rehabilitation of the former child soldiers. My comment was about my willingness to work with these young people because I had interacted with them during my first trip in 1998 and then worked with a few during my first year of residence in 2007/8. So Agnes sent me a Facebook message asking me to read her book “And Still Peace Did Not Come: A Memoir of Reconciliation” and to let her know my thoughts when I finished reading it.

From the very first page, I was captivated by her story. She skillfully started each chapter with a personal narrative from a war victim and/or perpetrator that was interwoven with her own experiences of the war. Since she had seen first-hand the atrocities of war and those who committed them, she was able to create the perfect avenue for victims and perpetrators to tell their stories as a means for healing and reconciliation. As an experienced on-air personality, she produced a radio program called “Straight from the Heart [3]” that first focused on the victim stories. After some coaxing from her producer, she started talking with former child soldiers (males and females) and soon discovered their dual roles as both victims and victimizers.

Her compelling story helped amplify the voices of the countless people whose lives were forever changed by Liberia’s long and gruesome war, which blurred the line between victim and perpetrator. So it was an honor to meet with Agnes when she came to Minnesota from New York to attend a graduation in May. We spent an hour or so talking about her book and experiences working with former child soldiers. From that moment, we formed a sisterhood and knew someday we would be working together in some capacity.

Leymah Gbowee, Liberia’s 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Leymah had a simple dream that materialized into a non-violent peace movement of women who ushered in the end of Liberia’s 14-year civil war. Surprisingly, I was not aware of this renowned  women’s peace movement from all the personal and scholarly research on Liberia that I had conducted. It was right before I left for Liberia in January 2009 that I heard about the award winning documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” that would be playing in U.S. theaters while I was gone. Gratefully, my Mom had received a copy from a friend that I could watch when I returned in January 2010.

I have watched this documentary several times and have recently read Lehmah’s book “Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War.” There is no doubt about her leadership in this successful peace movement that brought Christian and Muslim women together upon realizing that a bullet does not discriminate. She, like the other women, were tired of the war and what it was doing to the children of Liberia (Disney).

Throughout this movement, they faced many challenges including operating on limited funds. Regardless of these obstacles, Leymah was able to organize the women in holding sit-ins in both Liberia and Ghana where the peace talks were being held. She held fast to her convictions as they maintained their mission even when the fighting increased or during the faltering peace talks in Accra (Disney). It was her leadership that showed the rest of the world how a powerful group of women could take one dream for peace and make it reality.

Malala Yousuzai, Pakistan’s Child Advocate for Girls’ Education

Young Malala’s courageous story has captivated the hearts and minds of countless people around the world, including me. In 2009, when it became clear that the Taliban would force her to quit school, this 11-year-old girl started an anonymous blog–Diary of a Pakistani schoolgirl–to speak out about her rights. She was one of the few girls who were brave enough to protest about the injustice, because they had witnessed the destruction of over 150 schools in 2008 (Malala Yousafzai: Portrait of the girl blogger). So, the young girls felt that the only way to stop this madness was to stand up for their rights.

This young girl did not give up fighting for her right to an education even when she and her father–Ziauddin– were facing death threats. Her father runs the local private school that she attends in Swat Valley. He is also the strongest supporter of her activism. Her work soon received international attention when she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by The KidsRights Foundation and awarded the National Peace Award [4] by her government (Malala Yousafzai: Portrait of the girl blogger).

Sadly, this girl, now 15, was shot in the head by the Taliban on October 9, while heading home on a bus with others. This was definitely an assassination attempt, because her activism was threatening their oppressive hold on her community. These radical militants failed to realize  Malala’s resolve. She is recovering and has already requested her school books. Her strong spirit has been such an inspiration, especially girls, that a petition has already been started to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize (Malala Yousafzai: Thousands sign Nobel Peace Prize petition). There is no doubt that Malala is very deserving of this award, because she used her voice to regain her right for an education instead of a gun or missile.

Foot notes:
[1] Zarifa needs to ride her motorcycle at night while wearing men’s clothing to protect her from being a target of the Taliban.
[2] Al Shabaab (The Youth in Arabic), a radical wing of Somalia’s now-defunct Union of Islamic Courts.

[3] The radio show’s name was derived from Byran Adam’s song “Straight from the Heart”
[4] The National Peace Award was renamed the National Malala Peace Prize for those under 18 years old.

Works Cited:

Branigan, Tania. “China’s first female astronaut shows how ‘women hold up half the sky’.” The   
     Guardian. The Observer. 16 Jun 2012. Web. 24 Nov 2012.
Disney, Abigail E, and Gini Reticker. Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Sausalito, Calif.?: Distributed by
      Roco Films Educational, 2008. 

Grammaticas, Damian. “China’s female astronaut quandary.” BBC News Asia. BBC.
     12 June 2012. Web. 24 Nov 2012.
Hegarty, Stephanie. “Afghanistan’s supergran crimebuster on wheels.” BBC News Magazine.
     BBC. 27 May 2012. Web. 24 Nov 2012.
Ibrahim, Mohammed and Jeffrey Gettleman. “Under Siege in War-Torn Somalia, a Doctor Holds Her
     Ground.” The New York Times Africa. NY Times. 07 Jan 2011. Web. 24 Nov 2012.

“Immaculée Ilibagiza Keynote Speech at International Week.” Online video. YouTube. 22 Oct 2008.
      Web. 24 Nov 2012. 

“Malala Yousafzai: Portrait of the girl blogger.” BBC News Magazine. BBC. 10 Oct 2012. Web.
      26 Nov 2012.
“Malala Yousafzai: Thousands sign Nobel Peace Prize petition.” BBC News Asia. BBC. 09 Nov 2012.
      Web. 26 Nov 2012/
Smith, David. “Malawi’s Joyce Banda puts women’s rights at centre of new presidency.”The 
      Guardian. The Guardian. 29 Apr 2012 Web. 24 Nov 2012
Sutter, John D. “The woman who defied Saudi’s driving ban and put it on YouTube.” The CNN 
     Profile. CNN. 10 Jun 2012. Web. 24 Nov 2012.