Nala, a 16-year-old Maasai girl in Tanzania, helped organize support groups for Maasai women. In her twenties, she founded the Massai Women’s Forum, which now has over 30 chapters. It expanded from adult literacy classes to village nursery schools, loans to women’s groups, girls’ education programs, etc. It’s considered one of the few organizations that really help people by creating a social network to create change. Nala described her work as “to educate young Maasai women who are being forced to marry older men…to advocate the right of Massai women’s education, because Maasai women need to do something different and not just get married. ….We have a lot of girls fleeing from forced marriages and coming to MWF because many them need education support.” [i]
When Nala finished primary school, her father wanted her to marry. She put up a “big struggle” and refused to get married. She was strong-willed, given the nickname “half-man” by an uncle after she protected her family’s cattle herd from being stolen. Her male relatives were going on to secondary school and she wanted to go with them. Her cousin helped intercede with her father and tried to convince his father—an age group leader—to help her. After months of planning, disguised in a red blanket worn by Maasai men, at midnight she got in a waiting car of an educated Maasai friend of her cousin, who drove her to the capital city of Dar-es-Salaam. Her helpers talked her father into calling off the marriage and repaying the dowry. As 16, she began coordinating women’s groups.
Another woman activist in an extremely patriarchal society is Tawakkol Karman who led the rebellion in Yemen, inspired by the youth uprising in Tunisia. Yemeni women are often burka-clad with only their eyes showing, the majority is illiterate, and many girls are married off as children, their legal testimony worth half of men’s. The demonstrations started at Sanaa University with ten people the day after Ben Ali left Tunisia. Men were surprised when Ms. Karman took the microphone to speak but they followed her and her Facebook and cellphone messages. After a week, she was acknowledged as the movement’s leader. She was jailed but released after three days although thugs beat her and other protestors. Dictator Saleh told her brother, “Control your sister. Anyone who disobeys me will be killed.” The demonstrations steadily grew to over a million protestors. She’s 32, a college-educated journalist, the mother of three children, active in the opposition party Islah. Her photograph is available online. [ii]
This is not her first foray into activism, as she previously led sit-ins at the Ministry of Social Affairs to gain the release of jailed journalists in her role as head of Women Journalists Without Chains. Framed photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Hillary Clinton sit on the mantel in her sitting room. She told a journalist that Clinton is her role model and she was inspired by Mandela’s memoir and Gandhi’s autobiography.[iii]
Here is her analysis of the role of women in reducing terrorist extremism[iv]:
Women have more opportunities in challenging extremism and terrorism than men due to woman’s nature in having patience, containing others, hating killing and bloodshed and—more importantly—women have tremendous feelings of love and sacrifice towards their husbands, children, and communities that is enough to enhance the attitude of coexistence, respect, trust, and listening to the other. This, in turn, will lead drying the roots and sources of extremism. Extremism stems from the culture of rejecting the other and the culture of hating the other. Therefore, there is no solution other than spreading the culture of coexistence and dialogue, skills that women master and possess.
A Yemeni woman cannot be part of terrorism because she herself is suffering from terrorism. She is banned from taking part in public life, fearing she will mingle with men (which is forbidden). The intellectual terrorism that is practiced against woman by a large segment of men in the Yemeni society makes her ineffective in the public domain either politically or socially. A Yemeni woman without doubt has no role in recruiting or training terrorists in order to kill innocent people. If the policy of excluding women from public life and preventing her from effectively taking part in developing this country and challenging terrorism along with men continues, the culture of extremism will flourish and the ramifications will be disastrous.
Malalai Joya is a pseudonym because this Afghan feminist and youngest member of the Afghan parliament fears for her life for herself and her family. A documentary called Enemies of Happiness filmed her running for office in the country with the highest percent of young people. She was suspended from attending parliament because she spoke up very directly about the corrupt Karzai government’s embracing of violent warlords and the US support for this regime. ”Collateral damage” from western military has killed thousands of civilians, she protests. This in a country where she reports “killing a woman is like killing a bird,” rape goes unpunished every day, girls are still sold into marriage, and most (80%) women are illiterate. She has to travel with bodyguards because of the fundamentalists’ threats on her life, like another Muslim woman who told a similar story. (Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali described her journey in her book Infidel.[i] ) Her courage and outspoken commitment to freedom and literacy started as a teenager, when she taught Afghan women in refugee camps where she lived near Peshawar, Pakistan. She then risked her life to teach girls in secret schools under the Taliban, back in Afghanistan. It’s one time she was grateful for having to wear a burka that disguised the schoolbooks she carried. She tells her story in A Woman Among Warlords and continues to lobby for democracy in her country and withdrawal of foreign troops. Like Tawakkol Karman who led the rebellion in Yemen, she had a supportive father and then husband and was inspired by reading about revolutionaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.[ii] (Ms. Joya’s list also includes Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Bhagat Singh, Saeed Sultanpur, and Victor Jara.) The courage these young women demonstrate in patriarchal societies is inspirational.
In India, where uneducated women are expected to obey their fathers and then their husbands, some are rebelling against violence and injustice. When Sampat Pal was a little girl in India, her parents wouldn’t let her go to school, so she wrote the alphabet on village walls and floors. They finally agreed to send her to school, but removed her when she was 12 to marry a man 13 years older. A year later she had the first of her five children. At 18, she started meeting with local organizations to work on women’s health issues and fight against child marriage, dowry abuse, and domestic violence. Her husband didn’t like her speaking with men but “He supports me now,” she said. She added, “There used to be a pervasive feeling of helplessness, a collective belief that fighting back is just not possible, but that is slowly changing.”[i]
She organized the Gulabi (Pink) Gang in 2006 to help victims of domestic violence. She told her group of women, “To face down men in this part of the world, you have to use force. We function in a man’s world where men make all the rules. Our fight is against injustice.” The group started with a few women and spread to villages throughout the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The women use clubs and bamboo batons to influence wife beaters, rapists, and corrupt government officials to change. One of the members whose husband used to beat her reported he stopped when she joined the gang; “I learned that the more you suffer silently, the more your oppressor will oppress you.”
When a landlord raped a teenage girl, he paid the police not to investigate. The Pink Gang called the police chief and he got on the case. In 2008 the group discovered that a government shop that was supposed to give free grain to the poor was in fact selling it. The pink-clad women stopped the trucks carrying grain to the illegal market by deflating the tires and taking the drivers’ keys. They pressured government officials to get the grain to the poor. Ms. Pal also teaches women job skills such as weaving plates from leaves and sewing.
An outspoken Egyptian head of the National Council for Women-Egypt, diplomat Mervat Tallawy, opposed the wishes of the Muslim Brotherhood when she voted for a UN resolution to combat violence against women. She told reporters after the UN vote in 2013,
International solidarity is needed for women’s empowerment and preventing this regressive mood, whether in the developing countries or developed, or in the Middle East in particular. It’s a global wave of conservatism, of repression against women, and this paper is a message that if we can get together, hold power together, we can be a strong wave against this conservatism. I believe in women’s cause. I don’t take money from the government. I work voluntarily. If they want to kick me out they can. But I will not change my belief in women. Women are the slaves of this age. This is unacceptable, and particularly in our region.[i]
[i] Edith Lederer, “UN Adopts Plan to Combat Violence Against Women, March 16, 2013, Associated Press.
[i] Anuj Chopra, “Pink Gang Women,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 14, 2009, p. A6. See a video: http://current.com/items/88939424_gulabi-gang-the-pink-women-of-india.htm
[i] Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Infidel. Free Press, 2007. See also Fadumo Korn. Born in the Big Rains: A Memoir of Somalia and Survival. The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2006.
[ii] Malalai Joya. A Woman Among Warlords. Scribner, 2009, p. 33.
[i] P. 157 Benjamin Gardner
[iv]Letter from Tawakkol Karman to Women Without Borders, February 2, 2010. http://womenwithoutborders-save.blogspot.com/2010/02/letter-from-twakkol-karman-chairwoman.html