Strong Women Who Are Risking It All to Change the World

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks
Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks | © Culture Trip
Culture Trip

A fearless era is unfolding for women. From tearing up destructive doctrines to sustaining a dying culture, here are women from all corners of the world who break the rules and make history for the good of their communities.

Vida Movahed, leading a resistance against the compulsory hijab

As citizens across Iran protest economic woes, a lone woman in Tehran climbs atop a fuse box in the center of the protests on Enghelab (Revolution) Street, takes off her headscarf, ties it to a stick, and waves it in silent protest. Though she was arrested shortly after, her message was far reaching, and she became known as “The Girl of Enghelab Street”. Vida Movahed, 31, was later released, but her initiative sparked others to follow in her footsteps. Brave women of all ages and backgrounds removed their headscarves and posted their pictures on social media under the hashtag “GirlOfEnghelabStreet”. Supportive men even joined in, as did more conservative women, who remained in their chadors but waved a white scarf, protesting the compulsory hijab. These actions led to at least 29 women being arrested. Women in Iran have a long history battling their right to wear or refuse the hijab. Under the rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi, the headscarf was forcefully removed, while after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, it became mandatory. Perhaps, as these fearless women continue to challenge the law, they will one day be granted the right to make a personal choice.

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Haenyeo, bread-winning mermaids risking their lives to provide

On South Korea’s Jeju islands, the bread winners are women. Known as haenyeo or “sea women”, they feed their families by harvesting seafood off the ocean floor. They plunge 15-20 meters deep into shark-infested waters and can hold their breath for two minutes while gathering sea cucumbers, conches and abalone. The ocean gives the haenyeo food, money and a way of life. But they risk their lives every time they dive. Though these women spend their whole lives in the ocean, each year a few haenyeo will inhale water and drown. The first thing young haenyeo learn is that “desire is in the eyes” and they should never gather more than they have breath for. If they don’t master their greed, the ocean becomes their grave. In the 1960s, there were almost 23,000 haenyeo, but their numbers are dwindling. Now, with less than 4,300 left, the elderly mermaids of Jeju island are likely the last living vestige of this unique profession.

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Maria Ressa, the CEO facing prison in her fight for press freedom

In the Philippines, many people avoid getting on the president’s bad side. But Maria Ressa is fighting fearlessly for press freedom, despite the dangers. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has reportedly killed 12,000 people through his alleged war on drugs. He also recently ordered soldiers to shoot female communist rebels in the vagina so as to make them “useless”. Maria Ressa is not intimidated. As the CEO of Rappler, a news site which is critical of Duterte’s administration, she has been made the target of a persecution campaign. The Securities and Exchange Commission has moved to shut down Rappler on grounds of international ownership. Ressa recently tweeted: “In more than 30 years as a journalist, I have never joined a protest on the other side of the cameras. Until I saw a systematic effort to silence journalists and shutdown [Rappler]. We will #DefendPressFreedom.” Ressa is currently preparing to take the case all the way up to the supreme court, and is even ready to risk imprisonment.

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Anna Thulin-Myge and Siri Oline, brave faces for the transgender movement

Anna Thulin-Myge’s mother described it as “the scariest day for both of them”. They received a message from the Norwegian Child Services, demanding “all the girl stuff [goes]” and that Anna should be rewarded when she “was behaving like a boy”. Siri Oline, Anna’s mother, had to comply or else risk having her child taken away. However, when Anna became depressed, Siri knew she had to take action. She filed a case and, after three months, Anna was allowed to wear dresses again. Seeing how her daughter blossomed, Siri started reaching out to local newspapers, which lead to Anna’s appearance on ITV2’s documentary Born in the Wrong Body. Norway, motivated by the stories of children like Anna, passed a new gender law in 2016. With parental consent, children from the age of six can self-identify as male or female regardless of what their birth certificate says. Girls and boys can now simply fill out an online form to determine their own truth.

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Dr. Michelle Henley, battling mankind for a magnificent creature

In a country where the illegal trade of animals is big business, one woman is risking it all to ensure the survival of the largest land mammals on earth: the African elephant. Co-founder of Elephants Alive, Dr. Michelle Henley monitors elephant movements and their social interactions within the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which straddles South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. “I have seen landscapes emptied by greed for ivory, which has sadly become the human’s measure of prestige,” Michelle told Culture Trip, her passion unbridled. “There are no words to describe that kind of loneliness once you have experienced the close social ties, the compassion, the intelligence and the social intrigue which all comes naturally to these pachyderms.” It goes without saying that working so closely with these sought-after animals coincides with many dark obstacles. Wayne Lotter, conservationist and Elephants Alive’s partner, whose main mission was to dismantle the illegal ivory market, was tragically murdered in August 2017. Despite the challenges, Dr. Henley is making waves in conserving these gentle giants and, since the start of her programme, over 70 elephants have been humanely collared and tracked.

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Aryana Sayeed, the woman who dares to sing under the Taliban

In a country where music was banned under the Taliban government, Aryana Sayeed brought back live singing to Afghanistan. In the summer of 2017, Sayeed was scheduled to perform in her native Kabul. But the Afghan police and army cancelled the concert due to planned protests by extremist groups. Undeterred by the death threats, Sayeed moved the event to a local hotel and took to the stage to meet her admiring fans. Sayeed currently lives in London, but remains Afghanistan’s biggest pop star, garnering huge support from female Afghan millenials—a role that she carries with pride.

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Carmen Rosa, the wrestler drop kicking discrimination

In the mid-2000s, a group of Bolivian women began a social wrestling club in El Alto for victims of domestic abuse. The club gave them a chance to meet fellow survivors, regain confidence, and blow off some serious steam. They were called Cholitas Wrestling, after the traditional dress they donned during fights. Realizing the great entertainment potential, an entrepreneurial male promoter transformed Cholitas Wrestling, then a little known oddity, into a cornerstone of the Bolivian wrestling scene. Yet, as is often the case, the women were underpaid and undervalued. Enter Carmen Rosa, a local female wrestling superstar who convinced her colleagues to ditch their exploitative contracts and form a new, female-run Cholitas Wrestling Foundation. Affectionately known as La Campeona (The Champion), Rosa now leads these empowered indigenous women to battle, inspiring countless other women to do the same.

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Geerte Piening, the activist campaigning for more women’s bathrooms

In 2017, Geerte Piening sparked debates over the lack of female toilets in Amsterdam after she contested a public urination fine. After a night out in 2015, Geerte Piening was caught urinating on a street and fined €90 ($105, £80). Piening challenged this charge in court on the grounds that there weren’t any suitable toilets nearby—all the the city’s pubs and cafés had closed and the closest female restroom was around two kilometers away. The judge presiding over Piening’s case dismissed her appeal and said that she could have used a male urinal. Just days after the hearing, protests took place all across Amsterdam. The demonstrations garnered international media attention, sparking mini-movements on social media. It is still uncertain whether or not Amsterdam’s local government will address these issues, but Piening’s actions have brought attention to the lack of basic facilities for women in the country’s public spaces.

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the filmmaker whose work helped to criminalize honor killings

When Pakistani journalist and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy released her Oscar-winning documentary Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2015), she was met with extreme hostility. The film highlights the country’s epidemic of honor killings and follows the story of 19-year-old Saba, whose father and uncle try to kill her for marrying a man of her choosing. The film was condemned for tarnishing Pakistan’s image. Obaid-Chinoy was accused of being a “western agent”, “propagandist” and “traitor” by some of her own countrymen. She even received threats of physical violence. Despite all this, she refuses to back down, stating: “If you don’t like your reflection in the mirror, don’t shoot the messenger.” Although Obaid-Chinoy received fierce criticism from some, she also rallied support from thousands of Pakistani men and women. The filmmaker’s seminal work eventually helped pass a law in parliament to criminalize honor killings.

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Estela de Carlotto, the grandmother who spent decades searching for her lost grandson

Estela de Carlotto lived through Argentina in the 1970s, when the military dictatorship are reported to have kidnapped, tortured and murdered over 30,000 people. Many of the bodies were never found. Carlotto endured the kidnapping, torture and ransom of her husband. Then, her pregnant daughter Laura was kidnapped by the regime. After relentlessly protesting at the Plaza de Mayo and engaging in tense negotiations with the military, she was summoned and given her dead daughter’s body. But Carlotto knew that her daughter had given birth to a son in captivity. So she spent the next few decades of her life trying to find the estimated 500 children who were born to detained women. In 2014, a DNA test reunited her with her grandson, making him the 114th grandchild to have been found. Carlotto was awarded the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 2003, and, at 87 years old, is president and one of the last surviving ‘Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo’.

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Nimco Ali, campaigning against Female Genital Mutilation

In Somaliland (a self-declared independent state, which broke away from Somalia in 1991), 98 per cent of women have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), according to a Unicef report. One woman looking to change these figures is Nimco Ali, co-Director of Daughters of Eve, a Somali-survivor-led NGO dedicated towards the eradication of the practice of FGM. Daughters of Eve strives to change government policy, educate young girls about the dangers of FGM, and provide support and services for survivors. Ali traveled to her country of birth, Somaliland, ahead of the country’s elections to lobby on the issue, offering to work for free for whoever became president. Because of her tireless efforts, Ali has since been lauded by countless organizations and publications and received numerous awards. She is currently campaigning to stand as a London MP with the Women’s Equality Party, and simultaneously campaigning for FGM to be recognized as a form of child abuse.

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Masha Gessen, an LGBTQ activist and journalist fighting anti-gay legislation in Russia

Masha Gessen is an openly gay journalist in a country where so-called “homosexual propaganda” is banned. Gessen has been relentlessly fighting for LGBTQ rights both in the U.S. and in her native Russia, where she predicts to have been the “only publicly out gay person who was not a full-time gay activist.” A frequent critic of Vladimir Putin, she reported on Russian policy at a time when Russian journalists were routinely beaten and harassed. In 2012, she was dismissed from her role as editor of the popular-science journal Vokrug sveta. Soon after, the Russian authorities began threatening to remove children from gay households, forcing Gessen to move to New York in 2013 with her three children. Author of 2017’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, Gessen has resumed her role as an outspoken critic of domestic policies that jeopardize lives of women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Regina Wilson, a firefighter on a mission to dismantle sexism

Firefighter Regina Wilson has spearheaded recruitment of young women of color to the New York City Fire Department, battling the presupposition that firefighting is a “man’s job”, and looking for (in her words) “women who are not afraid to sweat“. As of 2016, women represented less than 0.5 per cent of New York City firefighters. Self-made Wilson defied the male-dominated field and, in 1999, became the 12th African American woman to join the FDNY, where she has dedicated herself to fighting sexism and improving visibility for women firefighters. In an interview with the Tory Burch Foundation, Wilson said: “I want other women to learn that although people wanted me to fail, I succeeded because I didn’t give up. Now there is nothing in the world someone can tell me I cannot do.”

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Zoya Falkova, the artist bringing light to violence against women

Zoya Falkova is a Kazakhstani artist fighting for women’s human rights in a country where, according to one report, over half the female population (52 per cent) have been victims of domestic abuse. Falkova’s home country rarely brings domestic violence to light, especially not through art. “When you try to speak in defense of women, you always come across extremists defending ‘traditional values’,” Falkova says. “I’ve had several conflicts on this ground.” Despite this, Falkova refuses to be silenced. She is already working on her next project, which will focus on deconstructing the myth that a “woman’s place” is in the kitchen.

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

Vannary San, defying societal norms and reviving Cambodia’s silk trade

In Cambodia, women are often expected to marry young, have children and stay at home. Vannary San defied this; she moved from her poverty-stricken village to the capital Phnom Penh at only 17. Determined to make something of her life, Vannary spent seven years working days and studying nights for a degree in business management. She also learned English from scratch. In 2011, she launched Lotus Silk Boutique, with the aim of breathing new life into Cambodia’s dwindling silk trade. Vannary now works with eight underprivileged communities around Phnom Penh, training them in the dying arts of silk weaving, cloth dyeing and mulberry growing—producing top-quality products that are sold across the globe. She works tirelessly to encourage young Cambodian girls and women to follow their dreams. Vannary told Culture Trip: “My aim is to eradicate poverty in Cambodia and empower the people. I am proud to be a female and to have achieved what I have, but the work is far from over.”

Sam Peet / Alexander Hellebaut / Joe Brooks

14 writers contributed to this article: Harry Stewart, Tom Coggins, Sorcha O’Higgins, Jade Cuttle, Noreen Gulwani, Marissa Carruthers, Katrina Escalona, Danai Christopoulou, Carina Claassens, Feride Yalav, JW McCormack, Maya Sapieka, Siukei Cheung, Tahiera Overmeyer.

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