When I was growing up, International Women’s Day played a big part in my life. In Italy, men gave women flowers from the mimosa tree to mark the occasion and we all felt better for a day. Although it is obvious to say that every day should be International Women’s Day, we are far from a world where gender equality is the norm. It is enough, for example, to look at Instagram to feel a sense of despair at how often women are objectifying themselves there. This is why I decided to start from Instagram and tell you about some of the women who inspire me every day. They are driving the conversation on important topics – some with humor, some with glamour, some with urgency. There are so many of them that when I was asked to choose five, I wanted to disappear in a hole. May these five inspire you to dig further and find others and become yourself agents of change through your platforms – use social media for social change and celebrate International Women’s Day every day.
Egyptian women’s rights activist
“Being a female became a barrier between me and the freedom for which I yearned,” wrote Huda Sha’arawi in her memoir detailing life in a Cairo harem. In 1892, at age 13, she was forced to marry a cousin 40 years her elder yet that didn’t stop the political and feminist activist from fighting for gender equality and seeking to reform the societal norms that often restricted women in the early 1900s. As founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union and the Arab Feminist Union, Sha’arawi helped redefine standards for women in Egypt and the entire region. She enabled greater educational access for women and children, sought the right for females to vote, was outspoken about increasing the age of marriage for girls to 16, and opened a medical clinic for the underprivileged. Her most infamous act of protest was removing her mandatory face veil at a train station in Cairo in 1923, inspiring others to follow suit in one of the first public rejections of the veil in the country. “I intend to vocalize my pain and start a revolution for the silent women who faced centuries of oppression,” Sha’arawi wrote – and vocalize she did.
Brazilian indigenous activist
“Weaving dreams, bridging worlds” may seem like a lofty goal but for indigenous activist Mariana Maia, it’s a way of life. Spending most of her time in the Amazon interacting with indigenous groups – such as the Huni Kuin and Yawanawá – Maia advocates for their rights and raises awareness about their way of life. “Maia is an activist on the forefront of many indigenous rights projects and spends most of her time in the forest. Indigenous leaders are the way forward to protect the planet and find solutions. When you follow her, you immediately understand why,” Firth says. Maia facilitates community development initiatives such as cultural festivals and Unesco research programs, visual storytelling projects, and guided journeys into the rainforest. Fluent in Portuguese and English, Maia often serves as a translator for tribal leaders between NGOs and governmental institutions to foster greater cultural understanding of their distinctive backgrounds and encourage change at both national and international levels. Putting into practice what Mahatma Gandhi stated – “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people” – Maia empowers indigenous people to preserve and promote their culture not only within their country but also the rest of the world.
Kenyan environmental activist
An act as simple as planting a tree has the power to promote conservation and empower women, as proved by the late Wangari Maathai – who is “simply a shero,” Firth believes. As the founder of the Green Belt Movement, which champions sustainable development and poverty reduction through community-based tree-planting, Maathai encouraged more than 30,000 women to plant 30 million trees and improve their livelihood “It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees,” the UN Messenger of Peace said. What started as a grass-roots movement in Kenya soon spread to other parts of Africa, helping prevent desertification and strengthening environmental, social, and democratic ecosystems. Due to the far-reaching impact of her initiative, Maathai became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her “holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights, and women’s rights.” Maathai was not only an activist for ecological concerns, but also for human rights. As the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree and the first woman to chair a university department in the region, Maathai soon became an icon for change in Africa and was able to enact such progress in her role as a member of Kenyan parliament, of which she was elected to with a staggering 98% of the vote. Although she passed away in 2011 from cancer, her legacy lives on in each tree planted and each woman and child she inspired to make a difference in their own ways. As Maathai once said, “We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk.”
Jeanne de Kroon
German fashion activist
Efforts towards sustainable practices have permeated almost every industry, including fashion, with many designers aiming to go green and creating ethical sartorial statements. Jeanne de Kroon’s Berlin-based label, Zazi Vintage, is a model for sustainable impact, releasing diverse collections created in collaboration with female artisanal communities around the world. Partnering with women in Afghanistan, India, Nepal, as well as the UN Ethical Fashion Initiative, De Kroon empowers women to support themselves economically and socially. “She is an example of a young woman who is dedicating her life to building a brand based on partnerships with women and artisans all over the world. She is fun, rebellious, and her smile is totally infectious,” Firth says. Zazi Vintage features traditional craftwork on luxury garments, with each collection spreading the diverse and inspiring stories of the communities involved in creating it. De Kroon sources her material transparently and mainly uses recycled or organic fabrics. One example is her signature Suzani coat, made from upcycled shearling, with all proceeds used to pay for girls’ education. Since she’s part of an industry that produces 10% of overall carbon emissions (according to the UN Environment Programme), De Kroon makes a point to provide sustainable alternatives that serve to develop its creators’ communities as well as consumers.
Swedish environmental activist
“I don’t need to explain why she changed history,” Firth says. Her Fridays 4 Future protests have seen students protesting all over the world – and they are unstoppable. Anyone interested in still having a profitable business in 10 years, remember – they will be your consumers.” The Swedish teen environmentalist became the face of the climate crisis movement when she started a school strike outside her parliament in 2018. That act spurred thousands of young people around the world to join her in protest against the lack of political action about the climate emergency. Since then, Thunberg has spearheaded the largest climate demonstration in history with four million participants worldwide, sailed zero-carbon Atlantic voyages, and addressed leaders at the UN and World Economic Forum. As a topic that young people labeled as the most pressing issue of today, according to a 2019 Amnesty International survey, the climate crisis has climbed to the forefront of societal discourse, with Thunberg leading the charge toward sustainable action. “You must unite behind the science. You must take action. You must do the impossible. Because giving up can never be an option,” she told the US Congress in 2019.
Originally published in the March 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia