I used to think being a woman meant either accepting one’s “place” in the world as the “weaker sex” or fighting tirelessly for an equality that no one should have to earn. Women have been equal to their counterparts since day one, and yet we’re continued to be thought of as “less than”; not to mention the races, religions and creeds who daily face heinous violence and oppression or even death for reasons grounded in similar backwards logic. People are subjugated and killed for the pigmentation of their skin, their sexual orientation or for their beliefs, and the fact of the matter is, every one of us is equal; we are born equal, but those in power do not wish to be tarred with the same brush as their brethren, and so they’ve built this illusion of inferiority based largely on power and money, an illusion one may only realize is false upon removing their divisive variables from the equation. However, I won’t digress – instead, as it’s International Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to focus on the Woman Question.
Why have women so long had to prove their equality while men get a free pass? I’m not sure if one can even discuss the disproportionate disparities between our traditional gender roles, without taking into consideration the complex evolution of humankind and the development of these roles across history and across culture. The biological constructs that initially created such stringent roles are pretty basic (however, with probable nuances that only experts on the subject can outline properly) – physical strength led men to become “hunters,” while strengths in nurturing and foraging led women to become “gatherers.” Hunters chase and strike; gatherers collect calmly; and nurturers are sensitive to others needs and brilliant at making do with what they have.
In some ways this “making do” epitomizes a long, tired history of the mistreatment of women and the calm, collected way women were expected to accept their subjugation. Although I’m not sure how “naturally” the gender roles evolved, I am sure that the female gender role somehow became undervalued, and consequently, women were no longer seen as equal – if they ever were to begin with – thus resulting in women playing a subordinate role in both society and at home.
Despite the fact that subjugation is never fun, it does produce some intensely powerful, admirable and extraordinary character traits in the subjugated. Compassion, empathy, selflessness, even fearlessness. Ask any individual – man or woman – who has ever inspired, and you’ll likely find mistreatment is what shapes the most beautiful creations. Like stone beaten incessantly by the sea’s waves, the perfect pain erodes away all faults, and a smoothness, a softness, a brilliance is all that remains. I guess oppressors have their uses, for they polish the most perfect stones. Here are five profoundly inspiring gems composed of double-X chromosomes.
The Activist – Malala Yousafzai
I want to be besties with Malala Yousafzai. This 16-year-old Pakistani girl is braver than thousands of full-grown Taliban put together. Writing a blog at the age of 11 and 12 to broadcast to the world what the Taliban’s oppressive rule was doing to her beloved Swat Valley, Malala was most tired of being refused her right to education. She was tired of remaining silent, and so she spoke. Brilliantly. And an attempt on her life was the consequence.
On her way to school one morning in 2012, her bus was stopped, a man asked for Malala by name, and she was shot directly in the left side of her forehead. She was flown to Britain and remained in critical condition where, for days, life and death hung in the balance. After successful surgery removed the bullet, reconstructive surgery helped her smile again, and after months of intensive rehabilitation, her voice had grown louder and more defiant than ever. Instead of silencing a lion, they had made it roar.
Though the Taliban continue to threaten her life, Malala intends to block at every turn the terrorist plot to create mass ignorance. Zombifying and misinforming the masses is the aim of any oppressor, anyone whose ambition is to gain corrupted power – such as dictators or terrorist groups. Malala knows this. She’s building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan (donate here at the I Am Malala fund), because she knows that education is the only way to create a culture of intelligence that cannot be as easily manipulated; one that will know injustice when they see it; one that will fight back. Ignorance is so easy to manipulate. Education is the key to freedom, and knowledge literally is power. Hence the long-subjugated role of women, who, throughout history, were often refused education (and sadly still are in some places) for fear that they might reach their potential. The potential that is Malala.
There is more courage in Malala’s pen than there was in the bullet that pierced her or than there ever could be in any bullet sent to kill free speech. This is why Malala Yousafzai is a perfect gem and a fearless lion. And I hope she keeps on roaring.
Watch her speak perfectly here.
Buy her book (a great and informative read) here.
The Poet – Marina Tsvetaeva
I was introduced to Marina by my friend Lyudmila, who knows all the best poets and philosophers. Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva was a Russian and Soviet poet with a difficult life…as seems to be a theme with most Russian writers. From a bourgeois educated family, she’d developed a mind, mingled with elite intelligentsia and produced creative poetry unparalleled during Soviet times. She lived through and wrote of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Moscow famine that followed it. In an attempt to save her daughter Irina from starvation, she placed her in a state orphanage in 1919, where Irina died of hunger. Devastated, Tsvetaeva fell into exile in 1922 and lived with her family in various European cities, without two pence to scratch together. When she returned to Russia in 1939, her husband and one of her daughters were arrested on espionage charges, and her husband was executed. The Soviet state having stripped Tsvetaeva of her aristocracy and wealth, forced her into a life of degradation and humiliation. As a washerwoman, she could not feed her children, she could not survive. Her creativity suppressed, poetry died, passion died, life died. She committed suicide.
Tsvetaeva’s body of work is considered among the greatest and most inventive in twentieth century Russian literature.
“Much Like Me” by Marina Tsvetaeva
Much like me, you make your way forward,
Walking with downturned eyes.
Well, I too kept mine lowered.
Passer-by, stop here, please.
Read, when you’ve picked your nosegay
Of henbane and poppy flowers,
That I was once called Marina,
And discover how old I was.
Don’t think that there’s any grave here,
Or that I’ll come and throw you out …
I myself was too much given
To laughing when one ought not.
The blood hurtled to my complexion,
My curls wound in flourishes …
I was, passer-by, I existed!
Passer-by, stop here, please.
And take, pluck a stem of wildness,
The fruit that comes with its fall –
It’s true that graveyard strawberries
Are the biggest and sweetest of all.
All I care is that you don’t stand there,
Dolefully hanging your head.
Easily about me remember,
Easily about me forget.
How rays of pure light suffuse you!
A golden dust wraps you round …
And do not let it confuse you,
My voice from under the ground.
The Politician – Fawzia Koofi
The fact that Koofi lived past a day is a miracle; proof that she was destined for bigger, brighter things. Born to a politician, her father was a member of Parliament with seven wives, Koofi’s mother being the “favorite.” As her father had just wed another young wife, Koofi was meant to be a son, so that her mother could re-win her father’s affection. When she turned out to be a girl (and apparently an ugly newborn at that), she was left out in the blistering hot sun to die. Her fight to live, her infant wails, wrung enough compassion from the heart of her mother that she could no longer turn her back on her child. And thank heavens she didn’t.
Koofi went on to receive an education, which was rare for girls in her village, and she was the only daughter in her family to do so. She continued her studies at university, graduating with a master’s in business and management. She decided to further her education with a political science focus, after which she became a child protection officer with UNICEF, working with disadvantaged and marginalized women and children.
In 2001, after the Taliban fell, Koofi began her political career, focusing on education for girls. In 2005, she was elected to the lower house of the Afghan National Assembly and later became Afghanistan’s first female Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament. She was re-elected in 2010.
Her political career as a female activist has been answered with several assassination attempts, and yet Koofi is currently running IN AFGHANISTAN as a presidential candidate in the upcoming 2014 election. She intends to fight for women’s rights, crush political corruption, and advocate for universal education.
This woman’s ambition and courage astounds me. To live in one of the most oppressive societies and raise your voice against it seems to me not only to be brave and strong, but to be uncommonly heroic. Speaking about young girls being sold or traded in Afghan marriages, Koofi says, “It was a conspiracy of culture that bound them all and none were free to challenge it.” Well, challenge it, Koofi did and will continue to do.
I highly recommend her book, The Favored Daughter. You can buy it here.
The Philanthropist – Mother Teresa
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Mother Teresa. I liked her even more upon learning that letters she’d written revealed she’d often felt doubt. Though I thought it ugly that they published her letters without consent, I think it’s important to know even the purest and most selfless among us are human, and that their faith, too, can be shaken. To me, this made Mother Teresa’s complete and utter devotion to her work helping the sick, the poor and the hungry even more wholly admirable. Such pure selflessness is so unparalleled that it kind of makes your heart hurt.
Though she may not have been oppressed as her predecessors on this list, she certainly gave her life to help those who were. I’m not sure anyone has or ever has had a bigger heart or more compassion than Mother Teresa. Like the new pope, Pope Francis, she seems to break the religious barriers of her vocation, drawing love and admiration from people the world over, whether or not they, themselves, are Catholic or even religious.
Born in Albania as Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, in her youth, Teresa was drawn to the lives of missionaries. She received her calling early on and left home at 18. One of her first projects was to teach the children of the poor without any equipment or supplies. But God’s nature provided Teresa the supplies she needed: she taught the children to read and write in the dirt with sticks.
Teresa promoted literacy and hygiene, looked after the sick and poor, and loved the unloved. She created the Mission of Charity in 1950, devoted to caring for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” Teresa saw the value in every living soul.
Mother Teresa won many awards for her humanitarian work, including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, the $192K prize money of which she donated to India’s poor. She devoted her life to others until her death in 1997 and, because of this, “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta” lives on in the hearts of many.
The Nurturer – Stephanie Holom
Mothers are a unique species. They are selfless givers and, oftentimes, the only being in life who loves completely unconditionally. Though my mother is exceptional, she’s no exception. Most mothers are nurturers (unless they’re of the Joan Crawford variety); they’re our security blankets and our creature comforts. I may rest my head in various homes across the globe, but when I think of “home,” I think of my mother. To me, the two words are synonymous.
My exceptional mother birthed five monsters and, in a brave collaboration with my father, she’s raised these monsters into presentable (some might even say productive) adults. I’m not sure I can even begin to explain how she managed such a feat, but I’ll give it a shot.
Firstly, she was always there. Always. Don’t know if every parent realizes that just being there, being available, by having ears to talk to and a shoulder to cry on, you’ve fulfilled much of your parental duty. A parent’s presence is everything to a child. The Nurturer would wake with her brood of five in the morning, see us off to school, and be there to greet us when we returned home, often with some form of foods involved. I know not all mothers have the option to be present as much as my mother was, but if you’re shooting for “The Nurturer” status, be present as much as you possibly can. Your children will thank you for it.
…or they won’t. Which brings me to my second point: being a mother is largely a thankless job. Mothers are celebrated one day a year (if their offspring don’t forget from whom they sprung). I don’t have breath enough to thank my mother for all she’s done for me, and she will never know how much she inspires each one of her children. And yet, though at times, her babies were enormously self involved, and though at times, they still are, my mother has never once complained about their lack of praise or accolades. But that doesn’t surprise me; The Nurturer is perhaps the most humble of women. The least I, or anyone, can do to show our appreciation is begin every statement with a “Thank you, Momsie. I owe my life to you. Literally.”
Lastly, even as monsters, the flippant five have always known our mother loves us with all her heart. How do we know? Because she weeps with pride over every single little thing we do, every teeny tiny accomplishment. In fact, I can guarantee you she is crying right now as she reads this. Moms wear their hearts on their sleeves, and that’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
I used to think…
I used to think being a woman meant either accepting one’s “place” in the world as the “weaker sex” or fighting tirelessly for an equality that no one should have to earn. But though I hope we continue to do the latter, I also hope we understand that being a woman means so much more than having a “place” or forever fighting. Being a woman means that we are human; we have heart, mind, character, quality, strength, skill, talent, ambition – all these things are already ours. We have value. It’s what we do with our value that determines our worth. For anyone to tell women otherwise is simply laughable, and I encourage all not only to call every autocrat out on their propaganda, but to show them where they’re wrong through our acts and through our deeds.