Figure 22: Laxmi Agarwal

Laxmi.pngLaxmi was fifteen when she was attacked with acid on the way to a music lesson. She had rejected a marriage proposal, and the 32 year old man stalked her and attacked her for this decision. This is a similar story to many other victims of acid attacks in India, where acid was readily available and cheaper than milk.

But Laxmi doesn’t want you to call her a victim. Laxmi is an individual, who knows that her worth is not just skin deep.

“Today I love my face because I realized your face is not the only important thing. I didn’t give importance to my face. I gave importance to my work.”
In 2013, Laxmi brought a petition with 27,000 signatures to the Supreme Court, protesting how readily available acid was. This led to legislation which restricted the sale of acid, as well as providing help and compensation to survivors. She received the International Woman of Courage Award from Michelle Obama, delivered a Ted Talk, and is now a TV host. This is all in addition to her campaigning for Stop Acid Attacks.
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Acid attacks are often rooted in sexism, with 80% of victims being female, often attacked, like Laxmi, by rejected suitors or abusive fathers or partners.
Today, Laxmi is raising a daughter with her partner and fellow activist Alok Dixit. They decided not to marry, which I think is pretty cool, when the fixation with marriage is what resulted in her attack in the first place!
There is so much that could be said about the rising number of acid attacks, not only in India but across the globe. I could comment on the sexist nature of it, the desire to make a woman undesirable, but it’s such a complicated subject and one I can’t pretend to be an expert in. The most amazing thing is the ways in which many women choose to fight against the stigma and push for improvement in legislation. I am inspired by Laxmi’s courage to campaign for change, legally and socially, and her determination to be happy no matter what judgement she faces.
I recommend this article from the BBC and this CNN article, which also has a short video.
Unfortunately I can’t find a translation or subtitles for her Ted Talk – if anyone does, please let me know, I would love to know what she says in it!

 

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Figure 20: Margaret Ekpo

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Margaret Ekpo (1914-2006) was a Nigerian feminist and politician, Margaret fought against the economic and political inequalities faced by women.

Born in Creek Town, Calabar, Margaret’s first direct involvement in politics didn’t come until 1945, when she attended a meeting when her husband was unable to attend in Aba. She was the only woman there, but the fiery speeches she heard ignited her passion for politics, and by the 50’s she was well known across Nigeria and abroad as a force for change and a fierce advocate for women. She encouraged women to be politically aware; to participate in politics in order to protect their own interests, as well as the interests of their country.

A key example of this is when she established the Aba Township Women’s Association. In line with the views of many of the local men, the organisation wanted to educate the women to support their countries; but evidently the men didn’t like the idea of the women also being mobilised to take care of their own interests, as none of the men of Aba wanted to let their womenfolk join. Margaret thought outside the box; she managed to gain a monopoly on the salt supplies in Aba, which were in short supply due to the second World War, and told the shops that they may only sell to women who were members of her organisation. After that, the men quickly allowed their women to join up, and women voters outnumbered men by 1954.

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In 1949, when protesting the murders of miners leading a wage protest, she and three other important female leaders were arrested, harassed and threatened with deportation. They were eventually arrested after the women of Aba threatened to set fire to the town, which is a pretty impressive display of gratitude!

Hand in hand with her feminism was her desire to help Nigeria to gain independence from the British, a goal that they achieved in 1960. Margaret was one of the Members of Parliament that year, and throughout the 50’s and 60’s represented Nigerian interests, and usually specifically those of Nigerian women, in many official capacities.

Margaret was dignified but willing to take risks. Her political career seems to have quietened down a lot after the 60’s, but Ekpo is remembered fondly as a ‘Giant of 20th Century Nigerian Politics,’ who got involved at a pivotal moment of her country’s history; and her work encouraging 50% of the entire population to get involved in politics can’t have hurt the cause for Nigerian independence!

 

 

Figure 18: Cut Nyak Dhien

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Cut Nyak Dhein (1848 – 1908) was an upperclass Indonesian woman turned guerrilla freedom fighter who has become a symbol of the Indonesian resistance against Dutch invasion.

Born into the ruling class, Cut was married at the age of 12 to a man from another upperclass family. When Cut was 25 years old, the Dutch declared war on the Sultanate of Aceh (now a province of Indonesia) in order to gain control over the area, which was in a strategic position for the export of valuable peppercorns.

Cut spent the first three years keeping away from the war to take care of her child. However, when her husband was killed in action in 1878 she swore to take revenge on the Dutch. She spent the next 25 years fighting against them.

She got married again, and had another child, but refused to stop fighting the holy war, as her nation had declared it. Her second husband, Teuku Uma, was considered a hero, and as a pair they raised moral among the troops. At this point they were fighting a guerrilla war, laying traps and ambushes, but they were running low on supplies and in serious danger of defeat.

In a radical move, Cut and her husband surrendered, and spent the next two years working with the Dutch, inspiring their trust, to the horror of their own people. However, the couple were never loyal to the Dutch, and, while pretending to fight on their side, Cut and Teuku vanished back to their guerrilla army, equipped with lots of supplies taken from the Dutch to arm them!

Unfortunately for the native people of Aceh, the Dutch replaced their general with a man who would go to any lengths to win the war, and under his watch many atrocities were committed. The fear that this inspired meant that the tide of the war began to turn against the Acehnese, and the main base of the rebel army was discovered and Cut’s second husband was killed in 1899. Two years later Cut’s fight finally came to an end too, as she was captured, and sent into exile, where she lived until she died in 1908.

After her death Cut has remained a popular figure in Indonesia. In 1964 she was acknowledged by President Sukarno as a National Hero of Indonesia through Presidential Decree, and with an airport and a hospital named after her, as well as being depicted on the nation’s banknotes, Cut Nyak Dhein has not been forgotten in her homeland.

Even so, it took a lot of research to find her, and if my writing about her sounds dry it’s because the information about her in English that I have found is either made up of dry facts or is from blog posts, when normally I try to get more reliable sources (preferably ones that don’t refer to the female subject as ‘he’! I assume it’s because English wasn’t the writer’s first language, but it hardly inspires confidence!)

I think more people should know about this women who seems to have been indefatigable in her fight for justice, a fight which took everything from her – including her health; she was referred to when she was captured as an ‘old woman,’ and she certainly looks it, and she was losing her vision, but she was actually only 53 when she was captured!

Cut’s strength in the face of such adversary, and the fact that she outlived her father, both husbands and died the same year as her daughter, all of whom were killed in the fighting, must be a testament to her bravery and intelligence. I hope that you will remember this woman and her amazing work!

Figure 19: Grace Lee Boggs

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Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015) was a Civil Rights activist who advocated for social change, and was a philosopher, writer and feminist.

She grew up comfortably; her parents were very successful in the restaurant business, her father being described as “the king of the restaurant businessmen among the Chinese.” She studied Philosophy at College from the age of 16, earning a doctorate by 1940, and she became involved in Socialism, even translating some of Karl Marx’s early letters from German. Unfortunately, after graduating she was unable to get any work even in a department store, as they would not hire ‘orientals.’

She eventually found a job in the philosophy library of the University of Chicago, which paid $10 a week; she had to live for free in a rat-infested basement. The irony of this terrible situation is that those rats helped her get involved with the Civil Rights Movement! Walking through her neighbourhood one day, she saw a group protesting poor living conditions – including living with pests. Something must have clicked for Grace, and this was her first step to being involved with the black community and the struggles they faced.

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In 1953 Grace moved to Detroit, where she helped to edit the radical newspaper Correspondence.  a hub for the type of ideas Grace had been cultivating; especially about black worker’s rights and revolutionary thinking. The same year she married a fellow activist and inspiring speaker, James Boggs, who she met in Detroit.

They became the city’s most noted activists, hosting Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and the couple tackled issues including Civil Rights, feminism, the environment and Asian Americans. She believed in peaceful protests, and was a firm believer in the ability of the individual to change their own life. As the world changed and they moved into the 1970’s, and as Detroit declined, with rising rates of murder, issues with drug addiction, and theft, Grace got involved in finding peaceful ways to improve the city, with organisations which helped school children and planted community gardens.

Grace also wrote several books and went on to guest lecture at universities, even at 97 years old. She died at the age of 100, and never stopped trying to help others, changing the world in smaller ways than she and her friends dreamed of in her earlier years.

“I don’t know what the next American revolution is going to be like, but we might be able to imagine it if your imagination were rich enough.”

You can more about Grace’s life and her activism here and here!

Figure 17: Lise Meitner

 

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Lise Meinter (1878 – 1968) earned a Nobel Prize… Except that it wasn’t given to her.

Born in Austria in a Jewish family, Lise’s journey to university was slowed by her gender, but she was able to attend the University of Vienna from 1901, and emigrated to Berlin after earning her doctorate in 1907. She began working with Otto Hahn, a collaboration which lasted for the next 30 years. They worked together on making discoveries about the newly discovered field of nuclear physics.

Anyone who knows anything about the 20th century can see that as a Jewish woman in Germany, Lise was not able to stay in Germany after Hitler came to power and annexed Austria, and so in 1938 she fled to Stockholm, with only two hours to pack and say goodbye to everyone.

She joined Manne Siegbahn’s in Stockholm, but was given no equipment and had no collaborators; she didn’t even have a set of keys to her space. She continued to work with Hahn by letter, even meeting up with him secretly in Copenhagen to discuss their work. Lise and her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, would suggest experiments for the team back in Berlin, and it was them who first described and named the process of nuclear fission, which was discovered by her old team while she was exiled abroad.

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Lise was actually nominated more for the Nobel Prize than Hahn, but misfortune dictated that it was Siegbahn, who treated her unfairly and was apparently prejudiced against women in science, was the one who wrote a report about her, which would be considered when awarding the prize. The combination of Lise’s emmigration and lack of published work, as well as Manne’s sexism, meant that he underplayed her role in the discovery, and she was excluded from the Nobel Prize awarded to her former colleague Otto Hahn.

Although they remained in contact, Lise must have been hurt that, after the prize was awarded, Otto continued to downplay her role in the discovery, and he may have been offended by her criticisms of those who stayed behind in Nazi Germany; in a letter to Hahn, that never reached him, she said this:

‘You all worked for Nazi Germany. And you tried to offer only a passive resistance. Certainly, to buy off your conscience you helped here and there a persecuted person, but millions of innocent human beings were allowed to be murdered without any kind of protest being uttered.’

Nevertheless, she was always very affectionate towards him, and they were friends until 1968, the year that both of them died.

 

Figure 16: Mary Elizabeth Bowser

Mary McleodMary Elizabeth Bowser (c.1839 – ?) was born into slavery in America, but in adulthood was able to use this dreadful position in society to worm her way into the very heart of the Confederate government, and helped to overthrow the very system that wished to enforce slavery.

We don’t know who her parents were (she claimed to be a mix of black, Spanish – Cuban and white, but if this was true she would be unlikely to have been born into slavery.) Mary seemed from the start to be very favoured by her ‘owners,’ the van Lews, who baptised her in 1846 in the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, a church usually reserved for upper class white people; none of the van Lew’s other servants were baptised here.

Mary was favoured by her owner’s daughter, Elizabeth ‘Bet’ van Lew, and when her father died in 1851 she tried to free all of the families’ slaves (although this probably wasn’t legally binding in the state of Virginia at this time). Later in the 1850’s, Bet paid for Mary’s tuition to a Quaker school in Philadelphia (education for black people was also illegal in Virginia at this point!). Bet had also received her education at a Philadelphian Quaker school, which had instilled in her strong abolitionist values.

Civil War broke out in 1861, and Bet and her mother soon began secretly working to help the Union. She also ran the Richmond Underground, a very successful spy ring, in which Mary would play a huge role:

‘Van Lew, in turn, credited her family’s former slave as her best source, writing in the private diary she kept during the war, “When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, ‘What news, Mary?’ and my caterer never fails! Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion and prudence which is wonderful.” ‘*

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Mary got a job at the White House. Pretending to be an illiterate, enslaved housemaid. In this position she was able to read many important documents and overhear conversations which they assumed she was not bright enough to understand, and she fed this information to the Union leaders. The Confederates knew that there was a spy, and that they could keep no secrets as long as they were on paper, but they never worked out who it was. President Jefferson Davis complained that it was making his mental state collapse, being unable to find the spy.

Apparently suspicion did eventually fall on Mary, who fled to Richmond in 1865, although in 1905 Davis’ widow Varina denied the possibility that there was a spy in the White House, writing “I had no ‘educated negro’ in my household,” 

Details of her spy work were burnt after the war, along with information about all southern spies, in order to avoid retaliation from the defeated Confederates. As such, we don’t know that much about what she did, and indeed although she gave talks (using a pseudonym) after the war, we know almost nothing about her life after the war.

There’s evidence that she set up a school for black people which taught children during the day and adults at night, but she left this position in 1867, remarried and…. nothing more about her life is known. Her family members rarely spoke about her even into the 1900’s, still fearing, decades later, the retribution of resentful Confederates.

We can only catch tantalising glimpses of Mary and her personality, but even with only glimpses it’s easy to be inspired by this courageous and intelligent woman. I could easily have covered Bet in this project, too, who is also such an interesting woman, and I’m thankful that Mary was lucky enough to have that rare creature: a truly good ‘owner.’ This is a story about women taking politics into their own hands and changing it for the better, and Mary’s intelligence must have had a major effect on the success of the Union army’s success in the war. The least you can say is that her work must have brought it to a conclusion more rapidly and thus have saved lives. The sad fact is that Mary is not widely known of. I will leave you with this quote from the New York Times:

‘Journalists, historians, even the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame and the C.I.A. have celebrated the extraordinary Mary Bowser, yet most Americans have never heard of her. Women’s history and African-American history still garner inadequate attention as fields, even when they intersect with an event as widely studied as the Civil War.’*

Learn about her life here, and the life of Bet van Lew here.

*Quotes from this New York Times article

 

 

Figure 15: Rigoberta Menchu Tum

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Rigoberta Menchu (1959 – ) is a Mayan woman from Guatemala. Growing up in the midst of civil war between the rich landowners against the native Mayans, Rigoberta became involved in activism at an early age. She would work with her family, especially her father, to travel between rural communities to teach people their rights and how to organise, in addition to being involved in feminist organisations.

The Menchu family encouraged fellow Guatemalans to protest the Government led mass atrocities. They were punished gravely for their activism. In 1980, at a peaceful protest, Rigoberta’s father was murdered alongside 37 other activists, and his death was followed not long after by the torture and murder of her brother and the torture, rape and murder of her mother. At 21, Rigoberta fled her home country into exile.

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Even abroad Rigoberta continued to oppose the military regime back home, publishing her story and gaining global attention to her cause with her book I, Rigoberta Menchú in 1983. She also joined and led several organisations involved in the liberation of Guatemala, and even returned to the country three times, although she had to leave for her own safety.

In 1992 she received the Nobel Peace prize as recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples. Four years later the civil war finally ended, and Rigoberta finally returned home. She continues her work to support and seek justice for Mayan victims of the genocide, and founded the first indigenous-led political party in Guatamala.

Rigoberta’s commitment to seek justice and speak out against the regime that murdered her family and her people is no surprise; but what is remarkable is her willingness to speak loudly against the cruelty and injustice, despite the very real threats to her own life. Rigoberta is a testament to her family and the Mayan people, and I hope that she is forever remembered her bravery in the face of such brutality and danger.

Figure 14: Rachel Carson

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(1904-1964)

Born and raised near the industrial hub of Pittsburgh, Rachel Carson was an early environmentalist. Obtaining a degree and masters in marine biology, she began a fifteen year career in public service, writing about conservation and rising to the role of editor-in-chief of all publications for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Beginning her personal writing career with her first article in 1937, she used her knowledge gained from her education and career and turned it into lyrical prose which was accessible to the general public with it’s use of non-technical language.

With the publication of her award-winning second book ‘The Sea Around Us’ in 1951, Rachel was able to quit her government job and had financial freedom; this must have been a relief, as she worked to support her mother, and her orphaned nieces.

Rachel wrote about the joy and beauty of the living world, but also emphasised that human’s were only one part of this, and damage to the environment would effect us, too. Her third book, ‘Silent Spring,’ was the result of her investigations into the effects of chemicals and pesticides that were used to excess in agriculture and around the home. She spoke about the possible long term effects of this use and asserted that ‘biocides’ (her name for pesticides, as she pointed out that their effects were not limited to insects) were deadlier than manufacturers were willing to admit.

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The book lead to a presidential commission looking into her accusations, and it’s findings were mostly in agreement with hers; some pesticides were banned, and her work had a major effect on the public consciousness and our ideas about our ‘ownership’ of nature.

Two years after the publication of Silent Spring, after receiving awards and accolades, Rachel lost a long battle with cancer. Rachel’s passion and genuine concern for the sake of the wellbeing of the planet and all of it’s inhabitants must have shone through in her work, and has no doubt made the world a safer place than if companies had been able to continue with their indiscriminate use of dangerous and cancerous chemicals. Despite their efforts to discredit Rachel as a communist or ‘hysterical woman,’ people listened to her, and she used her voice for the benefit of everybody. Even so, I had never heard of her, so I’m delighted to continue the legacy of this peaceful and thoughtful woman who changed the world.

Figure 13: Wangari Maathai

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Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was a Kenyan environmentalist, feminist, advocate of democracy and of human rights.

Born in rural Kenya while it was still a colony of Britain, Wangari was, unusually for a girl, educated from a young age. Throughout school she demonstrated her intelligence, and in 1960 earned a scholarship to study in the USA. She went on to earn a degree in Kansas, a masters degree in Pittsburgh, and in 1971 she attained her PHD in Nairobi, becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate.

It was while she was serving on the National Council of Women of Kenya, in 1976, that she first proposed her idea of mass tree planting that would later earn her a Nobel prize as the Green Belt Movement.

The next year she began implementing her idea. In order to combat the severe deforestation of Kenya, she would pay poverty stricken women to plant trees, thus providing them with an income whilst reforesting the nation.

“Women needed income and they needed resources because theirs were being depleted, so we decided to solve both problems together.”Wangari Maathi

The movement was responsible for the planting of 30,000,000 trees and providing women with resources and opportunities.

Wangari also challenged the government about the treatment of the land that led to the deforestation; she was outspoken in her criticisms of the dictator Daniel arap Mo, and was consequently beaten and arrested on multiple occasions. This happened even after his regime ended; in 2008 she was hit with tear gas while protesting. Still, she did not give up, and began to broaden her criticisms to other issues including human rights, as she realised that the issues they were facing were connected, and the damage to the environment was the result of these issues, in particular the government’s failures.

Finally, in 2002, Mo’s regime fell, and Wangari became a member of parliament the same year. This was followed two years later when she was bestowed with the honour of the Nobel Peace Prize for ‘her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.’ 

Wangari was described as a force of nature, who was able to wear so many different hats and inspired admiration from the most poverty stricken women in rural Kenya, to the world leaders at the UN, to the intellects of Nairobi and around the world.

Wangari was incredibly brave, never shying away from using her voice as a force for change. Despite facing violence, jail and even divorce due to her views, Wangari never lost sight of her goals: To make her home country a fairer, better place. What an inspiration!

“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness,” she said, “to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”

The Green Belt Movement website is here.

Her wonderfully written obituary from the New York Times is here.

 

Figure 12: Rajaa Cherkaoui El Moursli

RajaaRajaa Cherkaoui El Moursli (1954- ) is a Moroccan nuclear physicist, and her contributions at CERN made the discovery of the Higgs boson particle possible.

Rajaa had to fight against convention in order to study science. She had to persuade her father to allow her to go to France to study for her postgraduate, at a time when Moroccan women rarely moved out of the home until they got married.

After her studies, Rajaa returned to Morocco where she worked as a professor at the University Mohammed V, Rabat. She used her role there to raise the standard of science in her home country. She established several masters courses, and works to get Moroccan universities involved in the international science communities so that they can be up to date with the latest innovations happening worldwide. To this day she works hard as the leader of a range of organisations to push the boundaries of science and innovation. However, her most well known work contributed to the discovery of the Higgs boson, one of the most important discoveries made in science.

The theory about the existence of the particle was fist proposed in 1964 by Peter Higgs. Considered to be a fundamental building block of the universe, efforts soon began in order to try to prove it’s existence, which, if found, would greatly improve our understanding of the universe and how it works. It still hadn’t been found in 1996, when Rajaa joined the research team, and it was probably finally found in 2012, almost 50 years after it was named.

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‘Professor Cherkaoui El Moursli contributed significantly to the construction, simulation, test and launch of the Electromagnetic Calorimeter, one of the sub-detectors of the ATLAS experiment. To great fanfare and thanks partly to her contribution to the ATLAS detector, the existence of the Higgs Boson was indeed proven. And, along with it, new pathways for exploring the nature of matter and energy.’ (source)

Rajaa is an inspiration to anyone who wants to pursue a career that you’re told could be off limits. Instead of waiting at home for a husband, as she was expected to do, Rajaa forged her own path, and was there for one of the biggest scientific discoveries in history; something which perhaps wouldn’t yet be discovered without her work. Not only this, but she also dedicates herself to being a ‘research activist,’ ensuring the high standards of teaching in Moroccan universities, as well as improving the range of disciplines taught. While she has been awarded multiple awards, I nevertheless feel that she is not well-known enough outside of Morocco and physics, which is why I’ve chosen to illustrate her.