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.
Laxmi crop
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 21: Wai Wai Nu

Wai WaiWai Wai Nu (1987 – ) Was studying for a law degree when, in 2005, she was sentenced to 17 years in prison along with her family. Their supposed crimes were that her father had spoken out against the brutal military regime that ruled Myanmar from 1962-2011.

Wai Wai was shocked to be imprisoned, as she had been taught that only criminals went to jail; she questioned her families’ behaviour, wondering if they really had done something wrong.

However, in prison, meeting the other women she was incarcerated with, she saw that many of them were as young as her, whose crimes were either non-existant, or were committed due to poverty, coercion, or both.

After the collapse of the regime in 2011, when she was 25, Wai Wai and her family were freed. She completed her law degree and immediately began working as an agent of change.

Wai Wai is a Rohingya. This is a Muslim minority living in a Buddhist country who have been the victims of what the UN have called a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’

Wai Wai closeUnlike many of her people, Wai Wai’s family were somewhat middle class, and she has access to a passport, something denied to many other Rohingya people. She uses her comparatively privileged position, which is backed up by her seven years in prison and her understanding of the treatment of the Rohingya people, to give talks and interviews around the world, advocating for understanding and kindness between people of all walks of life.

She set up two NGOs; Women’s Peace Network-Arakan has since spread to include men and different regions of Myanmar, and uses workshops and training to promote understanding between different groups. The other, Justice for Women, she organises workshops to educate women about their rights, and offers legal council.

The plight of the Rohingya people is a terrible one, and I feel that it was discussed for perhaps a week on the news here in the UK before disappearing again. But the crisis is real, and tolerance in Myanmar seems to be a real issue between religious and cultural groups. By avoiding using potentially divisive terms (The Pope, during a recent visit, was warned to avoid it, as it could cause violence to break out) and spreading a message of love, kindness and tolerance, Wai Wai Nu is helping her country to move past hatred and fear, and towards a better future.

For more info, read this!

Figure 20: Margaret Ekpo

Margaret

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 19: Grace Lee Boggs

Grace

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.

Grace close.jpg

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 15: Rigoberta Menchu Tum

Rigoberta.jpg

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 11: Edith Cavell

Nurse lady

 

Underrated:

The execution by German troops of the brave Edith Cavell (1865-1915), an English nurse who tended to the wounded from both sides of the Great War, caused shock and outrage globally. The German’s caught her smuggling Allied soldiers out of Belgium and across the border to neutral Holland, and at her trial accused her of being a spy, something which was vehemently denied by the British government. Her execution fuelled Allied propaganda as they encouraged men to join up to avenge her savage murder;

But recently unearthed information suggests that the spying allegations were true.

Born the daughter of a vicar, Edith spent a lot of her life in Belgium; first as a nanny, and later as a nurse, and she opened the first secular nursing school there. When World War I broke out, Edith was home in Norfolk visiting her family, but immediately returned to the continent to use her abilities for the war effort.

She was criticised by the British public for her treatment of German and Austrian soldiers, but she was soon seen as an innocent martyr when she was put to death only a year after the outbreak of war.

However, in 2015, one hundred years after her death, new information was dug up in Belgian archives by former MI5 head Dame Stella Rimington which suggest that the German allegations may well have been true after all.

It seems that while Edith was smuggling men out of Belgium she may have been smuggling secrets, too; hidden in shoes, sewn into clothing, written on pieces of cloth, the Allies gained information about the locations of trenches and planes. While it is possible that she was not directly responsible for these messages, she was certainly part of a network that were involved in espionage, and she was known for using secret messages. The recently rediscovered evidence includes the account written by one of her network in 1919, a Belgian named Herman Capiau who was arrested with her; “Whenever it was possible to send interesting intelligence on military operations, this information was forwarded to the English intelligence service punctually and rapidly.”

I think perhaps the spying allegations, which can’t be proven conclusively, perhaps distract from the courage and kindness of Edith. Her life was spent caring for others who suffered, and training other women to be able to help too. In this respect, the most fitting memorial to her life would be the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, a fund set up the year she died to help nurses who were ‘shattered mentally and physically.’ This fund is still in existance, and must be even more needed than ever.

Edith’s successors to the nursing profession today are under a huge strain. Many are forced to rely on foodbanks as they cannot afford food, even as they are worked to exhaustion. The budget for the NHS was decreased due to the financial crisis in 2010 and things haven’t improved enough since then: ‘the number of staff leaving the NHS for work-life balance and ill health issues has risen sharply since 2010’,* an issue exacerbated again by Brexit Britain, since there has been a ’96 per cent reduction in the number of EU nurses joining the UK register since the Brexit referendum alongside an increasing number of EU staff leaving the NHS.’ (Britain has often had to rely on migrant workers to save the NHS, and this is far from the first time we’ve treated them terribly for coming here to help us!)

Nursing continues to be a profession that is undervalued, and I hope that Edith’s legacy provides hope to modern nurses who, like her, sacrifice their own welfare in order to care for others. I’ll leave you with this quote:

‘As nurses you must take no part in the quarrel. Our work is for humanity. The profession of nursing knows no frontiers.’ Edith Cavell, 1914

 

*for the source of this info, click here

To find out about Edith and the new information about her, read here or listen to the 2015 documentary here. You can find her trust here.

Figure 9: Hedy Lamarr

Hedy

Underrated:

Hedy Lamarr is a classic case of the ‘Underrated’ segment of this illustration series. Although she didn’t talk about it much, it was known that she was interested in inventing (she had a miniature lab set up in her trailer for between takes). However, mostly she was recognised only for her looks, earning the title ‘most beautiful woman in the world.’

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (1914-2000), Hedy began her film career in Germany when she was 17. She soon got married, to a weapons mogul named Fritz Mandl. Mandl soon revealed his colours as a jealous control freak, and reduced Hedy to the role of trophy wife, controlling her closely, only allowing her out of the house with a servant and controlling her tiny allowance. He even bugged the rooms in their house so he could listen in on her conversations.

Because of his job, Mandl entertained a lot of important men, and when the Third Reich rose to power he signed a deal with Hitler. He also entertained Mussolini. The upside to these dinner party companions is that Hedy was able to learn a whole lot about weaponry and war, which paid off… as soon as she finally escaped.

She took her chance when he went out of town, using the money she had squirrelled away to make her getaway to Paris, (possibly) dressed in the outfit of a maid who she had drugged. She continued on to London, and Mandl gave up his pursuit, deciding that divorce would probably be less effort.

There, she met Louis B. Mayer, president of Hollywood’s MGM studio, who proposed a contract with her. But it a pittance, and she refused. Despite this, she changed her mind, perhaps realising that she could really start afresh far away in America. Mayer’s ship back to the US was all booked up, so Hedy went back to her ingenuity, posing as a child’s nanny to sneak aboard the ship. This courageous (and nuts) act, combined with the appreciative looks her appearance gained from male passengers, persuaded Mayer to forge a new deal with her, quadrupling the length and salary that he had previously offered.

Hedyclose.jpg

However, she hated the way she was reduced to her appearance in Hollywood, with Mayer keeping her in mediocre, ‘exotic’ or temptress roles. She said ‘Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.’ Eventually she left MGM, and set up her own production company, which didn’t do so well.

While all of this was going on, she used her free time to do science. She turned her attention towards helping the war effort; she realised that to make planes fly faster, you could imitate the body shapes of the fastest fish and the fastest bird, a technique which still influences streamline designs today. In 1942, she and a composer designed a way of producing radio signals that couldn’t be jammed or intercepted by the Nazis. They submitted it to the army: they ignored it. It wasn’t used until the 1960’s, by which time the patent had run out, and she never made a penny from her ideas, which are the basis of mobile technology today. We wouldn’t have wifi without Hedy Lamarr.

Even today, in articles praising her, her work is passed off as ‘a hobby’ and ‘tinkering.’ I think that this is patronising and undermines her intellect. The attitude that beauty and smarts can’t go together is still so pervasive; it almost implies that it was a lucky break that lead to these landmark achievements. I’ve even seen the word genius put inside brackets, as though it is simply a quote and not a verifiable fact!! I know that it can be hard to be completely certain on this sort of thing, but I truly feel that a man in the same position would be praised to the heavens for being smart AND gorgeous – in fact, they absolutely would.

Her life was messy, and she was uncertain of which role she should occupy in her every day life; temptress or trophy wife or star or scientist? I think that this threw her off. I hope that if she lived today, she would no longer feel that she could occupy only one of those boxes at once.

 

For more about her great escape from her first marriage, click here

For a slightly patronising but otherwise nice article about her and the new documentary, click here

 

Figure 8: Mary Seacole

Seacole.jpg

Underrated: Born Mary Jane Grant in Jamaica (1805-1881), Mary spent her life travelling to different countries in order to try to save lives. Her mother owned a boarding house, and it was there that Mary learned traditional medicine and gained a reputation as a nurse.

She was also pretty entrepreneurial, opening a hotel with her brother in Panama in 1851 where she learned to treat cholera, as well as surviving the disease herself. She left to treat yellow fever in Jamaica two years later, and began to provide services for troops at this time.

Not long after she made the trip to England, where she heard about the issues facing the nurses on the battlefields of the Crimea. Mary went to several different officials, requesting admission to the front to provide her services, all of whom rejected her. She was even apparently rejected by Florence Nightingale, although this is still a big point of contention.

So Mary decided to make her own way there. She established a company with a relative, and set up a general store and hotel, and they were given permission to travel to Crimea. With her medicines, Mary nursed and cared for injured soldiers at military hospitals, where ‘Her remedies for cholera and dysentery were particularly valued. She earned the nickname Mother Seacole, and she became famous back in England thanks to a war reporter named W. H Russel reporting on her good deeds. Unfortunately, when the war ended her hotel and general store naturally failed, and he returned to the UK destitute.

But many people had not forgotten Mary, and an enormous benefit was organised to raise money for her by two former Crimea Commanders and lords. She continued to work, and was apparently rejected once again from helping during the Franco-Prussian war, as she contacted Florence Nightingale’s brother-in-law Harry Verney, who was closely involved in the British National Society for the Relief of the Sick and Wounded. Mary spoke very fondly of Florence in her memoirs, but a letter from Florence to Verney referred to Seacole’s hotel as a ‘bad house’ and said ‘I had the greatest difficulty in repelling Mrs Seacole’s advances, and in preventing association between her and my nurses (absolutely out of the question).’

In recent times, it seems to me that both of these womens’ impressive legacies have been overshadowed by modern historians, politicians and newspapers attempting to pit them against each other. Every article I’ve looked at resorts to the claim that one or the other of these nurses were terrible and Bad and not worth remembering. Very little mainstream media seems to care that it’s easy to celebrate both women.

Mary Seacole portrait illustration

I feel that Florence had her reasons for rejecting Mary, living as she did in a time when almost anything could destroy a woman’s reputation. Mary had unconventional medical practices, and in a society that had only banned slavery around a decade before, and in the days of Empire, it was normal for white British people to look down on basically anything anyone did differently to them. While I wholeheartedly disagree with this world view, I think that holding Florence solely responsible for colonialist ideas is more than a little unfair, especially considering that a lot of men rejected her back in England too. It is a classic example of men pitting women against each other because they think that only one can be a saintly woman, the other has to be terrible, doesn’t she?

I also think that Mary has become a target of this drama due to the polarising effects of contemporary discussions on Brexit and immigration. For some, the fact that she has a statue outside a hospital at which Florence worked – and the fact that her statue is a tiny bit bigger than Florences (which by the way was installed over 100 years before Mary’s!) is a huge spit in the face for white people across the country – darned immigrants, stealing our jobs, healing our sick!!

This goes hand in hand with the attitude that acknowledging Mary’s accomplishments is ONLY being done to pander to PoC’s *insert comments about liberal snowflakes here.* They conveniently ignore the fact that the main reason People of Colour from history are only now being recognised is because we wilfully ignored their contributions in the past due to racism. People have gone as far as saying that she didn’t actually contribute anything, really, to the Crimea war, and therefore should not be celebrated, despite those nice quotes from W H Russel.

Which is funny because London has statues of the likes of George IV, ‘by all accounts the worst king Britain’s had’ and statues of animals who probably weren’t massive contributors to British society.

I think that Mary’s techniques were unconventional and possibly unscientific. But I feel that as long as she was helping people, as she certainly did, then she still absolutely deserves celebrating.

Further reading here.

Read a great article about the modern ‘feud’ here:

‘Even Natasha McEnroe, the director of the Florence Nightingale Museum, can’t understand the fuss. And pitting the two against each other is plain sexist, she says. “No one ever asks me to compare the work of two (male) surgeons in the Crimean War, yet it is always assumed that two women feud,”’

 

Figure 5: Nellie Bly

Nellie.jpgUnderrated: Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran (1864-1922), Nellie Bly was a famous journalist who shot to fame with sensational journalism such as ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’ and ‘Around the World in 72 Days.’ Through these reports she demonstrated her mental strength and determination, enduring extreme discomfort and harrowing conditions; not least in the ‘madhouse.’ But her efforts there were worthwhile, and led to social reform.

This is the work for which she is best remembered, but she continued to push for social reform for the rest of her life. Later in life she reported on women’s Suffrage and even became a war correspondent when she happened to be in Europe as WW1 broke out. It was during this time, while in Austria, that she became committed to helping poor women, children and orphans, and when she returned home she used her newspaper column to help find homes for abandoned children, and endevoured to provide childcare so that destitute women could work to feed their families. She worked so hard to help them that she made herself sick, and she died at the age of 57 of pneumonia.

Her most widely known legacy, of pioneering investigative journalism, is a wonderful one for her to have. But it’s a shame that most brief biographies say nothing at all of any of her work which exposed terrible conditions for workers or highlighting the struggles of the poor, even her work in war-torn Europe! Nellie Bly was sensationalist, but she was also sensational, and used her confident voice to expose cruelties done to others. What a wonderful model to follow.

Figure 4: Huda Shaarawi

Huda.jpgHuda Shaarawi (1879-1947) was an Egyptian feminist, whose activism helped to pave the way for a society which allowed women far more freedom than they had in the past.

Egyptian women at the time were subject to a harem system, which meant that women were made to be veiled and secluded from society, regardless of what religion they practiced. She worked to educate women, organising lectures which encouraged them to get out of their homes and opening a school for girls centred around academic rather than practical teaching. She was also involved in decrying British rule in Egypt after the first World War.

Huda is perhaps most famous for the act of publicly removing her veil in 1923, an act that was soon followed by other Egyptian women. Within a decade, most Egyptian women were choosing not to wear veils.

Huda continued to be an activist for the rest of her life until her death in 1947. She used her intelligence and strength to speak up for women, and to tell them that they have a choice; to wear what they want, to learn what they want, to live how they want. Huda continues to inspire Arab women to this day. I feel that Huda can fit into either ‘Underrated’ or ‘Overlooked’, as I had never heard of her before and I suspect many non-Arabs haven’t either.

My main source is this site, and another good article can be found here.