The heroines of the 21st century
"The 21st century will not be the century of major economic powers but the century of women. If we can do that, then we will be leaving a much better world to our children."
Heard during Women's Forum Global Meeting in Deauville, France
By Andrea Pountcheva, PREMIUM Lifestyle
A few weeks ago the largest international march for women's rights took place. It had all started with a little Facebook event in the days after the US election. Over half a million people filled the streets of the U.S. capital, while hundreds of thousands marched in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and many other cities. Around five million worldwide marched, including in Bulgaria.
This is a reflection of the new civic understanding of the times in which we exist.
Shortly before these events I was the only journalist from Bulgaria sent to the picturesque town of Deauville on the coast of France for the 12th edition of the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society Global Meeting. After an inspiring first day of lectures and meetings, during dinner at the table next to me was a lady from Australia who lives in London. She expressed her concern that her new neighbors do not send their daughter to school, although it's obvious the child is old enough. Only her three brothers go. They have new clothes and fashionable sneakers, while the little girls practically never left the home. Should my dinner companion alert the authorities or should she stay quiet – the Australian lady was worried she might be considered a racist – because her neighbors were Muslim. I gave her my business card and asked her to keep me informed about how the tale unravels of this young Muslim girl in the center of London.
This is a story that I'd personally fight for as hard as I could in order to help towards a happy ending. In the next pages I present to you five women and one extraordinary man who find gaps in our world today and fill them up, master masons building tomorrow’s home. These hero(ines) are masons, no doubt about it. The home I'm referring to is our planet, shared by all of us. And while I tell you about my most significant moments in Deauville I'm still waiting for a happy ending. One life-altering email and one child with access to education.
AMAANI YAHYA – YEMEN'S FIRST FEMALE RAPPER
She reminds me a lot of a darker-skinned Miley Cyrus. The resemblance is visible in the photo but to those of us who saw her during WFGM, the common aspects with the US pop star ends there. Amaani is 24 years old and she is the Arabic country's first female rapper. Because of her strong voice she has received hundreds of death threats - anonymous, of course, because that's how cowards act. One of her songs, which annoyed the patriarchy in her country so badly, is about this case: in 2016, a 12-year-old girl died of internal injuries just four days after an arranged marriage with a much older man. Also in 2016 another 12-year-old died in childbirth - again after arranged marriage.
I swallow hard as I hear it in an otherwise lovely room among active and inspired delegates in Deauville. I swallow just as hard at home while I write this article. Yemen ranks among the poorest countries in the region and for two years there has been a war, leading 80% of the population to require humanitarian assistance.
Girls (and many young boys) in Yemen see Amaani as a role model and this pushes her to rap in Arabic and perfect English, which she learned by watching movies. She travels and performs at events like this one, taking life in and drinking from it in big gulps. Who knows, maybe the first Yemeni rapper will be the spark for change.
STEPHANIE GICQUEL, FRANCE – LAWYER AND A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER
Rather than dreaming of becoming a princess, Stephanie aimed higher: she aspired to become a traveler. The 32-year-old lawyer has achieved her goal. She conquered Greenland, she ran a marathon in -30°C temperatures at the North Pole, but it was the longest ski expedition traveled by a woman in Antarctica without kiting which won her a Guinness World Record –
-50 °C temperatures, 2045 kilometres, in 74 days. "I like extreme activities, I often run 24-hour, even 30-hour marathons. But [setting the Guiness World Record] was different from anything I'd done before. Let me tell you: on the inside, the South Pole is very different from the coast. Endlessly windy, dry and lifeless. And ... there are penguins."
The laughter freezes in our throats when Stephanie continues her story: since the ice continent was discovered in 1911, fewer than 10 people have tried crossing it without kiting and without the help of animals. She didn't quit when her potential sponsor dropped out, explaining that the threat to her life was too grave: “‘This project is impossible, especially for a woman,’ they said. Well, believe me: it's got nothing to do with testosterone, it's a matter of mentality. I trained, I got up at 5 am to run in the cold before going to work. I prepared the financing, I found 50 sponsors.” She was on skis between eight and 16 hours per day; sometimes she slept just four hours, so she would get there on time because there was the real danger of missing the last flight for the season. It's as if Antartica has pierced her skin and has stayed inside her – she speaks staccato, almost without emotion but even so, each word falls decisively and with zeal. Her expedition is described in a book and a documentary, but as the Frenchwoman says, “I'm not trying to get you to walk across the South Pole. I'm just trying to get you to challenge yourselves, to live more on the extreme side and test your limits.”
MUHTAR KENT, TURKEY/USA – PRESIDENT OF THE COCA-COLA COMPANY
“This man is an absolute rock star.” This is what a text message of mine says, sent minutes after Muhtar Kent exits the stage. And indeed, not much would be different, had Mick Jagger been here: as soon as he walked into the spotlight, he caused a buzz and at the end of his panel on the topic of “Why I call myself a feminist” dozens of delegates pushing in around him for photos and autographs.
Since the beginning of his term as president of The Coca-Cola Company (with a portfolio of 550 brands in 207 countries) he has doubled the number of women on the board of directors from two (out of a total of 14) to four women on the board today. “And we won't quit until there are 7,” he told the audience at the Women’s Forum Global Meeting in Deauville.
"Constructively discontent". This is the favourite phrase of the Coca-Cola president, describing what he calls a drive for constant improvement. "I'll give you an example: the European HQ of the company is in London. Six or seven years ago I wanted to promote a long-term [female] employee based in Paris, and to make her the president for Europe. I offered her the job but she said that for personal reasons it's important for her to remain in Paris. "Done, no problem," was my answer. We relocated our office to France and she got the job. She travels when she needs to and is excellent at what she does. These are some of the barriers we have to overcome in order to get the right person for the right position.”
“The 21st century won't be the century of major economic powers; it'll be the century of women. If we can to do that, we'll be leaving a much better world to our children,” says Muhtar Kent, who I quoted in the beginning of this article.
Naturally, his words evoke an uproar of applause – and not only because he says what he says but because he seems to believe it. "At some point we realised that working towards equality for women only within the company (770,000 employees worldwide), is not enough. In 2010 we pledged that by 2020 we will help five million women with entrepreneurial ideas to make those ideas happen." This is the largest such campaign ever started by an international business, but it is not the only campaign aimed at groups, prone to social exclusion, such as women and children. Together with allies, including Virgin founder Richard Branson, Kent works on OneWeb: internet access constantly all over the world through the deployment of more than 600 satellites around the Earth. The hope is that as early as 2019, the project will be ready to transform part of the world in which we live.
NORMA BASTIDAS, MEXICO – HUMAN TRAFFICKING SURVIVOR AND A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER
“I don't even know why I'm alive, they have tried to kill me twice." At the age 47 Norma Bastidas set a world record for the longest triathlon: 6020 km traveled from Cancun to Washington D.C. in 59 days.
Norma's life is located between two extremes: on one side are the depths of emotional suffering and on the other are the peaks of physical pain. Born in 1967, this Mexican woman was first assaulted by a relative at the age of 11. At 19, the offer for a modeling job in Japan turned into hell in just a few days, and she was forced into prostitution for several years during which she endured countless beatings and acts of rape. She managed an escape and moved to Vancouver, Canada. Because of the shame of the past, she numbed the pain with alcohol but then became dependent on it. Then came the hardest test of all. A few years ago, she found out her 11-year-old son suffers from a degenerative eye disease that threatenes his eye-sight. So Norma decided, instead of drinking, to run. She has participated in marathons on all seven continents and uses the money from sponsors to pay for her son's medical bills. Then cames the record-setting triathlon. The Mexican decided she would best the record for the longest distance travelled, and she did, nearly three times over.
"What happened to me is the result of circumstances but I'm not defined as a person. I'm defined by the decisions I make, not what happens to me. And when I trained for the triathlon, they told me: ‘No, it's terribly hard, don't do it.’ While I was swimming in the ocean, I had their words in my head. And with each stroke of my hands - each stroke - I kept thinking: ‘You think I can't? You just watch me!’”
The plenary hall in Deauville was absolutely silent while Norma spoke, but in several moments her words extracted each ounce of humanity from the audience and we leapt to our feet, applauding her, without even realizing it. The numbers she cited at the Forum, chill my blood: every year 20 million women and children are victims of trafficking and are used for sexual services. 20. Million. Per year.
The presence of Norma Bastidas in her white suit and her incessant determination exude a level of dignity and class which I have rarely encountered. Probably all of us in that plenary hall thought the same thing: what an incredible will to live this woman in front of us must have! It seems as if, for Norma Bastidas, the word "time" has no meaning. For her, the only "time" is "now".
LEAH DAUGHTRY, USA – MINISTER AND CEO OF THE 2016 DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION COMMITTEE
STAR JONES – LAWYER, TV HOST, WRITER AND ACTIVIST
Barely 10 minutes had passed into the third day of the Wormen’s Forum Global Meeting before our host prompted us to meet the people sitting around us, to say "Hello" in our native language ("Zdravey, Claire from Canada") and to share one moment of 2016 which took us by surprise. One name, five letters long, echoed hollowly, fell to the floor of the room and hid in a sea of confusion somewhere among the shoes of 1,300 people from 70 countries: T-R-U-M-P. While the next two days would raise spirits and spark hopes for equality and opportunities for women, the third and final day began with catharsis. Leah Daughtry, an adviser to Hillary Clinton, and Starr Jones, an activist and also a part of the Clinton campaign, were among us. Both were among the first to learn the outcome of the election in November 2016.
Leah Daughtry explained the results like this:"We had anticipated a lot of things, but [we didn’t anticipate] that white women – or many of them – still have an unconscious prejudice and cannot imagine a woman holding the highest office in the United States." Star Jones added: "Interestingly, Hillary is the most qualified candidate who has ever participated in a presidential race. What more must a woman do?!"
During the discussion the anger is mixed with determination. "I wanted to succeed not just for little girls, but also to show to a whole new generation of men: women are just as valuable and this should be visible in the way you treat them. The current result makes it harder to explain to children that speaking disrespectfully to women is unacceptable – after all, they see that the president of the country does it. And wins. We learned in the hardest possible way how much prejudice there is, and now is time to get to work," Star Jones says.
Questioning whether there is anything positive about the U.S. election results, Leah said: "The current generation does not know how to fight for their rights because they are born into a society in which women can vote and decide about their health and blacks don't sit on the back of the bus, but now they will learn to fight."
As she says this, Leah Daughtry does not know yet that on January 21, less than a month later, in cities across America, and from Australia to Germany, from Africa to Asia, millions will gather to march for women's rights. Times are changing. Do not be afraid, but the new wave of feminism is here.