“If I don’t fight, then I don’t exist.” They’re words of absolute defiance. But then, they came from an absolutely defiant woman. Shukria Barakzai is the Afghan ambassador to Norway, a politician, a journalist and a prominent Muslim feminist. She has campaigned against polygamy after her husband took a secret second wife; she was one of the first women to become a parliamentarian in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2004; and she survived a suicide bomb attack which set out to kill her. Four years later, Barakzai is still fighting.
“The thing is that it’s burned into her identity that she has to be a campaigner for women’s rights,” says Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent, who interviewed Barakzai late last year for a five-part documentary airing on BBC Radio 4 this week. “It’s part of who she is, but that’s because it means so much to her. Her determination and commitment is staggering.”
As well as Barakzai, Doucet’s latest documentary series – Her Story Made History – examines the life of Madeha Al Ajroush, an early pioneer of women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia; Monica McWilliams, who co-founded the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition in 1996; Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, an Icelandic politician who became the world’s first democratically directly elected female president and the longest serving female head of state in any country to this day; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and the first elected female head of state in Africa. And each has their own incredible story. But how did they become such pioneering women? What unites them? And, as we move into Trump-laden, post-Weinstein 2018, how can we become renegade women, too?
“It’s not an easy journey by any means,” Doucet explains. “We set out in making this series to commemorate the remarkable women in many different countries, and different cultures, who’ve paid such a price for what we have now. This year marks a century since the suffragette movement afforded some British women the vote – and 100 years on, we can be guilty of taking that for granted. When it comes to women’s rights, some people might say ‘you’ve come a long way, baby’. And it’s true: we have. But women to this day are still paying huge sacrifices. Women are still fighting for equal pay, to close the gender gap, and fighting against sexual harassment against women.
“We’re still forced to fight for what should be basic human rights, basic equality. We’ve got a long way to go.”
But we’re not starting from scratch – and there are plenty of badass women already leading the way. Women like Sirleaf whose victory in being elected president of Liberia in 2006, Doucet explains, was an extraordinary testament to women’s collective power. “Liberia is a very, very poor country, where illiteracy among women is very high, and it’s also a country where women suffered enormously during the civil war,” she says. “It’s estimated that 70 per cent of women were raped during the war, which dragged on for two decades. When the conflict ended and the general elections were held, it was a 67-year-old grandmother [Sirleaf] who put herself forward.”
Sirleaf was running for president against a young, popular, male football star. It doesn’t take a lot to see that the odds were piled against her in epic proportions. Doucet continues, “Everyone said there’s no way that this grandmother was going to win. But what her team realised was that women in Liberia weren’t even registering to vote, in a way that their male opponents couldn’t see.
“They started a grassroots campaign using radio stations and megaphones, with the slogans ‘women, vote’, and ‘the men have failed us’. So many women had suffered so tremendously at the hands of men that, come ballot day, 51 per cent of the electorate who came out to vote were women – and 90 per cent of them voted for Sirleaf.
“That day they had a big, physical presence, and a huge collective power. Sirleaf was elected Liberian president because so many women were mobilised by her. They realised that their best chance to change their lives was to put a woman in the president’s office.
“Of course, there’s no one single recipe that works for women’s power – each country and culture is different. Perhaps you could argue that Hillary Clinton’s defeat, despite overwhelming evidence of Trump’s misogyny, in the 2016 US election shows that. But it’s an unassailable argument that women together have a greater power than individually on their own.”
And, as we move into 2018 – already dubbed “the year of the woman”, that’s the powerful message we should be holding high above our heads. Now, with Trump at the helm of America, and the full scale of the global issue of sexual harassment and abuse of women coming clearly into view, it can be easy to become overwhelmed and pessimistic. But, Doucet says, there is an enormous amount of good that can come from the bad.
These women were all united by a determination and a willingness to make huge sacrifices for moments of joy
“Since Trump’s election, the marches that have turned out have been the biggest women’s marches on record,” she says. “People suddenly realise that you can’t take things for granted. You can’t take your rights for granted. You can’t take your future for granted. You have to actually go out and mobilise. Strangely and gratefully, it can have the opposite effect – when you believe that what you hold dear is endangered, you’re more likely to actually go out to ensure that it isn’t at risk.”
It’s evidence that power is transient – it can travel. And it takes all of us to make that happen.
“Wherever the women I spoke to for this series came from – from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan – whatever obstacle they were facing, they had to overcome such misogyny, and raging sexism. They had to have such resilience. They had humour. They were all so determined and so committed to their cause, and they all had this very strong sense of self. These women were all united by a determination and a willingness to make huge sacrifices for moments of joy.
“It’s not easy, but we can learn so much from them. And it’s exciting. When people get together for a common cause, there’s a magic in that. Amid the disconcerting moments and the frightening ones, there are many magical ones. And now we need to turn that magic into something long term and sustainable: something better, for women everywhere.”
Lyse Doucet presents Her Story Made History on BBC Radio 4 at 9am from Monday 1 to Friday 5 January 2018