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An icon is defined as “a person or thing regarded as a symbol of a belief, nation, community, or cultural movement.”
After a weekend of marking the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, we’re paying tribute to the icons around the world who chose to use their influence to advocate and bring about change for women.
A Green Revolutionary
Social and environmental activist and Nobel prize winner from Kenya, Wangari Maathai’s legacy is unmatched.
Wangari was an ‘impact icon’ who founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, a non-governmental organisation ahead of its time in integrating sustainable development with women’s rights.
Notably, she was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her humanitarian efforts and the proven fact that proper management of natural resources reduces conflict and is critical to peace and stability. This is especially profound when considering that the vast majority of Nobel Prize winners in the 20th century came from the richest regions on the planet. Let alone adding the disadvantage associated with a person’s sex into the mix.
If we can send man to the moon, why can we not plant a tree? African women, in general, need to know that it's OK for them to be the way they are - to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence.
British-Iraqi architect, artist and designer, Zaha Hadid changed the face of architecture in the late 20th and early 21st century, paving the way for women in a historically male-dominated industry. For Hadid, her architectural designs were not a personal stamp on the world, or an act of self-indulgence. Rather, addressing 21st-century challenges and opportunities is the cornerstone to Zaha Hadid's style and creations.
However, amidst her remarkable accomplishments, she was often subjected to controversies that her male counterparts were not. Her style was often mocked, and the expense and scale of many of her commissions were frequently publicly ridiculed. A critic of The New York Review of Books worsened the situation when he falsely claimed that 1,000 had died building a stadium she had designed in the Middle East. Hadid filed a defamation lawsuit against the critic and publication. She later settled, accepting an apology and donating the undisclosed sum to a charity protecting labour rights.
In 2012 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE).
You see more established, respected female architects all the time. That doesn't mean it's easy. Sometimes the difficulties are incomprehensible... In practice I still experience resistance, but I think that keeps me focused.
A Big Screen Visionary
Filmmaker from Lebanon, Nadine Labaki has harnessed the power of cinema to bring about change for women and girls worldwide, as well as justice and accountability. Using film as a form of activism, Nadine has collaborated with numerous other female icons like Oprah Winfrey and Cate Blanchet, to name just a few, at the same time as working with disadvantaged refugees to further their acting careers. Highly celebrated across the industry, Nadine is also the first Arab woman to be nominated for an Oscar.
Films can make you dream. They allow you to imagine a different world.
Divided yet united
The three icons featured above may all be separated by situational and geographical contexts, but what they all have in common is the way they have used their influential roles and positions to empower and shape public opinion.
In the Global South, it’s important to recognise that the opportunities for women to become a person of influence and an advocate for change are much more limited. Although this tide is starting to change as a result of a long and collective effort by underrepresented groups to ensure diversity in the media, it can be said that women in fragile contexts have to work twice as hard for recognition. “Talent and ability are everywhere, but opportunity is not” and those who have overcome these countless challenges and barriers deserve heightened celebration.
Yet all have still been on a journey of ‘becoming’ an icon, using their lived experience to shape their actions. The term ‘becoming’ rose to fame and was embodied by Michelle Obama, who used it as the title for her autobiography. As stated in this article “The book's title refers to the idea that each of us is perpetually changing, that our selves are ever-evolving, not stopping at some set point — with the implication that we can always become better.”
Although it can be difficult to measure, all of the women mentioned have also played a strong advocacy role – the key to achieving large scale impact. Concern Worldwide’s advocacy work focuses on influencing new policies by working with government bodies and decision-makers nationally and globally. One such example was advocating for the extreme poor Char dwellers in Bangladesh, where the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people are constantly disrupted by climate change. By bringing together char development-related donors, INGOs, NGOs, civil society, journalists, and academia to form a national level advocacy platform, the National Char Alliance (NCA), Concern’s efforts saw the allocation of BDT 500 million or about USD 63.7 million for char in the National Budget 2014-2015. Complementing teams on the ground with advocacy work that often runs alongside programs, has proven to be crucial to amplifying the result.
Finding the lost icons
Given these contexts it’s clear that the world is ‘missing out’ on future icons, because girls are not able to reach their potential. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a critically acclaimed Nigerian writer, speaker and storyteller who has mainstreamed fundamental issues and captured the attention of over seven million people via her iconic TED talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. The next Adichie could be lost due to a lack of opportunity and it is only through further targeted advocacy and the rise of increasing numbers of feminist icons there is hope that these individuals will be ‘found’.
As a practical example of creating opportunity, Concern Worldwide are working to increase purchasing power which could be ‘the key to ending extreme poverty’. In partnership with Oxfam GB the charities jointly commissioned a report looking into the impact of cash transfers (CTs) on gender dynamics both within households and communities. Offering recommendations for future programming the report concluded that “CTs can have significant value for women, from short term relief to increasing their visibility and building steps towards empowerment” and thus their roll out should be accelerated.
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