This story is part of our November 2019 special issue of National Geographic magazine, “Women: A Century of Change.” Read more stories here.
Photography for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
Theresa Kachindamoto remembers the first child marriage she ended, just days after she became the first female paramount chief of her southern Ngoni people in Malawi. In Dedza district, southeast of the capital, Lilongwe, she’d walked past a group of girls and boys playing soccer, a common sight, but then one of the girls stepped away from the game to breastfeed a baby.
“I was shocked,” Kachindamoto recalls. “It pained me.” The mother “was 12 years, but she lied to me that she was 13.”
Kachindamoto informed the elders who had appointed her chief about the young mother, a girl named Cecilia. “They said, ‘Oh yes, here it’s common everywhere, but now you are chief, you can do whatever you want to do.’ ”
So Kachindamoto did. She annulled the marriage and sent the young mother back to school. That was in 2003. The chief paid the girl’s school fees until she completed secondary school. Cecilia now runs a grocery store. Every time she visits her, Kachindamoto says, “she always comes here and says, ‘Thank you, Chief. Thank you.’ ”
Since Cecilia’s annulment, Paramount Chief Kachindamoto, 60, has terminated a total of 2,549 unions and sent the girls back to school. She also has banned an initiation ritual for girls who reached puberty that involved losing their virginity to strangers.
Kachindamoto’s voice is one among many pushing for women’s rights around the world. A woman’s voice, as Egyptian protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square once chanted, is a revolution. The slogan was part of a 2013 campaign against rapes and sexual assaults, a strike against the silence that often is the status quo—in Egypt and, as the #MeToo movement showed, around the world.
In recent years women from France to India and from Namibia to Japan have felt more empowered to call out men’s wrongdoing, leading to a global conversation about sexism, misogyny, and the power dynamics that women are subjected to in the home and beyond.
In many ways it’s still a man’s world, but from politics to the arts, women are working to change that in their communities. It’s a mission playing out in several arenas: in government institutions, inside the workplace and home, through activism on the streets, and in the ability to tell their own stories and shape their societies.
In countries such as Rwanda and Iraq, legislative quotas have guaranteed a significant female presence in parliament. Since 2003, Rwanda has consistently had the highest female representation, proportionally, of parliamentarians anywhere in the world. In Malawi and other African countries that don’t have the legislative mandates to help women rise, change is being fomented on the ground, through female chiefs who are empowering women and girls.
But change is seldom easy. The patriarchal status quo is deeply entrenched, especially in authoritarian states where challenging the system, whether you’re a man or a woman, comes at a hefty cost. To date, no country in the world has reached gender parity. Nordic states such as Iceland and Norway lead the way, achieving the highest ranking in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Index. The population-weighted index measures gender disparities across four key areas: health, education, economy, and politics. The poorer performing half of the list includes Malawi and most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. But significant variation exists within a region, and two sub-Saharan African nations also place in the list’s top 10: Rwanda (sixth) and Namibia (10th). Rwanda’s high ranking is thanks largely to a generation of pro-women laws that followed the devastating genocide in 1994.
Gender inequality is not determined by, or confined to, any one place, race, or religion. Canada, for example, is ranked 16th on the global index, while the United States sits at number 51, dragging down the overall ranking for North America because of stagnation on the “political empowerment” subindex and a decrease in gender parity in Cabinet-level positions, as well as a slide in education.
The rankings add texture to our understanding of women’s influence, and challenges, around the world—particularly in the Middle East and Africa, two vast geographical regions that are often flattened into homogenized monoliths and stripped of the nuanced differences that make each country unique.
“There isn’t one type of woman in the Middle East,” says Lebanese actress and director Nadine Labaki, who made Academy Awards history last year by becoming the first female Arab filmmaker nominated for an Oscar, for Capernaum, her wrenching Arabic-language drama about street children.
“There are many different women, but most of them, even in the most difficult circumstances, are strong,” she says. “Women find strength to fight in their own way, whether it’s within their families or on a bigger scale in their work. They have so much power. When I imagine any woman from this region, I don’t imagine her submissive and weak. Never.”
Bochra Belhaj Hamida, a Tunisian parliamentarian, human rights lawyer, and one of the founders and former leaders of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, says it’s “colonialist” to think that an Arab woman, for example, will accept fewer rights than a Western woman. But her approach to attaining those rights may differ.
In Iran activists continue to boldly push for change through individual acts of protest, in social media, and in their homes, such as defying the requirement of the Islamic Republic’s leadership that women wear hijabs. During the past few years, dozens of women—often in white clothing—have publicly peeled off their head scarves in videos that have gone viral using the hashtag #whitewednesdays. Nasrin Sotoudeh, the female human rights lawyer who represented many of the women who were arrested, was sentenced in March 2019 to 38 and a half years’ imprisonment and 148 lashes.
Yet in October 2019, after a years-long campaign by activists, the same clerical leadership that punished women for removing their head scarves decided to allow Iranian women to pass their citizenship on to children born to foreign fathers. It’s a right that more progressive states in the Middle East—such as Nadine Labaki’s Lebanon, where women can wear as much or as little clothing as they please—have not come close to adopting, despite sustained pressure.
The idea of progress on women’s rights is usually less about superficial markers like what a woman wears than about her ability to choose what to wear, and to control and make choices about other aspects of her life.
In Saudi Arabia, until recently women and girls had to have a male guardian’s permission to travel, get married, or pursue higher education. New laws were introduced in August to loosen a guardianship system that treated women like minors. The same Saudi leadership that in 2018 lifted the ban on women driving had imprisoned some of the most prominent female activists who first called for that right. Many of the women remain incarcerated, and their families say they’ve been subjected to beatings, torture, sexual harassment, and solitary confinement. Their alleged crimes include contacting international organizations in the course of their activism. The message of their detention is clear: In Saudi Arabia women’s rights will be dispensed at the leadership’s behest, not won or earned from the ground up. Women have no control or choice over the matter. Don’t ask or push, and be grateful for any additional rights that are granted.
So how do women most effectively pursue gender equality? The experiences of several African and Arab states highlight some ways that women are revolutionizing their societies.
In 2012 Joyce Banda became the first female president of Malawi, even though she is not from a political family and Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest nations, does not have a female parliamentary quota. Wedged between Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique, Malawi is home to almost 18 million people. Repeated attempts to introduce a quota for women in parliament, most recently in December 2017, have failed. Yet Banda succeeded, despite the lack of institutional infrastructure to pull her up or family connections and money to pave her way.
Banda’s father was a member of Malawi’s police brass band. She remembers how when she was eight, a family friend whom she called Uncle John told her father that he saw great potential in young Joyce. “It stuck. He planted a seed,” she says, “and I was lucky because my father kept reminding me what Uncle John said, so I always knew I was going to do something.”
Banda was Malawi’s minister of gender, child welfare, and community services and minister of foreign affairs before being elected vice president in 2009. She became president after the sudden death of her male predecessor and served from 2012 to 2014.
Africa has had several female presidents, “and, well, America is still trying,” Banda says. “There must be something we are doing right.” She credits Africa’s progress to the memory of its precolonial history of female leaders, of matrilineal power systems sidelined by the patriarchal Western colonizers, and to a conciliatory approach to feminism.
“So-called Western feminism can’t work here,” she says, characterizing it as confrontational. “We are not going to achieve gender equality by using models that we borrow from elsewhere. Here in Africa, women have been leaders before, and they have not been leaders by intimidating men but by engaging them and persuading them to open space.” She continued, “It’s in the approach. So we need to look at our own traditions and do it our own way.”
Banda’s life has shaped her struggle for women’s rights, first in the community development world and later in politics. Seeing her best friend, Chrissie Zamaere, forced to abandon her education after primary school because her parents couldn’t afford the six-dollar school fee pushed Banda to start the Joyce Banda Foundation, which among other things has educated 6,500 girls in tuition-free schools. Surviving a decade-long abusive marriage inspired Banda to establish the National Association of Business Women, a group that lent start-up cash to small-scale traders, because, she said, financial independence gives women options.
In 2006, as minister of gender, Banda championed a domestic violence law, and under her presidency, Malawi in 2013 enacted its Gender Equality Act. During the two years of her administration, the maternal mortality rate declined, an issue Banda had long highlighted after she suffered postpartum hemorrhaging during the birth of her fourth child. She enlisted the help of male chiefs, persuading them to encourage medically supervised deliveries in clinics instead of traditional home births. It’s an example, she says, of feminism that works within a culture and with men’s support to change social norms.
Malawi’s mostly rural-based population is deeply conservative, Banda says, and while some communities practice matrilineal succession or have women participate in the selection of a male chief, “the chiefs in this country, three-quarters of them are men, and they are chauvinistic,” she says, spitting out the word. “They are traditionally patriarchal like you’ve never seen! Eighty-five percent of our people are grassroots based, and so they are under those chiefs. You have to engage them and turn them into fellow champions, and that’s what I did.”
It is “naive,” she says, for international groups “to come into Africa and hope that they can solve our problems. What they find is that they can be here for 20 years, and they go back” having achieved little because “some of the issues they come to tackle are so entrenched in tradition that they can’t break through.” It’s more effective to change a culture from within, she says, by enlisting influential power brokers, such as chiefs. And when those chiefs are women, the impact can be huge.
Some women have ascended to power through inheritance or legacy: In Chief Kachindamoto’s case, she followed in the footsteps of her late father.
Kachindamoto’s jurisdiction extends across 551 villages and 1.1 million people. She lists her first duty as “a custodian of culture,” yet since becoming chief in 2003, she has worked to change some of her tribe’s cultural practices, including the initiation that had girls at puberty lose their virginity to strangers.
She has faced resistance, even death threats, from the subchiefs and village heads under her and from other chiefs equal to her in seniority. Her family cautions her, fearing for her safety. Other senior male chiefs, she says, told her that “this culture was left to us to continue to do this; who are you to change it?” As she puts it, “I said, ‘If you don’t want to do this in your area, it’s up to you, but in my area I don’t want this to continue, whether you like it or not.’ ”
Her father, when he was chief, tried and failed to ban the initiation practice, but fear of HIV/AIDS in a country where one in 11 adults ages 15 to 49 is infected has now helped her efforts.
Kachindamoto also banned child marriage, sending the girls back to school, well before Malawi enacted a law in 2015 that raised the legal marrying age from 15 to 18. An amendment in 2017 brought the constitution in line with the new law. At first, Kachindamoto says, people didn’t want to hear her, so she formed a touring musical band to get people to gather and then ambushed them with her message against child marriage and initiation rituals. She has since created bylaws against the practices in her jurisdiction and publicly fired male chiefs who continued the rituals, making examples of them in the community. At the same time, she has appointed some 200 women to positions of authority. When she became chief, she says, “there were no [village] head women, only headmen, so I changed the culture.”
Early marriage is linked to poverty, and Kachindamoto is trying to combat both. She says tuition fees are a big obstacle to keeping girls in school in her agriculture-based region. “I talked to the headmasters [and told them that] if these girls don’t pay anything, don’t sack them away, because if you do that, their parents will take them straight to husbands,” she says.
Her voice is not the only one changing Malawi’s cultural landscape. Throughout the Mwanza Traditional Authority in Salima district, Chalendo McDonald, 67, better known as Chief Mwanza, also has banned sexual initiation rituals and child marriage. Chief Mwanza presides over 780 villages and about 900,000 people of the Chewa ethnic group. She too has made it her mission to transform Malawi, bringing the total to 320 women appointed to chief positions in her district, because, she says, “women chiefs advocate women’s issues.”
In the 15 years since she became chief, she has annulled 2,060 child marriages, but she says that despite the laws of the state and her own people’s bylaws prohibiting the practice, it continues. “Yesterday,” she says, when asked about the last time she saved a girl from an early marriage. “And the day before that there was another issue around child marriage, so it’s still happening.”
In Tunisia, a North African state that is also in the Arab world and is home to about 11.5 million people, women have long played a major role in politics and civil society, dating to the 1950s under President Habib Bourguiba—but not all Tunisian women. In 1981 Bourguiba, a staunch secularist, banned women and girls from wearing the hijab in public institutions, effectively shutting out veiled women from state schools, civil service jobs, and other public spaces.
The Tunisian revolution in 2011, the first of the Arab Spring uprisings, unseated dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and opened the political arena to new faces, including veiled women. The streets of the capital, Tunis, visibly changed after his departure, with more women donning head scarves, perhaps out of defiance as much as religious belief. I covered the Tunisian revolution and was struck by the sudden change. It reminded me of an old Arabic proverb that says, “That which is forbidden is desired.”
Tunisia’s Personal Status Code, enacted in 1956, was among the most progressive in the region, banning polygamy, granting equality in divorce, and establishing a minimum marrying age and mutual consent in marriage. Abortion was legalized in 1965 for women with five or more children and with their husband’s consent and for all women in 1973. In the decades that followed, Tunisian women have held on to their gains, largely because their country was spared the state-destroying wars, sanctions, and militia violence that savaged Iraq and other countries.
Bochra Belhaj Hamida, the parliamentarian and human rights lawyer, initially was worried about what could happen. “We women activists feared that the revolution would take women backward, but the exact opposite happened.” Her concerns were fueled in part because the Islamist Ennahdha Party led Tunisia’s first post-revolution government.
“If it weren’t for the revolution, the reforms may have happened but much slower,” she says. “They were catalyzed by the revolution and the fear of women that they would lose their place and rights.”
The changes were swift and sweeping. In 2014 a new constitution safeguarded the rights detailed in the Personal Status Code and decreed that men and women were equal. In 2017, despite strong opposition, Tunisian women were given the right to marry outside the Muslim faith, shattering a regionwide taboo. Previously, a new domestic violence law had been passed, while another had ensured that mothers no longer needed a father’s permission to travel abroad alone with their children. A “horizontal and vertical gender parity” law made it mandatory for all political parties to have an equal number of male and female candidates in local elections. Aimed at increasing female representation, it resulted in women winning 48 percent of municipal council seats in the 2018 elections. Women hold 79 of Tunisia’s 217 parliamentary seats, the highest percentage (36.4) in the Arab world.
Administrative positions traditionally filled by political appointment, like the powerful head of the Tunis Municipal Council, were opened to elections. In the first vote last year, Souad Abderrahim was elected council chief, or mayor, the first woman ever to hold the office since it was created 160 years ago. “The day that the power and choice was given to the people,” Abderrahim says, “they chose a woman.”
Her approach to governance was also a break from the past. Instead of making decisions unilaterally, Abderrahim adopted a consultative system that involves all 60 members of the local council. In Tunisia, municipal councils are responsible for the affairs of a city, and as Abderrahim says, the Tunis council in the capital is “like a mother to all the other councils,” overseeing the 350 scattered across the country. “I have the power to sign certain agreements, but I won’t sign a single agreement without discussing it with the members of the council,” she says. “Democracy is about inclusion.”
Hamida and other rights activists are now pushing to change long-held cultural traditions rooted in religion around issues of inheritance. Tunisia’s inheritance law dictates that women inherit half of what men do, a custom that is widely adhered to across the Arab world, and challenging it means working against a religious establishment that bases the law on the interpretation of Islamic texts.
“The heart of the dispute between us is about the family,” Hamida says. “Their idea of a family is patriarchal, which is the exact opposite to ours.”
She’s referring to people like Halima Maalej, a conservative religious woman and activist who, while supporting most of the pro-women reforms, draws the line at equality in inheritance: “Why do they want to change the foundation of our society and its traditions?” she asks.
A supporter of the Ennahdha Party, she remembers being silenced during the secular dictatorships of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. She struggled to find a school that would accept her because she was veiled, before eventually finding a place in a Christian school. “Our voices were weak, almost silent.”
Now she and her veiled friends want to be heard. She believes that equality in inheritance contradicts sharia, or Islamic law, and is a “side issue” pushed by “bourgeois” women who don’t represent her. Islamism, like any other political ideology, is not monolithic, and even among supporters of a party such as Ennahdha there are a spectrum of views. Meherzia Labidi is an Ennahdha parliamentarian and former deputy speaker of the assembly. Like Maalej, Labidi is veiled and remembers the religious repression that denied her a voice before the revolution, but that’s about the extent of the similarities between the two women.
Labidi, who describes herself as post-feminist, believes that Tunisian women must listen to each other. “I think what we need in Tunisia, in the Arab Muslim world,” she says, “is to reclaim our voice from these two tendencies—ultrasecularists and the ultrareligious.”
She’s proud of Tunisia’s advances for women’s rights and the fact that in debating core issues such as equality in inheritance, Tunisia is once again an example for the rest of the Arab world.
“Wherever democracy progresses, women’s rights progress, because you can speak, you can do, but in spaces where there is no democracy, even if there [are] some changes in favor of women, they are forced by the authority—the government, the president, the king, whatever represents authority,” Labidi says. “So they are not inculcated, they are not adopted, they stay very superficial. What we are doing is very difficult; it’s trying to penetrate into the social tissue.”
For Labidi, the “universal heritage” of feminism is the bridge that can unite women at different ends of the activist spectrum, like Hamida and Maalej. And part of that means not having Western women speak for them. “They say we should be given freedoms, yet we are not allowed to enunciate what we want. Is this freedom? Is this feminism?” Labidi asks. She has a message for Western feminists: “I beg you, stop speaking in our name and for us, because when you speak for me, you are choking my voice.”
Oscar-nominated director Labaki also believes strongly in the power and necessity of women telling their own stories. Her three films—beginning in 2007 with her first, Caramel, a look at the lives of five Lebanese women set in a Beirut beauty salon—explore universal themes about patriarchy and societal ills such as poverty. Labaki says Caramel stemmed from her “personal obsession” with examining stereotypes of Lebanese women “who are submissive, who cannot express who they are, not at ease with their bodies, afraid of men, dominated by men, women who were afraid” and the more complicated reality of the strong women around her, starting with her family.
“I felt I was in a way trying to find my own peace,” she says. “Who am I amid all these stereotypes?” In her latest film, 2018’s Capernaum, which garnered the Oscar nomination, Labaki turned her gaze to children living on the streets. “We are dragging them in our wars, our conflicts, our decisions, and we’ve created such chaos for them, such capernaum,” she says. She began researching the movie in 2013, and was in part inspired by the devastating image of the Syrian Kurdish toddler Alan Kurdi, dead and washed up, facedown, on a Turkish beach as his family fled the war in Syria. The image, she says, was her “big turning point.”
“I really thought, if this child could talk, what would he say? How angry is he after everything he has been through and everything we put him through?” Labaki says she takes it as a compliment when people tell her that after watching her films they sense a woman behind the camera. “It doesn’t mean that it’s a better vision than a man’s vision. No. It’s a different vision, a different experience.”
She made Capernaum to shake people out of their blindness to the sight of children suffering and because “I need to show what’s happening.”
It’s a responsibility that extends beyond filmmaking. In 2016 Labaki ran for a seat on Beirut’s municipal council but did not win. “At some point you become an activist without even wanting it,” she says. “For me it’s not a question of choice; it’s my duty now. I don’t know if it will mean me going into politics or just lobbying for certain things to change.”
Labaki asks, “How do we start making a real change?” and asserts that “I want to do things my way from my platform, using my voice, because sometimes you have more voice than any politician, and your voice resonates so much louder than any political speech through a film or a speech or a small video.” She says, “I cannot stop at the frontiers of just another film. It needs to go further … I need to use my voice in that way, and I need to start really working.”
Photojournalist Lynn Johnson is the recipient of the 2019 Eliza Scidmore Award. Rania Abouzeid is a current Nieman fellow and author of No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria.