International Womens Day: Centers Paul Marshall and Nina Shea draw attention to two extraordinary women whose work should be supported and celebrated.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s father was a Somali pro-democratic guerilla leader and her family was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. She was forcibly circumcised and, when she was sent to Canada for an arranged marriage, she deplaned in Germany and found asylum in the Netherlands. After a job as a cleaner, she graduated from Leiden University and worked for the Labor party on issues faced by Dutch Muslim women. <
Her outspoken advocacy earned her death threats from Islamists and rejection by Labor, so she joined the Liberals and was elected to the Dutch parliament. She then wrote Submission, a documentary on Muslim women, directed by Theo Van Gogh and shown on Dutch television in 2004. Two months later, Van Gogh was butchered by Mohammed Bouyeri, who left a note to Ali, pinned to the body by a knife, saying she was next. She went into hiding, but has since reemerged, albeit with bodyguards and a secured house. Throughout she has remained unbowed and outspoken in her defense of universal human rights, especially religious freedom and women’s equality in the Muslim world.
She is also gorgeous. If Hollywood really had the courage that it currently trumpets, her life would become a movie, and Halle Berry would call her agent.
When she enters the room, Rebecca Garang’s demeanor of quiet, intense focus commands respect, even more than her near seven foot frame. Madame Minister is the 49-year-old minister of transportation in the government of Southern Sudan.
She assumed her post after the death of her husband, John Garang, in a helicopter crash For 22 years, he had led the southern Sudanese resistance, the SPLM, against the forcible imposition of Islamic law in the southern Christian and animist homelands. After last year’s peace agreement that resolved the conflict, in July he became president of the new South Sudan government and first vice president of Sudan’s National Unity Government. At his funeral three weeks later, Madame Garang consoled her countrymen: “The lion is dead and we will see what the lioness will do.”
A mother of six, she sees her post as key to development, and has set about building a transportation network throughout the south and connected to the world. She plans roads for food distribution and a growing economy, to prevent famines like that in 1998 that killed tens of thousands, and aims to dredge the Nile and use barges to repatriate the 4.5 million southerners displaced, forced into exile, or enslaved during the war. In Washington this winter, she reminded us that South Sudan has neither tarmac roads nor a single hotel. Knowing that transportation has usually been a man’s world, she has a woman chauffeur and is personally teaching 25 women how to drive. As I listen to her, my stomach is in knots, but she sounds undaunted, calm, confident, even mighty.