Happy International’s Women Day! This year, I decided to celebrate this festivity by writing about what women’s empowerment is for me and about women whom I find inspiring.
First, it is important to define what we mean by women’s empowerment. Empowerment is such a buzzword nowadays, and it is at risk of losing its meaning, yet it is a precious word and it should be saved. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term empowerment can have two meanings:
- Authority or power given to someone to do something.
- The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.
Keywords to extract from those two definitions are “power”, “stronger”, “confident”, “controlling” and “rights”. These are important concepts that need to be considered and put into context within the women’s empowerment movement. Power is the ability to act and as long as it is not dominant power (based on fear, manipulation and coercion) it is a positive term that should help people to feel better about themselves and be autonomous. To have power, you need to be strong and feel confident, two concepts deeply related to a person’s SELF-respect, SELF-acceptance, SELF-worth and SELF-esteem.
Notice how I capitalised the word “self” on my last sentence. It was on purpose: before anything else, empowerment comes from within OURSELVES, meaning that we need to value ourselves and accept ourselves, see our worth and appreciate who we are, to feel truly powerful. Why? Because our emotions and thoughts are influenced by all those things. And at the same time, our emotions and thoughts will have an effect on our behaviour and actions, affecting ultimately our self-actualisation: our desire and path for self-fulfilment, which is to achieve (trying to achieve) all our realistic goals in life.
However, it is important to point out that women’s empowerment requires more than the positive relationship of a woman with herself. A good mind-set and emotional wellbeing is essential, but so is freedom: women’s empowerment has a lot to do with women making their own informed choices. And to make their own informed choices, women need more than a positive concept of themselves. Women need to have their basic needs (e.g. food, shelter) covered, they need to have the same legal rights as men, they need to have access to education and they need to be financially secure. Basically, women need to be treated as humans with free will and have their human rights respected. But we all know this doesn’t happen. Issues like poverty, inequality, lack of education and sexism hinder the ability of women to make informed choices, while affecting their development disproportionately. And this is a global matter that needs to be tackled.
Another thing to talk about is the role that various identities play in the definition of “womanliness”. Too often, being a woman is portrayed in a specific way that ignores intersections within someone’s identity. Sexuality, religion, race, ethnicity and others affect how someone is perceived, and it also influences people’s perception of their gender within different societies and social groups. Black women, Muslim women, lesbian women… All these are women, still different, and that’s okay. There is no right or wrong way to be a woman. I can’t stress how important is intersectionality for women’s empowerment and it frustrates me a lot seeing it left out.
Shaming religious women who choose to wear veils is not empowering. Discriminating transsexual women to the point in which they harm themselves and/or even commit suicide is a direct attack to women’s freedom. Not taking into account someone’s race to understand their oppressive situation as a woman ignores significant aspects that will influence their ability to feel empowered. Keep this in mind when advocating for women’s empowerment, if you truly care about the issue.
All this been said, it is time to move on to the second half of this blog post: talking about women that inspire me. My choices are: Malala Yousafzai, Beyoncé Knowles and Miley Cyrus.
Malala is an 18 year girl who first gained the public’s attention when she was 11-12 years old, because she wrote a blog “detailing her life under Taliban occupation, their attempts to take control of the valley, and her views on promoting education for girls in the Swat Valley”. She was interviewed and celebrated by international press and even nominated for International Children’s Peace Prize by South African activist Desmond Tutu. However, her activism became very notorious after she was shot in July 2012 while travelling to school. This event was considered an assassination attempt by the Talibans, who controlled the area where she lived and tried to prevent girls from getting an education. After being in a critical condition for a while, Malala survived, moving to England to get intensive rehabilitation. Now, over two years later, she is celebrated as an advocate for education for girls around the whole globe.
There are various impressive and inspirational aspects about Malala’s actions. First is her courage before and after getting shot. While she was just a kid and a teen, she fought for her right to get an education and she was brave enough to campaign for it, even knowing that her life would be in risk and her ambition was not liked by everyone. Second is her pacifist approach to her attack: instead of seeking revenge, she forgave and kept spreading love. She doesn’t believe in violence, and she thinks that education is the real cure for it, which is not far from the true. Ignorance is the root of a lot of evil in the world and educating people can make ignorance vanish.
Malala and her battle to guarantee every girl across the globe access to education is everything I aspire to be one day. I want to create change, use any platform I have to improve people’s lives without being scared of being silenced. Moreover, I’m slightly familiar with her struggle to be valued as a woman and being deemed worth of freedom of choice. Since I was a child, sexism has prevented me from achieving many things and it has deeply affected my self-confidence. I’m currently recovering from living in a toxic environment where I was downplayed due to my gender and I find courage in Malala’s actions and words. If she can do it, having it much worse than I ever did, I can do it too.
Beyoncé is a singer and performer who is currently one of the most influential artists alive. I have always found her inspiring for many reasons, from her hard work ethic to her ability to improve and evolve over time. I remember researching about her for an essay for college and I finding out that when she was young, she had family problems, she suffered from depression, and she had self-esteem issues, just like me. I was shocked. Beyoncé seems like a very strong woman, but I guess that being strong doesn’t mean you can’t suffer. I always wonder how she overcame her fears and difficulties. Did she ever overcome them completely? I believe that some pain and insecurities never go, but you can learn to deal with them.
Although I admired her for years, it wasn’t till she released her fifth studio album, BEYONCÉ, when I saw in her (part of) the type of woman I want to be one day. Why? These videos and songs. I encourage you to watch them and share them. The words in them carry a lot of value and wisdom:
(I know Formation isn’t a song from her BEYONCÉ era but I couldn’t not include it! Her celebration of black women in this video is very motivational for me, it is important and it needs to be highlighted!)
Miley is a singer and actress, and perhaps the public figure who has inspired me most since my childhood. Before it was because of her character in Hannah Montana as Miley Stewart, together with some of her songs as Hannah Montana such as “Just A Girl”, “Don’t Wanna Be Torn”, “The Climb”, “Every Part of Me”, “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Make Some Noise” (I find all these songs either uplifting or relatable, and they helped me go through some of my darkest times). Now things are different: Miley is no longer Miley Stewart, she doesn’t act a certain way to maintain her innocent Disney girl image.
Over the last couple of years, she has become open about her sexuality through her music, performances and photoshoots. She has also challenged some of the world’s perceptions of beauty and womanliness, sharing her own struggles with her image and her femininity (which I find very relatable). Even though her personal choices have made her happy and comfortable with her skin, the public has often condemned her nudity and sexual behaviour. Nowadays, hearing people refer to her as a bad role model is common, yet despite everything, I still find her inspiring, perhaps now more than ever. In order to show why, I picked some of my favourite quotes from her relatively recent interviews. Here are they:
“I don’t relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy, and I think that’s what I had to understand: Being a girl isn’t what I hate, it’s the box that I get put into.”
“Fuck that. You don’t have to wear makeup. You don’t have to have long blonde hair and big titties. That’s not what it’s about. It’s, like, personal style.’ I like that I’m associated with sexuality and the kind of punk-rock shit where we just don’t care. Like Madonna or Blondie or Joan Jett—Jett’s the one that I still get a little shaky around. She did what I did in such a crazier way. I mean, girls then weren’t supposed to wear leather pants and, like, fucking rock out. And she did.”
“I don’t put pressure on myself to be a role model, other than hopefully inspiring people to be good and to treat people well. I’m going to be what I want, and I’m going to do what I want. When people are suffocated, that’s when they end up falling off.”
“I still don’t think we’re there 100 percent. I mean, guy rappers grab their crotch all fucking day and have hos around them, but no one talks about it. But if I grab my crotch and I have hot model bitches around me, I’m degrading women? I’m a woman—I should be able to have girls around me! But I’m part of the evolution of that. I hope.”
“I don’t want, in my life ever, some prince dude to come save me. I don’t need to be saved. I’m my own person. I’m strong.”
‘She told Out, that she was “frustrated” by being a girl when she was younger because of the, “stereotype of weakness, and the vulnerability,” that came with it. But said, “As you get older I think I just started to celebrate it, because I learned more about what women really are. Being a woman, that’s everything to me. Without women there is no life. I’m empowered as well, because I really feel like I hold something that’s the secret in all of life and the power of it. But, it took me a while to get like that.”’
“When you look at retouched, perfect photos, you feel like shit. They lighten black girls’ skin. They smooth out wrinkles,” Cyrus told Marie Claire. “Even when I get stuck on Instagram wondering, ‘Why don’t I look like that?’ It’s a total bummer. It’s crazy what people have decided we’re all supposed to be.”
On conclusion, these are three women that had (and still have) a significant impact on my development and growth as a woman. None of them are perfect, some of them have more flaws than others, but I don’t strive for perfection and that’s fine. All of them are self-proclaimed feminists and use their platform/career to advocate for gender equality, even though if it is in different ways and in different levels. Their feminism is also quite different from each other, since they are women with different identities (religion, race, ethnicity, sexuality…) and issues they care about (education, motherhood, sexual liberation, gender roles…).
Before I end this post, I must say that there are many other women whom I consider inspirational, these are just three of them. In fact, lately I have been discovering the activist, artistic and/or academic work of many women who have been always unknown for me (mainly women of colour, many of them African), and I’m loving it. This means that if you ask me in a few months’ time, the women who inspire me the most may be different to these three I just talked about.