A bicycle is a great way to get around. In Pakistan, it’s also a symbol of liberation for women. The story of Zulekha Dawood’s bicycling club is one of many from our blog that we’re highlighting for International Women’s Day — dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women in all arenas: social, economic, cultural, political and personal.
To highlight the March 8 commemoration, here are some of the remarkable women and women’s movements we’ve covered over the past year.
Zulekha Dawood organizes a weekly bike ride for women and girls in Karachi. She had previously run a girls boxing club and saw some boys on bikes nearby. “If they can ride,” Dawood thought, “why shouldn’t we?”
It is a rare endeavor in conservative Pakistan, where few women dare to cycle. It is seen as a vulgar and sexlike act because a woman must straddle a seat.
There’s been pushback. Male students at a madrassa once confronted them. “They were kicking the girls,” she recalled, and she heard them shout, “Why don’t your brothers stop you? Cover yourself and go pray! Go home!”
So she created a route away from the madrassa. She believes that women have a right to move freely, she says. “This is empowerment,” she says. “We feel good. We feel free. We can go anywhere.”
Five years ago, two teenage sisters decided to do something about the plastic problem on their island of Bali.
And Bye Bye Plastic Bags was born.
Melati and Isabel Wijsen got the idea in 2013 after a lesson at school about world leaders.
“My sister and I went home that day thinking, ‘Well, what can we do as kids living on the island of Bali?’ ” Melati says.
The answer was literally right in front of them — on the beach by their home.
“It got to the point where on weekends when we would go to our childhood beach, if we went swimming there, a plastic bag would wrap around your arm,” she says. “And you say, just, enough is enough.”
They went online and discovered that more than 40 countries had already banned or taxed plastic bags.
“We thought, ‘Well, if they can do it, c’mon, Bali! C’mon, Indonesia! We can do it, too!’ ” Melati says.
On New Year’s Day of this year, somewhere between 3.5 million and 5 million women lined up on National Highway 66, a long stretch of road that runs along India’s western coast. The “wall” stretched out 385 miles.
The demonstration was planned to create awareness of gender equality — and to protest a religious ban that prevented women of menstruating age from entering one of the country’s sacred Hindu temples even after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of their entry on Sept. 28 last year.
For Rakhee Madhavan, a 39-year-old teacher, and many other participants, the motive was not a political or religious issue but a deeply personal one that transcended the temple ban.
“I’ve heard so many older women say that they’re impure when they’re menstruating and it’s disturbing,” she says. “I didn’t want the impressionable young girls I teach to imbibe the same message. I wanted to be a part of this because I believe it’s time for awareness and for change.”
In August 2013, Josephine Majani came to on a hard hallway floor in the Bungoma District Hospital in Bungoma, Kenya.
Majani heard nurses yelling: “I saw them carry the baby away. They screamed at me, ‘Why have you delivered on the floor? Who is going to clean up all this blood? Get up. Get your things and go back to the delivery room.’ I was helpless.”
Majani has no memory of being slapped, she says, but when she regained consciousness her cheeks stung. And her experience was captured on video.
In February of this year, the court issued a landmark ruling awarding Majani $25,000 in damages, requiring that hospital staff formally apologize to her and setting a precedent that demands women be given quality care and treated with dignity during childbirth.
In August 2014, Nadia Murad was one of thousands of women from the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq who were captured by ISIS and forced into sexual slavery. Three months later, she escaped through a door that a captor left unlocked.
She has shared her painful story with international media outlets and has become a voice for captive women and girls in the process.
Murad urges women who have faced sexual violence to reclaim their lives. “The hope of ISIS was to break the Yazidi community,” she says. “But for survivors especially, going back to their lives and getting married and making a life and working, it’s basically making sure ISIS did not succeed.”
In 2016, she was named the U.N.’s first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.
In 2018, she became the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who treats victims of rape.
Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, who was elected mayor of Freetown in May 2018, is the city’s first female mayor in nearly 40 years.
Aki-Sawyerr, 50, says she decided to run for mayor after overseeing Operation Clean Freetown, a government effort that was part of a large post-Ebola recovery program that started in 2016. The project aimed to “[reduce] the risk of epidemics by improving solid waste management in the city.”
“I came face to face with how bad things were” in Freetown, Aki-Sawyerr explains over a late breakfast of boiled cassava root after returning to her office from her meeting. “I decided I had to run.”
She expanded this work as mayor. Her first task in office was to identify the locations with the most egregiously clogged gutters that were missed in Operation Clean Freetown and have them cleared so water could flow.