200 Women: Inna Modja, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Fereshteh Forough and ​Elida Lawton O'Connell on what matters in life

Inna Modja was born in Bamako, Mali. A musician, singer, songwriter and visual artist, Modja has released three albums: ...
Kieran E Scott

Inna Modja was born in Bamako, Mali. A musician, singer, songwriter and visual artist, Modja has released three albums: Everyday Is a New World, Love Revolution and Motel Bamako. A vocal women's rights activist and a survivor of female genital mutilation, Modja works to denounce and de-legalise the practice.

An epic global journey saw Geoff Blackwell and Ruth Hobday ask 200 women – both famous and unknown – about happiness, misery and what really matters. Their insightful answers strip away the distractions of life to focus on the fundamentals.

INNA MODJA

 

Q. What really matters to you?

My life has never been perfect and it never will be, but I've decided that I deserve to be happy. I've realised that happiness is a day-to-day choice – no life is going to be perfect, so it's up to the individual to decide how they are going to react to a situation.

I'm the sixth of seven kids. When I was four, my family was living in Ghana, and my younger brother and I went to Mali with our mother for our holidays. When my mother was out one day, my grandmother's sister took me to a place where I was subjected to female genital mutilation. This happened without the knowledge of either of my parents; they are both vehemently against this practice. Looking back on this, as an adult, this is certainly something that forged my personality.

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I was always a feminist and had been raised a feminist by both my parents, but this instilled in me a desire to stand up for other women and to help them where I can. This desire is a part of my life and is a part of my art, and it made me into an activist. I consider myself very lucky to have had parents who always told my siblings and me that we were good enough – that we were worthwhile and could be whoever we wanted to be if we just put the work in. Having principles like that to guide you as a child is fundamental and is what formed the foundation of feminism for me.

 

Being an activist is about putting myself in the middle of what's going on in the field; it's about sharing my own story and bringing awareness to the issues I feel are important to deal with. I want to help by doing.

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My journey started in a place of pain, but it has become so important to transform that pain and let this event become something that can have positive effects through the sharing of it.

It baffles me that people continue to resist gender equality – with racial inequality, everyone can see the issues and seem far more willing to pursue change in this regard. I don't get it. To me, feminism is not about gender. It's about wanting equal rights for both women and men in the world, and equal opportunities for all. The world needs both women and men – feminism is not just women, for women, by women. Women are part of a greater societal context, so, if we want to improve our society, we need everyone working together for basic, equal rights.

'Countries will not rise if their future leaders are fetching and carrying water instead of being able to turn on a tap.'
Kieran E Scott

'Countries will not rise if their future leaders are fetching and carrying water instead of being able to turn on a tap.'

Q. What brings you happiness?

I know that I cannot be completely happy if there is someone in need of my help; if I know that I can do something to change somebody's life, but am not doing it, I can't have peace. As an artist, I believe that the gifts I have, I have for a reason. People can choose to use their gifts in different ways; I choose to focus my energies on things that matter, things that will bring about some good – however small. That decision leads me to happiness.

And happiness is different things. It's a choice I make every day, asking myself: "What is going to make me happy today?" It could be a nice lunch with my family, spending time with my husband, being with my friends or taking time to be by myself. So, great happiness is about being aware of my feelings and deciding that each day will be a good day, regardless of the baggage that goes with it.

 

Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

There are many depths of misery, but I would have to say loneliness and inequality. In Mali, where I grew up, you look around you and see inequality everywhere. You see people in very difficult situations – this includes members of my own family – and what breaks my heart is that the capacity exists to address this current imbalance. Society can change the lives of people who have nothing, but we choose not to.

It bothers me that, for whatever reason, nothing will be done for the sake of humanitarian reasons alone. I'm not anti-capitalism, but economic factors are more important than human factors. I see this everywhere. I'm not saying we need to overhaul society, but people need to be doing a lot more than is being done currently.

Some people need only open their tap to have access to clean water, but others walk 6 kilometres or more every day for clean water. It's usually women and children who do this, so that's less time in women's days to work and less time in children's days to educate themselves. I get so sad when I think of children being denied an education because of something like this. We all know that education is the key – countries will not rise and become independent if their future leaders are fetching and carrying water instead of being able to turn on a tap and return to their books. Our future is already in jeopardy, without the next generation failing to be educated.

'In South Africa, women are not only culturally oppressed, but are oppressed by their past.'
Kieran E Scott

'In South Africa, women are not only culturally oppressed, but are oppressed by their past.'

WINNIE MADIKIZELA-MANDELA

Q. What really matters to you?

So many things matter so much to me, in my strange type of life, that I wonder how to actually answer that question. All my life, I've been a politician, made so by the circumstances of my country. I never planned to be a politician, but the policies of South Africa's previous government and its brutality compelled almost each and every black person to become one – every black home was really a political institution. I got caught up in the quagmire, and I then became one of the freedom fighters on the front line of the struggle for our people.

The African National Congress is my family. I have known nothing other than the African National Congress, for whom I am a member of Parliament.

If I woke up tomorrow and I was no longer a member of the African National Congress – although I was originally a social worker – I don't know what I would be; it never even occurred to me that I would be anything else other than a fighter for the liberation of my people and my country.

Q. What brings you happiness?

I have the greatest wealth; I may not have dollars, but my grandchildren and my great.grandchildren are the best thing God has ever given me. I live for them today. And at the very mature age of 80, they are a complete joy. I don't know how I would get along each day without them, because they bring me so much happiness. They've compensated for all the years of struggle and they've healed a lot of my wounds. Because of them, I have learned to forgive the painful past and remember that we all belong to the family of humankind. Otherwise, I would have been so scarred; I don't think I would be alive if I didn't have this wealth of my grandchildren and great.grandchildren. And Ifm hoping to become a great-greatgrandmother very soon!

Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

The patriarchy of society; in South Africa, women are not only culturally oppressed, but are oppressed by their past. During the apartheid era, women were of the lowest rung in society. And they were the least educated. The traditional belief was that you only educate a boy, because a girl is going to get married and take her brains away from the family. We have the extraordinary situation of the lobola bride-price custom, whereby families exchange wealth in the form of cattle.

In apartheid South Africa, there was no point in educating women; the laws of the country at the time made it impossible for women to be women. We were regarded as children and, literally, nobodies at all. As women, we were regarded as cannon fodder, because our husbands, brothers and uncles perished in the apartheid prisons. South Africa was a police state, like Nazi Germany.

I remember an extraordinarily painful part of my life, when I was banished. I was living with my youngest daughter, Zindzi, in Johannesburg, though she was at boarding school in Swaziland. The apartheid government made it their business to arrest me whenever my children returned from school. This particular time when Zindzi came back, I was removed from Johannesburg and banished to this remote little village of Brandfort.

The laws at the time were that if you were banished or banned by the apartheid regime, you were not to communicate with more than one person at a given time. The interpretation by the police of the law of the time was that, given that I was banished, my Zindzi could not have visitors, who would have been little children; she was barely 12 years old. I had to make an application to the regime to allow Zindzi to have children to come and play with her in the premises to which I was banished.

To my horror, I was told by my lawyers that I couldn't make that application because by law a mother had no such rights. I was not her guardian. Only her father was her guardian and he was in prison on Robben Island at the time. The lawyers had to fly to Cape Town and apply for a visit to see Zindzifs father on Robben Island simply so he could sign documents to allow me to apply for Zindzi to have other children enter the premises to play with her. Those were the laws of the country at the time.

It's still a struggle to uplift the lives of women. As a result, our generation and the generation that followed us are still not as educated as our men; we're still fighting for total equality.

Fereshteh Forough was born to Afghan parents in Iran. She and her family lived in Iran as refugees until, after the fall ...
Kieran E Scott

Fereshteh Forough was born to Afghan parents in Iran. She and her family lived in Iran as refugees until, after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, they returned to live in Herat. Forough completed her bachelor’s degree in computer science at the University of Herat before completing a master’s degree in Germany. Forough is the founder of Code to Inspire, the first coding school for women in Afghanistan, and is dedicated to empowering women through education in technology.

FERESHTEH FOROUGH 

Q. What really matters to you?

Giving back to the community. Being born a refugee taught me many lessons. Even though it was very difficult, it taught me that I don't have to wait for opportunity, that I'm still able to do my best when given the least. I was one of eight kids, and my parents had nothing. It was difficult for us to go to school, because Iran's policy was that refugees didn't have the right to education. I was deprived of that human right just because of where I came from. My mum learned to sew, so that she could afford to send us to school.

I am really grateful for what I have now and what I've achieved, so I feel the responsibility to give back to the community as much as I can. This is my goal – I'm constantly asking how I can bring change and positively impact my community, especially women who have been undervalued in Afghanistan for years.

After I finished high school in Iran, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan collapsed and we moved back to Herat, my hometown. I got my bachelor's degree in computer science there, then my master's in Germany. I went back to Herat to teach and learned a lot, especially being a woman in a country where education for women – empowering women – is such a sensitive topic.

I've been very vocal about women raising their voices and I think coding is such a good way for them to do it. Computer code is really a language, and learning it can connect women with people around the world; it doesn't matter who they are, or where they are, it enables them to freely express their ideas over the internet – and that's empowering. It's just the talent that matters.

Technology remains a very male-dominated field in Afghanistan. I believe equality will take time, but I have seen people come to understand that there are ways to collaborate and co-operate, and ways to overcome prejudice.

I was one of the very first female student-mentors teaching their peers at the university in Herat. In my first class, teaching Java programming, only seven of the 200 students showed up – and they were all women. Men didn't want to learn from a woman, but when they realised they might fail without my assistance, they started to come.

Having just emerged from the previous regime's control, you couldn't really expect men to immediately embrace women's education and empowerment. But over time, working with men as a team, they began to appreciate women's contributions and our ideas. This brought diversity of thought to groups that were previously just made up of men.

​Elida Lawton O'Connell was born in Pristina, Kosovo. She began working as a producer for Associated Press in 1997, ...
Kieran E Scott

​Elida Lawton O'Connell was born in Pristina, Kosovo. She began working as a producer for Associated Press in 1997, covering the Kosovo War for five years. Since then she has continued to work for Associated Press as a producer and editor.

Q. What brings you happiness?

I wake up every morning and am very conscious that I have a mission: to help people by empowering them. Every single step I take towards that goal makes me happy. It feels amazing when I see our students' tweets, their pictures, and the codes that they are writing – they are embracing the opportunity to empower and develop themselves, and that makes me joyful. Knowing that I'm contributing to empowering women in Afghanistan by educating them in the field of technology makes me happy, because they are being enabled to learn something. And not only that, it also shows people around the world a positive story about Afghanistan.

Sometimes I feel like an ambassador in America. When people find out I'm from Afghanistan, I can tell from their faces that they only have bad images in their heads. So I'm always trying to give people tonnes of good figures from back home – because it's not what they imagine. Under the Taliban, there were only 900,000 university students. There were zero women at university and there was zero female participation in the workplace.

Today, there are 9 million children going to school, and 4.2 million of those are female. Seventeen per cent of seats in parliament are held by women, and we have four female cabinet ministers. We've made huge progress from when I first returned to Afghanistan, so I know that change is possible. The country has a bright future, especially with this young generation – participating in that, and helping where I can, makes me happy.

Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

The lowest depth of misery and sorrow is living in a world where human beings are being judged by their skin colour, their religious beliefs or the country that they come from. It creates a lot of barriers and makes people think differently about each other. Part of this is people's lack of information. When we don't open our hearts towards learning more about a specific thing that we are ignorant about, we begin to act against that thing.

People need to learn about other cultures and about other religions – they need to have an open heart and an open mind in order to be able to embrace the hearts and minds of others. Personally, I try to educate myself on different belief systems and learn about the positive aspects of them. I've learned that none of them deliver messages of hate; they are all about peace, unity and loving each other. It's human beings who impose their agendas on belief and make it more extreme.

200 Women, by Ruth Hobday and Geoff Blackwell, photographs by Kieran E Scott (Upstart Press), RRP $75.

200 Women, by Ruth Hobday and Geoff Blackwell, photographs by Kieran E Scott (Upstart Press), RRP $75.

ELIDA LAWTON O'CONNELL

Q. What really matters to you?

My loved ones – my family, my kids and having the people that I love around me. Having children changed a lot for me; now, when I see dead children my heart breaks. I pretend that I didn't see it, and I continue to do my job – edit chopped fingers and chopped hands – but, deep down, it's all in my head.

I suppose what matters is constructing a solution to all the violence around us. I continue to fight for justice and the truth, which is tough. Being a woman war journalist was very, very difficult. Every day I knew that I could be killed, but I wanted to go out and tell the stories of what was happening out there. Those five years of war coverage changed me and taught me many things about myself: I found myself sometimes being very selfish; I found courage that I never knew I had; and the way I believed changed.

Now I'm spending a lot of time in Kosovo working with women who were raped. I myself was almost raped several times working as a journalist, so I cut my hair to look like a boy and I learned not to look anyone in the face – I learned to be as dumb as possible. My work with women in Kosovo matters to me because it's horrible that they don't know how to – or can't – say no. I've found that the first step is recognition by the women and their families that being raped is not a woman's fault. In my opinion, it's the government who needs to compensate these women for what they've encountered. They need doctors. They need psychiatrists. And there's nothing I can say to them, because I can't relate to what they went through.

I can only relate in that I was threatened with rape; it was devastating enough to look someone in the face as they say: "I'm going to do this, this, this and this." There are no words for men and women being subjected to systematic rape – and I've encountered a lot of men who were raped as well during the war. But although there are no words, I can help in other ways: I can report it and I can bring awareness. That is my responsibility. And I can educate other journalists so they know what to expect when they report on atrocities.

Q. What brings you happiness?

I have three children, who are 15, 6 and 3 years old – they are my happiness. They challenge me, and I find myself going to Google a lot with all their questions. Tennis makes me happy, too. And I love being loved and showing people love by bringing them happiness in any way: it might be by helping someone taking the rubbish out, saying how nice they look or just being there to ask how they are. If that kind of care for our neighbours stops, then humanity is gone.

In a broader sense, I still find people every day who don't give up. It's these people – who may be so different from one another, but who are defined by respect for each other no matter their colour, religion or background – who give me hope.

Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Personally – because I have seen death so much – I always fear losing one of my children. In the world, the saddest thing that I see is people looking at God and killing in the name of that God. The only thing that gives me hope is that there are still people out there to work against it all.

Sadly, compared to five years ago, things like sexual prejudice and racism are becoming worse in the world. But I will not take that for an answer and I still hope. I'll continue to fight. I talk to my daughter about these things a lot, to try to give her a perspective, so that hopefully she can influence others.

I met – and lost – my first husband during the war, when we were both covering stories. I was pregnant with my first child at the time. Losing my husband was the closest I've come to giving up. I thought: "That's it. I'm going to die. I don't want to eat. I just want to die."

But, I knew I had to continue. As hard as it is, you have to keep moving until you can start breathing again. Eventually, someone you talk to will make you smile. I've learned never to give up. I've had so many bad things happen to me, but I know I've done good things in my life – when you meet a man you saved as a boy, and compare that to your sadness, it's completely eclipsed.

This is an abridged extract from 200 Women, by Ruth Hobday and Geoff Blackwell, photographs by Kieran E Scott (Upstart Press), RRP $75.

 - Sunday Magazine

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