Text by Rediet Yibekal — This article is about women, and particularly those women who have influenced my understanding of self-empowerment.
I understand that the International Women’s Day has passed. But I decided to write this article, anyway, because I believe that everyday should be a women’s day and the many untold stories of women should be told whenever possible.
I also thought the writing would inspire others and would encourage them to share their stories in their own ways. In addition, I decided to write it to empower myself by telling my story in my own words.
About my role models
I was raised surrounded by women who were tough, ambitious, dedicated and very much assertive on everything they set to execute.
These women, starting with my grandmother, were my true heroines who guided and instilled in me self-confidence and the spirit of independence.
I am who I am because of them — their undivided attention, love and mentorship made me the person I am today. Every step of the way, they made me feel phenomenal woman, borrowing Maya Angelou’s words.
They taught me to love myself: My girlhood, my individuality, my uniqueness, my skin color, my everything — that I must not let anyone make me feel less of myself.
I look up to my grandmother in so many ways. She has been the pillar of our household. Though she married a professional military leader (not involved in politics), she remained to be the boss. She successfully played the role of being both a mother and a father simultaneously.
She took full responsibility to take care of her children, which is a very challenging task for mothers who have to raise children alone; such responsibility is tougher especially in places like Ethiopia.
My grandmother was a rebel. She neither accepted traditional gender roles nor tolerated mainstream norms that disempowered women.
Contrary to the time period, where women were given away through arranged marriages and silenced, she chose to be a tough woman, a born feminist, who broke gender barriers and taught her children that there should not be discrimination based on gender.
My granny, whom I call ‘Etiy,’ has opposed many forms of discrimination through her main tool: Education.
My grandmother has always been an excellent mentor and my role model who made me realize that education is the hammer I need to smash through the glass ceiling.
My family strongly believes in the power of education. They have always taught me that education has more value than anything else, including wealth.
There is a common saying in our household: First and foremost, commit to your education, because it boosts your confidence and adds power and credibility to your voice.
Following my grandmother’s footsteps, my mother is my other favorite role model who has also taught me how to fight stereotypes and stand up for what I believe.
Similarly, my aunts, who are practically my sisters, have always set their own benchmarks, and I look up to them as well.
What I have learned from my role models is that young girls who are raised by strong women figures are not only empowered but they are also destined to reject inferior positions that are traditionally attributed to women.
My grandmother, for example, has disproved the general belief in my culture that children who are raised by women (in the absence of men) turn out to be disappointing, lacking discipline and responsibility.
About women’s struggle
In Ethiopia, and specifically in Addis Ababa, where I was born and raised, women still face sociocultural and economic discrimination.
One of the challenges of being a woman in a society strongly attached to religious dogmas, like in Ethiopia, is that women are always considered inferior to men in their day-to-day activities or professional lives.
Although the Ethiopian state has a better platform today to improve the status of women and girls, women still remain exposed to grave challenges.
There are even legal loopholes that prevent them from getting justice; for example, many victims of sexual violence barely receive fair trial in courtrooms, and that is assuming their assailants are brought to the judicial system to begin with.
Studies have been made to show that women in developing countries remain more or less subjugated and their rights are constantly violated.
Abuses of women’s rights such as female genital mutilation, forced prostitution, forced marriage, abduction and trafficking are still common in various regions of the world, including Ethiopia.
About beauty and confidence
I believe beauty is a mindset. Everyone has something that is beautiful and the secret is identifying and nurturing it. I embrace my imperfections and celebrate my own uniqueness, which is why I don’t need a confirmation or validation from anyone.
We, women of many colors and voices, should break the cycle of associating the word beauty with physical appearances. Beauty should encompass both the physical and the spiritual, the inner self.
An empowered girl won’t be taken by surprise when others give her petty compliments about her looks just to win her heart.
However, if parents or mentors fail their homework of empowering, if they hardly compliment their daughter and only criticize her, she will certainly feel insecure, and will be forced to search for unconventional ways to self-validate: either looking up to the wrong role models, listening to TV and magazine ads that sell her their version of beauty, or being taken advantage by those who promise to make her feel good. An empowered girl won’t allow someone to drag her down the wrong path or make her feel inferior.
Understanding of beauty and confidence matters, especially when it comes to shaping the identity of young girls.
Family comes first in the list of responsible actors but I believe everyone is responsible in shaping a better future for young girls as I have argued before in this article.
Depression, eating disorders, extreme exercising and consideration of cosmetic surgery result from the depiction of the ‘ideal body’ that young girls are coerced to emulate.
Today, there are many challenges for young girls, especially those who get access through their smartphones, Ipad and computers.
To mention a few: they are exposed to looking at objectified women on videos and pictures; they listen to music that glorifies smoking cigar or having sex in the back of a limousine (refer to one of Beyonce’s latest album); they are influenced to think of pop culture as the ‘coolest’ because of what their idols show them, that life is all about sex, drugs and crime.
About our responsibilities
Creating awareness and educating women can help us fight against the above and other injustices. The change we want to see might not be achieved overnight, but through collective efforts and smart strategies the issues can be tackled.
Moreover, I believe the following two factors are keys to create a safer world for women and girls: the woman/girl herself and the way she was raised and cultivated by her family and mentors.
For a girl, the most courageous thing to do is to know herself, what she wants and where she wants to go in life.
It’s critical that she is honest with herself. After this stage, I think that she can overcome whatever challenge she may face and will make sure that her challenges will be her strengths, and strong women get things done.
Every child has a role model, a mentor that he or she looks up. As I stated, my role models have been my grandmother and her daughters.
The secret ingredient after mentoring a child is, of course, giving him or her the space to self-discover, build a capacity and face reality. I am grateful to my grandmother, my mother and her sisters that I was given such an opportunity.
My aim is not to prove that I am equal with a man, but to thrive and outshine myself by being me and myself only.
However, I won’t tolerate being put in a box or labeled in a degrading manner when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.
I will speak louder when I meet ‘educated’ and ‘modern’ men who pretend to respect the rights of every human being but have no respect for women or are threatened by strong women. I will not wear suits or smoke cigars to show that I can also be a man.
Imagine growing up in a society where you are told constantly that your voice doesn’t matter. Imagine also growing up in a political culture that declares: ‘I know what is best for you so don’t make a noise.’
And imagine a society that doesn’t take women figures seriously without judging, insulting and ridiculing. Such an environment creates fear within the individual that limits one’s capacity to achieve something meaningful in life.
I want to be in an environment where I reinvent myself and become the master of my destiny; where I set my own benchmarks and I do not follow someone else’s standard or ground rule.
I know for a fact that if I live my life like this, I will at least minimize the time that I will waste regretting and pointing fingers.
My honest advice to fellow girl or woman who is reading this is that Be Yourself Always, no matter what. As Maya Angelou wrote, any woman should tell herself, ‘I am a Woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman that’s me.’
You have a choice to stand by what you believe in, to get up when you fall so hard, to be a champion and rule your world. It’s your decision to speak louder, to be a fighter, to roar in your own way.
Rediet is a political scientist with an International Relations Degree Major. She specializes on democracy and international security issues as well as conflict resolution and long term peace-building process. Her research includes conflict prevention, the role of youth and women in peace building, youth entrepreneurship, managing conflict and natural management.