As the sightseers round a corner in a chartered van, their tour guide recites facts about the capital city through a scratchy microphone. But these are no ordinary tourists. Salwa Bugaighis and Amira Yahyaoui, two of nine female activists from around the world being feted in Washington this week, are deep in conversation about feminism and its frustrations in the aftermath of their countries’ revolutions.
Household names in their homelands, the dissidents — Bugaighis, one of the first women on Libya’s transitional council, who resigned to protest the role’s tokenism, and Yahyaoui, 27, Tunisia’s leading anti-censorship blogger — will be honored Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center by the Vital Voices Global Partnership. The event is sort of like the Oscars, but for the world’s toughest women’s rights activists.
Along with six other female leaders, Bugaighis and Yahyaoui are on a Sunday evening bus tour of Washington attractions. The sightseeing is meant to get the honorees — who have heard about one another on blogs or through Facebook but have not met — out of hotel conference halls and give them a little bonding time. And it seems to be working.
Fast friends, the visitors talk about how — despite the fact that women and men stood hand in hand during the Arab Spring protests — men sidelined the women almost immediately afterward.
“The question is how do we, as women, stand again?” said Shatha al-Harazi, a 26-year-old reporter for the Yemen Times who overheard the women from Libya and Tunisia. Al-Harazi, who has braces, could be mistaken for a teenager. But she was summoned to the presidential palace after her tweets called attention to Yemen’s human rights abuses. She said that President Ali Abdullah Saleh should resign.
“Since I was in the fifth grade, I have always been questioning things,” Harazi said as the tour van rumbled along Embassy Row. “But men always want women to be this decoration, like you are this remote control that they can turn on and off. It took so much courage for Salwa to resign. To meet her is like spending time with your role model.”
This year’s ceremony brings together many of the female leaders who emerged during the Arab Spring. It also includes Mexican anti-corruption politician Ruth Zavaleta Salgado and Liberian girl-soldier rehabilitator Rosana Schaack, who observed the need when she was working as a nurse during the country’s civil war.
It has been the kind of week when Samoan entrepreneur Adi Tafuna’i, who works with female farmers to sell the country’s organic coconut oil to the Body Shop, could be seen discussing the power of women in business with Samar Minallah Khan, a documentary filmmaker from Pakistan who focuses on her country’s discrimination against women.
“It does feel like a bit of girl bonding, but with superwomen, since each of the women have their own power and strength,” said Khan, who brought her 14-year-old daughter, who removed her generation’s omnipresent earbuds to take it all in.
The women photograph a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt during a stop at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. They say that they are amazed at how effectively the United States is able to market its short history and that their own countries should do a better job of honoring female leaders.
Vital Voices was started in 1997 by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to identify and empower emerging female leaders. It has trained more than 12,000 women from more than 144 countries. Presenters at this year’s 11th Annual Global Leadership Awards include such luminaries as Tina Brown, Mariane Pearl, Chelsea Clinton, Diane von Furstenberg, Claire Shipman and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.).
The ceremony coincides with the release of “Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World,” a book by Alyse Nelson, the group’s president and chief executive. She tells the stories of the international female leaders she has spent time with during her two nearly decades with the organization, including Kenyan Rebecca Lolosoli, who runs Umoja, a women-only village for those fleeing abuse; Somaly Mam, a former sex worker in Cambodia who now helps women in the same situation; and Marina Pisklakova, who started Russia’s first domestic violence hotline. The book reads like a global management guide, but one that draws its anecdotes from women who have been agents of social change in male-dominated societies.
During a stop at the Georgetown waterfront, Zavaleta — a Mexican politician and former speaker of the house of representatives who exposed widespread corruption within her party — encouraged Shaack to run for office. “I really want to try,” Shaack said, asking a slew of questions.
The new friends also brainstormed about how to honor the one woman who couldn’t make it to the ceremony to receive the organization’s Global Trailblazer Award. Manal al-Sharif, 33, is a Saudi who was imprisoned after filming herself driving. She posted the video on YouTube and is now leading a national campaign to overturn the Saudi kingdom’s ban on female drivers.
She was scheduled to attend the event, but opted not to because she was concerned about her ability to leave and reenter the country without facing repercussions. (Sharif has been under increased pressure after a speech she gave last month at the Oslo Freedom Forum that was critical of the Saudi dictatorship.)