From Nadia Murad to Nasrin Sotoudeh: women's rights activists around the world

Human rights activist and top model Waris Dirie from Somalia smiles as she attends a news conference to announce the musical project “Desert Flower” in St. Gallen, Switzerland, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/Getty Images)

Women are at the top of their game: a record number of women are serving in US congress, a historic number of women are running for president, and females are banding together to speak out against discriminatory practices, whether in sport or relating to women’s rights in the public sphere.

This doesn’t mean women aren’t still having to put up a fight even when it comes to autonomy over their own bodies, from being subjected to FGM, which affects three million girls worldwide and is a growing issue in the UK, to the terrifying, ultra-strict abortion laws being passed in states across America. Georgia is the most recent state to hit headlines for its attempts to restrict reproductive rights, with a new law threatening to pass which bans abortion from as early as six weeks. Actress and #MeToo activist Alyssa Milano has been outspoken on the subject, calling for a “sex strike” in protest.

Standing up for women as an activist is still a dangerous job: Mena Mangal, a journalist and women’s rights campaigner who spoke out about women’s right to an education and work in her native Kabul, was shot dead in the daylight on her way to work just this week.

Many of the female activists leading the charge for women’s rights are themselves victims, determined to bring awareness, to help other women and to empower generations to come.  Here are the women’s rights activists around the world who persevere, persist and inspire.

Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nadia Murad, received the prize in 2018 for her advocacy on behalf of victims of wartime sexual violence. Murad, a member of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, was among thousands of women and girls who were captured and forced into sexual slavery by Islamic State militants in 2014. (Photo: AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Nadia Murad

Nadia Murad may be a globally recognised name these days – she did win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 – but just a few years ago the Iraqi Yazidi was a prisoner of the Islamic State, subjected to torture and raped repeatedly as a victim of human trafficking. She managed to flee after three months and has dedicated herself to helping women and children who are victims of abuse and human trafficking. Murad wrote of her hardships in her memoir, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State, and has appeared in a documentary, On Her Shoulders, that tells the story of her life and activism so far. Her most famous quote is one that she intends to make a reality: “I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine.”

Jailed human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh is defending women in court – why aren’t we fighting for her? (Photo: Getty Images)

Nasrin Sotoudeh

A human rights lawyer in Iran who has thousands demanding her freedom, Sotoudeh is currently facing an extremely savage sentence of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. Her crime? Representing women arrested for appearing in public without their headscarves. She has previously been jailed for defending protesters during the 2009 demonstrations against reinstated leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


Gina Martin attends a party hosted by Gina Martin and Ryan Whelan to celebrate the Royal ascent into law of the Voyeurism Bill, making upskirting illegal. (Photo: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

Gina Martin

Martin fought an 18-month campaign to change UK law and make upskirting – the practice of taking a sexually intrusive photo of a person up their skirt, without their permission – a criminal offence, punishable with a two-year prison sentence. The upskirting law came into action in April 2019; women across the UK rejoiced.

READ MORE: Neelam Gill, supermodel and activist

Human rights activist Sunitha Krishnan discusses India’s struggle with rape and trafficking with Namita Bhandare

Sunitha Krishnan

A gang-rape survivor, Sunitha Krishnan is another outspoken voice in the battle against human sex trafficking, and is the co-founder of Prajwala, an Indian NGO that has rescued over 17,000 people from sex slavery. She’s endured physical abuse, as well as jail time, for her efforts (she’s deaf in one ear and has had acid thrown at her). “What helps me get out of bed in the morning is those girls. When I see them smiling, moving about, progressing, and I understand that they actually have no reason to trust the world, no reason to believe that things will be good one day. They were betrayed in every possible way, by everyone they encountered, and yet they are smiling. They trust me. That’s a feeling I can’t explain. It’s tremendous inspiration for me. If a girl like that can forget and forgive, I certainly can’t complain,” she told Israeli paper, Haaretz.

READ MORE: These female directors are changing the landscape of film as we know it


Yolanda Dyantyi

South African Dyanti has been an outspoken voice at her university campus, Rhodes University, fighting against rape culture; her efforts have seen her banned from university for life and charged with kidnapping and assault by university authorities. A victim of rape herself, she and fellow students started a social media campaign, #Chapter212 – a reference to South Africa’s constitution, which gives every individual autonomy over their own bodies – and mobilised past victims, who posted a list of names of male students who had been accused of assault to Facebook, which spiralled into a campus protest with thousands. “To live? Yes, definitely. To fight a system that’s historically been against black womxn? Yes. To try carving my way and that of others, not by choice, but because someone generally has to? Yes, it all gets tiring. But I soldier on, and drink wine and smoke cigarettes in between,” she told Marie Claire South Africa, when asked if being a troublemaker was exhausting. You can read her writing on Huff Post.

Waris Dirie attends a drinks reception for the “Break The Silence: The Fight Against FGM” panel discussion at The Club at The Ivy in 2019. (Photo: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

Waris Dirie

A victim of FGM in her native Somalia at the age of five, Dirie is a model and activist who escaped to London, fleeing an arranged marriage at the age of 13. Her Desert Flower Foundation is dedicated to ended the practice of FGM and Dirie previously worked as a UN Special Ambassador focusing on eliminating female genital mutilation. She also works in education and clinics, and is currently building schools in Sierra Leone (where FGM is illegal, although still practiced). “People think this is a women’s problem, somewhere out there in Africa. And that’s exactly why it’s still here. If it happened to a man, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this discussion. It’s just another problem for women,” she tells British Vogue.


Zhou Xiaoxuan

China’s feminist movement is only growing, despite the country’s strict censorship laws, and the Zhou Xiaxuan is making sure that China gets its own day of reckoning, as the country experiences its own version of the #MeToo moment. The 25-year-old screenwriter surprised everyone when she brought a legal case against TV host and mega-celebrity Zhu Jun, whom she alleges groped her when she was on an intern working on one of his shows. Police refused to move her case forward when she went to them, so Zhou wrote a 3,000 word missive and posted it tosocial media. Zhu filed a lawsuit against her for defamation and Zhou is retaliating in court by suing him for sexual harassment. “I don’t know one day if it could change,” she told Sky News. “But my lawyer told me that I must fight to the end because of them. So I will fight to the end.”