Stories about inspirational women mean a lot more to me now that I have a daughter. I’m storing them away in my mind, ready to whip them out at timely moments when Tess is old enough and interested enough to listen. “Yes Tess, you CAN be an investigative journalist who travels round the world in 72 days! Look at Nellie Bly!” (The wonderful Nellie Bly who, I was happy to see, appeared in this list of 12 remarkable women from history ‘who didn’t give a f***’.)
A Mighty Girl and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls are also brilliant sources of amazing women that I’m saving up for Tess. And speaking of Amy Poehler, I want Tess watching Parks and Recreation as soon as possible. That way, whenever we have a problem we can turn to each other and say, “What would Leslie Knope do?” (For anyone who hasn’t seen Parks and Recreation, Leslie is the show’s main character, played by Amy Poehler. She’s an endearing, feisty, funny, thoughtful blonde with big political ambitions. And she loves waffles. I adore her.)
I’m pretty sure I know what Leslie Knope would do if she met Anisa, the young woman I’m dedicating this post to. She’d high-five her and invite her out for waffles.
I met Anisa in January when I was writing stories for the youth volunteering programme International Citizen Service (ICS). I say ‘met’ – we spoke on the phone. But Anisa was so warm and chatty about her time as a volunteer in Zambia that it felt like we’d met personally.
Here’s why Anisa has joined Nellie Bly and Leslie Knope in my list of role models:
Anisa told me that in her close-knit Muslim community in Leicester, it’s unusual for unmarried women to travel abroad alone. Despite resistance from her parents, Anisa wanted to challenge this norm. “I know it sounds cheesy,” she said, “but I wanted to be a role model for other girls in my community. I was determined to travel and hopefully change things for the next generation.”
When she arrived at the home of her Zambian host family, Anisa was overcome with homesickness. And she was refreshingly open about this. “I immediately rejected everything: the bare floors, the picture of Jesus on the wall, the orange sofa. The tipping point was discovering that to go to the loo I had to go outside in the dark. I was sitting on my bed, crying, thinking ‘I’ve got three months of this – how can I do it?’”
Anisa didn’t let her homesickness win. Instead, “Within a week I was seeing the positives in everything. I’d got through the horrible bits like seeing cockroaches and what had seemed tough, like hand-washing all my clothes, suddenly seemed fun. I was thinking, ‘I’m happy sitting outside in the sun scrubbing my clothes – they’ll dry quickly too!’”
ICS changed Anisa. “I wasn’t a confident person at the start and without my ICS team, I think I’d still be in my shy little bubble. As the weeks went by, I had the confidence to plonk myself down and chat with whoever was sitting around. I wouldn’t have been able to do that before – I’d have shied away or pretended to read a book.”
She made a difference.
Anisa worked with women’s groups in rural Zambia, helping challenge myths around HIV & AIDS. “We made it clear that you can’t become infected by hugging or holding hands or sharing the same plate. Sharing that knowledge was really important because it means people living with HIV won’t be as ostracised in their communities.”
I loved it when Anisa said: “When I got back from Zambia, I felt like I could take on the world. If I managed to do the most challenging thing of my life, then I could do anything!”
But then she added that as the months since her return went by, that I-can-do-it feeling had started to fizzle out. She had a job interview coming up and she wasn’t sure she was up to it.
You ARE up to it Anisa! Thank you for being a role model not just for the girls in your community, but for my daughter Tess – and for me. Happy International Women’s Day!