What women want: a vivid portrait of female lives around the world

For their book 200 Women, Geoff Blackwell and Ruth Hobday asked influential females the same questions to create an inspiring portfolio of interviews and photographs

Jane Goodall

Primatologist and conservationist

When I was 10, I read Tarzan of the Apes: Jane Goodall. Photograph: Kieran E Scott

The future of our planet matters to me. We should be asking as indigenous people used to How will this decision benefit future generations? When I was 10 years old, I read Tarzan of the Apes and decided Id go to Africa when I grew up, to live with wild animals and write books about them. Everybody laughed, but my mother imbued me with the message that, if you want something, you should never give up. People ask: Why arent you slowing down? Youre 83! Well, there is so much awareness to raise. I was given certain gifts and one was communication. I have to use that gift while I still can. I hope there is time to turn things around. But that depends on us taking action. It is important to remember that every individual matters and that we can choose what sort of impact we will make.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Award-winning Nigerian author

My purpose is to be a storyteller: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photograph: Kieran E Scott

At the risk of sounding like a beauty-pageant contestant, I care about justice. I believe my purpose is to be a storyteller and I feel things in a particular way. I grew up in the shadow of the Biafran War both my grandfathers died in it. Despite no one wanting to talk about it, the war was very present, and I was the child who asked endless questions. I wanted to know how we came to be in that situation of conflict. Early in my life I noticed the world is very unfair to girls and women. I wanted to understand the justification, but Ive never found one. I often joke that I dont choose the days on which I am black, the days on which I am a woman and the days on which Im both. I experience being black and being a woman, and being a black woman every single day.

Caster Semenya

Olympic gold medal-winning athlete

When I was six, I discovered running and I never stopped: Caster Semenya. Photograph: Kieran E Scott

What matters to me is doing what I can to change the lives of others, especially those in rural areas. I set up the Caster Semenya Foundation because I believe in the potential of sport to develop young kids, to teach them discipline and to produce future leaders.

When I was six, I discovered running and I never stopped. My role model was the athlete Maria Mutola; she lived with me and inspired me. I decided I was going to be a world champ, but as I matured I realised life isnt about being better than anybody else its about being the best you can be. Family is also very important to me. We come from a small, dusty town and, although we lacked certain things, we had each other. Our family unit was strong.

The word ubuntu has a lot of meanings, but for me it is about acknowledging the human dignity of every person. I am a reflection of those around me.

Nadya Tolokonnikova

Founding member of Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot is what democracy looks like: Nadya Tolokonnikova. Photograph: Kieran E Scott

What matters to me? Dignity. Self-respect. Honesty. Justice. Solidarity. Communal spaces. Peoples movements. Love. Keeping my childish naivety. And art: my dad was an amazing artist, and I myself spent two years in prison as the result of a peaceful art protest.

Pussy Riot doesnt have anything to do with officials, rather it is a tool for organisation and empowerment. Its simple and fun, and its what democracy looks like. Anybody can put on a bright mask and express their ideas wherever they like in parliament, on the streets or at a subway station.

Russia has a lot of prejudices against women, and domestic violence is a big issue. Observing misery hasnt ever helped anyone. What helps is action moving forward and breaking through your own fears.

Margaret Atwood

Author of more than 40 books, including The Handmaids Tale

Growing up without electricity or running water gives you a whole different mindset: Margaret Atwood. Photograph: Kieran E Scott

Im a war kid. In the 50s, the Cold War, Stalin and Russia were very much on peoples minds. If you had a fear in that period, it would have been of being blown up by an atomic bomb, followed closely in the case of women by a fear of getting pregnant. There was no pill in that age and sexual politics was quite different then. Womens jobs were to make life happy for others and to get rid of their selves.

Luckily because Canada was a cultural backwater that message wasnt being pushed in our magazines. My parents were very keen on the outdoor life. I grew up without electricity or running water, which gives you a whole different mindset. I spent my time drawing, then reading and finally writing.

Im very proud of my work. Its unique to see something like The Handmaids Tale take on a new urgency in a time when various state legislatures move towards phasing out not only womens reproductive rights, but their health rights. All of it is pretty frightening and it doesnt only affect our women because you can never change the condition of women without offering things for men.

Amber Heard

Actor and domestic violence activist

Its about the impact I make: Amber Heard. Photograph: Kieran E Scott

What matters to me has changed a lot over the years. For a long time, it was about finding and defining myself. But as I have grown older, I have found it is less about what I am now and more about what I will leave behind. Its about the impact I make. I have also come to respect the pain and hardships Ive endured. When I look back on the most difficult periods of my life, I realise that they were some of the most definitive in making me who I am today. I can say that, having narrowly survived the very depths of my own capacity to feel pain, there is some intrinsic worth to the experience; not to the pain itself, but to the surviving of it.

Gabourey Sidibe

Actor and star of the film Precious

Theres a school of thought that, as a black woman, you should be superhuman: Gabourey Sidibe. Photograph: Kieran E Scott

When I think of the things that have shaped me, the first would be my parents marriage. My mother is American and my father was Senegalese. They got married so he could get a green card. They eventually fell for each other and had children. But I didnt get to see a real, loving relationship as a child, so I dont know what that looks like from the inside.

I went to school in New York where most of my classmates were Puerto Rican or Dominican only 4% of us were black. Being one of the 4% who also happens to be round and who also happens to be dark, had a real effect on me; sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

What shaped me more than anything, though, was becoming an actor. Id thought Id grow up to be a therapist and had started studying psychology. I loved discovering the inner workings of the human psyche. My whole life Id watched my mom, who is a singer, pursue her art, and I thought it was too hard for me to do. Today, my happiness and my comfort being able to love myself and see I am deserving of love really matter to me. Its an issue a lot of women battle with, and I think women of colour battle with it more. Because there is this school of thought that, as a black woman, youre supposed to be strong, a survivor, superhuman that you have to put everyone ahead of yourself and that theres no room for selfishness. I like the thought of the strength of a black woman, but I also want to be able to think of myself.

June Steenkamp

Anti-abuse campaigner and mother of Reeva Steenkamp

We want to educate men: June Steenkamp. Photograph: Kieran E Scott

I want to save women from losing their daughters, and I want to save women from losing their lives. Reeva was such an exceptional, loving person. She gave so much love to Barry [Reevas father] and me, and we gave it back. We adored her.

When Anene Booysen, 17, was gang raped, disembowelled and murdered in 2013, Reeva called me and said: Mummy, I have to do something about this. She started her work against the abuse of women and, less than two weeks later, she herself was murdered [by Oscar Pistorius]. The day she died she was supposed to talk to schoolgirls in Johannesburg about violence against women.

Whatever she was going through in her relationship she hid from me. I believe thats because she didnt want me to worry. After it happened, I missed Reeva so much and my grief became destructive but, during the trial, I went into another space in my head. I felt vulnerable in that courtroom but, after everything that had happened, I wanted to be strong the things I had to listen to were terrible. Eventually, I freed myself from the anger inside me and I forgave. You have to forgive, but that doesnt mean her murderer neednt pay for what he did.

I came to the realisation I needed to get myself together and try to help other women affected by violence. Thats how the foundation was born. Its named after Reeva, to continue the work she started. We want to raise awareness of physical abuse, provide resources to victims and educate women on their self worth. But we also want to educate men while they are still boys to respect the women in their lives.

Ashley Judd

Actor and feminist activist

I speak from a position of empowerment: Ashley Judd. Photograph: Kieran E Scott

My mother was pregnant with me at the time of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy those events imprinted on her and, therefore, on me. More than anything, though, what has formed the core of both my pain and my resilience is experiencing sexual abuse in early childhood.

That experience of extensive patriarchal wounding shaped my neural anatomy. I have spent a good deal of my life either unconsciously affected, or bewildered by my inability to let go of the pain. Id been using yoga, meditation and prayer as modalities to cope with the abuse, but the power to confront what happened came through my sister. She had been seeking help for an eating disorder and, when I showed up to a family week, her treatment team took one look at me and recommended a 12-step programme. I thought they were wrong to suggest it, but I was willing to do anything to change, and Im glad I did. Through professional help, Ive become a general badass. It can be abusive to highlight a problem without also underscoring a solution, so I am very thankful that today, when I talk about being a survivor of adolescent and adult rape, and of all kinds of gender wounding, I do so from a position of empowerment. If I could change one thing in the world today, it would be to change the prevailing global culture of sexual exploitation and sexual entitlement.

200 Women is published by Chronicle Books at 35. To order a copy for 29.75, go to guardianbookshop.com

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/oct/29/what-women-want-a-vivid-portrait-of-female-lives-around-the-world

Author: Billy Roland

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