She Dares: 36 Women of Courage Share Their Stories
Compiled by Asma Jan Muhammad
MENA Speakers, Dubai
ISBN: 978-9948881407
186pp.

As the title — She Dares: 36 Women of Courage Share Their Stories — indicates, this is a collection of personal narratives by some seemingly very ordinary, but actually very extraordinary women. The quote on the back cover, by American filmmaker Nora Ephron, sums up the theme: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

Despite coming from different countries, cultures and backgrounds, the collaborators share the common experience of being female and, as their stories show, universally this experience is the same, with minor differences.

Their stories are raw, honest and bold. The mood varies from sadness to delight to introspection. Inspiring and empowering, they reflect the enormous personal and professional changes that have taken — and are taking — place in the lives of women all around the world because of changing economies and social and familial structures.

It should be noted that the rise in publication of books on women and women’s history is quite recent. Earlier, no one took much interest, no one recorded or documented women’s unique narratives — they were not considered important enough. The feminist revolution of the 1960s changed that, showing women’s narratives as ‘worthy’ discourses.

An inspiring book of personal narratives from across the world reflects the enormous changes taking place in the lives of women because of changing economies and social and familial structures

Thus, their lives came to be written about and women became more visible to the literary world. For so long, men have always decided what is a subject worthy of interest and women’s lives were not considered important. The patriarchal notion that women were not agents of change has been positively defeated and women have acquired their rightful place of importance in not only making, but changing, history.

In She Dares, the contributors give advice and support in overcoming stigmas and facing hardships, discriminations, tragedies and difficult health issues. Shipra Dhir Passi from India tells of her struggle to overcome physical pain and depression after a tragic accident that left her bedridden for some time.

While carrying her six-month-old baby in her arms, Passi slipped on a staircase and hurt her spine. Doctors said she would never be able to walk or lead a normal life, and possibly never have another baby.

Losing physical independence led Passi to lose her self-respect. Pushed into isolation and severe depression, she lost her will to live, but ultimately realised she had to either change her perspective, or rot to death in her bed. “I dared to believe in myself! I dared to try one more time to really live my life! I dared to go against societal/family expectations and stayed focused on just myself! Ultimately, I won their hearts, once I won mine back.”

Women’s acts of bravery go largely unrecognised and unacknowledged in life, probably because these acts do not meet men’s definitions of bravery. In almost every world culture, women are conditioned to put others before themselves. They juggle education, career, motherhood, significant relationships and household management. Challenging traditions and listening to one’s own heart do not feature in the ‘achievements’ expected of them.

But they persevere. The heroines of She Dares walk readers through how to find the courage to set their own destiny, to love themselves, to embrace failures and turn them into successes. The positivity with which they have navigated their own journeys provides emotive insights, some laughs, some tears and plenty of room for reflection.

Nazish Ali from Pakistan tells of a bad marriage and subsequent divorce that left her a single parent of a young daughter. But she remained resilient and, putting her pharmacy degree to good use, worked her way up in the pharmaceutical industry to provide for her dependents without having to resort to handouts from male family members.

The challenges of being a solo parent, working full time, managing household chores and dealing with the adversities that come from being female in a patriarchal set-up were formidable, but “regardless of our obstacles, the positive outlook of one’s life can change ordinary into extraordinary. Only through conscious thinking can we identify our paradigm and choose the life we truly want to live.”

Mai El-Kinawi from Egypt shares how she faced gender-based discrimination as she pushed the boundaries to develop a thriving career in communication strategies. Among the many incidents she mentions, the one that stands out most was when, after a series of successful interviews, she was told — rather sheepishly — that the clients felt the position would be best served by a man.

Her advice: “I invite you to shed the labels and capture every opportunity that comes your way. I invite you to shed the labels and strive passionately to be the best you can. Finally, I invite you to shed the labels and free your mind to soar.”

As these women learned to empower themselves, they learned to believe in themselves. Maha Chehab, a Lebanese psychologist and neuroscience specialist, advises: “Believe in yourself: you are truly unique; even science proved that!”

Chehab’s story is a typical example of having to adhere to collective culture to find direction. Her family decided what she would study and what career she would pursue. After a series of unfulfilling jobs, it took her 10 long years before she was able to decode the clues and connect with her passion. She went back to school to study cognitive sciences and take up a career in psychology — something she realised she should have done a long time ago instead of following others’ directives.

Each captivating story of courage, vulnerability and strength fills one with inspiration. The fact that the writers come from Mexico to Russia, and Saudi Arabia to Turkey, shows that the struggle is not one person’s alone; all women around the world are in this together.

It also shows that most women’s problems are the same: denied education; prevented from choosing their own life path or, often, life partner; trapped in bad marriages; struggling against domestic violence, disabilities, or potentially fatal diseases.

The book has been put together by Asma Jan Muhammad, a chartered accountant from Pakistan who was conscious about gender discrimination from an early age, as she grew up in a lower-middle class family where education for girls was not a priority.

Her father’s death threw the family into financial turmoil, but she persevered in her intense ambition to make her own identity. Qualifying with gold medals, she pursued a career in a profession dominated by men, and managed to achieve great heights — “It’s the courage to continue that counts!” she writes.

In her own essay, Muhammad — a perfect example of a self-reliant, economically empowered woman who writes her own destiny — talks about the greatest joy a woman can find because of financial independence: the freedom to make her own decisions.

We women wear so many hats. As daughters, sisters, wives, mothers and friends, we devote and sacrifice ourselves to provide for the betterment of our family. But society has its way of challenging every step we take, more so if the steps are taken for us as individuals, wearing the hat of ‘me’.

We have to struggle far more than men, but it is heartening to know there are so many other women in whom we can find encouragement and support, who can guide, advise and set an example by sharing their own stories. She Dares is a book that demands to be read, not only by women, but by men as well.

The reviewer is a performing artist and cultural activist. She tweets @tehrikeniswan

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 15th, 2022

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