Ordinary Women: Extraordinary Stories

Ordinary Women: Extraordinary Stories. Poppies and the photo of Ridwan, a Somali woman wearing a dark hijab.

International Women’s Day is often synonymous with the progress of women, celebrating human rights, and reflection on the women who have inspired us including political figures, leaders, and activists. These are women who the world may not recognise nor are their voices heard across the globe but they are captivating and are imperative in how much we look forward to our future and life. 

My name is Ridwan, I’m 29 years old, and I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. My dad passed away when I was young, and so my mom took on the role of both a father and a mother. She made sure that we went to school as she believed that with education, we could become whoever we wanted to be. I completed high school in 2014. I wanted to pursue my higher education back then, but our economic situation did not allow it. 

In 2017, I decided to come to Malaysia because the situation became dangerous in my hometown. I came here alone and started working in restaurants and hotels to make ends meet. I later heard about a Somali refugee community in Kuala Lumpur, and I was curious to see what they do and how I could be involved. I slowly started volunteering at Save School for Somali Children, and eventually, I was offered to teach full-time there. I did not have any qualifications to teach, but I made sure I attended training on how to teach, as well as professional development courses so that I could gain the right skills, particularly in teaching English, Mathematics, and Science. 

I also volunteered at the Somali Women Association Malaysia (SWAM), and through them, I learnt more about the issues faced by refugee women, especially in my community. Soon after that, I joined the Somali Refugee Community (SRC). In this center, I wear several hats, from organizing events and programs to managing the primary and secondary school. I’m also one of the main focal points for the support program provided for single mothers in my community. While this is a voluntary role with very little pay, I continue to be actively involved in the center because I love helping others. But in order for me to survive, I took on a full-time paid teaching job at another refugee school; through this, I am able to support myself as I’m also planning to one day continue a degree in business management which I started in 2018 but was unable to finish it due to financial issues I faced during the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

Despite all the difficulties and struggle that I faced, I continue to be an advocate for my community and especially be present on the ground to provide support. When people ask me why I do this, my response is simple. I know how it feels like to be poor, to be left alone, to be deprived of our basic rights, and so if God gave me the opportunity to change this for others, even for just one person, I would do it, because I do not want anyone to go through what I went through. My very own mother became a single mom after my dad passed away, and I saw first-hand how difficult it was for my mother to raise all of us on her own, put food on the table, and keep a roof over our heads. Even though my mom was struggling, she never once showed us weakness. Sometimes it made me wonder if someone had come and offered support to my mother during her struggles, how would that have changed our lives? How would that make my mother feel? Of course, she would be happy that someone cared for her. And this is why I do what I do today. Even as simple as being present, providing comfort and support to single mothers, that itself already makes a little difference. 

I faced a lot of discrimination because of my gender as a woman. In most communities, people often don’t want to see a woman like me taking up a leadership role. For them, only men can do this type of work for the community.

Being a single woman alone in Malaysia, people often tell me that I should stay at home because ‘I’m a girl on my own’. I faced a lot of discrimination because of my gender as a woman. In most communities, people often don’t want to see a woman like me taking up a leadership role. For them, only men can do this type of work for the community. In reality, I actually don’t care. I know who I am, I know what I am doing, and I should not listen to them. If they want my help, I will be more than happy to help them. If they don’t, then it’s up to them. Simply because I am a woman, sometimes they refuse to accept support from me. We can’t change the mindset of the people overnight, but we should continue to help others who are in need. It is difficult and emotionally challenging to deal with discrimination like this on a daily basis. I do go to counseling from time to time which helps me feel a little bit better. But honestly, it is not easy, especially when I get told on a daily basis “to sit at home” “get married and settle down” or “stop showing yourself as a leader”. 

The change that I would like to see for refugees around the world would be for women to be treated with respect and dignity, but also with trust that they can lead just as well as men can. Currently, most community leaders are men. Even if we suddenly collectively decide to have a woman leader right now, there will still be many challenges. We will still somehow “depend” on men for certain things because it’s not as simple as “giving leadership to a woman”. We need a holistic approach, a whole system change, and an attitude change at the grassroots level. I want to see women do what men do and maybe even better. Of course, there is a double risk for women all the time, especially in terms of safety, but that does not mean they are less “able” to provide support and advocate for their rights and the rights of their communities. 

I hope to live long enough to see this change happen in our society, and I pray for every single mother out there to have the strength and resilience to continue being courageous. My mother is 70 years old now and continues to be my role model.