Dawn of the superheroes: International Women’s Day 2018

Real-life heroes come in every shape, size and gender. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we talk to inspirational superwomen from around the network who are making their mark on the world

Dieynaba Sidibe, Senegal’s first female graffiti artist

When Dieynaba Sidibe decided, age 14, that she was going to be an artist, her idol was Leonardo da Vinci – a far cry from the street artists that would end up nourishing her talent. “As a teenager I was already a great artist at heart,” she says. “Then I discovered graffiti on television and decided to learn.” Her first experiment? Painting the world ‘DIALOULE’ – the name of her mother’s home village – on a wall in the suburb of Thiaroye, where she grew up in Dakar. “I felt like I had a won a trophy, I was so proud of myself,” she smiles.

However, it was linking up with urban arts association Africulturban that secured Sidibe’s street artist status – particularly at its Urban Session festival in 2007. She debuted as the only woman in Dakar’s graffiti network, painting colourful bubble writing and floral designs previously unseen on the city’s walls.

But despite being outnumbered (though other women have painted there, she’s currently the only one in Senegal to practice in an official context, as far as she’s aware), Sidibe feels that gender is irrelevant at the cultural centre where she spends the majority of her time. “Graffers in Senegal work in a pack. I’ve never received special treatment for being a woman,” she insists.

“If doing a piece of graffiti means that I have to climb some scaffolding, nobody can do that for me. It’s helped me to dare to do things for myself.”

Johanna Quaas, the world’s oldest gymnast

Quaas was just three years old when she got hooked on gymnastics. For the 92-year-old from Hohenmölsen, Germany ‒ who took part in her first competition aged nine ‒ not even the Second World War or the subsequent Allied Control Council’s gymnastics ban could dissuade her from pursuing her passion (although she did temporarily switch to handball and become a national champion in 1954). In the end, it was becoming a teacher and mother to three daughters that finally forced Quaas to take a break from professional sport. Though not for long.

“At the age of 56, when the children left home, I became a competitor again,” she grins, adding that she’s travelled all over the world for events. “In 2000 I became German Senior Champion 11 times in a row – and achieved the Guinness World Record for the world’s oldest gymnast in 2013.”

During her lifetime, Quaas says she has observed many changes for women in sport. “It’s not always been this accessible, and it still isn’t in many countries,” she says. “Sport is taken for granted by women and girls today. But, it’s an important and valuable component in a modern society, especially with a more sedentary lifestyle.”

Glamorous in her emerald leotard and with a motto that laughs in the face of ageing – “those who rest, rust” – it’s clear that Quaas takes nothing for granted.

Kadiatu Kamara, Sierra Leone’s first female surfer

The first time Kadiatu Kamara waded into the Atlantic Ocean with a shortboard, aged 16, she had no idea how to swim – let alone surf. “I was scared of the waves, scared of the board, scared of sharks,” recalls the now 21-year-old from Bureh Town, a small commune beside the idyllic Bureh Beach.

It’s largely due to growing up next to this stretch of unspoilt sand – which is home to the only surf club in Sierra Leone, run by a group of local twentysomethings – that KK, as she’s known locally, ventured into the water at all. “I saw the boys surfing, but I never saw a girl among them,” she explains. “I decided to join the club so that men and women can surf together.”

Yet, it wasn’t a decision many initially took seriously. “At first, the boys made fun of me when I fell in the water,” says KK. “Sometimes they’d take my board away so that I had to swim, even though I was scared.” It was a real baptism of fire, but it – along with KK’s natural powers when it came to riding the waves and sheer determination – soon won the surf club’s members over. “The boys taught me everything,” she admits with a grin.

Becoming an accepted member of the Bureh Beach Surf Club wasn’t the only thing KK had to contend with. Surfing as a woman in Sierra Leone is seen as a radical act – and therefore, rarely welcomed by the community. “People in the village say I am wasting my time at the beach,” she admits. “I try to encourage other girls to surf, but most of their mums are scared of the water and won’t let them go near it.”

But KK’s focused on the long term. In December 2017, she qualified as the only female contestant in the country’s first national surf championships, and hopes that every success will help to encourage more girls and women to take to the waves in her country. “I want to surf for my country and win the debut surf event at the 2020 Olympics,” she beams. “If girls in Sierra Leone saw that, they would be inspired to surf.”

Anne-Sophie Pic, the only female chef in France to hold three Michelin stars

Following in the footsteps of two titans of French cuisine was always going to be daunting. Anne-Sophie Pic’s father was Jacques Pic, head chef of three-Michelin-starred Valence restaurant Maison Pic, a family business and one of France’s most revered venues. Jacques developed his culinary talent under his father André Pic – the man responsible for securing the Maison Pic’s first Michelin star.

It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that Anne-Sophie Pic headed out of her father’s kitchen in her early 20s and into business school. But her decision to return after graduation in 1992 came with a caveat that no one could’ve predicted: Pic’s father passed away three months later, leaving her unexpectedly in charge, aged 23, of a kitchen full of older (mainly male) chefs.

“People didn’t think I was able to do this job, though I was in my own home,” she recalls. “For a long time, I thought I didn’t deserve to be there.” Though her youth played a part, Pic knew there was a larger context at play: one in which women didn’t go to culinary school, and that let high-pressured kitchens run on testosterone.

After a year of grieving, Pic left the kitchen once more. It was only when the restaurant lost its third Michelin star in 1995 that Pic returned as head chef with a renewed ambition to win it back. It took 12 years, but she succeeded – and became the only female three-Michelin-starred chef in France. Pic rejects the shouting matches of her father, and grandfather’s, kitchen – which she sees as a step towards re-addressing the industry gender balance.

“As a woman, I always have to prove more, but it allows me to not rest on my laurels and continue to challenge myself,” says Pic. Her advice to young woman chefs? “Stay female. You’ll be surrounded by men, and you can learn from them, but never change yourself.”

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