They blazed trails, set new records, called out injustice and faced down oppression: FRANCE 24 takes a look at the inspirational women who shaped the past 12 months.
The year 2021 saw female athletes scale new heights at the Tokyo Olympics and press their demands for equality in sports, while Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai was at the heart of the biggest #MeToo scandal to rock the country’s political establishment.
There were new faces and emotional departures in politics, with Tunisia’s Najla Bouden becoming the Arab world’s first woman prime minister, even as Europe bid farewell to its most powerful female politician for the past 16 years, Germany’s Angela Merkel.
The dark side of social media was in the spotlight as US whistleblower Frances Haugen dealt a stinging blow to Facebook and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa exposed the ravages wrought by fake news and disinformation in her native Philippines.
In France, skipper Clarisse Cremer smashed the women’s world record for a solo round-the-world race and Jazz Age icon Josephine Baker became the first Black woman to enter the country’s Panthéon of heroes.
But it was a grim year for Afghan women, who defiantly resisted as the Taliban swept back into power – at a terrible cost.
In chronological order, FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the women who helped shape world events in 2021.
Clarisse Cremer, around the world in record time
On February 3, French skipper Clarisse Cremer triumphantly sailed into the port of Les Sables d’Olonne, in western France, having smashed the women’s record for a solo round-the-world race previously held by Britain’s Ellen MacArthur.
With thousands gathered to witness history, the 31-year-old wrapped up the gruelling Vendée Globe race in 87 days, two hours and 24 minutes – a full seven days ahead of the mark set by MacArthur two decades earlier. The contest was won by Yannick Bestaven, who crossed the finish line in third position but was handed a time bonus for his role in rescuing a fellow competitor.
Cremer became only the seventh woman to complete the treacherous Vendée Globe, one of the most daunting challenges in a sport long dominated by men. She joins a list of trailblazers who have opened competitive sailing to women, along with the likes of MacArthur and the late Florence Arthaud, the first woman to win the Route du Rhum transatlantic solo yacht race.
Clarisse Agbégnénou, throwing prejudice to the mat
At 28, the five-time judo world champion finally picked up her maiden Olympic title in Tokyo this summer – the one triumph that had so far eluded her. Five years after her bruising final defeat to Slovenia’s Tina Trstenjak, her great rival, Agbégnénou won the gold medal in the women’s -63kg class.
France’s flag-bearer at the Tokyo Olympics, Agbégnénou is an inspirational figure on and off the mat, known for battling sexist stereotypes in sport. Born to Togolese parents, the former gendarme has long campaigned for gender equality in sports and other fields traditionally reserved for men. She is known for speaking out on topics often regarded as taboo, including menstruation and pregnancy in competitive sport.
The evidence on the field suggests the Agbégnénou effect is working, with judo clubs across France reporting a surge in interest among young girls.
Afghan women, demonstrating for their rights
By the end of August, Afghan women’s nightmare scenario had become reality: The Taliban had swept back into power, abruptly rolling back the country’s tentative experiment with democracy and women’s rights. The women of Afghanistan did not go down quietly, rising up in protest in the country’s main cities to defend their right to education, work and political representation.
But arrests, harassment and murder soon followed. On November 5, the bodies of four women were discovered in a ditch near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, riddled with bullets. Among them was Forouzan Safi, prominent campaigner for the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.
The Taliban have promised a less brutal rule than in the 1990s, but women are still largely excluded from civil service and secondary education, and they risk reprisals if they venture outside without a male guardian. When FRANCE 24’s reporters visited Kandahar in October, female witnesses spoke of a surge in beatings, forced marriages and kidnappings. Afghan women are also on the front line of the economic crisis roiling the country, which has been largely deprived of foreign aid since the Taliban takeover. FRANCE 24 has documented cases of young girls being sold off by their mothers in order to feed the rest of the family.
Tunisia’s Najla Bouden, a first for the Arab world
Two months after suspending parliament in what critics decried as a power grab, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied sprang another surprise in September by appointing a university professor and political unknown as the country’s first woman prime minister. Najla Bouden Romdhane, a 63-year-old with a PhD in geology, is also the first woman to hold the post in the Arab world.
Prior to her appointment, Bouden held senior positions at Tunisia’s education ministry, notably overseeing the implementation of World Bank projects. She faces a daunting challenge as prime minister in a country rocked by political instability and a protracted economic crisis.
Bouden’s nomination surprised analysts and fuelled talk of a PR stunt by Saied, who is otherwise known for his social conservatism. Sceptics also cast doubt on Bouden’s actual room for manoeuvre given the growing concentration of power in the president’s hands.
Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who rattled Facebook
Before October 3, most people had never heard of Frances Haugen. But the 37-year-old has become a household name since coming forward as the whistleblower who leaked a cache of internal documents exposing the dark side of Facebook’s social media empire.
In May this year Haugen left her position as a product manager at the tech giant, taking tens of thousands of documents with her. The damning evidence, which she shared with US law enforcement and the press, showed that Facebook knew its products were fuelling hate and harming children’s mental health.
Since going public in October, Haugen has appeared before lawmakers in the US and across Europe, accusing Mark Zuckerberg’s company of choosing “profit over safety”. At each stop she has called for urgent external regulation to rein in Facebook’s management and reduce the harm being done to society.
Maria Ressa, upholding press freedom in the Philippines
Documenting the fake news and misinformation spread by social media is at the heart of Maria Ressa’s work in her native Philippines. The 58-year-old journalist won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for her “courageous fight for freedom of expression”, sharing the prestigious award with fellow reporter Dmitry Muratov of Russia. She is currently on bail pending an appeal against her conviction in a cyber libel case, for which she faces up to six years in prison.
Ressa heads the investigative news website Rappler, a critical source of information on the controversial and brutal war on drugs carried out by the Philippines’ hardline president, Rodrigo Duterte, in which thousands of people have been executed by “death squads”. Rappler is one of the few media outlets to have documented the executions and challenged their legality.
A former CNN correspondent who also holds US citizenship, Ressa has braved repeated threats and intimidations to pursue her work in the Philippines. She was forced to petition four different courts for permission to travel to Oslo in December and pick up her Nobel prize, before returning home.
Peng Shuai becomes the face of #MeToo in China
#WhereIsPengShuai? The whereabouts of 35-year-old Peng Shuai became the subject of an international scandal in November when the Chinese tennis star went missing for several weeks after she publicly accused Zhang Gaoli, a former deputy prime minister and one of China’s most powerful politicians, of coercing her into having sex.
Peng, a former world number one in doubles, made the accusation in a November 2 post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, which was promptly erased by state censors. Her subsequent disappearance caused a global outcry, with prominent athletes, foreign governments and the United Nations expressing their concern for her wellbeing.
The tennis star has since reappeared in photo and video posts whose authenticity has been questioned, and briefly spoke with the head of the International Olympic Committee in an online video call in which she said she was “safe and well”. In a December 20 interview with a Singapore-based daily she appeared to contradict her earlier statement, denying she had made allegations of sexual assault.
The Women’s Tennis Association said it was unconvinced by Peng’s apparent retraction, reiterating its call for an investigation into her safety.
Josephine Baker, from Missouri to the Panthéon of French heroes
A star of stage, screen and song, a resistance fighter, and a civil rights activist, Josephine Baker was symbolically inducted into the French Panthéon on November 30, half a century after her death. The American-born icon of the Jazz Age in Paris became the first Black woman to enter France’s mausoleum for “great men” – and, belatedly, great women too.
Born in St Louis, Missouri, Baker took on many roles during a rollercoaster career straddling continents, epochs and wars. She is best remembered in France, her adopted country, for her Parisian stardom in the Années Folles (the Roaring Twenties) and her role as a spy for the French Resistance during World War II. She later returned to her native US to join the civil rights movement but remained based in France.
In an elaborate ceremony at the domed Panthéon, French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to a “war hero, fighter, dancer, singer; a Black woman defending Black people, but first of all a woman defending humankind.”
Bowing out on her own terms: Germany’s Angela Merkel
Days after the ceremony honouring Baker, the French president paid a warm tribute to Germany’s outgoing chancellor, Angela Merkel, thanking her for “having done so much (…) to move Europe forward”. After 16 years at the helm, Europe’s – and indeed the world’s – most famous and most powerful female politician finally bowed out. She did so on her own terms, undefeated at the polls, and leaving the chancellorship with approval ratings envied by all her peers.
Known for her sobriety, her composure and her quiet strength, the chancellor affectionately dubbed “Mutti” (mother) leaves behind a legacy of cautious and unflashy leadership. No sooner had she left office, replaced by the incoming Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, than the first signs of “Merkel nostalgia” swept the country, particularly among a generation of Germans that has known no other ruler since 2005.