Jaha Dukureh, Sophia Li, Gucci Voice
Gucci Voice 00:00
Welcome to the Gucci Podcast to celebrate International Women’s month. This special episode created in collaboration with Gucci Equilibrium, the House’s effort for people and planet, is hosted by Sophia Li, an award-winning journalist and environmental advocate. She is joined in conversation by Gambian women’s rights activist Jaha Dukureh. Jaha has been fighting against female genital mutilation and child marriage around the world, being herself a survivor of both. Please note that this episode contains mentions of violence and of suicide. Take care when listening.
Sophia Li 00:46
Hello, everyone, my name is Sophia Li, I am a journalist and welcome to Gucci Podcast for Equilibrium. I’m very honored to be here today with women’s rights activist Jaha Dukureh for a special edition for International Women’s Month. Hi, Jaha.
Jaha Dukureh 01:02
Sophia Li 01:04
I’m so happy to be here with you.
Jaha Dukureh 01:05
Same as me. I’m really excited about this.
Sophia Li 01:08
So, Jaha, for you, what does it mean to be an empowered woman today in 2023?
Jaha Dukureh 01:14
I mean, what it means for me is the fact that I’m able to be myself. I’m able to choose what I want to do with my children, giving my children the opportunities that I didn’t have, the things that I was robbed off. And the ability to choose and just be myself.
Sophia Li 01:35
Jaha Dukureh 01:37
Sophia Li 01:37
Jaha Dukureh 01:38
Sophia Li 01:38
So, whatever the choice is, it could be…
Jaha Dukureh 01:41
Exactly it’s mine.
Sophia Li 01:42
Jaha Dukureh 01:42
Sophia Li 01:43
It’s not the government’s, not society’s, it’s not cultural norms. It’s yours.
Jaha Dukureh 01:46
Sophia Li 01:47
And every person’s choice, every woman’s choice may be different.
Jaha Dukureh 01:50
Exactly. So, whatever those choices are, whether it’s about my body, whether it’s about whether I keep a baby, because the reason why I say that, when I had my children, I didn’t have a choice. I was forced into a marriage at the age of 15. And then again, at the age of 17.
Sophia Li 02:08
You were a child bride.
Jaha Dukureh 02:09
Exactly. And I didn’t get to choose if I wanted to have kids or not. So being an empowered woman in 2023, I’m able to now say that I have a choice. And I can make those decisions. And my daughter, she has a choice as well. Because when I was her age, she’s turning 13 on March 17. But when I was her age, I had a husband.
Sophia Li 02:33
Jaha Dukureh 02:34
Sophia Li 02:34
Does she know that? Does she know that story?
Jaha Dukureh 02:36
Sophia Li 02:37
Yeah? And do you remind her every day – she has that choice?
Jaha Dukureh 02:40
Exactly. And every day I tell her, I just want her to be a child. I just want her to be happy. You know, and she’s so smart. But she’s also very, very responsible at her age. And sometimes I don’t want that because I don’t want her to grow up to be that child that was always responsible. And I just tell her, you’re allowed to be yourself, you’re allowed to make mistakes. Just be happy and be you and know that you have choices. And I didn’t.
Sophia Li 03:08
Yeah. What else do you think you were robbed of in your childhood?
Jaha Dukureh 03:12
I mean, I think a lot. For instance, I look at my relationship with my kids and how close we were, I never had that close relationship with my mother. I never had that close relationship with my dad. I’m a single mom. But every day when my kids get off school, we sit, we talk, we laugh. We joke about what happened in school, their crushes. And I remember when I was young, I would never dare to tell my mom or dad that I was interested in a guy at school, or I thought someone was cute. Or any of that. So, I didn’t have that. When I was eight years old, that’s when my dad promised me to get married to a guy that actually lived in the Bronx. And I moved here to unite with him when I was 15 years old. And now I look at my oldest child, he’s 14 years old, and my daughter’s almost 13. They are living their lives. And they are making some of the craziest choices. My son wakes up every day and he wants to be something new. It’s either chef or he wants to be a photographer, he wants to, you know, he creates all these Instagram pages. And my daughter is so creative, and she doesn’t have to worry about, you know, being someone’s bride against her will.
Sophia Li 04:26
Wow. And also, when we hear about this, on paper, there’s very… a lot of qualitative things that you’re robbed of. But when you’re talking about her hopes, her dreams, her creativity, those are not qualitative. Those are quantitative things that you can’t even measure. You can’t even report in statistics like this percentage of women will be robbed of their creativity and dreams.
Jaha Dukureh 04:47
And you know, when you think about… I always say this right? Today, I’m sitting here with you doing a podcast for Gucci. Girls that come from where I come from, they don’t make it this far. We don’t hear their voices. They are statistics on footnotes of research papers. And they are victims. They don’t ever get to get an opportunity like I have and now I have this opportunity where the world is listening to me, right? And I imagined my daughter will have even bigger dreams and bigger opportunities. And the only reason why is because I stood up for myself, right? And now because of that my daughter has hope. If not, everything that I was subjected to, my daughter would have been subjected to exactly the same practices. And I don’t think a lot of people realise that. And also, we subject women to planned poverty, when we subjected them to issues like child marriage. And what I mean by that is, she’s robbed of her education. She’s robbed of her ability to be employed and contribute in a meaningful way to her society. And like you said, these are the things that we don’t connect a lot of times.
Sophia Li 06:00
Yeah, so I want to zoom in a little bit about your own story. So you stood up for yourself. And that’s why you think you’re able to be here today. What does that story look like? What exactly happened? How did you stand up for yourself?
Jaha Dukureh 06:13
Well, when I was born, I was… You know, I come from a very conservative family in the Gambia, and 100% of girls in my family are subjected to what is referred to as female genital mutilation.
Sophia Li 06:26
And for those who don’t know, can you explain what that is?
Jaha Dukureh 06:29
Yes, so female genital mutilation is the partial or total removal of the female genitalia. I was subjected to the worst form of FGM, it’s shortened for FGM, when I was one week old. And by the time I was eight years old, I was promised to a guy that was going to be my husband, and he lived here in New York City. And then when I was 15 years old, I was brought to New York, right after my mother passed away, and I married this guy. But luckily for me, I knew that i didn’t want to be someone’s wife. So, I ran away. When I ran away, I put myself through high school. And then I graduated at the age of 17, here in the Bronx
Sophia Li 07:10
Jaha Dukureh 07:11
And came back to my family. And that’s when they arranged my second marriage. So, I became a child bride twice in my life. And in that marriage, I gave birth to three beautiful children. But then in 2017, again, when I graduated with my undergrad and Master’s, I ran away from that marriage too. But in between that I started a nonprofit organisation called Safe Hands for Girls, which provides direct services, as well as advocates for women who have been subjected to female genital mutilation, as well as girls who are trying to run away from being victims of child bride. I worked with the Obama administration, we were able to pass laws, one of them being the Girls Protection Act, which made it illegal to transport women and girls out of the US for the purpose of FGM. And I went back to my home country and fought for a law there. And luckily, we were able to get laws passed on both FGM and child marriage and criminalised it. And you know, since then, I’ve been working, you know, travelling around the world, I became a UN Goodwill Ambassador. And then I also was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But lastly, I became a politician in my country. In 2021, I was the vice-presidential candidate for the oldest political party in my country. And I know that I might become president someday.
Sophia Li 08:37
Yes. Whoo. Okay, there’s so much to dive into here. First off, thank you so much for your work.
Jaha Dukureh 08:45
Yeah. Thank you.
Sophia Li 08:46
It’s so incredible to be here with you today. So, thank you so much. In the story, it seems like education was a big passport out of the life that you were born into. Why is education so important for young women and girls?
Jaha Dukureh 08:59
Without education, like I said, your life is basically planned poverty, right? And a lot of times, we don’t realize that. I remember when I came to the Bronx and ran away from my first marriage. I didn’t have a guidance or a parent to enroll me in school, and I went around several schools in the Bronx trying to get enrolled, and they wouldn’t accept me because I had no parent. But I knew in my heart that the only way I can escape the injustices that were happening to me was through education. Because without education, I don’t think I would have realized that I could make a difference in this world, I don’t think I would have realized that I had a voice. I don’t think I would have been able to protect my children, earn an income and speak up for myself. And right now, speak up for hundreds of millions of girls around the world. When you look at an issue like female genital mutilation alone, 200 million women around the world are living with the consequences of this practice. With child marriage, we have more than 600 million women who have been subjected to this. And a lot of times like I said, the world never hears them and many of them die as a result of both practices. You think about early childbirth, not a lot of girls can go through that and live to tell their story. And you think about an issue like female genital mutilation, I had a sister that died because of this practice. Without education, you know, we cannot end violence against women and girls.
Sophia Li 10:30
Yeah. So, education…
Jaha Dukureh 10:31
Sophia Li 10:32
… is empowerment.
Jaha Dukureh 10:33
Sophia Li 10:34
So, in a time when you couldn’t trust your parents, or your family, your government, your society, why was it important to have faith in yourself?
Jaha Dukureh 10:46
If I didn’t have faith in myself, Sophia, I wouldn’t be here.
Sophia Li 10:51
But where did that come from? How did you know at such a young age?
Jaha Dukureh 10:55
I met someone here in New York. Her name is Taina Bien-Aimé, she was the head of Equality Now. And I remember when I was around 16 years old, I attempted suicide. And when I was in the hospital, she would come, and she would bring me books. And in every book, she would write notes, and tell me what a light I was in this world and how much she believed in me. No one has ever believed in me that much. And no one told me those words. And I believed her. Because she would sit there and read with me. And I think unconsciously, I learned that I’m the only person that could help myself. And I knew that I didn’t want to be someone’s wife. I knew that I didn’t want to be home, helpless. But the stories that I hear from my sisters, or even my own mother, when she was alive, I saw the things that she went through. And I knew that I wanted more out of life.
Sophia Li 11:59
So, you rediscovered your own light because another female helped you realize? Like shined a light on you. And you’re passing on that like to millions of other girls around the world right now.
Jaha Dukureh 12:13
Exactly. And Taina saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. You know, when I became an outcast in my own community for running away from my marriage and saying no, when I started speaking out about these issues, they were there. And they’ve always seen that light in me, and especially Taina, she’s like a mother to me. We talk almost all the time. And, you know, sometimes, especially now that we’re talking about International Women’s Day, right? I think we need each other. That’s why movement building is so important.
Sophia Li 12:51
100%. And you know what, I bet another female shone a light on Taina to make sure she knew that her light was so visible and so bright.
Jaha Dukureh 13:03
Sophia Li 13:03
And that’s what we’re doing. It’s just continuing shining these flashlights on.
Jaha Dukureh 13:07
Exactly. And we have a moral obligation to the younger generation, to show them and to be there for them and to be present, I think.
Sophia Li 13:16
Yes. So, Jaha you might in 2026, right, be the first female president and the youngest president in Africa.
Jaha Dukureh 13:26
Yeah. Well, Africa had a female president, but in my country, I’ll be the first and the youngest. But in the entire Africa, if I win in 2026, I will be the youngest in the whole continent.
Sophia Li 13:37
The youngest in the entire continent.
Jaha Dukureh 13:39
Yes, I will.
Sophia Li 13:39
Wow. So, I’m like, can we just take a second, like, even if you’re the second female president, still, it’s an entire continent. And that is just incredible on so many levels. So, no matter what the results are, tell us about your upcoming campaign. And no matter what the results, why is it important for young African women to see a female candidate?
Jaha Dukureh 14:04
You know, 72% of my country’s population is under the age of 35. Africa has the most youthful population in the whole world.
Sophia Li 14:13
Wow, I didn’t know that.
Jaha Dukureh 14:14
And 50% of our population or more is actually women. And we cannot continue holding them back and thinking that that’s democracy or that’s, you know… Whenever we have the African Union summit, right, you look at all the heads of states and you see all these old men. There’s not a single woman in those pictures. And for me, it’s not about winning, it’s about being heard. It’s about courage. It’s about showing others that they too, can do it. Even if I fail, just the fact that I was able to stand up and be counted.
Sophia Li 14:52
Yes. Yes. It’s about infiltrating from within. It’s not disrupting the system that have harmed us
Jaha Dukureh 14:59
Exactly. And it’s about showing them that that girl, that was a child bride, that went through FGM, that went through all of these horrible things, can be your president, and can be great at being your President, and can actually be the most qualified candidate within everyone that is running. And that’s the point.
Sophia Li 15:21
Yes. And is probably more qualified than men who don’t have any experience with this.
Jaha Dukureh 15:27
Not just with that, but when it comes to… I’ve worked as a consultant for the World Bank. I am highly educated. I have everything it takes. And being a woman, and having the empathy that I have, allows me to serve my people better, allows me to understand their needs, their struggles, their challenges.
Sophia Li 15:50
Yes, you’re actually a candidate of the people.
Jaha Dukureh 15:52
Exactly. So, a lot of times, like people don’t have the courage to run at the age of… I’m 33 years old. But for me, I did it when I was 30. And people thought I was crazy. But I knew what I was doing.
Sophia Li 16:08
And let them think you’re crazy.
Jaha Dukureh 16:10
I mean, a lot of one that didn’t come crazy Sophia, like, really, I feel like… (laughs)
Sophia Li 16:14
Wait, but people who are uncomfortable with these changes.
Jaha Dukureh 16:19
Sophia Li 16:20
But people like me, I’m like, we need more of you.
Jaha Dukureh 16:23
Exactly. I mean, I feel like when I started my campaign against FGM, a lot of… are you mad? This practice has been around for like centuries. Who are you to think you can make a difference? But look at where we are now. A lot of countries, not only my home country, have laws against this practice, and families are deciding every single day that they don’t want their children subjected to this.
Sophia Li 16:46
Yeah. A lot of people ask me, why even try with climate? Because we’re already doomed. And I’m like, well, do you think one person makes a difference? Look at our presidential candidates. Right? On both ends of the spectrum. And they’re like, yes, well, I’m like, well, there Yeah, one person can make a difference. Why aren’t you that one person? Why can’t we all be that one person?
Jaha Dukureh 17:02
I think sometimes we don’t realize our own power, and how powerful we can be? And that’s probably why we underestimate what one person can do.
Sophia Li 17:13
Jaha Dukureh 17:14
And you know, you and I were talking, and I was telling you about the community gardens that I started and what that means for those women. I remember one woman once told me, “not only are these gardens helping me feed my children, but they’re helping me pay for my daughter’s school fees.” You realize how that one small community garden is helping change the narrative for an entire generation. That’s power.
Sophia Li 17:43
That’s true power.
Jaha Dukureh 17:44
That is true power.
Sophia Li 17:46
So, speaking of power, it goes hand in hand with joy. How are you today tapping into your joy as a mom, and as a woman?
Jaha Dukureh 17:56
I don’t know how to dance, but I like to dance. I like to listen to music. I mean, literally, I’m not the conventional, like, politician that you see. And I think that’s one of the things that I struggle with. Trying to balance that, yes, I do want to, you know, have a future in politics, but I’m also this happy person. And like my feminine side. I remember like a few days ago, I was doing a question-and-answer session on Snapchat, and someone was like, you know, you show your feminine side a lot, maybe you should stop doing that. Because you’re considered a leader in our country. And you know, when you dance… and certain things that you do are not meant for leaders. And at first, I was almost offended, but then I thought about it and I decided to respond to it. And you know, people usually expect to see a perfect me which includes… because I come from a country as well, that has 96% Muslim population. They want to see me covered up. They don’t want to see me singing to certain types of music, but that’s who I am.
Sophia Li 19:07
They want to see you controlled
Jaha Dukureh 19:08
Exactly. And I keep telling them, like this is what gives me joy and I connect with young people from my country. And I want them to know me at a personal level, the people that follow me, I don’t want to fake who I am. I don’t want to show them something that I’m not.
Sophia Li 19:26
Have you heard the Divine Feminine?
Jaha Dukureh 19:28
Sophia Li 19:29
Like tapping into the divine feminine, which is, you know, the source, Mother Nature. She is divine feminine. And us understanding our divine feminine is understanding this, like ying and yang that comes with masculine energy and feminine energy. And I think women have excelled so long, at least in Western spaces, where females had to take on a very masculine energy. They had to show up to the boardrooms and the conferences, they had to be, you know, very dominant, they had to be very assertive, decisive. And now I think women are starting to understand like our divine power of the divine feminine, of us being as moms, as having empathy, being able to hear each other instead of speaking over each other. And that is truly the superpower, it’s balancing those two energies.
Jaha Dukureh 20:14
And not only that, right? Like, I’m a very sensual person, and that shows up in a lot of what I do. And I think it makes people uncomfortable, because they’re like, Okay, you went through FGM to control that side of you, but now you show… But I still realise that they’re trying to take that power away from me, right?
Sophia Li 20:37
Yeah, you’re like, I’m gonna own this narrative. It’s my emotions, my feelings.
Jaha Dukureh 20:43
Exactly! When I tell people, they ask me questions online, like, do you enjoy sex? And I tell them, yes, very much so. And I… it’s like, being a strong woman, I think, is one of the most intimidating things to men, in societies, like not only in our society, but even in Western society. And yeah…
Sophia Li 21:03
Yeah, it’s intimidating. But it’s for them a projection of their own insecurities.
Jaha Dukureh 21:08
Exactly. And sometimes it’s hard, like, I’m not even going to sit here and try to make it seem like I have my sh– I have my…
Sophia Li 21:16
Jaha Dukureh 21:16
Yeah. (laugh) If I have my you know, that together, but I don’t on most days. You know, I struggle with mental health, I struggle with, you know, the pressures of that everyone has of me. And this picture-perfect image that people always expect me to show. And it’s hard. But I continue, because I know that everything that’s happening in my life, right, will someday make sense to another young woman.
Sophia Li 21:50
Yes, it already is making sense. It already has infiltrated the subconscious of so many young women. And I think the thing is, is that it’s cyclical, right? Like, we need to stop teaching these patterns to both men — young men and young women, that they need to be exactly this or exactly that.
Jaha Dukureh 22:07
You know, one thing I’m so proud of, I have always felt like my son was a bit sexist. My oldest child.
Sophia Li 22:13
Jaha Dukureh 22:14
Yeah, I’ve always felt that way. That’s one of the things that we argue about at home. And then finally, yesterday, he’s like, you know, Mommy, when I get married, you know, I’m gonna cook for my wife. I don’t think I want her to cook. I’m like, oh, my God, like, you feel that way. He’s like, yes. And I’m like, Okay, I feel like finally, I’ve done something right. Because when he was a lot younger, I remember just because of, you know, the society that we come from, he had those things, but he had to unlearn them at some point.
Sophia Li 22:42
And we’re byproducts of our society that tells us who we should be.
Jaha Dukureh 22:45
Exactly. So, when Muhammad was young, he would always tell his sister, you can’t do this, you have to cover up when you’re going out of the house, you have to wear the hijab. But now him being able to actually say, you know what, Mommy, when I have a wife, I’m gonna cook. Because he loves cooking. And, you know, showing that empathy and being… even crying at his age, you know, when he’s hurt, and showing his emotions. I think for me is unlearning that pattern of toxic masculinity that we see in society. And that’s very, very important and critical.
Sophia Li 23:22
Yes. Toxic masculinity. And so, it’s not just about targeting our young women and girls in showing them that they have choice and they can be whoever they want, but it’s also uplifting
young men and boys and telling them it’s okay. And they should be tapping into their emotions. They have divine masculine and divine feminine, within all of us.
Jaha Dukureh 23:40
You have no idea how proud, like yesterday, like made me so so proud. Yeah.
Sophia Li 23:45
Okay, Jaha, last question. For any woman-identifying person listening right now, what do you want to remind them of?
Jaha Dukureh 23:55
I want them to know that they are powerful just the way they are. And they shouldn’t allow anyone to determine what they become. I didn’t allow my past to determine who I am. And I think it’s important for women to realise their own power within and not wait for someone to tell them to stand up for themselves, to make a difference in the world, to make an impact in someone else’s life. We are strong just the way we are. We are beautiful just the way we are. And each and every one of us matters. Each and every one of us is worth everything this world has to offer.
Sophia Li 24:34
Yes. And you can always rewrite your narrative.
Jaha Dukureh 24:37
Sophia Li 24:38
Have you ever heard of the, you know, when a therapist says, You’re not responsible for your trauma, but you’re responsible for your healing?
Jaha Dukureh 24:45
Sophia Li 24:46
So, it’s like you’re not responsible for your past, but you’re responsible for your present, and your future and where you go.
Jaha Dukureh 24:51
Exactly. And I always tell people that the work that I do allows me to heal. Knowing that I’m protecting someone from going to the things that I went through is the most healing part of my journey.
Sophia Li 25:05
Yes. You’re telling younger Jaha self, hey, we’re doing the work. We’re helping.
Jaha Dukureh 25:11
You know, it’s interesting that you said that. I don’t think I’ve grown up from that young Jaha. I feel like I’m still like that.
Sophia Li 25:19
She’s part of you.
Jaha Dukureh 25:20
Exactly. Because a part of me is still very childish. And when people pointed out, I tell them, it’s because I didn’t have a childhood, like my teenage life was robbed away from me. So because of that, that’s why I still
Sophia Li 25:34
I’m living in now.
Jaha Dukureh 25:34
Sophia Li 25:36
Okay. And also you want to remind people of their light.
Jaha Dukureh 25:39
Yes. Oh, my God, young woman, your light, your power. Like you said, your divine feminine side. Everything that you are, don’t ever dim your light for someone else. I know this is a code that’s very popular out there. But I am saying don’t ever, ever, ever, ever dim your light for someone.
Sophia Li 26:00
Jaha thank you so much for your light. It’s been such an honour.
Jaha Dukureh 26:05
No, thank you, Sophia.
Sophia Li 26:09
Thank you so much, Jaha. Thank you to all of our listeners. Happy International Women’s month and don’t forget about your own light.
Jaha Dukureh 26:16
Gucci Voice 26:21
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