Seven Feminist Human Rights Icons Who Are Changing the World

Happy International Human Rights Day! In celebration of the United Nations General Assembly’s 64-year-old commitment to “bring to the attention ‘of the peoples of the world’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” the Ms. Blog compiled a short list of some of our favorite feminist human rights activists from around the world.

Malala Yousafzai

After suffering a gunshot wound to the head in 2012 at the hands of the Taliban, Yousafzai recovered and rose to prominence as an education and children’s rights activist in her native Pakistan and around the world. This year, at just 17, Yousafzai become the youngest award recipient ever of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Shirin Ebadi

Here are just a few of Ebadi’s achievements: she founded Iran’s Defenders of Human Rights Center; she was one of the first-ever women judges in Iran; the first Muslim woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; and the first recipient to have the award confiscated by state authorities. In addition to Ebadi’s work on behalf of women, children and refugees as a judge and university professor, she led Iran’s One Million Signatures Campaign in an effort to thwart legal discrimination against women under Iranian law. In 2006, Ebadi and other Nobel laureates established the Nobel Women’s Initiative to help strengthen work being done in support of women’s rights around the world.

Vandana Shiva

When Mother Earth is unhappy, everyone is unhappy. But eco-feminist Shiva believes women can put a spring back in her step. After founding the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in 1987, Shiva nurtured the organic farming and fair trade movement through her organization Navdanya in her native India. In direct opposition to the “patriarchal logic of exclusion,” Shiva advocates for the active engagement of women in the farming process as a means of protecting biological and cultural diversity. Currently, Shiva is working to make Bhutan the first 100 percent organic country.

Tawakkol Karman

Dubbed the “iron woman” and the “mother of the revolution” by supporters, Yemeni journalist Karman co-founded Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005. Six years later, she embraced her role as the public face of the Yemeni uprising. Shortly thereafter, she shared the Nobel Peace Prize with two other rockstar peace activists, Leymah Gbowee and Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Karman is the first Arab woman to win the prize.

Dolores Huerta

Workers’ rights activist Huerta founded the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA) in 1960 and lobbied on behalf of migrant workers in the United States. In 1962, she co-founded United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez. Following a severe police beating at a peaceful protest in 1988, Huerta shifted her focus to women’s rights, joining the Feminist Majority’s “Feminization Of Power: 50/50 by the year 2000” campaign. In 1997, Ms. named Huerta one of the three most important women of the year.

Pussy Riot

Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot prides itself on its pop-up performances in protest of government and social policies that are hostile towards women. In 2012, following their “Punk Prayer” protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, three members of the band—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich—were arrested and convicted of “hooliganism on grounds of religious hatred.” Samutsevich avoided hard time, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina served nearly two years before they were released in late 2013.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Ms. cover woman Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to peacefully achieve democracy and human rights in Burma. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 1989 after founding a political party, the National League for Democracy. The party won the nationwide election in 1990, but the State Law and Order Restoration Council refused to recognize the win. She went in and out of house arrest for the next two decades and, following her ultimate release in 2010, Suu Kyi joined the Nobel Women’s Initiative as an honorary member.

Photo via Shutterstock


Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. blogger and works at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She is also creator and host of Feminist Crush, a weekly podcast featuring conversations with feminist artists and activists. Follow her on Twitter!