From Women to the World: Letters for a new century

From Women to the World: Powerful and insightful letters from a global group of accomplished women
5 min read
15 July, 2021
Book Club: There are certain lived experiences for women which are universal. In Elizabeth Filippouli's latest book, through a series of letters, she documents how women have attempted to evade patriarchal discrimination to thrive in their own way.

Acknowledging that your personal and professional growth rests largely on shoulders other than yours is a difficult thing to do, especially for women whose achievements people still belittle in some parts of the world.

To marry this acknowledgement with gratitude, pride, and utmost respect for those shoulders is even more challenging than most people imagine. Nonetheless, the trailblazing women that contributed to Letters from Women to the World have embraced these complex tasks with heart-warming letters addressed to other women who have impacted their worldview.

In the introduction, author Elizabeth Filippouli notes that each letter contains "real, untold stories that define the contributors." So, it is unsurprising that the addresses range from mothers to sisters to friends, daughters and granddaughters; from the women not yet born to the women well-known in their fields as well as those unknown. The diversity of the addressees affirms that one can find life-changing experiences that shape pioneers anywhere if one is willing and open to looking.

Letters from Women to the World aims to provide real-life insights for the young generation of women, while the words of wisdom present in the collection also come from young women who are figuring life out

Of course, a common theme in the 34 entries of Letter from Women to the World is patriarchy, gendered societal expectation and misogyny that each contributor experienced – or rather still experiences – albeit at varying degrees.

Nevertheless, they each acknowledge the issues at hand, how far women have come globally in tackling these issues, and some of the privileges – or lack thereof – that enabled them to join in the fight in their own professional and personal milieu.

More importantly, through each story shared, these contributors remind young women that with steady determination, a robust support system, empathy, and kindness, they can achieve their versions of success and eventually eliminate patriarchal setbacks for future generations.

Letter from Mary Davis, CEO of Special Olympics
Excerpt from Mary Davis', CEO of the Special Olympics, letter to female athletes.

Many of the contributors discuss the importance of diversity, inclusion, and open-mindedness in their entries, which the editor reified that by bringing together contributors with a variety of backgrounds, nationalities, experiences, professions, and ages.

This diversity extends to ability, the class the women grew up in, their race and sexuality, thus further tackling some of the most rampant isms that slow down human progress today: ableism, classism, racism, and homophobia. Seeing as these women wrote the letters during the height of the lockdown, it is a formidable feat that this book practices what it preaches.

Also notable is that while Letters from Women to the World aims to provide real-life insights for the young generation of women, words of wisdom present in the collection also come from young women who are “figuring life out”. This culture of listening to – and learning from – other women, despite the differences in race, class, nationalities, religions, age, and experiences, is the culture that Elizabeth Filippouli promotes with her own letter.

Relevant to recent events is the strong presence of the Palestinian identity in this collection. For example, Iman Aoun, a Palestinian actress and director, addresses her letter to daughter Ashtar Muallem, highlighting how art helped her while growing up under occupation. She also draws similarities between the global lockdown and curfews they experience in the occupied territories to prompt the world to be more empathetic to the Palestinian struggle.

Another contributor, Deema Bibi, CEO of INJAZ, whose Palestinian parents were expelled twice from Palestine and then Kuwait, describes how these wars prompted her parents to give their children the best education. This learning process still shapes Deema to date. 

I like the advice and lessons each contributor shared. One can tell that they come from a place of genuine desire to share lessons from essential life experiences, rather than a high ground of “I know better than you”. They also portray the importance and benefits of drawing parallels across different backgrounds.

Shelmina Abji's letter to her daughter
Shelmina Abji, former IBM vice president, offering words of advice to her daughter upon graduating from Yale University.

The contributors connect the lessons they’ve learnt, through the addresses, to the COVID-19 pandemic and the global lockdown. Through this, each woman demonstrates the importance of introspection as a continuous [learning] process. Thus, removing this book from the often exploited ‘self-help’ genre – Filippouli even points out in her introduction that the collection does not “offer success secrets, career guidance and how-to-have-it-all advice”. Some of the sincere and relatable advice that resonates with me include:

 i. Whatever you do next, something or nothing, beware of the consequences.

ii. Learn to trust your inner voice… it is worth taking the leap of faith that intuition sometimes demands.

iii. I concentrate on doing the right things rather than just doing things right. And I think about who I want to be, not just what I want to do.

iv. The ‘why’ you do something is so important. It drives you when things don’t go as planned.

v. You need to impose your own terms.

Voices

vi. Practice life as if it is a play you are writing, not just performing in it.

vii. Your vision of success will determine your trajectory… take time to define what success means to you personally.

viii. All of us have inspiring figures in our lives. Keep their examples, their energy, their resolve close to you. 

ix. I have learned [from you] to simply express rather than impress, always to attempt to be kinder instead of attempting to sound smarter.

x. We should never allow each other’s stories to sink into oblivion. Let us hear, remember, and repeat them: the stories of our mothers, sisters and daughters make a mosaic of myriad truths and memories.

One of the contributors, Geraldine Sharpe-Newton, recalled one great moment she spent with Gloria Steinem when the latter said, “I have taken you along, and you must always take another woman’s hand and bring her along as well”. 

Letters from Women to the World is an attempt by these incredible, outspoken, and inspiring women to lend us their hands, through their experiences, to bring us along to a new century of change. 

Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.

Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha