The amazing women among us: An interview with Smith Student Hawa Tarawally, originally of Sierra Leone

  • Hawa Tarawally Courtesy photo

For the Gazette
Published: 1/22/2020 8:37:57 AM

I have the honor of teaching so many brilliant and remarkable students at Smith College. One is Hawa Tarawally. Hawa grew up in the rural town of Tonga Field, Sierra Leone during the “blood diamond” civil war with Liberia (1991-2002) During the war, she witnessed many atrocities, including the loss of her mother.

After the war, she moved to Free Town to attend school and later became an advocate for women’s rights, leading campaigns against female genital mutilation/cutting (which she experienced as a child) and child marriage in a country that ranks 181st out of 189 on the UN gender inequality index. Over 90% of females in Sierra Leone experience cutting as a rite of passage meant to prepare girls for marriage and motherhood.

In 2014, Hawa fled Sierra Leone, ending up in the Pioneer Valley, where she at first attended Greenfield Community College and is now a junior at Smith College, majoring in government and economics. In this interview, she tells about her experiences growing up during the war, her love of education, her goals, and her hopes for the future.

CB: Tell me about growing up in Sierra Leone during the war.

HT: I was born in 1994, in the height of the blood diamond civil war. Growing up in an era like that always presented its own challenges. At first I didn’t really know what that was, because it was my normal. It was my reality. It was the only way I knew how to live. Because what other way would you know if it’s the only thing since the day you were born, the only thing that wakes you up in the mornings is gunshots, and all you do is walk in the midst of dead bodies, finding food or looking for your parents. I didn’t really know the predicament that I was in. But of course I was able to see other people’s predicaments, especially women around me, and children.

CB: What was the war’s impact on women and children?

HT: Each time rebels attacked the town, the first thing they do is, they want everyone to stay where they are and they call all of the women to cook for them, to fetch water, to clean up. They also used the young pretty women as their wives. They sexually abused these women. So that was very, very normal. When they attacked a town, they live in the middle of people. They live as the bosses. They subject everyone. They kill whoever they feel like killing. They were in charge.

CB: Can you tell me about your education as a girl?

HT: My first education was all of the things I just described — the gunshots, the killing, the running, the combatants. All of those were my education. I learned things, I understood things just by seeing things. But the truth is, I didn’t have access to any organized activities or education. In the middle of the war, school was definitely not an option. I didn’t know what organized activities were until the war ended. And by then, I was like 9 years old.

CB: Did you go to school then?

HT: So yes, I started to go to school when I was around that age of 9, 10. The first time I went to school I remember sitting in a very dusty classroom, repeating after someone saying “A, B, C” in such an organized way. We were just sitting there listening to this woman, who was pointing to the board, asking us to repeat after her. And that felt beautiful. Because that was really the first time that I could exercise my brain in a way that I had never really exercised it. And also, my entire body, that was the first time that I felt like I was present. Not because someone was requiring me to be present, but just because I felt like being present.

And I went home to my dad that day, bare feet, and I said, “You need to get me shoes. You need to get me a slate. You need to get me a uniform. I’m going to start to go to school.” So that was fun. And since then, my life has been that. I felt the safest being in that classroom that day, hearing that woman speak to me in the way that no one had ever spoken to me. That was my discovery of education, and I just loved it since then. And I said no to a lot of things for that.

CB: What did you say no to?

HT: I am a Mandinka woman. And that means that I come from a tribe that is very, very religious — Islamic. And not just religious, but patriarchal. When you are born in a patriarchal society as a woman, you have expectations that are set for you, even before you are born. When the war ended, I was expected to follow the traditional role. And of course one of them is to get married. And so the love suitors came, because that is just the culture. When men see a young girl that is tall or a little bit bright, it’s easy to say “oh, I want to marry this one,” even if he has two already. So a lot of them came to take me off like that, buy me off. It started very early, as early as 12.

CB: How did you resist?

HT: I left my village because of the pressure. It is not an individualistic pressure. It’s not like pressure from just one person. It’s coming from literally everyone you know. After the war, probably 90% of my teenaged friends became impregnated. And the reason that was tolerated was because some felt like they were compensating for the people they lost in the war. People were just finding a new meaning to their life. But some were forced into child marriages. Thankfully my dad has been a support to me in a lot of ways. I’m not saying he’s perfect but he has always been supportive in a lot of different ways. So I left my village to go to the township (Free Town), and lived with my uncle for a while.

CB: What did you do in the township?

HT: In my village, I loved the educational activities, but I felt like I needed more. I needed a place where I could go to school and nobody was going to disturb me. I was seeking knowledge. I knew that there would be better opportunities for education. I feel like that is what has driven me to where I am today — my educational impulse — me wanting to really seek knowledge that is deeper, that asks questions that no one is willing to answer, to talk about things that nobody wants to say one word about.

CB: What kinds of questions were you asking that bothered people so much?

HT: Why do girls do all the chores while boys do none? Why does a girl have to be a virgin before marriage, but not boys? Why am I prevented from riding bicycles when my brother is not? What is the significance of “bondo” — female genital mutilation/cutting? Why are girls not allowed to defend themselves against aggression, mostly from boys? What do you mean by “you are a girl, stop acting like boys”? They also used to call me “woman Sorie” which is equivalent to the female version of John, since I was always in the midst of boys.

CB: As you were growing up, how did people respond your questions?

HT: On most occasions, I was ignored. Other times, people just isolated me. People started calling me names, saying that I’m a little bit wayward, notorious. They would say I am not a typical girl, I don’t have manners. I’m rude. People would try to make me feel bad about myself. They always had, right from when I was very young. I always had people, including my friends, their families, my own family, the community, people always commented on me being a rude girl because I asked things, asked questions that no one was willing to talk about. But I saw the broken framework in my society.

CB: How did you get to the U.S.?

HT: Story of my life that I will not talk about in this interview. It has to do with my safety. But anyways, I found my way here somehow. I didn’t come to America because America was a fun place to be, or because I wanted to come to America or because it’s amazing. No. However, the choices we make in life shape our path in different ways. And that is what I think brought me to America.

CB: What did you do when you first arrived?

HT: I went to GCC, and I loved it. I felt like it was very welcoming. It was very, very challenging at first.

CB: And then you transferred to Smith?

HT: Yes. When I learned about Smith’s involvement in politics and feminist activism, I was like, “Wow! This is where I need to be.” Smith is like my dream place. I never knew there was a place like Smith in the world that really accommodated women like myself. I felt like I was part of a community of women who think like myself — women not looking to fit in with any societal norm. These are women that are just badass on their own and they feel like they can do whatever it is that they like feel doing. When I finally came here, I felt at home, and I felt safe in a way that I had never felt before. I know for sure that this is the place that I can think freely about issues and talk about them without feeling like I’m going to be judged, or even more importantly, without being criminalized, without endangering my own life.

CB: And you’re encouraged to do that?

HT: Yes! I am more than encouraged. Each day I go to class and learn about gender, policy, and the law in America, and it always gives me a sense of what is happening in my community. Because some of those things that are supported by tradition, by culture, are things that I’ve always questioned. I’m able to better understand the things that I have always known are bad in my community, the things that I’ve always wondered about. Learning about those issues and saying, “Yes! So this is really bad after all, it has always been bad. So I wasn’t being rude, I wasn’t challenging something I wasn’t meant to challenge, I wasn’t just trying to be unreasonable. But this is really bad! I wonder why people are so normal and okay with living a life like this.”

CB: Why did you choose to major in government?

HT: I am interested in government because I feel like issues that people face in society, including the U.S., most of them are linked to the government, and to the government’s lack of action. Governments ignore abuses that are going on in communities. So as someone who is interested in change, I feel like there won’t be a better path for me than really trying to unlock the secrets to politics and government and understand it to the best of my ability. And be able to share it with people and show people how they can use it and how we all can use it to better improve our lives.

CB: What are your plans after graduation?

HT: I’m thinking a lot about going to law school. I’ve always been interested in the law and it all goes back to the things that I saw around me growing up. I’ve always wanted to use the law as a tool to change things, to impact things, to impact people’s lives, to educate people on how things can be done better. I’ve always used my mouth to talk for other people, to say, “this is wrong,” to defend others, I’ve always done it. I’m interested in the law because it’s going to help me think more critically, to impact people’s lives, to advocate for people, to make real changes. By sharing what it is that you know, in the most respectful manner, with those that you feel like it will benefit the most.

CB: What are your goals for the future?

HT: So, I’m interested in building a revolutionary mindset among young people from around the world, Africa specifically. I want to show young people that you don’t have to be like everyone else, you don’t have to follow the rules or norms, and you should question things. You should have the power and the right to question anything and to choose to walk away from anything that you feel like is going to violate your own rights.

My vision is to tell young women around the world that they can do whatever it is that they want to do with their lives, but first they have to be able to protect themselves from harmful traditions and religions. I don’t care whether it is religiously supported, whether it’s traditionally supported. If you know that that particular act doesn’t make sense to you, and you can see the abuse in it, you can see the harm in it, you take it upon yourself to always speak up against it. It’s really your responsibility. That’s what I want to tell young people.

CB: What has sustained you through all these challenges in your life?

HT: My understanding and belief that change is coming and that I am part of that change!

CB: Any last words?

HT: If I have one message, it’s for people to question things. That people don’t just conform because conformity makes them feel safe. It’s about time that young women start questioning things, and knowing that they don’t have to follow the rules.

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.

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