"There's always room in rock 'n' roll for some stuff to start happening at a grassroots level, and the most interesting stuff seems to start there."
Luminous Leaders: More on the Women of 'Ultraviolet'
October 16, 2017
Each night that I had the privilege of attending The Joshua Tree Tour 2017, the portion of the show that always brought me to tears was the Herstory presentation during “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)." As I watched the screens glow with faces of women I’d admired for years, I tried to memorize the names of those with whom I was unfamiliar, ashamed I didn’t know them all.
I wondered what it would be like to be one of the featured faces. To be so accomplished in the world of “doing good” that you appear in front of thousands of people at a rock concert … so I decided to ask.
Via email, I met three of these amazing women for the first time. Now, I invite you to meet them too.
Khalida Popal, Football Pioneer
Like many girls, Khalida Popal enjoyed sports from a young age. Her mother was a physical education teacher who taught her that football (soccer in the U.S.) was fun and empowering. At age 16, Khalida and her friends discovered a somewhat hidden yard near their school to practice — they weren’t allowed to make a sound during their games for fear they’d be stopped by the Taliban. Khalida lived in Afghanistan, where it was unacceptable for girls to play football.
Gaining more players and confidence, the young women then moved to a more exposed field where they were harassed and assaulted for participating. The local NATO base heard of their struggle and allowed them to practice on their base. As their team grew, so did the buzz around them, which put the players in even more danger. Khalida became the national team captain and suffered death threats as a result. Exhausted from living in fear, she went underground for a couple months, leaving her family and friends to make her way to India. Once there, she applied for asylum in Denmark. Her sponsor? Hummel, the manufacturer of the Afghan women’s football uniforms.
With emotional support from a local Danish family, and her parents who followed later (also granted asylum), she moved to Denmark. There she consulted with Hummel on a new team uniform with an integrated hijab () to show respect for her country’s heritage while remaining functional for the sport. Now, at age 29, she’s the Program and Event Director for the Afghanistan Women’s National Team. Plus, she runs the Girl Power Organisation, whose members “empower minorities such as refugees, immigrants and LGBT communities through sports and social events in Europe.”
She’d never heard of U2 before the tour.
“I don’t know how they found out about me, but they contacted the company [Hummel] and then I got in contact with them,” she said.
Though Khalida had no idea how famous the band is, she was surprised at being included in such a prestigious list of women.
She explained, “I felt very emotional and encouraged that there are people around the world who appreciate, support, and understand the fight and struggles that we have been through to do something great — something different for humanity in our communities and countries.”
Khalida continued, “When I received messages from friends with my image and I saw that crowd, and I saw the photos of these women who I admire and who are role models for me, I felt happier. I felt that I’m not alone in the fight for humanity, for human rights and for women’s rights.”
Thankfully, she’s not alone.
Leila de Bruyne, Social Justice Superstar
In 2004, Leila de Bruyne of Cambridge, England, set out for Africa. She was headed there to be a volunteer teacher for orphans in Kenya. When she arrived and saw the deplorable conditions the wonderful children faced, she felt she had to do more than teach. She was moved to help tackle the larger infrastructure problem, and along with two other teachers, founded Flying Kites. Together they bought a six-acre farm in the area and built a home and school.
Today, the Flying Kites Leadership Academy is thriving. It provides a safe, nurturing environment for Kenyan kids. The students there receive not only a competitive education — but they also get three free healthy meals per day, school supplies, dental and medical exams, counseling and more.
Leila, now 32, elaborated, “It's a big year for us — we are halfway through a capital campaign to triple the size of our campus and we are launching our first teacher training program by partnering with resource-poor schools in our district in rural Kenya. You can learn more at Flying Kites.”
As for being included in a U2 show, Leila says, “It was incredibly energizing.” Though she doesn’t know the band personally, she is a fan.
“I love their music and I so admire their commitment to social justice and the way they use their platform to bring awareness to import issues.”
The admiration is clearly mutual.
Kehkashan Basu, Environmental Warrior
Born on World Environment Day (June 5), Kehkashan Basu of the United Arab Emirates believes she was meant to be a warrior for planet Earth. It all began at age 8, when she started to plant trees and bring together friends to recycle. At 11, her passion for the environment gained international recognition as she became the youngest delegate to address the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.
Perhaps inevitably, she founded her own nonprofit, Green Hope, just a year later — yes, at age 12 — to work for climate justice. Now, just 17, she’s more committed than ever to the cause.
She wrote, “The last few months have been very busy as I, along with several of our youth [Green Hope] members, engaged in a biodiversity conservation project to save the mangroves in the Sunderbans forest (it is the world's largest mangrove delta and it’s under threat due to climate change) in India. I also travelled to Caux, Switzerland where I was invited as the keynote speaker at the Children as Actors for Transforming Society (CATS2017) conference. Over the next few months, I will be organizing a climate change conference for young people, conduct workshops on sustainability in various schools in different parts of the world. My work focuses on engaging and empowering young people, especially girls, in realizing our rights in relation to the environment, education and equitable representation.”
When asked about her debut on the U2 screen in Canada, she replied, “There were 50,000 people at the concert in Toronto and I felt very humbled to be featured alongside such legendary, iconic women — many of whom I idolize. I think I was the youngest person amongst them and believe that this is also a manifestation of the power of today's youth.”
I assumed that Kehkashan had perhaps met the band, but I was mistaken. “I haven't met any of them as yet but hope to have the opportunity some day,” she replied. “I am a great admirer of Bono, not only for his amazing music, but also for his inspirational humanitarian work.”
Hopefully that day will come soon.
(c) @U2/Kokkoris, 2017. Photo credit: Brian Betteridge.