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32 Countries, 32 Women: Group H

Four remarkable women from Belgium, Algeria, Russia & South Korea

A poetess, a politician, a CEO and a tennis legend – there’s no better way to wrap up our series celebrating women from the World Cup playing nations.

We wind up our series on 32 remarkable women from the FIFA playing countries with a look at Group H.


The last decade in tennis has been dominated by women who are tall (at least 6 feet) and powerful – think Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo, Venus Williams and Victoria Azarenka. For a diminutive 5 feet 5 inch woman to compete – and succeed – against these great athletes requires not just special talent, but also phenomenal self belief. Luckily for Justine Henin, she had both in plenty. The woman with possibly the best backhand ever in the game – we couldn’t help gasping aloud every time she hit that shot when we watched her live in Paris a few years ago – is venerated not just by tennis fans, but also by some of the biggest names to have played to the game.

The winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles and an Olympic gold medal has been declared by many tennis greats – from Martina Navratilova to John McEnroe and Andre Agassi – as the most complete woman player of her generation. And there was good reason for this. Henin turned her size to her advantage – she was remarkably agile and could retrieve a shot from almost any part of the court. In an age of players content to slug it out from the safety of the baseline, Henin was one of the few players who loved to charge towards the net. But Henin’s biggest strength was her mental toughness. She was renowned for staging Houdini like comebacks when all looked lost – especially at the big tournaments – such as her come-from-behind wins over Lindsay Davenport in the 2003 Australian Open and later in the same year over Jennifer Capriati in the US Open.

And we haven’t even talked about that backhand yet. As ardent fans of the dying single handled backhand – from Stan Wawrinka’s to Richard Gasquet and Roger Federer’s – we can confidently state that all of them pale in comparison to Henin’s “great liquid whip”, to borrow David Foster’s Wallace’s description of Federer’s forehand in his heydays.

If there was one blemish on Henin’s career – apart from her inability to win Wimbledon – it would be her alleged gamesmanship. The most notorious example is her 2003 semi final win over Serena Williams in Paris, when she raised her hand when Serena was in the midst of serving but failed to admit this to the umpire. She also drew a lot of flak when she retired while trailing against Amélie Mauresmo in the finals of the 2006 Australian Open, citing injuries just days after declaring herself at the “peak of her fitness”.

But all this pales in comparison to her achievements – not just as Belgium’s best tennis player (sorry Kim Clijsters, but you are the nicest!) but as one of the finest to play the game.

South Korea (Korea Republic)

It may be one of the most prosperous countries of Asia, but we’ve heard first hand that it isn’t easy being a woman in South Korea. Although more women are entering the professional workplace, traditional family values – which dictate that the woman carries primary responsibility for the running of the household – still take precedence. Balancing long working hours with the pressures of caring for families can be tricky, forcing many women to forego their careers (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). All of this means that the country ranks at the bottom of the Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index As the magazine states, “Too few women there have jobs, few senior managers or board members are women and pay gaps are large—in South Korea, at 37%, the largest in the OECD”. We’re suddenly feeling a lot better about being born in India!

Given this scenario, a female CEO in South Korea would be as rare as Halley’s comet. One such extraordinary woman is Kwon Seon Joo, the first woman to lead a bank in the country’s history. When she joined Industrial Bank of Korea (IBK) in 1978, Kwon became one of the first five women to qualify for an officer role in the bank – prior to this, women were only hired for jobs such as tellers and secretaries. With her dedication and perseverence, Kwon rose through the ranks – breaking several deeply entrenched stereotypes along the way – to finally secure the coveted corner office six months ago. But she’s not content – she’s already declared her ambitions to make IBK into one of the 100 largest banks in the world, and India is part of her expansion plans.

We can only hope that Kwon’s appointment provides inspiration to more Korean women, and men, to break the glass ceiling. Going by this letter on The Korean Times on what Sheryl Sandberg can learn from Kwon, maybe the change is already underway.

It’s natural that people focused more on my gender when I became CEO. In three months, it is the bottom line that counts, not whether I am a woman or man.


When it comes to great Russian women, we mostly think of athletes, especially tennis players and gymnasts. Or we think of the country’s graceful ballerinas, swaying elegantly to the tune of Nutcracker and Swan Lake. But our favourite Russian woman is poetess Anna Akhmatova, one of the finest writers of her generation and an exceptional chronicler of Stalinist Russia.

Born in 1886, Akhmatova was a prolific writer whose verse about the people and events in her life eerily captured the gigantic changes taking place in Russia – from the Silver Age that saw her frolicking in dachas and vacationing in Paris to the desperation of the First World War; followed by the turmoil during the Russian Revolution and onwards through the regimes of Lenin, Stalin & Khrushchev, living under the constant shadow of mass murders and Siberian gulags (prison camps).

Akhmatova had a long and full life : She married, divorced, gave birth, remarried, had several affairs with some of the most famous artists and writers of her time (from Italian painter Modigilani to writer Boris Pasternak), lost her first husband to a firing squad, saw her son suffer frequent imprisonment, spent many years in penury and was alternately venerated and vilified. She could have left the country during the Revolution but she decided not to “betray her native Land”, and she never stopped writing. Her body of work is a reflection of her remarkable life – from the vagaries of love to the fear of war, the sorrow of loss and the horror of living through Stalinism.

It is a testament to the remarkable power of her words than even when Stalin had done everything possible to break her – her work was pulped and banned from circulation, many of her friends had been killed, and she was kept under constant surveillance – her poetry was circulated through a ritual of ” Hands, matches, an ashtray” (Akhmatova would write verse on a scrap of paper for a visitor, who would memorize it and then shove the paper into a stove). It was only during the last decade of her life, and after her death, that she got the recognition she deserved – both in her native land and all across the world. Today her life and work is preserved in the Anna Akhmatova Literary and Memorial Museum in her hometown of St Petersberg.

 If a gag should blind my tortured mouth,

 through which a hundred million people shout,

 then let them pray for me, as I do pray

 for them


The largest country in Africa, Algeria’s location on the Mediterrean Sea has attracted many conquerors, from the Carthaginians to the Ottomans and the French. It was only in the 1960s that Algeria freed itself of the French, and the women who participated in the Algerian War of Independence also provided a shot in the arm to female emancipation in the country. As a result, women enjoy more freedom in Algeria than in neighbouring countries – from the right to inherit property and divorce to the right to vote and run for government . But none of this came easily to Algerian women, and one of the foremost women who made much of this possible is Khalida Messaoudi, the country’s current Minister of Communication & Culture.

The daughter of a civil servant, Messaoudi was teaching mathematics when she decided to form the Collectif féminin (Women’s Group) to oppose several discriminatory laws then prevalent in Algeria – such as a ban on them from leaving the country unless accompanied by a male member, unfavorable inheritance and divorce laws and the right for men to vote in place of their wives! Her unwavering campaigning – including street protests – led to a change in legislature towards greater equality between the sexes.

Messaoudi continued to champion the cause of greater rights and freedom for women, while also vehemently opposing the growing fundamentalism in Algeria. This led to an issuance of a fatwa against her by the radical Islamic Salvation Front, but Messaoudi refused to flee the country. Instead, she went into hiding and continued to battle for her beliefs – greater equality for women and the separation of religious fundamentalism from the country’s politics.

Her inclusion in the current government is not without controversy – Algeria is ranked as an authoritarian regime by the Democracy Index, and its current President has been in power for the last 15 years. But if there is one thing that cannot be doubted, it is Messaoudi’s unwavering commitment to the cause of women and freedom – in a country repeatedly ravaged by war and conflict, that needs to be applauded.

These words of Messaoudi resound as much for Indian women – or for that matter women from any part of the world – as they do for Algerian women:

 They (Western countries) believe that suppression is a cultural question – and do not want to understand that it is a purely political question. The suppression of women can be derived from our history and culture just as little as it can be derived from that of the western countries – even if some Algerian men would like it this way.

Image courtesy: Copa 2014 POA-RS via Compfight cc

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