Diane von Furstenberg’s design studio in Manhattan became a mini United Nations on Thursday night, drawing women leaders from far-flung corners of the planet. Sipping champagne, the women talked about defying fear, mingled among eclectic sculptures—a Buddha, a headless torso, a Wonder Woman—and sat on a pink couch in the shape of smiling lips. They were there to celebrate the book Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World.
“These women make me feel so small, like I haven’t done anything,” von Furstenberg said of her global guests. “All of these women survived the worst, and then they went on to help other people.” She added, “I am so proud I am a woman,” then said with a laugh, “I wouldn’t want to be anything else—except maybe a tree.”
The new book is the brainchild of Alyse Nelson, president of the nonprofit group Vital Voices, which trains women leaders around the world. In the book, Nelson tells the stories of 32 world-changing women, some of whom were at the event Thursday. Among them: Mu Sochua, a Cambodian parliamentarian with a searing life story.
In a quiet corner of the airy fifth-floor studio, sitting at a long wooden work table, Sochua described how her parents put her on a plane to France when she was 18 years old, to spare her from the bloody Khmer Rouge campaign to turn the country into a purely agrarian society. Sochua’s parents told her they would soon follow. “I never saw them again,” she said.
Eighteen years later, in 1989, she said, “I went home to find my parents.” She knew, deep down, that they were unlikely to have survived the brutal regime that tortured and executed as many as 2 million teachers, lawyers, doctors, and city dwellers—about a third of the population—during the 1970s. But she thought she might hear what had become of them. She never did. Instead, she became a leader in the women’s movement and a member of parliament.
Her activism on behalf of women did not make her popular among some men. When the male prime minister called her a prostitute in a public speech, she said, she sued him for defamation. “I’m a trouble maker,” she said with a laugh. “We went all the way to the Supreme Court.” She didn’t win the court case, she says, but she did win the respect of women around the country.
Sochua sat with another special guest, Samar Minallah Khan, a Pakistani filmmaker. Khan travels to the dusty tribal regions of Pakistan to tell the untold stories of girls and women. When she made a documentary about girls who were given away as slaves to settle family disputes, she helped change the law in the country—making the practice illegal.
Khan described the heartbreak of some of the fathers who had been ordered by tribal leaders to give their daughters to another family to settle a fight. Some had refused, she said, noting, “They are the real heroes.” She dismissed the risks of her job. “When I’m working, I don’t feel the dangers so much," she said. "It’s something I just love doing.” She explained that she enters a community and makes friends first, gaining people’s trust, before pulling out the camera.
Von Furstenberg, who is a board member of the Vital Voices group, introduced Tina Brown, editor in chief of the Newsweek Daily Beast Company, who in turn introduced Nelson, saying Nelson had helped turn Vital Voices into “a powerhouse enterprise—a world force.”
Nelson then introduced Sochua, Khan, and three other globetrotting guests—Marianne Ibrahim, an outspoken Egyptian human-rights activist; Adimaimalaga Tafuna’i, a groundbreaking Samoan entrepreneur; and Kah Walla, a leading women’s-rights activist and businesswoman in Cameroon. Said Nelson, “I am blessed, inspired, and humbled every day to work alongside them and stand behind them.”
As a breeze blew in from the balcony, Ibrahim talked about how women fought “shoulder-to-shoulder” with men in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution. “They weren’t praying at the back,” she said. "For those 18 days, there were no sexes—no men or women."
Tafuna’i described how she worked with The Body Shop to bring goods from remote villages in Samoa—such as coconut oil—to the world. “Everywhere there were coconuts,” she said. “We turned them into an opportunity.”
In one of the evening’s most rousing moments, Walla talked about the importance of “running toward fear.” Women have been taught “a fear of power,” she said. Walla became the first woman to run for president of Cameroon, in 2011. Her bid was unsuccessful, but made an important statement to women. “We as women must embrace power,” she said. “We are as guilty as the men of giving the power to them. We must sit at the table.”
And with that, a tray of teeny-tiny chocolate-covered ice-cream cones went round the room.
Get Involved: Learn about women and girls around the globe at our Women in the World Foundation.