You Don’t Always Have To Be Strong To Be A Strong Woman — Ruth Shah-Wigley
Twenty years ago, on the first day of university, I walked into one of my seminars and blurted out, “Thank God! Another Black person”. This woman glared at me, told me to lower my voice and then laughter took over us. She introduced herself as Ruth Wigley (now Shah-Wigley). The rest is a long history.
Ruth Wigley is a human rights lawyer, an international consultant on due process, women and children’s issues, a nomad, community builder and a world changer.When we start speaking she is both relaxed and nervous. I lead with a disclaimer that says this is an exercise in going further than the strong woman trope. This is about redefining the context and meaning of strength for a new generation, gathering multiple narratives in one space so that even in learning from each other, we are reminded that there is no monolithic idea of womanhood or strength. My little speech eases us into a conversation Ruth has obviously been having with herself long before this interview was an idea. She says:
I come from a culture in the Caribbean, or particularly in Sint Maarten where being a strong woman was quite synonymous with being a single woman who made it without a man — held a job, took care of her children, & did not ask for anything. It also meant standing up for yourself, which usually meant being argumentative or confrontational. As time passed, it has also come to mean someone with a different perspective or being successful, in that narrow definition where success is measured by how much money you make, what car you drive, all these material, things that signify progress or status. Growing up, I bought into that but not anymore.
I don’t know if I define it any different than I would define a strong man. To be strong is to be an individual going through life with faith, simply trying to do their best and not just do their best for themselves, but to serve the people in their lives and in their community. It’s about being a whole person who’s not afraid to be vulnerable, not afraid to have moments that can be considered flaws. You don’t always need to be a strong person to be a strong person.
If I ended the interview here, that definition of strength, (part of which you’ll note is the title for this article), is sufficient wisdom to hold close. I don’t pass up the opportunity to tease my sister friend about how old-age has brought growth. As if to scramble that thought, I immediately posit, that getting older is not the bridge between being a girl and being a woman. I want to know what was remarkable about the season in which Ruth stepped into womanhood. Her eyes invite me to explain myself so I expand, but she doesn’t need me to. Despite telling me it’s a tough question, she laughs at the realisation that the answer is sitting at the tip of her tongue. We talk about her impulsive but in hindsight necessary decision to move to Tanzania with her husband, but that’s not the answer. So she refocuses on what happened after she moved, when she couldn’t work as a lawyer, and when there was one professional set back after another:
I felt stripped of everything and on top of feeling like nothing, I felt like I could achieve nothing. Then came the real realization of how damaged I was in terms of not having processed my deep insecurities, or sense of shame from when I was younger. After my mum’s divorce, she had nothing. She was working three jobs and scraping everything together so that five children at the time, (and then there was seven, but at the time there was five children,) could actually go to school with their heads up high and not be like the kids who were teased for looking poor, though we were probably just as poor. We used to have a house you could invite people to, but after the divorce, we lived in a two bedroom put together makeshift shack. I remember as a child closing my eyes and dreaming of better circumstances, which wasn’t about happiness, love or experiences. It was about things. Because we were growing up in a society, that attached success to money and to status. Education was a way to get that so I kept achieving until I made myself sick (you remember me puking before each exam), because failure wasn’t an option. I became my academic successes and then I became my work successes, so when it was stripped from me, I had nothing. All that came with marital issues of course. Stepping into my womanhood was about being able to unpack my insecurities. I became closer to God and started looking for answers. I remember praying that God should take me out of my desert “Tanzania” and let me carry on the life he had for me. I would pray that God should fix my husband and all the other people who caused friction.
The moment I said God fix me, things began to change — the veil that allowed me to always see myself as the victim as opposed to someone who was actively contributing to where I was, dropped. I started to value myself in the way God sees me, not the world or even myself because I have shaky moments. That period of intentional self-evaluation, redefinition, learning from my mistakes and not holding them as shame, that was the awakening for me, the season I grew into my real self.
Who comes to mind when I say strong woman?
My Mother. My mother. The things I used to think were her flaws or issues, I now see as strength because she is still standing. With all her “baggage” even back then, she was still able to exude innate characteristics of kindness, warmth, perseverance in the face of anything and everything. She always finds a reason to keep going.
Ruth gets emotional. She recounts a conversation with her mum some five years ago when a compliment paid to her mother opened the doors to a new depth of conversation where her mum opened up about the years where she had gained a lot of weight and didn’t feel good about herself. The emotion that wavers her voice as she speaks to me is flavoured with the realisation that they had never really spoken like that before and she hadn’t noticed her mother’s discomfort. She was focused on ‘mother’ and ignored that her mum also had a story as a woman which lended itself to vulnerabilities or so called weaknesses which if understood would have led to empathy. But outside of understanding, it led to judgment, not only of her mother, but other people who didn’t conform to what she thought they should be or wanted them to be. People who she interpreted through the lenses of her issues and not as themselves.
I am impressed by the commitment to continuous introspection and to growth as well as the timely reminder that as women, we must intentionally live as whole people and not just sections of ourselves.
Who are the women who have widened the sphere of possibility for who you can be in the world? (The answer to this gets a bit tricky, because it involves talking about myself but I guess the answer is the answer right?)
You. I spoke earlier about not being able to receive a love that doesn’t endorse you if you haven’t accepted yourself. You were that friend who put a mirror to me when I didn’t want to see it… I absolutely admire your perseverance — I don’t think I know anyone who works as much as you do apart from your mum and then you couple that with a work ethic that is insane. The biggest thing, and this is much more subtle, is that you stand firm in who you are and what you believe, irrespective of how people may make you feel for being who you are, I don’t know many people like that. You were principled and consistent through the flaws, the mistakes, all of it.
Then there’s one of my best friends in Sint Maarten. Her loyalty is insane. She’s been in a very long-term relationship that involved some infidelity and people told her to leave. They judged her for staying and when you think of the way the culture defines ‘strong women’ they called her stupid. But I saw something else. I saw a capacity to forgive, love and grow. I had read a book a long time ago that said if you decide to stay in a relationship or other life situation, stay with God and stay well, which meant you can’t keep rehashing the past because you won’t move on. She was my living example of that, so when I had my own marital issues, I was able to lean on her in terms of understanding how real forgiveness works, including forgiving yourself. All of which for me is linked to my belief of what I know God has forgiven me for.
I dig a little further here and ask whether staying in a relationship where someone has been unfaithful isn’t undervaluing yourself as a woman?
I no longer attach my value to how anyone defines me. My benchmark is God, not even my husband or my friends. I personally don’t believe that because someone stepped out on me it is anything to do with me or my value. That’s their issue. I am done taking on other people’s issues. Nothing is black and white. If there is infidelity and I decide to stay, then I must be committed to real forgiveness that doesn’t constantly rehash the wrong. So I don’t see her decisions as weakness, it was one of the hardest things she could have done at the time and she did it and let go and they are well. That letting go in all relationships, is a strength, which for me, requires God.
What things have you had to unlearn to be who you are?
I actively tried not to be like the women that I grew up around, who made me feel little but I became more like them than I would have liked to admit. They are present in every sassy retort. Sometimes when I get angry, I can be very abusive in what I say and that’s something that I’m still working on. Promiscuity as a vice is also something I had to unlearn. When some of my friends were having sex as teenagers, I didn’t, because I was going to marry that person and that was a part of me rejecting the ways of the women around me. But what I always heard was “I am not going to let anyone treat me like shit”. No one ever taught me or offered a living example of how you should be treated. So I would find myself in these relationships that were never healthy to begin with and the good thing was they didn’t last long, but it meant that I was moving like a rolling stone. Never trying to look within for love, but always thinking I would find it in someone. I had to self-evaluate and accept that I had insecurities and felt unworthy and until I learnt to accept my whole self, I wouldn’t find what I was looking for.
I used to get depressed a lot. It was a darkness that I couldn’t explain, but it became so familiar to me. I felt it as a child, I felt it at university. It was so strong and heavy — an inner emptiness that was attached to personal desires, things that I wanted, things that I thought I deserved. When I feel a hint of it coming now, I pray. I have unlearnt living in fear, in my own strength or just for me. I think more about purpose now.
We talk about purpose in the context of a career seemingly stalled, and marvel at the journey she has taken from not securing pupillage in the UK, to practising as a Barrister in Anguilla and Tortola, struggling with and then embracing unemployment in Tanzania, which led to volunteer work with a women’s legal advocacy NGO; a role that has opened doors to consulting and writing reports for organisations including Coram Children’s Legal Centre, and UNICEF on projects around the African continent. Then there’s the not small matter of starting the first Soroptimist Chapter in Tanzania, which after its first project that involved raising funds and buying needed supplements for a women’s clinic is on its way to being chartered. It’s not often we sit to take stock like this, so we both let it sink in as Ruth says half to herself and half out loud “the incapacitating fear, the times I wanted to end it, just five years ago it still looked bleak. And when I looked the part of a successful lawyer, I had that darkness and now the part looks very different, I don’t, because now I’m doing what I really want to do.”
Ruth’s joy is a manifestation of being where you are meant to be despite and because of your seeming disappointments. In talking about Soroptimist, she lets me know the word actually means best sisters. It seems like the perfect segue to the question: what does sisterhood mean to you?
It definitely is about supporting, empowering, listening, sharing, hearing, creating a safe space within which we are able to have real discussions where we are not trapped by competition or envy. It’s normal that it creeps in sometimes but you have to be real enough to nip them in the bud and be rewarded in the support that you are providing for each other.
What drives you?
Service. I enjoy doing for others, creating spaces, positively impacting other people’s lives.
What armour do you wear to go out in the world — think fickle but can’t do without?
Definitely perfume. I am naked without it.
What scares you?
It used to be failure but now my faith provides a support system. What makes me shudder every now and again is not making enough of an impact before I leave this place.
As always, I end on legacy, but I think twice before I ask the question because the last answer seems to cover it. I ask anyway and after pausing a while Ruth says “I don’t have a remember me in the history books mindset, so no”. I suggest a different answer, this time from my perspective. I suggest that given all the work she does in professional and private spheres and her commitment to service, the legacy she is working towards is the betterment and empowerment of people — one that says if she was there, had a hand in it, the community changed for the better.
This interview took place at 7am with little sleep on both our parts. Despite not being a morning person, there is no hint of grumpy in me. Instead I am beaming with pride and joy at the self awareness that Ruth carries, the sense of purpose, the strength that comes from excavating and processing your issues, accepting yourself and being who you have been called to be, no matter what the world says.