DiorMag: Was your fight for human rights a vocation since always or was it circumstance that led you to it?
Bianca Jagger: I grew up in Nicaragua under the brutal Somoza dictatorship. As a teenager, I became aware of a student massacre perpetrated by the government's National Guard. I was horrified and felt powerless. All I could do was participate in students' demonstrations against the government's brutality. I wanted to make a difference, to be a force for change, to commit my life to fight oppression, corruption and injustice.
DM: In what way was your remarkable mother an important influence in your life? What do you remember most about her while growing up?
BJ: My mother was my earliest inspiration. She motivated me to dedicate my life to defending human rights and to protect the environment. My parents divorced when I was ten years old, an event that changed my life. My mother found herself single, without a profession, and with three small children to care for. I watched her being discriminated against because of her gender and status. She was a pioneer. She believed in women’s emancipation at a time when most women in the Nicaragua of the sixties solely devoted themselves to homemaking and were regarded as second-class citizens. During those difficult years she exhibited great courage and strength, she never gave up. She was prepared to sacrifice her life to give us better opportunities than she ever had. She taught me that if I was determined and committed, I could achieve anything, that nothing was impossible. She was a firm believer that education was the greatest legacy a parent could give to their children. At 17, I was awarded a French Government scholarship to study political science at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po). I was determined not to endure my mother's fate. I promised myself I was never going to be treated as a second-class citizen. My mother instilled in me my love for nature. As a child I spent my holidays in the mountains of Santa Maria de Ostuma. Back then, it was a vast area of pristine, cloud capped rainforest. We used to take long walks together. It was she who first opened my eyes to the beauty and wonders of the natural world, teaching me the names of trees and flowers, especially the orchids that she loved. She taught me the incalculable value of the rainforest, and the importance of preserving biodiversity. My mother was an environmentalist all her life. She surrounded herself with flowers until the end of her days.
DM: You've lived an extraordinary life - from growing up in Nicaragua under Somosa's dictatorship, to being in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq etc - and you've also found yourself at the other end of the spectrum, at the height of glamour. What have been your most treasured values - what has anchored you?
BJ: When I began my humanitarian work, I understood that in order to gain credibility I needed unwavering commitment, patience and perseverance. As a human rights defender, I have witnessed some horrific crimes. In February 1993, at the request of the Helsinki Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I travelled to Bosnia and Croatia to document the mass rapes of women by Bosnian Serb military forces as part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing. I visited refugee camps and collected testimonies of women who had suffered unspeakable brutality, rape and torture at the hands of the perpetrators. The victims ranged from young children, to wives and mothers, grandmothers, and men. Men were forced to rape their families; their daughters, their sisters. Nothing in my experience as a human rights campaigner prepared me for the horrors I witnessed in Bosnia and Croatia. This experience convinced me that I had to commit my life to defending human rights and justice. Often people who witness unspeakable human suffering can become hardened. I vowed not to lose my humanity. If my own stories hold any lessons, it is that we need not feel powerless when facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I am a true believer that with a small measure of courage and commitment, each and every one of us can make a difference. Individuals can change the course of history.
DM: What does femininity mean to you?
BJ: I'd like to paraphrase James E. Faust. Femininity goes far beyond the way we embellish our appearance, it is not just 'lipstick, hairdos or trendy clothes'. It is the divine adornment of humanity and our capacity to love, our spirituality, delicacy, radiance, sensitivity, creativity, charm, gentleness, dignity, strength, and I would like to add, the power of our intellect. As the author Roman Payne said, "she is free in her wildness, she is a wanderess, a drop of free water. She knows nothing of borders and cares nothing for rules or customs. 'Time' for her isn’t something to fight against. Her life flows clean, with passion, like fresh water.” We must retain the essence of our femininity and reject the idea that to be a woman of substance or to achieve power, we need to emulate men. We can hold onto our gentleness and sensitivity, we don't have to sacrifice our femininity. As Katherine Graham said, “The thing women must do to rise to power is to redefine their femininity. Once, power was considered a masculine attribute. In fact power has no sex.” I am proud to proclaim myself a feminist.
For a long time, many among us felt intimidated about using the ‘f word’. According to Merriam-Webster, feminism stands for “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” In an ideal world, that is what I believe feminism should be but women have been almost embarrassed to identify themselves as feminists. Fortunately, many of us are no longer afraid of the ‘f’ word. According to the UN 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to school each year. Globally, violence is a greater threat to women aged 15-44 than cancer, traffic accidents, malaria and war combined. That is why the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation (BJHRF) is engaged on a global campaign to end violence against women and girls and the culture of impunity; to address the systemic problems of discrimination; and to achieve gender equality. In their book, ‘Half the Sky’, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl DuWunn state that: “in this century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”
DM: Aside from your mother, who are the women who have most influenced you?
BJ: Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my role models. I admire her role in helping to draft the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. As First Lady, and after her husband’s death, she was a crusader for justice. She was a woman who knew that ignorance, indigence, violence, and fear were not different, isolated problems.
DM: At one point you were the most famous woman in the world - were you aware of it and how did it affect you?
BJ: Thank you, that is very kind of you to say... but I have never seen myself as ‘the most famous woman in the world’. Fame is a force to be reckoned with. It offers many advantages, but comes at a very high price.
DM: What main issues is your foundation currently focusing on?
BJ: I founded the BJHRF in 2005 to be a force for change and a voice for the most vulnerable. The BJHRF is dedicated to defending human rights, achieving social justice, addressing the threat of climate change and speaking up for future generations. Achieving gender equality: on the occasion of the International Day to End Violence Against Women and Girls, the BJHRF launched a global campaign asking members of government, parliamentarians, leaders of the business community, members of academic and religious institutions, the legal profession, civil society, the art world, the fashion and entertainment industries and individuals to implement the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG Goal 5) and its targets, to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,’ and to effect concrete change for women in our society. Environment: the BJHRF raises awareness of the threat of catastrophic climate change. We are urging governments to implement the Paris Agreement and to take effective steps to keep average global temperature increases below 1.5°C: this is the ‘absolute ceiling’ for global temperature rise if we are to prevent climate catastrophe. Anything above 1.5 degrees C is a death sentence for us and for the planet. Death Penalty: in my capacity as Council of Europe Goodwill Ambassador, I am advocating the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. I and the BJHRF are campaigning on behalf of numerous prisoners on death row, including British grandmother Linda Carty (Texas), Nicaraguan national Bernardo Tercero (Texas), Reggie Clemons (Missouri), and the countless prisoners condemned to death all over the world whom I support every day on social media.
DM: Maria Grazia Chiuri has been newly appointed as the Creative Director of Maison Dior - the first woman ever in the history of the fashion house, what are your thoughts about her? So many designers are men, what do you think about women designing for women?
BJ: I was thrilled when I learned that Dior hired a woman designer. The appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri as the first female creative director in the company's 70-year history is of great significance. It will be exciting to be dressed by a woman. I attended her first show on 30 September 2016. I thought her collection was beautiful, cool, feminine. As a lifelong champion for women’s rights, her message on the catwalk calling for a ‘feminist revolution’ was powerful. I hope that Maria Grazia’s appointment will be a catalyst for the fashion industry and that many other fashion houses will follow in Dior’s footsteps.