The internet, like the world at large, is forever in search of a hero. Currently taking the mantle is Saffiyah Khan, the young woman from Birmingham who was photographed over the weekend smiling peacefully in the face of a livid far-right nationalist.
Khan became a viral sensation after pictures of her grinning at EDL leader Ian Crossland were published online, with thousands of people around the world praising her bravery, composure and evident sense of humour in the face of hatred. Once tracked down by journalists, Khan revealed that she was confronted by Crossland after stepping in to help a Muslim woman who had been surrounded by members of the EDL.
“I wasn’t scared in the slightest,” said Khan, adding: “I don’t like seeing people getting ganged up on in my town.”
Inspired by the pictures of Khan – taken by photojournalist Joe Giddens for the Press Association – Twitter user @_Xas_ decided to highlight other iconic photos of women protestors throughout the ages. Or, as they put it: “Just a wee thread of women who truly don’t have any time for your shit.”
At the time of writing, the thread started by @_Xas_ has been favourited 15,000 times and retweeted more than 11,000 times. Hundreds of people have chimed in, with many people sharing their own favourite images of women around the world standing tall when faced with fascism, police brutality and other forms of oppression.
Here, we delve into the incredible stories behind some of the photos.
Tess Asplund, Sweden, May 2016
This photograph of Swedish activist Tess Asplund defying a march of uniformed neo-Nazis, taken by photojournalist David Lagerlöf, went viral in May 2016. Colombia-born Asplund was marching against 300 members of the extreme right Nordic Resistance Movement at a rally in Borlänge, central Sweden.
“It was an impulse. I was so angry, I just went out into the street,” Asplund, who identifies as Afro-Swedish and stands at just 5”3, told the Guardian. “I was thinking: hell, no, they can’t march here! I had this adrenaline. No Nazi is going to march here, it’s not OK.”
She continued: “Racism has been normalised in Sweden, it’s become OK to say the N-word… I hope something positive will come out of the picture. Maybe what I did can be a symbol that we can do something – if one person can do it, anyone can.”
Jasmin Golubovska, Macedonia, May 2015
Jasmin Golubovska, 30, was photographed by using a riot shield as a mirror to apply her lipstick during violent demonstrations in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, in May 2015.
Police brutality and corruption had been perceived as major problems in Macedonia under then-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s right-wing, nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party. The May 2015 protests took place after it was alleged that Gruevski had helped cover up the murder of a 22-year-old man reportedly beaten to death by an interior ministry policeman.
Golubovska, who works as a political analyst for the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Macedonia, was photographed with lipstick in hand by Reuters photographer Ognen Teofiovski.
When asked about the picture, Jasmin said: “In principle I do not use a lot of make-up. I wear red lipstick only when I need to repair the tired look of the systematic suppression of freedom.”
Unknown, Chile, September 2016
Reuters photojournalist Carlos Vera Mancilla captured this striking image of a young, unidentified woman standing nose-to-nose with a riot policeman during protests in Santiago, Chile, last September.
The demonstrations were organised by the Association of Relatives of Detained and Disappeared of Chile to mark the 43rd anniversary of the country’s military coup.
In 1973, a group led by dictator Augusto Pinochet (and backed by the American CIA) overthrew and killed former Socialist president Salvador Allende. Pinochet died in 2006, and demonstrations are still organised every year to honour the many thousands of people who were executed, disappeared, detained, tortured or exiled during his rule.
Mancilla told Chilean newspaper La Tercera that police started arresting people at random outside the General Cemetery of Recoleta in Santiago, where relatives of people who went missing under Pinochet’s rule had gathered. He took the photograph – which quickly went viral – after seeing the girl “[stand] before the policeman with a defiant look”.
The photo has also been mistakenly attributed to protests against the building of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in the USA.
Danuta Danielsson, Sweden, April 1985
This famous photo, titled ‘A Woman Hitting a Neo-Nazi With Her Handbag’, was taken by photographer Hans Runesson in 1985, before ‘going viral’ was a thing. But that didn’t stop the picture from doing the rounds online last winter, shortly after the election of Donald Trump. In it, Danuta Danielsson is seen lashing out at a member of the now-defunct white supremacist Nordic Reich Party in the Swedish city of Växjö.
Runesson’s photo was published in British newspapers as well as Swedish publications in 1985, and won several major photography awards. But despite her appearance in one of the most famous photographs of the 1980s, not much is known about Danielsson. She was reluctant to speak to journalists, and tragically committed suicide three years after the picture was taken at the age of just 41.
However, it is believed that Danielsson’s Polish mother had been held in Auschwitz concentration camp during WW2 – which might go some way to explaining her visceral hatred of Nazism.
Iesha Evans, USA, July 2016
Another Twitter user highlighted the iconic photo of Black Lives Matter protester Iesha Evans, standing calmly in front of armed riot police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Evans, a 35-year-old nurse and mother of one from New York, was reportedly one of 102 activists arrested in Baton Rouge on the same day in July 2016, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the US to protest the police shootings of African-American men Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
Freelance photographer Jonathan Bachman, who took the photograph, told the BBC that Evans broke away from the main protest in Baton Rouge to stand in front of the riot police. “I looked over my right shoulder and saw the woman step onto the road,” he said. “She was making her stand. She said nothing and was not moving. It was clear that the police were going to have to detain her.”
The photo seemed almost like a classical painting, with Evans’ flowing dress, ballet slippers and glasses standing in stark contrast to the police officers’ bulky bulletproof uniforms and helmets.
R. Alex Haynes, a friend of Evans’, wrote on Facebook that she had gone to Baton Rouge “because she wanted to look her son in the eyes to tell him she fought for his freedom and rights.
“And yes,” Haynes added, “she is everything you see in this photo and so much more.”
Gloria Richardson, USA, June 1963
More than 50 years before Iesha Evans was arrested in Baton Rouge, civil rights activists in the USA were also battling against armed police and institutional racism. This image (photographer unknown) shows civil rights leader Gloria Richardson pushing away a gun held by a member of the National Guard in her hometown of Cambridge, Maryland.
Rioting had broken out in Cambridge after Richardson began a campaign against police brutality, with martial law effectively declared in the town until the passing of the Civil Rights Act in July 1964. The disdainful look on Richardson’s face reveals her contempt for police violence.
Richardson, who is still alive at 94 years old, continued to be a prominent figure in the civil rights movement in Maryland and the wider USA after this picture was taken. In August 1963, she was saluted as one of the six “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” on the stage of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (although, like most other women that day, she was not permitted to address the crowd).
She later described how she had found a community of militant African-American women in Cambridge, saying: “Most members of our civil rights group were women… When we were attacked at demonstrations, [women] were the ones throwing stones back at the whites.”
Amanda Polchies, Canada, October 2013
Photojournalist Ossie Michelin took this picture of Amanda Polchies, a 28-year-old member of the Mi’kmaq tribe, in New Brunswick, Canada, in October 2013.
The Mi’kmaq, a First Nations people, had been engaged in a peaceful anti-fracking protest when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrived with guns, mace, Tasers and dogs.
Without any weapons of her own, Polchies dropped to her knees to pray, brandishing an eagle feather above her head. What could have appeared a pleading gesture instead looks like a movement of defiance, as though Polchies is ordering the police to remain where they are.
“Amanda has adopted me into her family… We are bonded for life,” he says. “We both say that picture will probably outlive us both.”
Main image: Joe Giddens/David Lagerlöf/Press Association, twitter.com/_Xas_