Producer, Educator & Writer
For Masuma Ahuja, who grew up in India, moved to the U.S. as a child, and then went to college in London, navigating life as a girl in multiple cities and continents was just part of her everyday experience. Later in life, as a journalist, she wrote feature stories on women and girls highlighting gender-based violence, sexualization and victimization. Ahuja acknowledges that these are important stories, but far from the entirety of a girl’s experience.
Now Ahuja is refocusing her lens.
Her new book, “Girlhood: Teens Around the World in Their Own Voices,” focuses on the everyday lives of 30 young women in 27 different countries. It was published at the beginning of February.’I wanted to know: What does a girl growing up in Iraq dream of? What does a girl in New York or Nigeria stay up nights thinking about? How would the story of girlhood be told if girls were the ones to write it? The only way to find out, of course, was to ask girls themselves. So that is what I did.’Masuma Ahuja, author of ‘Girlhood’
“I very much wanted to give girls agency in telling their stories in their own words,” Ahuja said. “Who better to tell us than girls themselves?” She worked with each one to tell their story in their own voice by having them send her diary entries, photos and sometimes doing follow-up interviews.
While the book evolved somewhat organically after her 2018 Washington Post series called “The Lilly,” the most difficult part of the process was logistical. With so many countries and so many girls, she was constantly coordinating time zones, WhatsApp messages and the lives of young people, like one girl who didn’t respond for a few months because of exams.
How did she find the girls? Ahuja says it was a combination of connections through friends and acquaintances as well as through sports clubs and writing programs. One of the girls on the cover is a surfer from the island nation of Vanuatu. Ahuja connected to her through the Vanuatu Surfing Association.Sponsored
Though each girl has her own unique story, Ahuja said she saw herself in every single girl.
“I was just like, yes, I’m exactly like her. This is me when I was 13, totally,” she said. Then she would identify with the next girl she spoke with.
It’s in this spirit that she would like to see the book be read by men and boys (and everyone), but especially for girls like herself who may not have seen stories like their own represented on the pages of the books they read. “Hopefully any girl who picks up this book will find something in common … that’s my goal,” she said. “A sense of our shared humanity is what I’m hoping for mostly.”
The book also serves as a flashpoint in time, pre-pandemic, which Ahuja feels may be a source of joy and hope. Most of the reporting and writing for the book took place in 2019, and now, Ahuja says it’s much like a “document of a time that no longer exists.” Life for many around the world, and many featured in the book, has changed drastically. “It kind of feels like we just captured what life looked like right before this big thing [COVID-19] set in.” At the same time that it provides a powerful contrast, Ahuja also sees joy within each of the girls. “There’s so much hope and potential for the future. And they all want to do so many amazing things,” she said.
What started as a series, and is now a book, has also evolved into a new media venture — one that is both part-workshop and part-platform — called Girlhood*. The ethos of the platform is that stories of girls are important, and society needs to hear more of them. Ahuja launched storytelling workshops for girls around the world with a focus on encouraging, supporting and bringing to life more stories from young people. Already, her workshops have participants from more than 20 countries.
“We should be creating spaces to amplify their voices — and voices of ordinary girls everywhere,” Ahuja said.