A young Ethiopian girl runs barefoot from poverty into military boots and finally fills the polished, elegant heels of a beauty pageant champion. What seems like the plot of a Hollywood movie is actually the true story of Yityish, “TiTi”, Aynaw.
Growing up in the small village of Chahawit, Ethiopia, Aynaw had a challenging childhood. She was forced to mature at the young age of 10 when both of her parents died and she had to move to Israel with her grandparents. Raised a Jewish Ethiopian, she often read about the promises and opportunities that Israel held. As a young girl she imagined Israel to be her own personal “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” However, upon arrival she was greeted not by chocolate, but by bustling cars, towering buildings and hectic crowds. Although a drastic change, Aynaw adjusted quickly. She attended an all female school, where her peers created “Project Titi”, teaching her one or two words of Hebrew every day. After three short months, she had become fluent in Hebrew and began excelling in her classes.
After graduation, 21-year-old Aynaw entered the Israeli army. She spent a total of three years training until she was promoted to Lieutenant, and was given the option to either command an all male or all female platoon. “I wanted to grow, challenge and prove myself to these males,” Aynaw said. She was no longer the timid, young girl who had once moved to Israel, but now a young professional who could take responsibility of over 300 men and teach them how to become soldiers. With her long black hair, small blue cap and her strict, unsmiling personality, she was often referred to as “Lieutenant Avatar.” Though it took her a while to get the soldiers to look past her gender, Aynaw eventually gained their respect and became a leader.
Aynaw’s entry into the 2013 Miss Israel competition was the result of a promise made by her childhood best friend, Noah. At first, Aynaw had a stereotypical image of pageant girls. She attended auditions in a plain, large, male T-shirt and remembers telling Noah, “This is not for me. I must continue my education and not waste time here.” To which Noah responded, “Do you see any other black girls here? Do you think any of these girls here have served as a Lieutenant in the army?” Aynaw then realized that she had to share her story, but she never expected the kind of impact the pageant would have on her life.
In February 2013, Titi Aynaw was crowned the new Miss Israel. She blew up on social media and became an internet sensation. Her face was plastered on every magazine, she was interviewed by CNN and BBC and she even received a personal invite to meet President Barack Obama. As the first black Miss Israel, she paved the way for more Ethiopian women to enter the beauty competition and proved there was a place for black women in the modeling industry.
On Nov. 1, Aynaw shared her story with the Mustangs United for Israel club at Cal Poly’s Advanced Technology Lab. After Aynaw’s speech, The Wire had the opportunity to ask her questions about what she is working on now and how she supports strong, young women.
After winning, what type of impact did you wish to make with your new title?
Growing up in a tough neighborhood in Ethiopia, I was always very thankful for my education. I wanted to give back, so I created my own “Project Titi.” [Project Titi provides activities, such as basketball and math classes, to 66 Ethiopian children from disadvantaged backgrounds in Netanya.] The children there have too much time, [so] I wanted to give them activities to keep them out of the streets and out of trouble. It is not that they are bad children, they just need something to do. I never intended for Project Titi to grow into a whole community center, it was just an idea to support the children. Later I brought professional help to tutor them on their homework and teach additional classes, and these kids went from the bottom of their class to the top. I even know one boy who started with basketball practice at Project Titi and now dreams of becoming a professional!
As a woman, how do you believe Beauty pageants make a positive step forward in female empowerment?
I really thought, when my friend signed me up, that Beauty competitions were stupid. They have a stereotype and the girls who competed weren’t like me. I attended the army and didn’t care about anything like that, I’m not stupid! But I really think these competitions are not a bad thing. It’s not that anyone views me as only a beautiful pageant queen. I am a strong woman. I can be a strong woman strutting in a swimsuit or I can be a strong woman as Lieutenant in the army. I am a woman! These are things that I have inside of me, as a woman, so why would I need to hide them? I won, not because I am beautiful and have a nice body, but because I have a mind, and my own thoughts. As women, we are many, many different things. More importantly, every person should follow their own way and express their own beauty! You can be beautiful on the outside, but also smart, educated and strong. These are all what I believe a woman is.
I can be a strong woman strutting in a swimsuit or I can be a strong woman as Lieutenant in the army. I am a woman!
Nowadays, it is common for young women to compare ourselves to one another and compete rather than support. You said that when you were in school, the other girls made a “Project TiTi” to teach you one or two words of Hebrew everyday. Do you have any words of advice for young women to support one another rather than compete?
I really, really believe that women together are their strongest. When I am in Tel Aviv, I go out with my five best friends, who are each unique, beautiful and strong in their own way. We are all really different! But together, we are so powerful! We truly help and support one another, like sisters. I think if we support each other more, because we know each other best as women, we can do anything.
*This interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity
Through her success and willingness to give back, Titi Aynaw embodies what it means to be a strong woman. She is living proof that there is not just one stereotypical box a female must fit into, but rather multiple molds, all unique in their own way.
*An earlier version of this story had misnamed the Mustangs United for Israel club.