By Zahra Vieneuve, Global Fund for Women Program Officer for Middle East and North Africa
News from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has become increasingly confusing and overwhelming: the fall of dictators, the rise of new ones, the spread of extremist and fundamentalist groups, the eruption of new conflicts and ensuing forced displacement of entire populations and the deterioration of the security situation. A “region in turmoil,” an “Arab winter,” and “a bottomless abyss;” these are just some of the descriptions that many news outlets have used to describe the Middle East.
However, many have failed to capture the intrinsic relationship between this turmoil and the struggles for sociopolitical change, particularly changes led by women. Indeed, just a few years ago, the images of women conquering the spaces they are now occupying in the public sphere would have seemed inconceivable.
Yet at the same time women – and especially women’s rights activists – are facing increasing attacks on their dignity as old regimes and ways of thinking struggle to maintain the status quo.
But the increasingly ferocious attempts by governments and non-state actors to shut down the voices of women are also a testimony to the strength of women rights activists. Would state and non-state actors be so desperately trying to silence women were they not effective and powerful? No.
It is a precarious situation, full of both risks and opportunities for women’s rights. At such a challenging and tumultuous time, Global Fund for Women is supporting the women and movements who are maintaining momentum for equality and for change.
We are at a tipping point for women’s rights in the Middle East, and daring women are leading the charge. Our campaign shows how women leaders and groups are responding to this pivotal moment, and asks what’s next for women’s rights in the region. Will repression or daring prevail?
Dramatic changes have been taking place for the past few decades. Women human rights groups are rising to prominence. New groups have emerged, older ones have increased in strength, and public mobilization is burgeoning.
The region is witnessing crises because it is going through a difficult but crucial process of reconfiguration. If we are expecting such sociopolitical reconfiguration to be achieved overnight, then we should brace ourselves for disappointment. Yet if we recognize the shift may be slow and demand extensive efforts, we will roll up our sleeves and support the women-led revolutions that are taking place right now.
In a few years, today’s events will be part of an important history. Today, we are contemporaries of these important shifts. In this critical moment, we must not be passive bystanders. We need to ask ourselves what we can do to support our sisters in MENA in the battle for their rights—be it through vocal solidarity, financial support, or other forms of assistance.
An upsurge of women’s presence in the public spheres
What do we mean when we say that women human rights movements have conquered new spaces? A major misconception about the Middle East and North Africa is that women have been powerless, voiceless and hidden. However, the spaces deemed appropriate for women have been historically limited but what we have witnessed in the recent decades, and at an accelerated pace in the past five years, is a relentless renegotiation of women’s presence in the public sphere.
At the core of this renegotiation lies the question of safety and freedom from violence. As more women have entered public spaces, there has been an increase in violence and attacks. Threats of violence have been used to justify limiting women and girls’ lives beyond the home in the name of “protection.” We have seen this in Egypt in the numerous attacks on women participating in demonstrations. For instance, Nazra for Feminist Studies, a leading women human rights group in Egypt that is currently facing judicial harassment from the Egyptian government, documented 500 cases of crimes of sexual violence and thousands of cases of sexual harassment against women participating in protests in a period of less than four years, including at least nine cases of mass sexual assaults and gang rapes with sharp objects and fingers.
Far from being discouraged by threats, women rights defenders have responded by mobilizing to assert their right to participation in all spheres of life.
In Bahrain, we have seen the powerful sit-in organized by currently imprisoned women human rights defender, Zeinab al-Khawajah, to protest human rights violations committed by the state. Later freed, she is now in prison again, along with her 16-month-old baby, due to her exercise of her right to freedom of expression. In April 2016, 26 organizations, including the Global Fund for Women, issued a statement calling for her release.
In Morocco, hundreds of women took the street to demand that their government uphold constitutional rights to gender equality. Also in Morocco, two women charged with “gross indecency” for wearing summer dresses in public were freed after feminist activists protested in large numbers, some wearing miniskirts in defiance of indecency accusations, to denounce the charges.
In Lebanon, thousands of women rights activists flooded the streets of Beirut to demand the adoption of Lebanon’s first law against domestic violence. The Lebanese parliament later passed a law making domestic violence a criminal offense. The Parliament of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq also passed a similar law.
In Egypt, on multiple occasions, countless women protested sexual violence. Following this wave of public outcry and years of campaigning, a presidential decree criminalizing sexual harassment was issued.
Online and in digital spaces, women are in the ascendant. Lebanese women rights activist, Yalda Younes, launched the “Uprising of Women in the Arab World” on Facebook, creating a vibrant women’s rights platform with 120,000 followers as well as a powerful campaigning website. In Egypt, women launched HarassMap, a digital platform to map and prevent harassment and violence against women.
In Iraq, women rights activists relentlessly protested against the Jaa’fari draft law, introduced in 2014 to decrease the age of marriage for girls to 9 years old. Our sisters at the Baghdad Women Association organized a frozen flash mob in a shopping mall in Baghdad to denounce girls’ early forced marriage. Meanwhile, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, along with other women rights groups, organized protests in main squares in Iraq and debated the Minister of Justice who drafted the law on BBC Arabic. Because of all these efforts, and the success of women human rights groups in Iraq to mobilize public opinion against the law, the Prime Minister decided to pause the proposal and returned it to a committee for further review. Our partners are still pressuring to make sure that this draft is completely abandoned.
Most recently, in Jordan, on April 17, 2016, the Jordanian Minister of Justice announced the repeal of a controversial clause in the Jordanian Penal Code that allowed men convicted of rape to be spared punishment or legal prosecution if they marry the girls or women they raped. Because of this clause, many women were forced to marry their rapists to “restore their families’ honor”, which pushed some to kill themselves. In 2014, the Moroccan parliament repealed a similar article in the country’s penal code and a few years before the same happened in Egypt.
Although these developments are not perfect, they are overwhelmingly positive. The sign of a vibrant – and we believe unstoppable movement – to cement women’s rights and gender equality in the region.
The secret behind these changes, bold ideas and legal reforms? Decades of relentless work and steadfastness in the face of governmental and societal harassment and violence by hundreds of women human rights activists. Of course, this has not come without attempts at repealing laws that have been won by the movement as well. However, here again, women human rights defenders have mobilized to block these attempts.
In addition to these laws, the region is bustling with activity as women human rights groups challenge taboos, undermine prevailing stereotypes, develop an alternative discourse, and activate women within their communities and beyond.
As our campaign expresses, women’s rights leaders and activists are daring – daring to challenge norms and taboos to propel lasting shifts for women and girls. Shifts that will give women and girls voice, the right to public space and roles, and to freedom from violence and repression.
They are growing in strength and momentum, but they need resources and support to cement their success. Will you match their daring with your own contribution? Support women in the Middle East by making a gift today. Your support will go directly to women’s groups in the region who are daring to demand progress.
Photo featuring Al-Shehab founder Reda Shukry, by Alissa Everett