Women risk everything in fight for human rights

Photo, unverified, of human rights defender and award-winning lawyer Yara Sallam (rear right, with short hair) and other female prisoners at a hearing court near Cairo on September 13, 2014. The women have been imprisoned in Egypt since June 21, 2014 for protesting without government permission. Source: Twitter

On a muggy June day in Cairo, Yara Sallam, 28, joined dozens of other Egyptians to rally against a new anti-protest law and the hundreds of people arrested under it over the last eight months. Witnesses said Sallam, an award-winning lawyer and researcher with one of Egypt’s leading human rights organisations, stepped away from the protest not long after it began and walked toward a street vendor to buy a bottle of water. It was then that men and police in civilian clothes swept in, armed with clubs and knives, and dispersed the crowd.

Sallam was one of 23 activists arrested on accusations of illegal assembly and other crimes under the protest law she was disputing. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Authorities said authorities interrogated Sallam extensively about her organisation’s work.

Egypt’s Law 107 of 2013 sets heavy prison sentences for protests and other actions deemed offences because they are perceived to attempt to influence the course of justice without seeking permission from the Interior Ministry. The law also permits security officials to forcibly disperse or ban any protest on vague grounds.

“The detention of Yara Sallam raises concerns that authorities want to intimidate and silence Egyptian rights activists who have bravely criticised this law and other rights violations that have become routine since the military takeover last July”, says Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch.

The risks of being a human rights defender are inherent. Exposing government deficiencies or highlighting the neglect of those in power is like repeatedly poking the eye of a dragon. Defenders publicly demand more of politicians and police, when these are often the very authorities that allow or encourage the violence or injustice in the first place. Activists like Sallam are deemed provocative, a nuisance or a threat.

In Egypt, and around the world, women like Sallam are seen by many in their community to transgress social norms. Female human rights defenders are often vocal and assertive. Their priorities stretch beyond the immediate family to the wider community. They publicly pronounce their values of freedom, independence and fairness, and urge others to do so as well. And for this, and many other reasons, they are threatened or punished.

On September 13, 84 days since her arrest and detainment in a prison on the outskirts of Cairo, Sallam had some time before an Egyptian judge. Because foreign media and observers were banned from the court, all information has not been confirmed.

According to the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), who received new information: “The hearing was held in the deliberation chambers. Two videos were shown, on the request of the defendants’ lawyers. The judge tried to identify the defendants in the videos; however, none of them appeared in them. In addition, no weapons appeared in the videos. The prosecution also submitted a report on a video that was not shown during the hearing. The defendants’ lawyers requested that this video be shown, accompanied by an expert report. All the defendants remain in custody pending trial despite the defence’s request to release them. The session was once again held in private as only the defendants’ lawyers were allowed to attend.”

Unnamed sources say the hearing was postponed to October 11. Many of the #freeyarra tweets contain a photo that appears to depict Sallam and some of the other female prisoners at the hearing on September 13.

That we have a small and seemingly truthful peak into Sallam and the other women’s experience is significant. We can push for change, and offer our support. But thousands of other women human rights defenders around the world who are targeted, imprisoned or hurt alone, and without witness. How do we support them?

Women activists face gender-specific risks

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders recognised that authorities specifically target women activists. In a January 2012 note to the Egyptian government, the UN representative wrote that with regards to the allegations of violence by the military against women human rights defenders who took part in the Cairo protests of November and December 2011, “these cases do not constitute isolated events, but represent an ongoing pattern of violence against women peacefully taking part in protests by Egyptian security forces”.

According to the Rapporteur, such women are increasingly targeted by security forces to prevent them from participating in the public sphere through the use of physical harm, intentional humiliation and sexual assault, accompanied by social stigma against such “deviant behaviour”.

Many North Americans were first made aware of the pattern of gender-specific violence in Egypt with the high-profile assault of CBS journalist Lara Logan on February 11, 2011. Sallam walked the same streets where women were assaulted and Logan was attacked.

“I do have the right to be in the public space. My right is to be safe. My right is to be equal with everyone else and that my gender is not used against me through gender-based human rights violations because I am a woman”, said Sallam in a video posted by the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network in November 2013 after she was awarded for her pioneering work and bravery.

At 15, she was politically active and went on to earn degrees from Cairo University, the Pantheon-Sorbonne in Paris, and Notre Dame University in the US #FreeYara trended on Twitter and spurred campaigns to shame the Egyptian government into releasing Sallam and the others. But to challenge those in power, and to do it publicly, is an affront to custom.

Challenge custom, face dire consequences

“Custom and tradition count for a great deal (…) When a woman gets involved in defending human rights, she’s regarded as defying custom”, said Justine Masika Bihamba, a Congolese activist and coordinator of Synergy of Women for Victims of Sexual Violence, in a March 2014 report published by the Association Women’s Rights in Development (AWID).

Defending rights is a dangerous business in many parts of the world. In the context of increasing militarisation and the rise of fundamentalism, we see an increase of attacks on women who step outside traditional female roles or who stand up against the dominant culture.

Women who defend human rights are much more likely to face sexual violence: restrictions on their ability to leave the home or travel; conviction of “moral” crimes; threats and violence against their children; slurs on their role as mothers and wives; gender-based attacks on their reputation; and social isolation”, says Sarah Marland of the Women Human Rights Defenders Coalition.

One example of this gender-specific state opposition would be June’s closure of Sudan’s Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre. Founded in 1997, the centre advocated for legal changes to offer adequate protection to rape victims, who can be punished for committing adultery under the criminal law. The organisation also challenged Sudan’s restrictive dress code law and fought to raise the legal age of marriage. Authorities closed it without notice or explanation in June.

Canadian organisation Interpares says Salmmah is just one of several organisations that have been closed by Sudanese state authorities over the past two years. Furthermore, there have been credible reports by other organisations of harassment and intimidation. Fear of reprisals often keeps these groups from issuing public statements.

Members of Russia’s Pussy Riot are devoted to not letting fear or imprisonment silence them. Two members of the feminist punk protest band are suing the Russian government in the European Court of Human Rights over their conviction and jail sentence for attempting to perform a protest song in a Moscow cathedral in 2012. Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova served 21 months in remote prison colonies.

Russia convicted these two Pussy Riot members of hooliganism. But many of Russia’s critics saw the trial as the government’s kangaroo court and punishment towards anyone who challenges the Kremlin’s authority or acts in anti-national way.

Samira Hamidi, former leader of the Afghan Women’s Network, told the Woman Human Rights Defenders International Coalition that in Afghanistan women activists are often accused of being spies or representing the interests of the West, and of being against religion, culture and values.

Online and offline threats

“My children were threatened with death and torture by six armed soldiers for having helped women victims of sexual violence to fill in forms to take part in proceedings at the International Criminal Court”, said Bihamba in an AWID interview.

Threats against women activists also bleed into the online world. According to a 2013 global survey conducted by the Association for Progressive Communications, about half (51%) of the women human rights activists (including advocates, scholars and policy-makers) working on sexual rights (like reproductive health and rights, LGBT rights, access to safe abortion, sexual violence and rape, and sex education) had at some point received violent messages, threats or [offensive] comments while working online. About one-third of the sample mentioned intimidation (34%), blocking and filtering (33%), or censorship (29%).

For anyone who publishes online, negative comments and trolling is an unfortunate reality. But for many women campaigning for social change, often in authoritative or undemocratic countries, those threats foretell a more visceral response.

Female blogger Razan Ghazzawi was put on trial in 2012 for her online writing and use of social media to denounce the crimes committed by the Syrian regime. The trial was an attempt to crack down on free speech. She was eventually released but cannot travel out of the country. She has gone underground to continue to <a>write</a>. She publishes posts about human rights cases and campaigns for the release of political prisoners.

In September 2013, the website of the Latin America and Caribbean Women’s Health Network was hacked and disabled. The attack took place immediately after the launch of several campaign activities supporting access to safe and legal abortion in the region.

The Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition called these online attacks a “deliberate attempt to silence legitimate feminist voices, suppress dissent and stifle women’s political participation in the public sphere on these issues by stigmatization and sabotage.”

According to the Association for Progressive Communications, the aim of these online attacks is the same as violence offline - to keep women out of spaces that men feel belong to them, to silence their voices and to stop their participation in an increasingly important sphere.

AWID recorded an offline case from Colombia, where some individuals broke into the home of a female human rights worker. The only thing that they took was her underwear.

Of course, death is meant to be the ultimate silencer. In Libya, also in June, Salwa Bugaighis, a leading figure in women’s rights in the country, was killed in her home after voting in the general election. Sadly, these type of cases are not rare, with feminist advocates targeted around the world.

Strategies to protect female human rights defenders

Front Line Defenders and other advocate groups say there are tangible ways to protect female human rights defenders. In a guideline report for members of the European Union, Front Line Defenders urges states to make public statements against abuses, observe trials, witness demonstrations or protests, and visit imprisoned defenders. Behind the scenes, it helps when influential states raise cases of human rights defenders with authorities and bring them up during political dialogue.

Encouraging examples include efforts in Colombia and in Guatemala where the government is recognising patterns of attacks against human rights activists and creating legal and other types of recourse to prevent them from continuing.

“I think the biggest success is that women around the world still risk their lives to defend human rights. They have not been silenced. The recognition of these struggles is now happening at a global level. In 2005, over 200 women from all over the world met and spurred the creation of the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition. Nearly 10 years later, the coalition is still going strong”, says Marland.

As Sallam’s supporters await yet another hearing, they may take comfort in words from another woman human rights defender once imprisoned.

“If anything happens to me”, wrote Razan Ghazzawi, “know that the regime does not fear the prisoners, but those who do not forget them.”

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