WLUML Deputy Director Mariem Omari Joins Women’s Rights and Peace Activists at the Nobel Women’s Initiative Conference in Belfast, 28-30 May 2013

There was a quiet moment in the conference room in the Culloden Hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland as six women: Mairead Macguire (Northern Ireland) Leymah Gbowee (Liberia), Tawakkol Karman (Yemen), Shirin Ebadi (Iran), Rigoberta Menchu Tum (Guatemala) and Jody Williams (USA), all recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, joined together to welcome us – women activists from all over the world – to the fourth biennial conference of the Nobel Women’s Initiative.


Some women were there to discuss women’s rights, some women were there to discuss peace, but regardless of each woman’s motivation, there was one thing that we all agreed on - it is women that have to “invade (or reinvade) the spaces we need to invade” in order to highlight the devastating impact of war and conflict on women.

I was invited by the Nobel Women’s Initiative to be part of a panel on ‘Innovative Approaches to Addressing Sexual Violence on Community Streets and in Revolutionary Tahrir Square’ along with Rebecca Chiao, Co-Founder of Harrasmap (Egypt), and Hania Moheeb, Journalist and Activist (Egypt), with Sussan Tahmasebi, Iranian activist and Director of the MENA Program on Women’s Rights, Peace and Security for ICAN chairing the panel. A diverse group of women attended our session, including Shirin Ebadi. Needless to say it was an honour to have her there…and slightly intimidating!


Hania and Rebecca commenced with a powerful overview of the current situation in Egypt. Hania provided a personal account of her terrifying experience of being sexually assaulted during the uprising in Tahrir Square. She discussed the lack of services available to women who had been through this devastating ordeal, and described being told by medical staff at the hospital ‘to keep quiet’ and ‘not speak about what has happened’, because of what others might think.


Rebecca provided an overview of the way in which Harrassmap “combines mobile and internet technology with on–the-ground community activism to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment in Egypt.” Like WLUML, Harrassmap continues to expand its reach due to the dedication of hundreds of volunteers, and the model that Harrassmap has created to tackle this issue is now being incorporated or tested in other parts of the Middle East, including Palestine, Lebanon and Yemen.


Given WLUML’s position as a transnational organization, I was there to bring that perspective and outline how our work spans from the grassroots to the transnational level. I began by looking at sexual harassment as part of a continuum of violence towards women (sexual, cultural and so on), and highlighted WLUML’s purposes of strengthening women’s rights movements within Muslim contexts; providing critical analysis and information on the struggles in diverse Muslim contexts; and in essence, ‘breaking the isolation’ that women so often feel when confronted with these challenges.


I stated that violence against women continues to be perpetrated and justified in the name of religion and culture; and that in the rapidly changing MENA region, old regimes have collapsed and new conservative governments are now in power.  So it is at this critical time, where new developments are causing grave concerns - for example the revival or creation of laws and customs that treat crimes against women with leniency; guardianship laws that limit women’s mobility; and weakening of provisions against child marriage - that WLUML’s programmes and activities in the region are most needed.


An engaged discussion led by Shirin Ebadi followed our presentations, on her interest in the use of rape as a way to ‘punish’ women activists detained in prison, as for instance in Iran. There was lively discussion relating to the extent to which ‘dishonour’ crimes are still occurring in Egypt and other parts of the MENA region, and what strategies are being put in place by WLUML, Harrassmap and others, in particular working with young men to raise awareness and ‘shame’ those that are perpetrating sexual harassment.


Aside from the panel session, a real highlight for me was being able to give a Yoga SELF Care session, and to discuss the crucial importance of sustainable activism. The early morning start didn’t deter a few women who were keen to go into their bodies and begin the day in a state of grace. During the course of the conference I highlighted this issue a number of times, citing Jane Barry and Jelena Dordevic ‘s publication, What’s the point of revolution if we can’t dance?’ and the importance of including modules on sustainable activism in all Women Human Rights Defender workshops and training. After all, how can we take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves...our pain, our sadness, and ultimately our healing?


The conference closed with a wonderful gesture made by the Nobel Women’s Initiative. All the women attending were asked to make a commitment to themselves, however big or small that might be, professional or personal. We had a choice of putting your commitment on the wall for all to see or in an envelope to be sent back to you by the end of the year. I put mine in an envelope, full of hope that our collective commitments, or wishes, come true.


For more information on the Novel Women’s Initiative Fourth Biennial conference go to: http://nobelwomensinitiative.org/