Day 9/16 of Activism Against Gender Violence: 'But This Is Our Lives...'
In today’s narrative we salute the women who face the pain of gender-based violence with dignity and hope for the future. Here we take a look at the stories of women who may not be women’s rights activists in the traditional sense. Yet, in their own understated way, are they not survivors and fighters? We invite you to read about these resilient women and take a moment to think just how we should define activism against gender violence.
Palestine – November 2010
As I sat next to Fatima, a woman in her late 40s from a small village near Nablus in the West Bank, Palestine, I wondered how daily violence had become her accepted reality. I was delivering a sexual and reproductive health workshop with a small team of female doctors and nurses from the local area to about 20 women of various ages, and we were also hoping to find out more about the levels of gender-based violence amongst the community. As we are all well aware, the data on gender-based violence is unreliable and we had heard that honour killings were on the rise. One UN report suggested over 60 per cent of women in the West Bank were being beaten regularly in their homes, and in 2002 there were 31 cases of women reportedly murdered in the home …In the end, the statistics didn’t really matter. What was clear from those women sitting around me, their children hanging from their necks and on the edges of their dresses was ‘hay hayatna’ – this is our life.
Most of the women in the room were subjected to early marriage, and we were hoping to at least raise their levels of awareness around the dangers of this practice. That just because it happened to them didn’t mean it had to continue, and that the Palestine Authority had set the legal age of marriage at 18 years. I felt kind of helpless with all these facts in my head knowing I had no way of assuring the protection of these women if they risked doing something different.
Fatima must have seen the sadness in my eyes; the disbelief that any woman should accept violence as a normal part of her life. ‘Don’t look so worried habibti,’ she said. ‘I may not be able to escape my husband, but I can teach my daughter. I can help her to understand that this does not have to be her life. And she will go to school. Everything I do, I do for her, so she will not be like me. She will not have my life.’
Libya – April 2011
‘You should give the women guns. Then WE will get rid of Gaddafi and stop his dirty soldiers from doing what they are doing to us!’
Khadija must have been about 80 years old. Her front teeth were missing and when she laughed, her whole body shook so hard all of us in the tent could not help but laugh with her…even though it was black humour at its best. We were a small group of women who had gathered together inside one of the refugee tents on the border between Libya and Tunisia, to sip tea and discuss the health needs of the women and children in the camp. But I soon realised that these women needed to voice their fury and pain at the violence they were subjected to.
There have been numerous conflicting reports about the incidents of rape by the military during the uprising in Libya in 2011. The case of Iman al-Obeidi was one of the few to reach the international media, and drew attention to the fact that yet again, this conflict was being played out on the bodies and souls of women. Hundreds of women protestors took to the streets in Benghazi to highlight Iman’s plight, shouting, "Iman, you are not alone” and “You are a symbol of our courage and freedom.”
Iman was one of many, Khadija told me. And many of these women did not report the sexual abuse, nor did they tell their families. I looked down at my tea and shook my head, “We need more women like Iman,” I said. And then I felt Khadija’s hand press against mine. She had calmed down somewhat from her initial fiery speech about guns.
“We are not all leaders my dear. We are not all big fighters like Iman,” she said. “But we will stand by Iman – some of us quietly, some of us with our hands in the air, screaming so our pain does not stay in our hearts and make us black inside.”
The stories of Fatima and Khadija are just two of many I collected in my time in the Middle East – the women of Erbil that bore so much of the violence after the Iraq war; the girls of Yemen who face so much pain from birth to death because they are married so young. One thing I realised is that I once felt that these women had limited, if any, choices. That it was up to “the big fighters” to make the hard choices, so that all women could have lives that do not involve ‘accepted’ violence and pain. But then I realised I was wrong…
I applaud the amazing women activists all over the world who are fighting every day to see that this type of violence does not continue. Some we know so well through their writing or their media profiles, others from their campaigns. Today, however, I want to dedicate this to all the women who may not be women’s rights leaders; may not have gone out and fought in the street; but have the courage to get up and face the day knowing that they can have an impact; that they can change the world quietly and deliberately by having the strength to raise their children differently.
I want them to know that in what they see as the ordinariness of their actions, they are extraordinary.
Mariem Omari is WLUML's Deputy Director and a committed advocate of women's rights.
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