A couple of months ago I went back to my native Afghanistan after a year living in Britain. From the sedate surroundings of York University I've found myself back in bustling Kabul - back to the traffic jams, the construction projects and the crazy rush hour. Quite a change.
What has amazed me most upon my return is the massive difference between the realities of life at home and the way that Afghan women are more often than not portrayed in foreign media, which tends to focus on the sorrows, failures and victimised faces of Afghan women.
On Thursday, October 31st, Murad Sobay; a young Yemeni graffiti artist, and some other young activists were painting drones on the walls of Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, to protest the repeated strikes against al-Qaeda in many parts of Yemen. At the same time, several battles between the Salafists and Shiites (Houthis) were taking place in Dammaj, Saada; northern Yemen.
Today marks the UN International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. I honor all human rights activists in the world - those still struggling and those who are no longer with us. A landmark resolution was passed by the UN General Assembly yesterday aimed at strengthening the protection and promotion of the rights of women human right defenders but not without the expected backlash by the 'usual suspects'. 'Culture' was once again at the centre of debates and political negotiations between States that led to the scrapping of any reference to 'culture' being used as a justification for violence against women (VAW) in the final text. Reference to women's reproductive rights was also blocked by the Vatican mission and allies. Universality of human rights remains elusive for women.
In January 2005, Dr. Shazia Khalid was raped by member of the Pakistan Army in a remote area of Baluchistan province. Dr. Shazia Khalid is a medical doctor who was working as an employee of Pakistan Petroleum Limited at that time, and the incident happened at her compound which was located inside the hospital’s premises in the Sui area of Baluchistan. A case was filed and investigations began after her husband made repeated visits to the police. The military government of that time found Dr. Khalid’s protests against sexual assault by a military employee extremely irritating and started making conscious efforts to remove the thorn in their side. First, the authorities destroyed the evidence and later, they started questioning the character of the victim by narrating shady stories of “used condoms” being found at her compound. Her case was also dismissed on the grounds that the victim failed to produce four witnesses of the incident. Her case increased tensions between the Baluch nationalist tribes and the Pak Army as the tribes took the incident as an attack on their honour. Dr. Khalid was kept under a house arrest in Karachi for several weeks. Eventually, she was flown out of the country and the entire story was swept under the carpet. Dr. Shazia Khalid is still awaiting justice.
Being a practicing Muslim mother working for a secular domestic violence NGO in London – alongside women from all kinds of diverse backgrounds – may appear to outsiders to be in some ways contradictory.
Usually, these apparent contradictions are not felt in my daily routine but at times one does get caught out and instances occur where I am required to either justify or at least reflect on my choices in values, faith, work etc.
I am lucky to work in a feminist space respectful of all forms of diversity – gender, religious, ethnic, racial and sexual, to give but a few examples. However there are instances, in places like conferences, professional meetings or other events such as a fundraising rock concert, where my presence furrows the brows of my colleagues. As a modest, and if I may add stylishly, hijab clad woman, my presence in a space discussing national and local strategies to eliminate violence against women and girls doesn’t quite fit the stereotype. Perhaps others would be more comfortable if they saw me at a mosque or an ‘ethnic’ gathering or demonstration. Longer encounters where conversations happen reveal ‘benign’ misconceptions of what Islam states and what Muslims believe. Prejudices against Islam and Muslims are as alive in this sector as in any other.
According to a study by the World Health Organisation this year, 35% of women worldwide have experienced a form of violence. More than 64 million girls worldwide are child brides, and national violence studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime from an intimate partner.
The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence was set up to raise awareness of the endemic nature of gender-based violence, to strengthen work against it, and to demonstrate the solidarity of women throughout the world organising to eliminate such violence. The dates November 25 - International Day Against Violence Against Women - and December 10 - International Human Rights Day -symbolically link violence against women and human rights to emphasize that such violence is a violation of human rights.
This year’s theme ‘Militarism – from peace in the home to peace in the world’ - chosen for the second consecutive time - speaks to its continued relevance. The last 12 months have seen escalated violence and instability: political uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East; separatism, insurgency and intervention in Mali; the repression of civil society protest in Sudan; and devastating civil war in Syria, to name just some examples.
I asked my father once if he would mind me writing about his experience. "What experience?" he inquired. "Your experience in the Civil War", I said. He responded immediately "I did not participate in the Civil War". My father does not count himself as a participant in the Civil War, despite the fact that he spent half of his life carrying a rifle in Beirut's "Western" and "Eastern" suburbs, and he spent the other half paying for the first half.
He preferred me not to write about it, but his experience is also mine; present in my present as in my past. I feel my chest tighten when I see pictures of the dead, or mothers of the disappeared, or when former militia men appear on TV as the "new" statesmen. When my mother speaks to me of long nights waiting for my father to come home, my own head aches.
It is a scandal that in 2013 women still risk death by stoning in 15 countries. Incredibly, that number is now set to rise as the southeast Asian kingdom of Brunei prepares to introduce this brutal punishment.
Last month, the Sultan of Brunei announced a harsh new penal code based on an interpretation of sharia law. Along with flogging and amputation for certain crimes, the code introduces death by stoning as a punishment for adultery.
Let’s be clear. Stoning is a heinous and protracted form of torture, and one of the cruellest kinds of violence perpetrated against women to control and punish them for the exercise of their basic freedoms and control over their own bodies.
RE: DRAFT RESOLUTION ON PROTECTING WOMEN HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS
We write to you as a group of African human rights defenders and civil society organizations located across the continent working at national, regional and international levels. We are following negotiations on the draft resolution on the protection of women human rights defenders currently being advanced in the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, with great interest. This is the first time a draft resolution has been put forward focusing exclusively on the protection of women human rights defenders. It is a hugely significant and important initiative for African societies.
Women who engage in the defence of all human rights and all those who defend the rights of women and work on issues related to gender equality make a vital contribution to democratic processes, securing and maintaining peace, and ensuring security, development and respect for human rights in our communities. However, in doing this work, women human rights defenders can face a range of violations and abuses – including gender-based violence – at the hands of State and non-State actors. States need to pay attention to the risks faced by women human rights defenders, acknowledge the value of their role, and commit to ensuring their protection. This is the time for all States to show leadership by supporting a resolution that seeks to do this globally.
When I first got the invitation from Marija to attend PitchWise 2013 in Sarajevo I sat for 10 minutes starring at my screen. I had millions of thoughts in my head, which included of course issuing the visa, taking days off from work, but what topped my thoughts was how come I still feel this pain when I hear or read the name of the city.