Reading the stories of women’s rights activists across the world in the 16 Days blog series has been an empowering experience. The experiences of violence, extra-judicial punishments and honour-based abuse taking place in countries such as Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan are humbling and give us an extra appreciation of the relative security and peace we have here in the United Kingdom. However, we hear echoes of the climate of fear described in these blogs in the calls to our helpline from women and men living in towns and cities in this country. Most of our callers are female, but a growing number are from men and boys. Some callers are too scared to say their names, using pseudonyms for weeks until they begin to trust us enough to tell us who and where they really are. Some speak in a whisper, calling from under their bedcovers or behind a locked bathroom door from a secret mobile phone they keep hidden from their family.
‘Give women free guns!’ - It was one of those headlines that catches your eye, but not in a particularly good way. I read on with a feeling of unease I have learnt to associate with discussions of domestic violence in Turkey. The head of a women’s shelter, Şefkat-Der, it transpired – had suggested that women in fear of their lives be issued with licensed guns and receive state-funded shooting lessons as a last ditch effort to cut down on the murders of women.
What does the recent death of Renisha McBride, a 19 year old black girl shot when she approached a stranger’s house (in a white neighbourhood in Detroit) for help, or the incarceration of Marissa Alexander, sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot (at a wall) in self-defence against her (historically) abusive husband, have in common with say… rape victims during war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or sex worker industries servicing military bases? The answer goes beyond the glaring commonality of violence and enters the more complex and unsettling domain of militarism.
Trigger Warning: This post contains depictions of childhood sexual abuse
Saeed jumped from his seat to the seat next to Fatima, almost falling over as the bus braked and went over a speed bump. He looked at her and flipped his eyelids inside out. He knew she hated that. She grimaced at his distorted face and lunged at the seat behind her, but she hung limp, her abdomen on one side of the seat and her legs on the other. Her bottom protruded upwards and Saeed and his sister Salma laughed.
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.