In 2002, a woman by the name of Amina Lawal was sentenced to be stoned to death in Katsina state in Northern Nigeria. The local Nigerian women’s groupBAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights filed an appeal and launched a domestic campaign against the ruling while reaching out to international networks for specific requests. After some high-profile Western women’s rights groups raised the stoning issue internationally, a wave of support for Amina was orchestrated by various groups across the globe, including a flurry of petitions and letter writing campaigns, many of which presented inaccurate informationabout the case. Some protest letters represented negative stereotypes of Muslims, inflaming anti-Muslim sentiments that were already on the rise following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Rather than guiding appropriate action, these negative and inaccurate portrayals about the plight of women, Islam, and Nigerian culture damaged the credibility of local activists and encouraged the threatening, hostile, and violent behaviour of vigilantes. Local Nigerian activists were accused of working with foreign governments and groups to embarrass the country of Nigeria, and some officialsbecame even more committed towards carrying out Amina’s death sentence after receiving various protest letters with Western postage. Although Amina Lawal was eventually released, the local women’s rights activists fighting on the frontlines in the battle to keep her alive were faced with ongoing harassment and repression by State and non-State forces, who continued to accuse them of being Western pawns or puppets, even spies working actively to destroy Islam from within.
She was 34. Born the year that I was. I knew what it meant to be that age, for a woman living in a city and pursuing a career and vibrant social life. One juggled deadlines at work and invitations to wine and cheese soirees, the struggle with self doubts and body image was giving way to a strange but unsettling peace and irreverence, making me wonder if it was the signs of menopause. But I couldn't possible imagine or know what Manorama's life was like. And yet, the news of her passing and the manner in which she was brutally murdered by security forces set me thinking and reading into the life and times of women caught in the web of militarism and violence.
The year was 2004. Thangjam Manorama had been found dead in a field, her body ridden with six bullets including one in the genitals. The forensic report found semen stains on her skirt, suggesting that she may have been raped before she died. She was pronounced a separatist leader who specialised in improvised explosive devices and security forces claimed that she was responsible for several bomb blasts by the People's Liberation Army of Manipur, a revolutionary group that was trained by some of India's neighbours and was fighting for an independent socialist state of Manipur. Her family claimed that she was a peaceful activist, though many journalists privately agreed that she did belong to an underground outfit. She was picked up from her home, without an arrest warrant and was tortured and brutalised before being killed in cold blood. Even if Manorama was guilty, she deserved a process of interrogation, court proceedings and then a jail term. Not a brutal death at the hands of uncouth men in uniform. Her death remains shrouded in controversy even today, with security forces refusing to adhere to norms, refusing to attend court hearings and taking cover under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act which insulates them from the mandate of ordinary law.
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.