Since December 2017, protesters have been calling for the fall of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s leader of the past 30 years. They have staged sit-ins in front of the presidential palace and army headquarters and risked their lives in large protests.
Last week, their cries were finally heard, as Omar al-Bashir was taken into military custody.
One woman’s image has captivated the world. The photo is of Alaa Salah, a young woman standing on the roof of a car.
Her traditional thobe and moon earrings glisten in the dusk light. She is pointing her index finger to the sky, whilst a sea of protestors capture her image through their mobile phones.
This 22 year-old woman has become the symbol of the revolution.
For many in the West, the image of Alaa Salah is fascinating. Perhaps because she is a woman, perhaps because she is dressed in traditional clothing, perhaps because she is a Muslim.
However, anyone who has been following the protests will know that this revolutionary spirit runs in the blood of Sudanese women. It is therefore not surprising, nor revolutionary, that in the current protests, women are taking centre stage. They have played a leading role in the peaceful uprising, which has swept across the nation – and they are not about to stop!
Videos show Salah singing the following words, as protestors chant back “Thawra”, the Arabic word for revolution:
They burned us in the name of religion Thawra They killed us in the name of religion Thawra They jailed us in the name of religion Thawra But, religion is not to be blamed.
Her words resonate with the struggles of the Sudanese people, who have faced continued hardship during the decades-long rule of al-Bashir. In the name of religion, a state of turmoil, oppression and instability has faced the nation. And of course, it is women who have suffered the most.
Bashir’s 30-year role saw increased suppression of women through Sudan’s public order laws. Controls to women’s freedom of dress, behaviour and education all heightened during this period. Woman continually faced threats of FGM, child marriage, sexual harassment and domestic abuse with few policies put in place to protect their rights.
Many have commented that Salah’s outfit particularly speaks to these issues of women’s oppression, through the homage it plays to the traditions and historical revolutionary spirit of Sudanese women. Hind Makki, an interfaith educator, explained the significance of Salah’s clothing on twitter. She wrote:
“She’s [the woman’s] wearing a white tobe (outer garment) and gold moon earrings. The white tobe is worn by working women in offices and can be linked w/cotton (a major export of Sudan), so it represents women working as professionals in cities or in the agricultural sector in rural areas … Her entire outfit is also a callback to the clothing worn by our mothers & grandmothers in the 60s, 70s, & 80s who dressed like this during while they marched the streets demonstrating against previous military dictatorships.”
As Makki alludes, women have always been a central part of Sudan’s revolutions. Just as Mehaira, Mandy Ajbna and Fatima Ibhrahim before them, women’s involvement in these protests have successfully overthrown their oppressive regime.
Salah has become a symbol of the revolution in Sudan because her image represents the reality of women’s leading role in these protests.
Through one image, Alaa Salah has managed to tell the world the story of Sudan’s revolution and the strength in their resistance.
But, it is important that we do not reduce women’s involvement to a reaction to women’s oppression. Of course, women are fighting to remove their subjugation, but this is just one part of their protest.
Women stand equally with men to change their country as a whole. To fight for democracy. To fight for freedom for all.
In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, Promundo talked to Shereen El Feki about sexuality and gender in the Arab region. Shereen is the author of Sex and the Citadel, a Promundo Senior Fellow, and an acclaimed broadcaster, writer, and academic.
What do you want everyone to know on International Women’s Day?
We must understand the lived realities of men and boys as individuals in order to move toward equality for women and girls, and to effect change. Women face tremendous challenges around the world, but it’s important to keep in mind that, in many cases, authoritarian and patriarchal structures also put men, most of whom are not at the top of the power pyramid, under pressure – thereby undermining their relationships with women.
What makes you passionate, personally, about reaching gender equality, and what is your professional “Pledge for Parity”?
I come from an unusual background in that my father is Egyptian, and my father’s upbringing was very conservative. Yet my mother is British, and my parents raised me in a very liberal and open climate. Growing up in Canada, I was never told, “You can’t do something because you’re a girl or a woman.” It wasn’t until I began researching my book, Sex and the Citadel, and started meeting women across the Arab region of different educational levels, social classes, and geographies, that I began to appreciate the constraints that women in many parts of the world confront in trying to exercise their fundamental human rights. I now realize how fortunate I was not to have encountered these sorts of stereotypes, prejudices, and obstacles that many women – as well as gay men and trans individuals – encounter.
Of course, gender equality is part and parcel of sexuality, which is the focus of my work: including in the promotion of sexual rights for all individuals irrespective of their sexual orientation, or gender identity. My book not only lays out the sexual conundrums and challenges faced by communities across the Arab region, but also offers solutions, highlighting individuals who are pushing back against the taboos and trying to find ways forward. Most recently, since the attacks in Cologne, Germany on New Year’s Eve, there has been tremendous speculation and comment about gender equality and sexuality in the Arab region – much of it dangerously prejudiced and ill-informed. One of the most gratifying outcomes of my book is the chance it has given me to present an alternative view of realities on the ground.
As a Senior Fellow with Promundo, I am also a co-principal investigator of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) in the Middle East and North Africa, which will make a major contribution, by informing opinion and policy on issues related to gender equality and sexuality in the Arab region. Clearly, a better understanding of what is happening on the ground – amongst men, amongst women, and between the sexes – is very important. I’m delighted to be able to have a chance to work with both researchers and activists on the ground, and raise awareness through public debate in order to shift stereotypes.
What is the biggest challenge we face in reaching gender equality, and what are some of the key strategies to achieve this goal?
In the Arab region, we have real issues with gendered laws. These include laws which restrict women’s economic power; restrict their mobility; prevent them from passing citizenship to their husbands or children; require them, in some cases, to have a male guardian supervise their affairs. The list goes on and on. So the law, and legal reform, is clearly a challenge.
But, changing law is not enough. Progressive laws on gender equality are necessary but not sufficient if you don’t also address community and family attitudes and actions. In many cases, in the Arab region, one sees progressive laws, which actually have very little impact in everyday life because of family controls and constraints on women.
This is why IMAGES, which looks at men’s attitudes and behaviors, is also significant. The dynamic between men and women is very complex. So, it is important to start talking to men and start trying to understand how they feel about decision-making capacities within the family, and also to work with women to get them to rethink their own patriarchal norms.
Tell us a little bit about your role as a Promundo Senior Fellow.
As I mentioned, my primary engagement with Promundo is as co-principal investigator of IMAGES in the Middle East and North Africa. While researching my book – Sex and the Citadel – that looks at both men’s and women’s sexuality in the Arab region, it became very clear to me that we actually know relatively little about men in this part of the world.
It was in Kuala Lumpur that I first met Promundo’s International Director Gary Barker at the 2013 Women Deliver conference. Gary and I started talking about the possibility of bringing IMAGES to the Middle East and North Africa. To cut a long story short, three years later, we are heading into the field with the very first IMAGES study in four countries in the region: Morocco, Egypt, the Palestinian Territories, and Lebanon.
How can working with men and boys help to celebrate and advance the social, economic, cultural, and political achievement of women?
To me, it’s obvious: it takes two to tango. Of course you want to engage men and boys; it’s not easy, as I’m learning from working with Promundo, but it’s absolutely vital. I find it interesting that people think that being a man is some sort of patriarchal picnic. My observation – at least in the Arab context – is that it’s actually really tough being a man, particularly being a young man, at a time when the classic milestones of manhood – getting a job, getting married, getting laid, forming a family – are increasingly difficult to reach due to shifting economic conditions and a conservative social and religious climate.
I think the time is ripe to start engaging with young men and boys, helping them recognize the importance of gender equality not just through the lens of how they feel about women, but also how they feel about their lives as men. I think one of the best ways to do this is to start talking to men and boys, and not to a priori see them as part of the problem, but actually approach them as part of the solution.
I can see this already in some parts of the Arab region. In Egypt, for example, we have some very innovative programs trying to combat sexual harassment. Of course, most sexual harassment is committed by young men, but there are also new non-governmental organizations that have sprung up – like HarrassMap, for instance – that are actively engaging young men, working alongside young women, to stamp out sexual harassment. This work is starting slowly in the Arab region, but I think that it’s a very welcome development and I’m pleased to be a part of an initiative that will hopefully give that movement additional momentum.
Shereen El Feki is a Senior Fellow at Promundo. She is an author-academic-activist who works on sexual rights in the Arab, and broader Islamic, world. Along with Promundo and local partners, she is leading the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), a multi-country study of men and gender equality, in the Middle East and North African region. Shereen is the author of the award-winning Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. She is also the former Vice-Chair of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law, and is a Professor of Global Practice at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Shereen has a PhD from the University of Cambridge and a BS from the University of Toronto.
This post is written by: Paula Kweskin, Human Rights Attorney and Documentary Filmmaker
Imagine a surgery performed with dirty instruments, without anesthesia, and no doctor. No one dresses your wounds and there are no follow-up appointments. This is not a description of a medieval medical procedure; it is a practice which takes place every six minutes around the world. 140 million girls and women have been affected by female genital mutilation (FGM), the cutting and/or removal of a girl’s genitalia in order to preserve her “honor” or “purity.”
FGM violates several human rights principles, including rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
FGM is not prescribed by any particular religion, and yet it is often advocated by religious and community leaders who believe the removal of a girl’s clitoris is necessary to ensure she marries well, brings honor to her family or clan, preserves her virginity and limits her sexual drive.
FGM is a horrific practice; it should never be excused by culture, religion, or tradition. Though the procedure may take moments, a girl is scarred for the rest of her life. She will likely endure serious physical and emotional trauma, including problems menstruating and urinating, complications during childbirth, and a higher risk of sexually-transmitted diseases.
FGM is primarily practiced in African countries, though women throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia have also been exposed to the practice.
And, while shocking to many, more girls than ever are at risk of the practice in the United States.
A recent report by the Center for Disease Control revealed that at least 500,000 women and girls are at risk of FGM in the United States. This number is up three-fold from a previous study conducted fifteen years prior. Experts attribute this rise to the increase in immigrants to the USA who practice FGM.
As activists and human rights advocates, we must be shocked into action by the half a million women who have undergone – or are at risk of – a barbaric practice in the US, and the hundreds of millions who suffer from it globally.
One of the most frequently mentioned names in the news today is ISIS, the extremist Islamic group that has seized international attention through acts of unusual barbarity, often filmed and distributed as terrorist propaganda. ISIS is not merely an extremist minority, but a powerful network of organized militants who control large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, and is quickly spreading to other parts of the world.
ISIS’s culture of fear and control is not only aimed at the West, but at the citizens of the areas they have claimed. Women in particular have become targets under ISIS’s strict edicts, with their expectations and roles strictly defined by extremist ideology.
A manifesto published by the group, written with the aim of outlining the role of women, gives a glimpse into life under ISIS rule. Though it deviates somewhat from a radical portrayal of Islamic laws – women are allowed a limited amount of education, are allowed unescorted out of the house under specific conditions, and are provided for in the case of widowhood – it is nonetheless an extremely misogynistic and repressive doctrine.
Girls as young as 16 from Western countries have been reported to travel to Syria with the intention of joining ISIS.
“The central thesis of this statement,” states the manifest, “is that woman was created to populate the Earth just as man was. But, as God wanted it to be, she was made from Adam and for Adam. Beyond this, her creator ruled that there was no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband.”
Subsequently, it outlines how best women can carry out this duty. Girls are to be educated to the extent that they can adequately raise their children and instruct their families, with education stopping at age 15. Girls are also considered ready for marriage at a mere nine years old.
The al-Khansaa Brigade is the group’s moral police and consists entirely of women. While this seems to stand in contrast to ISIS’s assertion that women should first and foremost be wives and mothers, women are, even in the manifesto, permitted to fight for Islam.
Recent headlines have howled at the atrocities: mass executions, public beheadings, and communities terrorized by Islamic State. Last week, CNN.com shared the ill-fated story of Jana, a 19-year-old Yazidi woman kidnapped by the militant group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. She was held hostage and sold to a 70-year-old man who attempted to convert her to Islam at gunpoint. Previously, Jana had once aspired to finish her education and become a doctor. She has since given up.
Regrettably, Jana’s story is one of many. Over 2,500 Yazidi and Iraqi minority women and girls were kidnapped last August, says Dr. Nazand Begikhani, an advisor to the Kurdistan regional government. Moreover, a report released by Amnesty International details that “girls in their teens and early 20s, have been subjected to rape or sexual abuse, forced to marry fighters, or sold into sexual slavery.” There are reports of enslaved girls as young as 10 being offered for purchase as wives.
Against the case of women, ISIS is notorious for promoting child marriage, sexual violence, and eradicating girls’ hopes for education and careers.
So why have there been numerous accounts of Western women fleeing their homes to join ISIS?
Evidently, there has been a recent social media campaign rigorously targeted toward recruiting women to join ISIS. The recruiting strategy offers an Islamic paradise of sorts, wherein women can join the fight by marrying jihadist fighters, or serve the cause through militant or domestic efforts. Dr. Katharine Brown, a lecturer in Defence Studies from King’s College London, says that these social media sites portray “images of women carrying AK47s and holding severed heads. But they are also cooking, making Nutella pancakes, meeting for coffee, and being mothers.”
We are talking about women who have felt negatively alienated and demonized by Western governments. Brown explains that while there is naïve romanticism in women becoming jihadi brides and marrying heroic ISIS fighters, they are attracted to a promise of a new utopian Islamic state. They find empowerment in their participation of this unified community. She claims that the campaigns demonstrate “[ISIS] takes [these womens’] politics seriously, they give them a voice, they give them credit, and that has a certain amount of appeal,” There is a sense of welcome and belonging being offered here for women who otherwise feel marginalized in Western societies.
But let’s be clear: ISIS does not promote gender equality or positive empowerment of women. To quote Steven Erlanger from his The New York Times article, “the reality of life inside the radical groups is often different from the cheerful images on screens. The Islamic State is run by men and is strictly patriarchal.” The primary role of a migrant woman is not to have a voice or find purpose, but to support her fighter husband and his jihad.
Instead of living an empowered life in this new caliphate state, there have been reports of women taken as wives and then violently sexually abused. Women have been confined to their homes, requiring permission to leave, and day-to-day tasks consist of watching the children of the jihadist fighters. Of course, there are still the massacres, airstrikes, bombings, and beheadings.
While the natural reaction of some is to point fingers at these women and say they got what they deserved, are we justified in viewing them as traitors? Mia Bloom, a professor at UMass Lowell studying crime and terrorism, says no.
These women are victims.
“They’re tired of being not the agents of change in history. They are just the bystanders,” says Bloom. Yet, “within a few weeks they’re going to be married and pregnant and basically that’s not the life that they’re anticipating in terms of their contribution to the cause.”
Help for these women will not be found in continuing to demonize their motivations, as they have been left to live among the lies of ISIS recruiters. We cannot neglect to see that there are complexities in the situations from which the women left. On either side, minority women have been abducted from their communities and subjected to sexual abuse and slavery, or have been wrongfully alienated from their society and pushed out to find a place of belonging. Yet both have found themselves manipulated as resources of a war fought by male ISIS militants. The hope for their situation lies in the steps that organizations committed to ending gender violence will take next. But it will also take our voices in confronting these atrocities. Will you stand with the women who have been oppressed in the incalculable horror of the ISIS conflict?
If there is one thing we know about Syria it is women, girls, youth and their families have suffered far too much for too long,” -UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.
As the civil war in Syria continues, the world holds its breath waiting to hear the final decision from the Obama Administration and U.S. Congress on whether or not to launch a missile strike in Syria. Many questions remain unanswered; the use of chemical weapons in Syria has been internationally deliberated with tragic testimonies, graphic images and video footage screened across the internet and mainstream media. In the debate over the use of chemical weapons, one of my favourite political pundits Tony Benn stated,
I am totally opposed to intervening in Syria, it would lead to a Middle East war. Chemicals are just another weapon that kill people. Don’t bombs kill people? Don’t ‘Cruise Missiles’ kill people? If America and Britain defy the UN then it will lead to a greater conflict.”
The U.S. Senate drafted a resolution that permits U.S. President Obama to order a “limited and tailored” military mission against Syria, as long as it does not exceed 90 days and involves no U.S. troops on the ground for combat operations. The President will now have to pass the resolution by way of chamber votes in Congress.
While politicians give their solutions and verdicts over an intervention in Syria, millions of Syrian refugees live in refugee camps across the Middle East and remain vulnerable and uncertain of their future. It is now estimated that, since the civil war began back in March 2011, 2 million Syrian people are currently displaced and have fled the country – the majority of whom are women and children. Furthermore, within Syria itself, over 4 million people remain displaced, forced from their homes due to violent conflict. In a joint statement earlier this week, the foreign ministers from Iraq, Jordan and Turkey in addition to Lebanon’s Social Affairs Minister and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres urgently appealed for greater international support for the refugee crisis.
To paraphrase former British Parliamentarian Tony Benn, bombs and missiles kill people therefore increasing the killing will only lead to greater conflict across the whole region. What is really needed now is humanitarian support as the neighbouring countries struggle to manage the increasing number of refugees entering their borders.
An average of almost 5,000 Syrians flee into neighbouring countries every day, in total some 716,000 refugees alone have entered Lebanon. Of the 2 million Syrian refugees currently seeking safety, shelter, food and medical care, over half are children, three-quarters of whom are under the age of 11. Hence, instead of launching a missile strike on Syria, shouldn’t the international community be providing humanitarian aid and assistance to aid agencies in Syria and its neighbouring countries experiencing the influx of refugees? The UN says the conflict in Syria has resulted in the worst refugee crisis for 20 years, with numbers not seen since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Women and girls continue to suffer indiscriminately through war and conflict as brutal killings, rape and sexual assault and harassment destroy the fabric of families and whole communities. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that rape and sexual assault are now being used as a weapon of war in Syria. Furthermore, young Syrian refugee women and girls also face a tragic future, as multiple reports have concluded that child marriage, a human rights violation, is particularly prevalent among refugee camp families. The negative impact of child marriage in any situation means that girls become more vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, slavery, HIV and AIDs, maternal mortality and poverty. Erica Hall, World Vision Senior Child Rights Adviser stated:
Parents will feel incredibly vulnerable and may believe that a husband will be able to protect their daughter from these threats, and allow them to better provide for their remaining children, too.”
Shockingly, aid workers in refugee camps are not exempt from this behavior as they have been identified as perpetrators seeking sexual favours in return for help. There is little or no protection at all from such sexual assaults. With nowhere to turn, no support or money to feed their children, many women are forced into prostitution as a mode of survival, putting themselves into great danger of violence and HIV.
The reports and testimonies of sexual violence from pregnant women, women with disabilities, women living with fatal diseases, women seeking emergency medical care and so on are seemingly endless. As politicians discuss their ‘interventions,’ women, girls, men and boys are dying and struggling to keep hope alive.