Feminist movements lead the way in fight against repressive states

Despite pressures from society and states alike, feminist movements are growing around the world. They know how to challenge restrictions in creative and innovative ways.

Mounir Samuel
13 September 2017

Women at an unauthorised march in St Petersburg, Russia, on International Women’s Day 8 March 2017.

Women at an unauthorised march in St Petersburg, Russia, on International Women’s Day 8 March 2017. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Around the world, the rise of women in political and public life has not ended gender-related violence. In some places, it has created unprecedented tensions. Men, feeling confused and emasculated, have responded by asserting themselves physically and sexually.

Meanwhile, restrictive laws and policies are limiting civil society in a growing number of countries. Nationalist leaders like Erdogan, Putin and El-Sissi are hollowing out democratic institutions in the name of security and anti-terrorism.

In 2017, feminist activists around the world are confronting epidemics of violence against women and LGBTQ individuals – along with growing militarism, nationalism, and religious extremism. In the Age of Trump, the state is increasingly revealing itself as a big bad hetero-man.

This summer, the women’s rights funds Mama Cash and the Urgent Action Fund published a new report entitled “Standing Firm: Women- and Trans-Led Organisations Respond to Closing Space for Civil Society”.

It charts how feminist movements are growing despite pressures from society and the state. Many of these groups already have experience operating independently, on miniscule budgets, adapting to restrictions in creative and innovative ways.

I talked to three prominent activists in Russia, India and Egypt, who worked on the report, about their experiences and the challenges they face.

“In the Age of Trump, the state is increasingly revealing itself as a big bad hetero-man.” From Russia, Ivanna* told me over Skype: “Much of the territory we gained is being lost. Democracy? We’re more concerned about basic safety!” The activist runs an NGO that campaigns for the health and rights of an estimated 3 million sex workers in the country.

“Those in power know that it’s easier to control the masses if they have no rights,” said Ivanna, who condemned the Russian government’s decision to decriminalise some forms of domestic violence as “designed to put women in a position of weakness”.

At least 12,000 people in Russia die of domestic violence injuries each year, she said, according to estimates that “don’t tell the whole story” as many incidents are never reported.

Asha Kowtal at the 2016 AWID Forum in Brazil.

Asha Kowtal at the 2016 AWID Forum in Brazil. Photo: Mama Cash/Sarah van Brussel. All rights reserved.

In India, Asha Kowtal described a climate of impunity, hard-line policing, the silencing of dissident voices, and limitations on the arts.

“NGOs receive little or no financial support, freedom of expression is limited, writers and actors are publicly attacked and threatened, students are assaulted at university by rightist student groups, and farmers lose land in feuds and confiscations,” she said.

Kowtal, 41, is general secretary of the organisation All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, which offers legal support and training to Dalit women – in northern India and in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – and documents violations of their human rights.

“It’s through the woman’s body that the caste system is perpetuated.”

She described “deep-rooted customs and discrimination in society” and a clear link between “caste conflict and gender-related violence”.

She told me: “It’s through the woman’s body that the caste system is perpetuated. Whenever there’s a problem in a rural community, with water or land for example, the dominant caste uses force and revenge against lower-caste women to exert power and pressure”.

Dalit women are “the most abused and the most silenced,” said Kowtal, adding that “in most cases, the authorities do nothing... Or they are active participants in the violence”

Meanwhile, she said, India’s feminist movements have “always led by the elitist, urban dominant caste who... never acknowledged our situation since they had too much to lose if the system collapsed”.

Sondos Shabayek.

Sondos Shabayek. Photo: Ahmed Hayman. All rights reserved.

In Egypt, Sondos Shabayek said the government “has the civilian population completely under control; all the places where people could gather in the centre have been cleaned up: theatres are closed, censorship has been tightened”.

“We are struggling against those in power, but we are also fighting against the exercise of power among our own people – conservative ideas and social control”, she said.

“We are struggling against those in power… [and against] conservative ideas and social control.”

The 31-year old activist and former journalist is a leader of the BuSSy project that organises theatre workshops in poor Cairo neighbourhoods and in some rural districts, to enable women to share their stories.

This can help break the silence around domestic violence, increase awareness of women’s experiences, and have “an amazing healing effect”, she said, describing the case of one girl who told her story of regular beatings from her brother.

“We didn’t give an opinion, or a solution, or advice. Telling the story was her way forward,” said Shabayek. “One day she came to us and said: ‘I packed my things and left and won’t be going back home before something changes.’”

Shabayek described this as a “natural” process, in which breaking the silence around abuse is a first step towards tackling it.

When we spoke, she criticised a perception in Europe that assumes that “assault and rape don’t exist [in Europe] or that they are an Arab import. That makes it much harder to talk about oppression and violence”.

Shabayek also drew a striking parallel between Trump in the US and El-Sissi in Egypt and how both target “activists, artists and the LGBTQ community because they refuse to submit to authority”. In the end, she said, “their subversion is a greater danger to the state than terrorism”.

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

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