The invisible men with the arms

When it comes to gender based violence in Arab transition contexts, it is not only state militarism we should be concerned about, but the proliferation of militias and weapons across borders, argues Mariz Tadros

Mariz Tadros
9 December 2013

This is the second of two articles by Mariz Tadros discussing the disjunctures between the current international discourse on gender based violence and women’s realities on the ground in 'Arab transition' contexts. Read Women's human security rights in the Arab world: on nobody's agenda

In tandem with the 16 Days campaign to end violence against women theme for this year, “Let’s challenge militarism and end violence against women”, several initiatives  and commentators have highlighted the role of the state and armies  in perpetrating violence against women in Arab contexts. There is no doubt that militarism, whether of a national or international character, has been responsible for gross violations against women’s rights, and for the perpetration of the worst kind of gender based violence worldwide.  What is disconcerting however, is the way in which the focus on state militarism has failed to capture the role of militias in perpetrating violence against women.

In Benghazi, Libyan communities have been terrorized by militias who took over the city in the absence of a strong army able to regulate the infiltration of groups and their weapons into the country. Until recently, Ansar al Shari’ah, an Islamist militant group committed to the establishment of an Islamic state in Libya had assumed the role of regulating public life and gender relations became a primary target.  Many families in Benghazi had stopped spending leisure time in coffee shops, ever since they became a target of a bombing suspected to the work of militias. It is believed that the café was bombed because it catered to women.

A female human rights activist working for the National Council for Civil Liberties and Human Rights in Benghazi (NCCHR) had her car burnt because she called for the disarmament of the militias.  Ever since her car was burnt, she has had to comply with the security restrictions set by her family: in order to do her job which is document and monitor human rights violations, she now has to be chaperoned by her father while undertaking her visitations in the field. Men and women in Benghazi have not being able to live anything remotely resembling a normal life. Being in public means living in daily fear of being attacked, and private space is no refuge:  across Benghazi, women and men no longer celebrate weddings or funerals in long drawn out processes: they are now mostly rushed affairs to enable people to return home quickly.

Last August, according to the female human rights activist working for NCCHR, members of Ansar al Shar’iah, an Islamist militant group, stormed into a workshop on women and the constitution and kidnapped some of the organizers for three days, challenging them on why they were working on this issue. As a consequence, she noted, most international NGOs supporting women’s rights work in Libya no longer operate in Benghazi, have closed shop and moved to Tripoli. Recently, Niger’s president Issoufou expressed fears about the possibility that " Libya falls into the hands of Salafist terrorists and that the state becomes like Somalia."  Ghaddafi feared that having a strong army would carry the risk of a coup against him. Undoubtedly, should Libya be Salafized, there is no doubt that women will become the primary targets of these groups’ vision of what a proper Islamic society should look like, and the battle over the country’s identity will undoubtedly be fought over women’s bodies.

And it is the same story in Yemen. Morooj Alwazir, cofounder of SupportYemen has campaigned to bring to light the way in which Yemeni and US air drones have undermined the well being of individuals, families and communities. However, she also notes that armed militias belonging to different tribes are kidnapping people and demanding a ransom in order to force the government to concede to their demands. AlWazir’s brother was kidnapped by a tribe who demanded a ransom to pay for the basic community infrastructure projects that the government had failed to provide them with. While Yemen has long suffered from the easy accessibility of weapons, the situation now has assumed new proportions Morooj says : “Every time I am on my way to the airport, I feel like civil war is about to happen tomorrow, I see trucks and trucks of weapons coming into the country, it is very scary.”

The narrative on militarism of this year’s 16 Days campaign against violence omits the experiences of women living in contexts where militias have been given a free reign. No mention has been made of how the dismantling or weakening of armies has allowed borders in Libya, Yemen and Iraq to be porous to infiltration from terrorist networks who have targeted women in their campaigns to purify communities of all that they see as “unIslamic”. State actors’ responsibility in perpetuating violence is spoken of, and justifiably so: the dysfunctional role of the police in protecting women from violence on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Iraq is a flagrant violation of their most basic of citizenship rights. However, human rights narratives make no mention of militias and their role in terrorizing women. For example several statements acknowledge the role of the army and men protestors in sexually assaulting women in Egypt, but fail to mention the well documented sexual assault that women endured at the hands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements who acted in a militia-like manner in December 2012.

It may be easier to expose the gender-based violence perpetrated by men in army uniforms than those belonging to militias, who are more difficult to identify because they are not in regular uniforms, and are better able to hide their weapons. However, failure to recognize their role in women’s lives will distort our ability to understand women’s agency and what informs the choices they make. For example, in contexts where the Muslim Brotherhood has had a long history of political activism and charitable giving, the question of why women rose against the Brotherhood-led government may seem perplexing. However, stories from those who had voted them in, but then endorsed the revolt of 30th of June, 2013 are highly telling. One woman mentioned that her residential home was very close to the premises of the Muslim Brotherhood in Faoyoum, and she described how the popular committees organized by their supporters that were formed around the premises  were holding shoumas (a think baton made of wood, used as a weapon) “They would stop me in the street and ask me where I was coming from and where I was going. They would tell me you can’t walk from this street, but you can pass through that. I felt my movements were under their control”. It was one of the main reasons why she supported the revolt on the 30th of June 2013.

The appearance of militia-like strongholds at the local level may have been concealed from the gaze of international human rights organizations, and the verification of their identity would have been no easy task, but their presence did influence women’s sense of human security in concrete ways that made them welcome the army’s intervention afterwards. Women said the presence of army vehicles made them feel safe.

The anecdote above, extracted from a focus group held as part of a broader research project to understand why people revolted on the 30th of June, is not intended to be an endorsement of the army. However, it is meant to flag up the importance of understanding how militias have influenced women’s daily experiences, even if they have been omitted from the mainstream discourse on militarism. Again, this is not to shift our attention away from campaigning against state militarism in relation to gender-based violence, it is however, to argue that we need to also expose the role of militias, whose powers have increased enormously since the Arab revolutions. It is also to press for exposing the actors in the arms trade networks and those behind them domestically and internationally

 This article benefited from interviews and discussions with regional activists in Austria, made possible through the Salzburg Global Seminar on Transitions, co-organized with the Arab Human Rights Fund in November 2013

Read more 50.50 articles published during 16 Days: activism against gender violence



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