An activist dressed as a Star Wars character Darth Veder, participating in the Women's March 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Tubagus Aditya Irawan/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Space for the feminist movement is shrinking. Gender activists face double layers of restrictions compared to their male counter-parts because they are challenging patriarchal systems. These brave women and non-binary activists continue to fight for equality despite facing repression from not only governments and religious or militant groups, but also from within their own homes and communities.
They are targets of microaggression, rape and death threats, online harassment and intimidation. Sadly, too often, the threats are not idel and gender activists are arrested, murdered or face sexual violence. To commemorate the International Day for Women Human Rights Defenders on 29 November, we interviewed six dedicated gender activists – from the Philippines, United States, Poland, Egypt, Zimbabwe and Honduras – who are shaking up the world.
Azza Soliman, Egypt
Photo: Rene Clement. Some rights reserved.Women’s rights lawyer and founder of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, Azza Soliman, is facing some of the most severe restrictions one can face as a women human rights defender. After twenty years of supporting survivors of domestic violence in Egypt with legal assistance, she is accused of receiving foreign funding for activities against national interest. If convicted she could face life in jail. Azza’s bank account has been frozen and she is banned from leaving Egypt while waiting for the verdict from the court.
“Government media is accusing me of not being a proper Muslim woman because I’m divorced and I don’t wear a head scarf. They try to attack my personality. Now, I am scared to walk in the street because the defamation is an indirect invitation for people to attack me.”
In spite of these immense difficulties, Azza has managed to fight back. She prioritises self-care through therapy and has also taken actions against the restrictions. “I am running a case against the British bank in Egypt that froze my account and also the World Bank because it supports this bank financially in Egypt. I continue fighting with the support from local communities in Egypt and all the solidarity messages I receive from all over the world. It is good to know that I am not alone in this.”
Karina Trujillo, Honduras
Karina Trujillo is a lawyer in the Honduran organisation Red Lésbica Catracha, the only women-led LGBTI organisation in religiously conservative Honduras.
Karina takes LGBTI cases to court, in particular, cases of people who have been murdered or assaulted because of their gender or sexual orientation. Such attacks are sadly prominent in Honduras. Lesbian women have been particularly targeted in group massacres.
Yet despite this violent climate, Karina is hopeful. The Honduran prosecutor's office has expressed an interest in learning more about the violence against LGBTI people, as this is often not reported to the authorities. Red Lésbica Catracha is working with the prosecutor’s office to examine the conviction of a policeman who raped a lesbian woman. A major issue is that judges rarely cite LGBTI discrimination as a reason for the violence in the formal written sentences. Another problem faced by the Red Lésbica Catracha is the lack of support from other civil society organisations.
"When we started to fight for Honduras to be a secular state, in 2004, the rest of the social movements stepped aside and did not support us. They did not understand the scope of religious fundamentalism in our country and how it affects all areas of our society. They think that we only fight for the LGTBI community and do not understand that there are causes for which we must fight together."
Dr Danai Mupotsa, South Africa/Zimbabwe
Dr Danai Mupotsa is a radical Black Feminist Scholar, poet, lecturer and Director of the Gender Equity Office at the University of the Witwatersrand, in South Africa. Her life is emblematic of protest and resistance.
Originally from Zimbabwe, Dr Mupotsa’s work is centered on the creation of space for black feminist, queer and non-bodies. In both her scholarly work and activism she is passionate about affirming black feminists and queer bodies. She believes that her postgraduate course “Sentiment, Sensation and Feeling” is a love letter to marginalized bodies.
“I am interested in the ways in which personal relationships can help us in thinking about inequality.” Being vocal and public has also translated to her experience as a target of microaggression, which she references as pivotal in how she has reimagined lecturing. She continues to think through ways in which she can use her profession to dismantle patriarchy, homophobia and racism.
The aggression against her has also amounted to sexual violence. Dr Mupotsa is a fallist and has played a crucial role in #FeesMustFall and the decolonial project in South Africa. “The democratic project in South Africa has resulted in a hierarchal society. The extent of forms of gender violence tells us of a system that will never change”
Anonymous activist, Poland
The Polish space for civil society is shrinking rapidly, more so in particular for human rights organisations and gender activists. On the 4 October 2017, the police raided and confiscated documents and resources at the offices of two women’s rights organisations after they had taken part in a protest against the country’s restrictive abortion laws.
The Polish activist we are interviewing prefers to remain anonymous, as she and her organisation face severe restrictions at the moment even though they have been operating for 18 years. The organisation provides services and support to victims of violence and crime, as well as educational services and campaigning on a range of issues.
Reflecting on the raid she said “The police, at the request of the prosecutor’s office, searched our premises, confiscating 25 files of documents and our organisation’s main computers”. But the raids are not the only form of repression feminist civil society organisations and activists are facing now in Poland: “Since the Law and Justice party came to power, public opinion of NGOs is that they are dishonest, untrustworthy, and that they embezzle grant funds and obtain funds from hostile forces in the world, and some are supposedly even spies.”
The anonymous activist is still hopeful that international pressure and increased funding for civil society can improve things. “Sound the alarm; take an interest in Poland and the situation for NGOs here.”
Louise Dumas, Philippines
Louise Dumas is a World Human Rights Defender (WHRD) from the Philippines who works for the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, where she focuses on socio-economic issues and lands rights affecting rural communities. This work is done under immense pressure from the Martial Law, imposed by the government, which silences civil society and citizens with militarized measures including killings.
“While on the one hand women are not often suspected of being members of armed groups, women are susceptible to abduction and rape, and other forms of violations.“ The systemic patriarchal system forces women into silence and prevents them from being community or civil society leaders, Dumas explains. “Often, in the community and civil society gatherings, although attended by both men and women, the men dominate the discussions. Most of the leaders in civil society are men, which might have to do with how our society brings up children. Females (referring to birth-assigned sex here) are expected to be refined, demure, soft-spoken, agreeable. Males are expected to be brave, strong-willed, bullish and are given more opportunities to develop as leaders.”
As Louise experiences fear of travelling alone and recent arrests of some of her colleagues, she continues the work and fights back against the restrictions by not giving up.
D Dangaran, United States
“I have never been a single-issue activist; my intersectional identity as a low-income, Filipino-black, queer and gender non-conforming transfemme who took an early interest in social justice doesn't allow me to.” reflects Trans-Femme Activist, organiser of Trans Lives and Harvard Law Student representative Mx D Dangaran. A fierce activist who continues to do important work to fight back at racialized and gendered inequalities in the U.S., D - together with other fellow activists - started the movement Trans Lives as a reaction and fight back against Donald Trump’s efforts to remove trans people from the military.
“When Donald Trump tweeted about removing transgender people from the military, it felt like an attack on all trans people. In the wake of the failures of bathroom bills around the country – infuriating me with this embarrassing attempt to reduce us to our sex parts...again – Trump started to pick away at trans rights at the conservative starting point of my country's LGBT rights movement post-AIDS.
"Gaining access to the military is far from the radical queer goals I want to fight for, but an attack on transgender people anywhere was bound to be a miner's canary. The Harvard Law students reacted by planning a protest when military recruiters were invited to campus in the second week of the semester. In a 5-hour, one-night meeting, we rushed to organise for Trans Lives. The event reminded me why I spent so much time community-building in college and in my job in Singapore before trying to do protests.”