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On the international day for women human rights defenders: building bridges of solidarity and protection

Patriarchy affects the lives of women human rights defenders as much as the ongoing wars, bombs, and crisis do, and it should not be neglected.

#SheDefends, a one-month media campaign highlighting the activities of WHRDs in the MENA region.The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have been featured in international headlines for ages, with a specific emphasis on wars, terrorism, and refugees. This hyper-sensationalist trend which emphasizes violence over the region’s gains is unlikely to change any time soon. It is extremely difficult to expand on discussions pertaining to women human rights defenders (WHRD) and be heard when most international attention is focused solely on conflict, war, and violence.

Yet, the WHRD Coalition in the Middle East and North Africa is committed to amplifying the voices of hundreds of extraordinary women, who are, despite the dire situation, fighting stereotypes, pushing boundaries, and building new pillars for their societies. WHRDs in the MENA believe that ongoing wars, bombs, and crisis affect their lives as strongly as patriarchy does, and the latter should not be neglected under the shadow of the former. When WHRDs visualize a tomorrow for their societies, they envision societies in which there is no war, neither on the ground nor on women’s bodies. What our coalition and WHRDs strive for are societies in which there are absolutely no obstacles for women to participate in the political, social, and economic spheres.

What our coalition and WHRDs strive for are societies in which there are absolutely no obstacles for women to participate in the political, social, and economic spheres.

The WHRD MENA Coalition is a group of human rights organizations, collectives and individuals in the MENA working to promote and protect human rights. The group is completely independent from regional political segmentations and states' agendas.The coalition moves toward building a multi-functional platform that includes different tools to advocate for the safety of defenders. This includes on the one hand using international mechanisms and platforms such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Universal Periodic Review, and other available international advocacy venues and tools. While doing so, the coalition strives to build bridges between defenders in the region so that they can support one another through organizing regional consultations for WHRDs where they can meet, listen to each others' experiences, and learn from one another.

In October 2016, the coalition launched a one-month media campaign to highlight the activities of WHRDs in the region, amplifying their work, the fundamental human rights they are defending, and the violations they are facing as a consequence of their activism. Through emphasizing "She Defends" (#SheDefends) as a slogan, the coalition tries to amplify groundbreaking efforts of women in the region and their defense of fundamental rights.

The campaign aims to call upon relevant national, regional, and international actors and allies to support and promote the protection of WHRDs in the region. As a coalition, we call on the international community to demonstrate more solidarity with WHRDs in MENA and acknowledge their efforts in different countries of the region. The campaign "She Defends" calls for opening up spaces and shedding light on the diverse and inspiring work done by women across the region where an upsurge of violence against women is on the rise, specifically, against those who are working in the public space. The campaign exposes restrictions on public freedoms and civil society organizations, and highlights the increasing number of states in the region that are rejecting human rights discourses, and instead treating these discourses as a threat. However, it should also be noted that what WHRDs face in the region is not merely reprisals by states, but also simultaneously threats from non-state actors, primarily religious organizations, whose unprecedented emergence and particular forms of violence affect women in general, and specifically women defenders.

Regional meeting of the WHRD Coalition in the MENA that took place in Beirut. Picture courtesy of WHRD Coalition.

Amidst all of this, the coalition's deliberate strategy of building bridges enabled the campaign to reach out to different WHRDs in the region working on a diverse range of issues including women's political participation in sexuality politics, freedom of speech, and supporting the survivors of gender based violence and torture. WHRDs have interacted with the #SheDefends content throughout the region: we engaged in healing justice through solidarity messages from Iraq, Morocco, and Gaza where WHRDs are fighting for human rights in challenging contexts; we received an enormous amount of messages from WHRDs from all across the region expressing interest in joining the coalition ; and WHRDs shared with us stories about their own work and struggle.

Being stuck between state repression and the rise of extremism in the region, WHRDs often find themselves isolated. This is either due to violence, or the arbitrary measures taken by states to keep WHRDs silent. The coalition tries to break this isolation by speaking up and bringing the situation of WHRDs to the attention of the international community and regional actors as well as mobilize its network and allies in order to protect WHRDs. For example, the Egyptian authorities are isolating WHRDs from the international community, through Case No: 173.

Being stuck between state repression and the rise of extremism in the region, WHRDs often find themselves isolated.

In 2011 the Egyptian government commenced an inquiry looking into the foreign funding of NGOs to determine which NGOs weren’t properly registered under Law 84, a draconian Mubarak-era legislation for micromanaging the operations of human rights organizations. Within the framework of the investigation, prominent feminist activist Mozn Hassan, executive director of Nazra for Feminist Studies and the North Africa advisor of the coalition, has been banned from traveling since June 2016. Both Mozn Hassan and Nazra are the recipients of Right Livelihood Award 2016. Similarly, in Egypt on 19 November 2016 Azza Soliman was put under a travel ban at the Cairo International Airport while attempting to board a plane to Amman, Jordan and her assets were frozen.

In Yemen, as the war continues, WHRDs are facing death threats and sexual violence by society, on one side, and by armed militias, on the other. To Be Foundation has been forced to shut down to protect the safety of its employees after they received threats from militias. In the Gulf, the status of freedom of speech is deteriorating every day. WHRDs are facing arbitrary detention and travel ban repeatedly due to their works. Ghada Jamsheer, a prominent Bahraini WHRD is currently in prison for promoting gender justice within political agendas and working to achieve freedom of religion.

Under such circumstances, the WHRD MENA coalition, celebrates the presence and the efforts of these extraordinary women through activities like the "She Defends" campaign, creating the space to amplify their struggles, helping their voices be heard, and building bridges of solidarity and protection.

About the author

Zeina Al-Aghar is a member of the Women Human Rights Defenders Middle East and North Africa Coalition (WHRD MENA) which provides regional responses for WHRDs who experience risk, threats, or restrictions due to their human rights advocacy.

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