A Hostile State: On Being a Woman Human Rights Defender

On December 2011, the image of an abaya[1]-clad female protestor being dragged on the streets of Cairo by military soldiers went viral. The woman’s abaya was ripped by the soldiers, exposing her naked torso and blue bra as a soldier stomped on her chest with his heavy boots. The image epitomized the attitude of state actors when dealing with women human rights defenders (WHRDs). Faced with women who defy cultural norms of what it means to be a “respectable” woman by demonstrating and spending nights on the streets, the knee-jerk reaction of state actors is to strip her of her clothes, undeterred by the fact that there are hundreds of witnesses on the streets. The message that the state tries to convey by targeting WHRDs with sexual and gender-based violence is clear: get off the street and go home.

The use of sexual and gender-based violence against WHRDs is not a new phenomenon, however, but has been a persistent practice of the Egyptian state. In 2005, on what has been dubbed “black Wednesday”, hundreds of young men carrying and wearing badges of the, then-ruling, National Democratic Party, pulled out 30 women from a demonstration and took them to a parking garage by police officers, sexually assaulting the women and tearing their clothes. Following the January 25 revolution that toppled Hosny Mubarak, Egypt’s president for almost 30 years, no action has been taken to train the police officers and the Central Security Forces deployed in demonstrations on how to deal with protesters in a manner that respects their human right to protest without fearing for their lives. It was only normal, then, to see a resurgence in the very actions by police forces that were amongst the main spurs of the revolution.

Following the first 18 days of the revolution, it was disheartening to be eye witness to the oft stated argument that violence, if left unaccounted for, will grow in ferociousness, and become more blatant by the day. In the span of a mere 4 months, as documented by testimonies collected by Nazra for Feminist Studies, the response of state security officers on the streets to female protesters graduated from beatings and calling the women “whores” and “bitches” for simply being on the street to targeting a woman and publically stripping her. It did not matter that the woman was veiled or that the brutal attack was done in broad daylight- the only important factor was that she was a woman and that somehow, it must be instilled in her and through her, that it is dangerous to be a female protestor on the street.

It is difficult to navigate our way out of the hell that is the targeting of WHRDs with sexual and gender-based violence. And it is easy, amidst the many painful testimonies to throw the towel and walk away. However, changing institutions, not merely the head of the state, was the goal of the January 25 revolution. And it is a goal that will be achieved gradually by pushing for new laws, for accountability for past violations, and the underpinning social attitudes without which any meaningful change for WHRDs will always stall in the realm of far-fetched dreams.

by Masa Amir

Masa Amir is a researcher in the women human rights defenders program at Nazra for Feminist Studies. She has a BA in international relations and an MA in international human rights law. 

[1] An abaya is a loose-fitting, robe-like garment, usually black, covering the whole body except the face, hands, and feet.


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