MENA women at forefront of fight for equal rights in 2018

Despite heavy-handed repression, the hard-won gains of women human rights defenders raise hopes that more change is on the horizon.
Saturday 29/12/2018
Tunisian women chant slogans and wave their national flags during a demonstration to mark Tunisia's Women's Day and to demand equal inheritance rights between men and women on August 13, 2018. (AFP)
Tunisian women chant slogans and wave their national flags during a demonstration to mark Tunisia's Women's Day and to demand equal inheritance rights between men and women on August 13, 2018. (AFP)

BEIRUT - As the world marked the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, watchdog groups pointed to repression that women’s rights activists in the Middle East and North Africa faced in their quest to advance their rights as well as the hard-won gains achieved in 2018.

From Lebanon to the Palestinian territories to Tunisia and Morocco, women played a substantial role in challenging entrenched gender discrimination and laws that put them in direct confrontation with their governments and armed militias in some cases.

“Despite the conflicts in the region and the significant backfiring on human rights in a number of areas, women’s rights activists have really been able to push forward some important reforms,” said Lama Fakih, the Beirut-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch in the MENA region.

“We have seen the lifting of the driving ban in Saudi Arabia, equal inheritance in Tunisia, the repealing of the so-called ‘marry-your-rapist laws’ in Lebanon and other countries and this is really the credit of decades-long work that women’s rights activists from the region have been committed to,” Fakih said.

However, Fakih stressed: “This is by no means to say that we consider resting on our laurels now.”

Citing Lebanon, she said there was an array of issues the country needs to act on to advance women’s rights, including the personal status law, which discriminates against women regarding access to divorce, child custody and property rights within marriage.

“The Lebanese nationality law continues to discriminate against women married to foreigners as well as on their spouses and children and this has a range of effects on the children who are discriminated against when it comes to education, employment and health care,” Fakih said.

In a review of key human rights issues around the world in 2018, Amnesty International called on MENA governments to reverse their oppressive approach to human rights defenders and release all women activists detained for peacefully demanding their rights.

“Women across the MENA region have been standing up and speaking out to stamp out discriminatory government policies. In the process, they often risk arrest and detention,” Amnesty International's MENA Regional Director Heba Morayef said.

In Iran, authorities responded to protests by women’s rights activists against forced hijab wearing by assaulting and arbitrarily detaining dozens of women. Many were prosecuted and imprisoned for their peaceful campaigning.

In the Palestinian territories, activist Suha Jbara, also a US citizen, was arrested by security forces on November 3 and her health was apparently worsening during a hunger strike, her family said. Jbara described "how she was tortured by interrogators in the Palestinian security forces over the course of three days in November." She said she had been "beaten, slammed against a wall and threatened with sexual violence, as well as punished for going on hunger strike."

In Iraq, 2018 was marked by assassinations of high-profile women. On September 27, Iraqi beauty queen and social media star Tara Fares was killed in her car in Baghdad. Before that, Suad al-Ali, a women’s rights activist in the southern city of Basra, was gunned down as she walked to her car.

On August 16, Rafeef al-Yasiri, a plastic surgeon dubbed "Iraq's Barbie," died under mysterious circumstances. A week after that, Rasha al-Hassan, the owner of a well-known beauty centre in Baghdad, was found dead in her home. It was not clear whether the deaths were connected however all of them followed a pattern of targeting women promoting female empowerment.

In Libya, women human rights defenders have been at the forefront of those speaking out against corruption by officials and abuses by the Libyan National Army and militias. They were subjected to gender-based violence and smear campaigns on social media.

Nawal Benaissa, one of the leading voices of Hirak, a popular movement, spoke out for social justice and better health care in the Rif region of Morocco. Like hundreds of other peaceful protesters, she was arrested. In February, she received a 10-month suspended sentence and a fine for “inciting to commit an offence.”

Despite the heavy-handed repression, the hard-won gains of women human rights defenders raise hopes that more change is on the horizon.

“Looking ahead to 2019, their work will continue to be vital to stemming crackdowns by governments across the region, pressing for accountability for abuses and advancing women’s rights in MENA and beyond,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's MENA research and advocacy director.

Fakih commended women’s resilience and courage in the face of violations of their rights, noting that their struggle “led to some progress but much more work has to be done.”