When Women Human-Rights Activists Are in Danger, It’s Women Who Come to Their Rescue
By: Kia Makarechi
It took Hend Nafea, a young Egyptian human-rights worker, three weeks after her sentencing to decide to leave her home country. As part of a group of women human-rights activists who had been vocal—and suffering heavily—throughout the multiple throes of Egypt’s recent revolutions and coups, Nafea was, on February 4, sentenced to 25 years in prison for protesting against the regime.
At the airport, Nafea was terrified. “There was a really big risk, because it was all just about luck,” she said through a translator recently. “They could have stopped me . . . I was leaving not knowing that day whether I was going to end [up] in jail or with 25 years in prison. And so I put myself in the state of mind that I was performing; so I was performing like [going] shopping for a couple of months in Lebanon. So I dressed up and put myself in a tourist state of mind and went about the traveling that day. It worked, and I looked really calm, but on the inside I was really nervous.”
In late April, with the help of a local network—one that operates underground, its members working day jobs when not spiriting away activists in trouble—Nafea was able to leave her home country for safety in Lebanon. Unfortunately, Nafea’s story is not unique. In many regions of the world, women working to foster nascent democratic movements or champion human rights face imprisonment or worse. Across the globe, when these women find themselves in danger, organizations with varying levels of secrecy mobilize to support, rescue, relocate, and otherwise protect them.
More often than not, the individuals doing the complicated, dangerous work of assisting the activists are also women. One such organization, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, coordinates everything from liaising with embassies and the United Nations to matching imperiled activists with potential relocation partners. While A.W.I.D.—which counts nearly 5,000 members worldwide—did not work on Nafea’s specific case, it is coordinating with a local organization to try and ensure the safety of others who were sentenced with her. (Citing a worsening security situation, the organization on the ground in Cairo declined to comment directly on the work it did for and with Nafea.)
Lydia Alpízar, A.W.I.D.’s executive director, said the organization worked to assist 160 women human-rights defenders in 2014, across most of the globe. In just the first quarter of this year, A.W.I.D. has taken on 37 cases.
“It’s a global trend. It’s getting worse. Not only do we have more cases, but the severity of the violence is increasing,” Alpízar said. “This is happening to thousands of people. People are actually getting killed who are activists from around the world. So no longer are they put in jail, or detained, or harassed and distressed, but there are actual killings.”
For organizations such as A.W.I.D., then, the work cannot solely be about triaging cases as they pop up—though there exist an endless array of cases. The organization also works constantly to cultivate networks of activists and connect them with trainings on issues such as cyber-security and risk assessment.
Nafea’s story was told in The Trials of Spring, a documentary that initially began filming in Cairo around the time of the Tahrir Square demonstrations that led to the ouster of Egypt’s longtime president Hosni Mubarak. The filmmakers believed they were filming a grand triumph of the public over a brutal dictator, but, as they remained in the country and the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood was swept away in a military coup, the optimism of the early Arab Spring began to fade. As the film shows, the treatment of women—particularly women activists—grew increasingly grim, with multiple rapes occurring in demonstration crowds, and officers and policemen abusing women imprisoned on spurious charges.
“I was willing to stay and fight it out until I was told by the experts that it was a losing battle,” Nafea said. (Some of the women she was sentenced alongside appealed their cases and were promptly arrested and jailed.) “And so, I feel like I left Egypt mid-battle, not just in terms of my own sentence, but in terms of everything that I was trying to do. I left unwillingly and reluctantly.”
“It’s especially difficult for me to not express an opinion,” Nafea said, referring to her decision to follow her advisors’ counsel and refraining from using social media while planning her escape. “That’s what I find particularly oppressive: being forced not to speak my mind. I was told the regime could use my posts to find my location and . . . and that it was too dangerous. That’s when I decided to stop.”
The plight of Egyptian activists underscores what Alpízar means when she says that women activists often face a multi-layered, brunt type of brutality. A number of activists in The Trials of Spring describe suffering gender-specific abuses: aside from the sexual assaults in the square, authorities often forcibly remove a woman’s veil while arresting or imprisoning her, and the use of so-called “virginity tests” was, at one point, defended by none other than Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
“They face all the violence [that] other women face in diversity, and on top of that, they face the violence of political attacks for the work that they do, not [just] for the causes that they fight for, but also for breaking the gender norms,” Alpízar said, noting that the trauma women activists face can often go beyond the activist herself. Relocation often must include the activist’s children, or family. In Nafea’s case, her family did not support the idea of a woman protesting in the square, layering on an added trauma.
“There’s a methodological policy to target women’s rights activists and target women activists specifically because it’s sort of a shortcut to oppression,” Nafea said. “It is a good way to flare up moral panics” about a woman’s place in society, she noted, “and it’s an easy way to get the masses in general to retreat to more conservative positions.”
Amid the backdrop of countless stories about the oppression of women in the Middle East and North Africa, however, Nafea insists her story is about the strength of Egyptian women. “The most prominent thing about the movie is how it portrays how strong women are, and the fact that they’re willing to sacrifice so much, and that they’re willing to stay and fight as they face violation,” she said. “That’s the most important thing for me.”
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Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Trials of Spring