The November 15 attack on an armored car transporting Shukria Barakzai, a women’s rights activist and parliamentarian in Afghanistan, shook me to the core. The attack, which Barakzai survived but three passersby did not, took place shortly after my return from a women’s rights meeting in Turkey. Several Afghan activists were in attendance, and they face similar risks each day. As I read the news, I thought, “It could have been any one of them.”
The meeting, organized by the International Civil Society Action Network, brings together women’s rights and peace activists from a dozen or so countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, with a focus on countries in conflict, in post-conflict transition or in which political space is restricted. The idea behind the meeting is to look at the impact of conflict and/or closed political space on women’s rights. This year’s meeting — hosting women from 13 countries, from Tunisia to Tajikistan — occurred against a backdrop of increased extremism, violence and militarization across the region.
A regional representative from UN Women informed the attendees that, at the current pace, another 81 years will pass before there is global gender equality. Eight decades may seem like a long time to wait for something that should already exist. But to many of us at the meeting, it seemed like an optimistic estimate.
After all, some of the women at the meeting were from countries, such as Afghanistan, where advocacy for gender equality puts one’s life in danger. Others came from countries reeling from the horrors of extremist groups like Da`ish, who have enslaved, raped and executed women just for appearing in public. At the same time, a recurring concern at the meeting was that we not turn Da`ish, barbaric and repugnant as it is, into a straw man that lets governments, armies, “moderate” Islamist parties and outside meddlers, regional or Western, off the hook.
A few things struck me at the meeting. First, the women themselves. Mainstream coverage of women in this region continues to promulgate the same old stereotypes of hapless, oppressed victims, acted upon rather than acting, needing to be saved. Yet here I was meeting women who simply could not be put into any box. There was the southern Iraqi woman whose appearance suggests that she is extremely conservative, but who in fact does interfaith work and is one of the most outspoken advocates for Iraq’s religious minorities. There was the Syrian woman who fled her home country, leaving behind a husband who was detained, but bringing along with her children, one of whom was critically injured at the time, and having less than $100 in her pocket, only to start a project to expand livelihood opportunities for Syrian women (many of whom are now heads of households) in Turkey. There was the Afghan woman who returned home after years in exile in Iran to start a news agency devoted to bringing more women into journalism and to providing analysis with a gender perspective that she finds is missing in Afghan media. Every woman I met was remarkable in some way. And yet so few of their voices are heard.
Second, women seem to lose out, no matter what system or regime they encounter. In Egypt, for example, whether confronting the Islamists or the military regime, women are dealing with ideologies that propagate hierarchy, absolutism and male subordination of women. And prior to Husni Mubarak’s overthrow, women’s rights activists in Egypt were battling an authoritarian regime that paid lip service to women’s rights and to an extent coopted the movement to advance top-down “state feminism,” that is, women’s rights on the state’s terms. The women at the meeting — regardless of where they came from — shared similar complaints. They are marginalized. They are not sufficiently represented in government. They are subject to discriminatory laws. They are targeted by religious extremists. And when they dare to speak out, when they transgress the boundaries of what is acceptable, they are further vilified and sometimes made to pay the highest price.
Third, the women stated emphatically that they are tired of interventions and empty rhetoric that only make things worse. They are tired of “security” and “terrorism” being invoked by states whose agenda is to suppress freedoms for all, including women. In all of the women’s home countries, whether there is violent conflict or not, the fear of terrorism is being used to impose restrictions on assembly, association and organizing. Several women said they are tired of being used as an excuse by Western states to intervene in the region, often militarily, when in fact other political or economic interests are at stake. From Afghanistan to Iran to Egypt, the Western protestations of support for women’s rights breed suspicion of activists, who are accused of following a Western agenda and have their work discredited. The women from Pakistan said they live daily with the consequences of military interventions that only lead to more extremism. Women from Iran stated that they disproportionately bear the consequences of economic sanctions that impoverish them, push them to the margins of society and make them more vulnerable to forced marriage, trafficking and other violations of their rights. In families under economic strain, for instance, what limited resources may exist to support higher education for the children will go to the boys.
The overwhelming refrain at the meeting was that women must be included in decision-making and in peace processes. What happens to women in a country is often a barometer of what is to come. Women must be listened to and be part of the solution. Bearing in mind this last point in particular, the women present at the meeting issued a statement, which was shared on the last day with members of the press and policymakers. “One thing is guaranteed,” the statement concludes. “Our version of the region, our vision for the future, is about peace, freedom, dignity, rights, pluralism and prosperity for all. Listen to us. Join us.“