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Women face human cost of Arab Spring uprisings

A Syrian woman living in Jordan shouts slogans during a demonstration against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad outside the UN office in Amman in May
A Syrian woman living in Jordan shouts slogans during a demonstration against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad outside the UN office in Amman in May

REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Last week IFEX members celebrated the release of two women journalists in the Middle East and North Africa. Al Jazeera journalist, Dorothy Parvaz, who was held incommunicado upon her arrival in Syria on 29 April to cover anti-government protests, was released after being deported to Iran. Clare Morgana Gillis, a U.S. reporter covering Libya for "The Atlantic" magazine's website, was freed after being held for over a month. This was a small victory for free expression. But it also exemplified the huge risks that face women who have emerged at the forefront of the Arab Spring uprisings, say IFEX members. Women journalists and activists who don't work for international media have not been so lucky.

On her return home, Parvaz said she had a "terrifying experience" while being held in Syria. "I was in the Syrian detention centre for three days and what I heard were just savage beatings. I didn't know what these men had done," she told Al Jazeera. "I was handcuffed repeatedly, blindfolded, taken to a courtyard and just left to hear these men being beaten."

According to Human Rights Watch, Deraa has been home to the brunt of the Syrian authorities' violent crackdown, but forces have also carried out a nationwide arrest campaign against activists, lawyers and protesters, including many women and children. Security forces detained 11 women for participating in a peaceful women-only silent protest near the centre of Damascus on 30 April, reports Human Rights Watch. A witness said the security forces beat the women to disperse them.

Perhaps nowhere are the risks for women activists more acute than in Bahrain, where for the first time, a woman was convicted for her role in the protests. Fadhila Mubarak Ahmed was sentenced to four years in jail last week for offending a public official, inciting hatred of the ruling system, and taking part in illegal protests, reports Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR).

Women like Ahmed have been on the frontlines since the early days of the protests in February. They were among the first wave that descended on Manama's Pearl Square, "taking up management roles, rescuing [and treating] those injured by... Bahraini security forces, as well as documenting the brutalities committed against protesters," says BCHR.

BCHR has come out strong against the repression and detention of Bahraini women, what it says is the authorities' way to force women to give up their role in the protest movement. "It is also a way to add pressure on the opposition to retract their legitimate demands," says BCHR.

But BCHR says an unprecedented number of women have been seized by security forces - more than 100 since the declaration of martial law on 15 March - with at least a third of them still in custody. A good number of them are doctors, nurses and teachers. Even girls have been detained and asked to identify dissidents in their schools. Plus, says BCHR, the number is only those that have bothered to come forward.

Those emerging from detention tell of ill-treatment and torture. The poet Ayat Qurmuzi was tortured so that she would "confess" in front of cameras to acts that she had not committed. Others were forced to do "women's work", like clean the toilets and furniture in the detention centre, reports BCHR.

Although Zainab al-Khawaja escaped detention, she was dragged down stairs and threatened with death when security forces came to her home and arrested her father, former BCHR president Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, as well as her husband and brother-in-law. In cases where the security forces can't find who they are looking for, the family members, especially the wife or mother, is threatened or even tortured until she discloses the whereabouts of her husband or son.

While in custody, al-Khawaja himself was sexually assaulted, and was told that his daughters Zainab and Maryam, a BCHR activist who had recently took part in a U.S. congressional hearing on Bahrain, would be raped too, reports BCHR.

And still hundreds of others have been laid off because of their political views. "This puts many women in a financial crisis, especially those whose husbands have been arrested, making them fully responsible for the family and children," says BCHR.

BCHR says the unprecedented attacks on women have made Bahrain the worst country in the region for arresting women who express political views. One woman was shot and killed by a sniper during the protests, says BCHR.

Unfortunately, Bahrain is emblematic of what is happening across the region. In a notorious case in Libya, a woman, Iman al-Obeidi, reported that she was raped by about 15 pro-Gaddafi militia. There were a number of reports of rape in Egypt amid the revolution in Tahrir Square - Lara Logan, a South African reporter for the US network CBS, was one of the few women who went public about her sexual assault.

Even in Egypt, post-regime change, the attacks continue. Nehad Abu-al-Qumsan, the chair of Egyptian Center for Women's Rights and the wife of Hafez Abu Seada, who heads up the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), received a letter threatening her with death should she continue with her campaign for women's rights - apparently written by Islamist Salafis, who believe in a strict version of Sharia law. Women who protested on International Women's Day on 8 March were threatened and told to go home and "do laundry", report Egyptian bloggers.

In Saudi Arabia, which has so far avoided the mass demonstrations that have toppled or threatened rulers of neighbouring countries, women have also come under attack for daring to flout the rules.

Spurred by the uprisings, Manal al-Sharif got in her car and took to the streets, defying a ban on female drivers in the kingdom. She posted a video on YouTube showing herself behind the wheel and describing the inconveniences not being able to drive causes women. Al-Sharif was arrested on 22 May and charged with besmirching the kingdom's reputation abroad and stirring up public opinion, says Human Rights Watch.

According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the blog of Saudi blogger and activist Omaima Al Najjar was blocked after she supported al-Sharif online.

But rather than being put off by the repression of their counterparts in Bahrain and elsewhere, Saudi women have taken up the fight. They have started a "women2drive" campaign, seeking the right to drive cars, and say they are planning a symbolic protest drive on 17 June.

The Arab Spring protests "have taught Saudi women to join ranks and act as a team," Wajeeha al-Howeider, a Saudi women's rights activist, told Bloomberg News.

The "timing is perfect," said Noura Abdullah, a woman who was arrested for publicly defying the driving ban in 1990. "There's momentum in Saudi Arabia now and that should help."


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