Webinar organized by BCHR marking International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day event summary

On 9 March 2022, Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) held a webinar marking International Women’s Day. The webinar discussed the main legal and policy gaps that prevent women from fully obtaining their rights and how we can promote women’s rights in society and achieve a high level of solidarity. Asma Darwish, from BCHR, moderated this webinar. 

Sarah Abu Gazal, from the Regional Coalition of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD MENA), started by highlighting the work of her organization on human rights issues in the MENA region. The Coalition mobilizes its members to campaign, show solidarity, and protect each other by breaking the isolation imposed by the governments in the region. Sarah gave an example of Egypt to showcase how mobilization can rectify the discourse on women’s rights. Highlighting women’s struggle in countering sexual harassment and violence not only provides some kind of protection but also visibilizes the MENA governments’ systematic attempts to belittle and ostracize women human rights defenders. The Coalition is carrying out advocacy campaigns for human rights defenders in danger in the region, such as in Sudan and other Arab countries. This advocacy is possible through the documentation and analysis of the human rights violations and understanding their patterns. Governments in the MENA region have been cornering HRDs and feminists by enacting restrictive civil society laws. These laws have exhausted the organizations, where their activities are highly restricted. So, in the last two years, and especially in light of the pandemic, the pattern of violations has shifted from targeting organizations to individuals. In 2021, five Iraqi women human rights defenders were assassinated, and there were 60 attacks on individual WHRDs, indicating the current focus on individual human rights defenders rather than organizations by governments. Moving forward, these patterns should be taken into consideration and require that we regroup ourselves locally, coordinate and analyze more, and put more content clarifying the kind of fight WHRDs are having for equality. 

Ingrid Breisteinslien Rosland, from the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights, maintained that women’s rights witnessed major setbacks during the pandemic and because of what happened in Afghanistan, but despite these setbacks, there are reasons for hope. Afghani WHRDs are continuing their work in exile. These women are working with the civil society in Afghanistan, and they are not willing to give up on the rights they achieved in the last 20 years. Ingrid talked about intersectional feminism as major progress in the last ten years. It represents us with tools that expose the multitude of challenges and injustices that face WHRDs and enables us to call things what they are. Only through using this intersectional lens, we can target these injustices. Looking at the intersectional movement, Western feminism has so much to learn from the feminist movements that are going on in the rest of the world. She pointed out that while the civil space is shrinking, individual HRDs are being targeted, stressing the importance of networking and coming together, and sharing ideas and strategies to advance women’s rights. Coming from different contexts makes us stronger, as we have a lot to learn from each other. 

Khouloud al-Khatib, from Louder, started by emphasizing how stereotypes facing women can be countered by showing leadership and getting the opportunities that women deserve. Regarding the MENA region, Khouloud pointed out the dark phase that the region has been going through in terms of closing civic space by authoritarian regimes. This closure is systematic on so many levels. HRDs are being attacked and imprisoned; censorship is being intensified; pressure is being put on civic movements and popular demonstrations in different countries, such as what happened in Egypt and more recently in Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon. Despite these systematic attacks, women in these movements were front fighters, strategizing and making important decisions. Despite the challenges, WHRDs voices are louder than ever. She highlighted another challenge in the region, which is the legal texts and their interpretations. There are so many countries in the region that do not have laws to protect women from violence or protect their rights as a whole. In many cases, the interpretation of laws is being made against women’s rights. Gender gaps are persistent, in terms of wages, working conditions, and the absence of laws that combat violence against women. Khouloud also refused the idea of WHRDs destroying societal values. Women build up values based on gender equality and dignity for all. Certain existing values are creating tension and pressure around women. In the context of armed conflicts, Khouloud highlighted the way women are being showcased as victims of war, not champions of peace and democracy although they have been in the frontlines of building peace and transforming societies. She finished by stressing the need for an equitable world and inclusive societies. “We need to break the bias.”  

Cristina Rendon, from the Martin Ennals Foundation, began her intervention by addressing the question of how we can raise the voices of WHRDs. Cristina pointed out the importance of the recognition of the work and contributions of women. It is essential to challenge the narrative of women being the recipients of aid and victims of conflicts. We miss the narratives of women building up communities, challenging, and speaking truth to power. Cristina gave an example of WHRD Loujain al-Hathloul, who questioned cultural practices which are damaging to women, like the male guardianship, and WHRD Sizani Ngubane, who dedicated her life to defending women dispossessed from their lands by the community leaders because of the misinterpretation of existing laws. Such women need to be supported and given visibility. We need to memorize their names and recognize their work. They need to be funded and protected; feminist work cannot be done without resources. Cristina also stressed that one of the main challenges facing women is a lack of law implementation. In most cases, international standards are adopted and laws are enacted in line with international laws on paper, but in practice, they are hardly implemented. Holding governments accountable for treaties they have signed and commitments they have promised to respect is essential. Cristina maintained that what happens in the private sphere is also the responsibility of the state. Protecting women’s rights does not stop at the door of our households or workspaces. She praised the work of many organizations towards instilling the fundamental concept of “girls and women’s lives are valued in the same ways as boys and men’s lives.” By operating under this understanding, expressions of poverty and violence against women will be overcome. Cristina insisted that we need to call things for what they are. Attacks against women are not passion crimes and domestic violence; it is femicide, and we need to ensure accountability and zero impunity in this regard. Finally, she stressed the importance of religious tradition as a key action to achieve gender justice.  

Reyhan Yalcindag, from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), started by referring to the suppression of many International Women’s Day marches around the world, including in Turkey. Reyhan regretted Turkey’s withdrawal from an international treaty to prevent violence against women in 2021. The convention has focused on the backlash against women’s rights in countries with right-wing populist governments. Such governments force women to do “their duties,” which are being decided by patriarchy. Women are paying the price of patriarchal policies of war, occupation, and conflicts. Extremist groups have committed crimes against humanity in many parts of the world, where thousands of women were kidnapped and enslaved. In Nigeria, mass abductions, including thousands of schoolgirls, are a black stain of patriarchal history and policies.  After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, women are killed. There is real femicide in front of the whole world. Reyhan pointed to the steps that should be taken to protect women’s rights. We have to invent new ways to stop all types of violence against women in light of centuries of injustices and at the same time the struggle of brave women. Women of the 21st century reject inequality, injustice, and victimization of women. The past experiences will light our road. Women activists behind bars and those persecuted are inspiring women’s movements all over the world. Reyhan concluded her intervention by saying “solidarity means many things, becoming together means everything.”  Let’s keep believing that a better world will be created by women. We are stronger together. 

For the panelists’ final remarks and the full webinar, click here