Women’s Day: Taking a stand with women in the Middle East

People around the world should show their solidarity with the courageous women who were pivotal in uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, Amnesty International said. Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, the organization is calling on its supporters to mark the day by sending messages of support to women in the region. Thousands of individual actions are expected to be taken, with a focus on four countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen – where women remain at the heart of calls for reform, but a broad spectrum of women’s rights are still threatened.  In North Africa, which saw momentous events in 2011, political change has yet to translate into real gains for women’s rights. “Across the Middle East and North Africa, women have been an inspiring force for change, standing up against repressive regimes to defend basic human rights and promote reform and equality,” said Widney Brown, Senior Director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International.“This International Women’s Day, we stand in solidarity with these courageous women, to support them in their struggle for human rights and freedom, and to let them know the world is behind them at this historic moment.”Imprisoned in Iran for defending women’s rightsIran’s women played a key role in massive protests around the June 2009 elections, when they advocated for a wide range of human rights reform, including greater freedoms for women. But the country’s women activists continue to pay a high price for their peaceful work. Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prisoner of conscience and human rights lawyer, is serving a six-year jail sentence, reduced from 11 years on appeal, on charges of “propaganda” and belonging to an “illegal” organization – the Centre for Human Rights Defenders. She denies all charges. A human rights lawyer who has represented Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi amongst others, she has also been barred from practicing law for 10 years. Authorities at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison have repeatedly placed her in solitary confinement and blocked her children from visiting, most recently last month.Amnesty International is again urging Iranian authorities to release Nasrin Sotoudeh immediately and unconditionally. Drivers of change in Saudi ArabiaDue to Saudi Arabia’s male-controlled “guardianship” system, women are discriminated against and denied control over their own lives on a wide range of social, personal, and economic issues.Perhaps one of the most unusual, yet pervasive, restrictions is a de facto ban on Saudi Arabian women driving in the country, even when they hold valid international driver’s licenses and freely drive elsewhere in the world. Last year, women activists re-launched the campaign to protest against the ban called “Women2Drive”, which used social media to urge women with international driver’s licenses to take to the roads from 17 June 2011 onwards.Scores of women participated in the action, with many arrested and forced to sign pledges never to drive again. At least one woman was tried and sentenced to 10 lashes for defying the ban. Although Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah announced women would have the right to vote in municipal elections in 2015, the divisive driving ban has yet to be overturned. Amnesty International sees the ban as symbolic of the many areas of life where women in the kingdom continue to have their human rights heavily restricted. The organization is calling on people around the world to share images and messages of solidarity with Saudi Arabian women activists, supporting them in their “drive to freedom”. Syria’s First Lady urged to use influence for rightsSince March 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has overseen a brutal crackdown on dissent that has left more than 6,000 people dead, including more than 200 women and girls. Thousands of people have been arrested, with many held incommunicado for long periods at unknown locations where torture and other ill-treatment are reported to be rife.Some women human rights defenders – who have been at the forefront of the peaceful calls for reform – have been forced into hiding, and some have even fled the country. Through it all, the President’s wife Asma al-Assad has done very little to speak out against the brutality of the Syrian government forces, and has appeared publicly in support of her husband.This image is at odds with the Syrian First Lady’s previously widely acknowledged affinity for charities and social causes, including women’s rights. Amnesty International has asked people around the world to take part in a letter-writing campaign to urge Asma al-Assad to use her influence to end the ongoing violence and human rights violations committed against Syrian women human rights activists, who work to protect the future of all Syrians.Yemeni women at the forefront of changeWomen have helped to create a vibrant civil society in Yemen, something recognized on the world stage last year when Yemeni journalist and women’s rights activist Tawakkol Karman was one of three women to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. They were also at the forefront of mass protests calling for political and human rights reform, which led to Yemen’s longstanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh signing a power-transfer deal in November 2011. But even as Yemen is in the throes of political and social transition, discrimination against women is still rife.Women who took part in last year’s protests were harassed, arrested and in some cases beaten for their peaceful activism. Others experienced intimidation from male relatives, who are pressured by the authorities to “assert control” and curtail their women family member’s human rights activism. In Yemen, discrimination against women is reflected in family law, a traditional exercise of male authority, and a lack of respect for women’s personal integrity when it comes to preventing domestic violence and delivering justice to its victims.Amnesty International has launched a letter-writing campaign calling on Yemen’s transitional authorities to consult with and work with women human rights activists to bring an end to discriminatory laws and practices, including violence against women, in the country. “We should support women across the Middle East and North Africa who continue to fight for human rights, and more specifically their right to participate in the political process on an equal footing as change unfolds in the region,” said Widney Brown.