Hidden in Egypt’s closet: Virginity testing as a tactic of repression

Women’s broad and persistent participation in the ongoing revolution in Egypt has brought a gruesome new tactic to light – virginity testing.  This form of repression that specifically targets female activists and journalists peaked around March 2011, and under Egypt’s post-Mubarak military leadership, the tactic is on the rise.

Recently, the courageous Samira Ibrahim, a 25 year old Egyptian human rights activist, has not only publicly exposed the torture she and other women were subjected to, but she is filing a legal case against the Egyptian military for sexual assault. Human Rights Watch and other human rights advocacy and defense organizations have denounced the practice of virginity testing and are helping publicize Samira’s case, including a video testimony by Samira that details her experience.

Certainly, sexual torture is not new in Egypt, and men have been subject to it. Bloggers have helped expose this form of torture for years. In June 2011, the popular writer and lecturer, Mona Eltahawy, helped bring to light the new issue of virginity testing as part of a larger strategy targeting women to discourage them from participating in protest activities.  She rightly declares, “If the ‘it wasn’t about gender’ mantra is stuck on repeat so that we don’t scare the boys away, then let them remember the state screwed them too…”

Up to now, virginity testing as repression tactic has remained behind the closet among Egyptians. In this patriarchal, conservative, and now military-run society, it is not difficult to understand how a woman’s virginity could be used as rationale to intimidate detain female activists by Egypt’s supreme council of armed forces (SCAF). Women’s overwhelming participation during the revolution helped break open myths and traditions about gender in the Middle East. The current military regime’s understands this, and the desire to supposedly restore law and order, while keeping the country wrapped in the patriarchal cloak that has suffocated Egyptians, naturally requires a strategy to quell mass protests. Security forces naturally gravitate to repressive, coercive means. So what better way to keep half the population off the streets and under military control than to intimidate women using the threat of spotlighting the most intimate, personal of issues in a jail cell and later in a military tribunal, with the added accusation of prostitution?

General sexual harassment toward women in Egypt has existed for many years, and there are many Egyptians using tools to tackle the issue. The 2010 film “678” offers three vignettes of harassment and rape against Egyptian women, and the societal repercussions these women face after rape and after reporting such crimes. This is a problem that has multiplied in recent years, in part due to growing conservatism, in part due to a poor economy that has many unemployed, disgruntled young men idle in the street (women know how this goes no matter where they come from).

Egyptian women knew what they could face in January 2011 at Tahrir Square, and they went out in huge numbers anyway.  During a recent conversation with Nada Zohdy, a program assistant at the Project of Middle East Democracy, she recounted how two weeks ago, in another wave of protests, she found herself in Tahrir very late at night. She realized at that moment that she was the only female in sight and was surprised to feel safe overall despite the massive gender imbalance in the crowd and not seeing any other women among the hundreds of people. She attributes this sense of safety to the unique, powerful spirit of solidarity that exists in the square.  “The challenge now is how to replicate that kind of gender unity and respect in post-revolution Egypt,” Nada added.  It seems the revolution brought out the best in Egyptians.

The issues of women’s rights and reforms, religious conservatism, and how to reconcile women’s rights with Sharia are a challenge that women are prepared to confront. A POMED policy brief on women in the Arab uprisings rightly states: It is important that women’s rights are recognized as a key human rights issue, and not compartmentalized. Despite Egypt’s recent historic elections, there is still much work to be done, and this recent article highlights Egyptians participation in the vote, and the need to continue to demand an end to military rule.

It is interesting to juxtapose Samira’s case against a recent bold action by Aliaa Elmadi, a 21 Egyptian woman who posted nude photos of herself in protest of Egypt’s patriarchy. There was a strong backlash against her action, both by Egyptian men and women. And the irony is that her blog and tweets went viral, receiving global attention, including this interview with CNN, while Samira’s case struggles to gain international attention.  A quick Google search offered me at least five pages of detailed information on Aliaa (with photos) vs. five entries on Samira.

Egypt’s diverse women are insisting that women’s rights be part of the conversations on democracy and that it fall directly within the frame of human rights and freedom. Women shouldn’t have to wait for “the right time” to bring up their rights in the democracy building process.  As Mona Eltahay rightly stated back in June: “It’s a perfect time for gender to come out of the revolution’s closet.”  And young Samira, the many Egyptian female activists and human rights defenders like Nada of POMED, and even the radical Aliaa Elmahdy, are breaking open the closet door.

Originally published in Waging Nonviolence.

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Women in the frontline, women in the rear: the revolution in Syria

Bits and pieces of information about the growing uprising in Syria are coming our way through mainstream media sources like Al Jazeera. But dig down deep, and you’ll find a revolution with women forging the way, and with a news gap that’s being filled by Syrian expatriate females.

Written on the hand of this young protester, “Leave” - a message to Syria's President Bashar Assad

Let’s begin with a little known fact: The youngest known convicted prisoner of conscience in the world is a Syrian citizen. Her name is Tal al-Mallouhi, a young blogger who has been in prison since 2009, when she was 17 years old. Tal’s poetry and political interests and activism chaffed with the authorities. After being held in jail for more than two years, in February 2011, Mallouhi was sentenced to five years in jail after being convicted of spying for the U.S. The case of Tal became part of Syrian consciousness, particularly among women. The idea that young people were increasingly disappearing, often later found tortured or killed, sounded an alarm in villages across Syria.

During a recent conversation with Rafif, a female Syrian expatriate activist living in Northern Virginia, I learned some of the deep grievances that were at the core of decades of citizen activism in Syria. “There is a kind of gang mentality in Syria that goes beyond politics. You either support the government-supported mafias, or you are excluded from ‘inner circles’ that allow you some economic leverage. All major industries, like tourism, mobile communications, and petroleum industries are regime-controlled. In any business, you have to strike a deal with the regime in order to operate without too much government interference,” she explains. “It is a culture of bakhsheesh, meaning tip or bribe. Those who cannot afford to pay off every level of government or businesses are excluded, and therefore don’t benefit economically.”

The case of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young fruit vendor in Tunisia who set himself afire outside a local municipal office and sparked Tunisia’s revolution, resonated for average Syrians who too had been suffering such indignities all their lives. It is a system of total psychological, social and economic repression. For the average Syrian, it is total humiliation—long waits for basic services, bribes each step of the way, and a long chain of corruption. Syrian activism for decades had been around ending this system of corruption, and this unifying theme was slowly shifting.

I am told that Syrians watched the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in awe. Early this year, a few young students aged 8 to 15 years old were emboldened by the unfolding events in the region and wrote graffiti in their school in Dar’a, a poor area south of Damascus. The youngsters were arrested for scrawling the word “freedom” on the school wall. They were beaten and dropped off to their families. As Rafif describes it, “The city went crazy.” Many demonstrations and marches followed as people publicly expressed their outrage at the regime’s tactic to suppress a revolution: the torture of children.

Several weeks later, Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy, again from a village in Dar’a, became the symbol of the Syria’s blossoming revolution. He was tortured to death for participating in a demonstration. Dar’a citizens staged massive demonstrations. For so many years, people had been mobilizing around reforming the system, but suddenly the focus shifted to the overthrow of the regime, as was happening in Tunisia and Egypt.

The women of Syria, both young and old, have been courageously leading many protest activities throughout the country. For them, it is personal, and they are deeply invested in the idea of change. In, April in the city of Bayda, nearly every adult male was imprisoned in an attack on the town to repress government opposition. More marches and protests followed.

Women have also been active in funeral processions, traditionally the domain of men. (Women normally mourn at home.) When women began coming out in large numbers, they too became victims of the regime’s violence. And they adapted. Syrian women traditionally do not cover their faces in public, but they are doing so during protests to protect their identities, as are many men. A clever adaptation to the face veil can be seen here, as women use the Syrian flag as a face cover, doubling as protection and a message to a regime that accuses them of being part of a foreign-led regime change plot.

Women, both expats and in the country, are extremely active. Still, protestors on the streets are mostly men. And the aspiring transitional government, the Syrian National Council, are mostly men. Between the protestors and the aspiring government, there is the wide middle wherein lies a huge network of people, many of whom are women. That network is helping document disappearances, deaths, forced detentions and torture. And they are communicating the news to the outside world through technology tools like social media and video posts on YouTube. Women are recording their actions on the ground and sharing that information with Syrian expatriates in London, Paris, Northern Virginia, Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland, New York and New Jersey.

“I didn’t realize how Syrian I was until this uprising began. I am a U.S. citizen by birth and have spent only a few years in Syria, as a child and later as an adult. I was disappointed,” my friend reflects, often with tears welling. “Now I realize that what I hated about my country: it was the system.” Another Syrian expat woman, Mohja Kahf, writes regularly and provides analysis, video and photos of the ongoing revolution—particularly women in resistance. Their work is full of risks. Many Syrians expats who are active in the movement understand that they are being watched by Syrian intelligence agents. Rafif and other Syrian women from around the world translate news and spread it through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They spread awareness globally and also offer information to the insiders on effective civil disobedience.

Rafif explains her motivation to take part in the uprising: “I get to do this while Syrians inside the country are getting shot at. Seven and eight year old children who even speak of freedom are considered enemies of the state. When they take to the streets, it’s like a suicide mission. But they’d rather die than be silent. I look at how these children are being harmed, and I think, ‘that child could be my son or daughter.’ As a mother, a woman, and a human being, how could I not get involved?”

She recognizes that some may see them as supporting the revolution from “9 to 5.” Rafif acknowledges that she gets to go home each night in relative safety. But she is confident that many Syrians on the inside are appreciative of the support from their fellow Syrians on the outside. “We are helping broadcast the revolution and building global awareness,” Rafif explains between tears and determination, gripping her laptop full of first-hand accounts and resources.


Originally published in Waging Nonviolence

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Three Women, Three Struggles

With different goals reached through the use of various tactics in distinct circumstances, it may be difficult to see the similarities in the nonviolent struggles that Leila Seper, Advija Ibrahimovic, and Iltezam Morrar are actively involved in. While their situations are diverse, they are each struggling somehow for the same things: equality and justice. Fighting for justice, in its many forms, is not just an option for these three dedicated women and the activists by their sides– it is a necessity.

Leila Seper (left), Iltezam Morrar (center), and Advija Ibrahimovic (right) meet in Tuzla at the Women of Srebrenica Association. (photo K. Spangler)

The other commonality among them is their age: all of them represent the new face, the next generation of women activists. Skilled in social media, willing to face risks, and aware of the fact that the more people who understand their struggle, the broader impact they will have, Iltezam, Advija and Leila have accepted that changing the world — locally, nationally, and globally — is a daily responsibility.

Leila Seper, an outspoken member of Sarajevo’s young and expanding activist community, uses her quirky sense of humor, and the brand recognition of Dosta!, to actively demonstrate to Bosnians of all ethnic and religious groups that they must fight for equality and human rights. An active supporter of worker’s rights, student rights, environmental protections and women’s rights, Leila takes on every challenge with conviction, enthusiasm, and a sense of humor.

Advija Ibrahimovic, the youngest member of the Women of Srebrenica Association, has learned the skills of successful activism from some of the most seasoned activists in Europe – the Women of Srebrenica. Fighting for legal justice, accountability, and recognition of the horrors that took place during the Srebrenica genocide that left her and her siblings orphans, Advija has also been educated as a nonviolent action trainer by the Alternatives to Violence Programs. Chosen to represent the Association during the 2003 unveiling of the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery, where she stood along side President Bill Clinton, Advija’s upbeat, confident demeanor is contagious.

Iltezam showed great admiration and respect for Srebrenica women's decades-long struggle. (Photo K. Spangler)

Iltezam Morrar, a wise-beyond-her-years medical student from Palestine currently studying in Sarajevo, draws on her family’s long history of nonviolent action in the continuing struggle against the Israeli occupation. Hearing her grandmother, father and uncles tell stories of their nonviolent activism during the First Palestinian Intifada, Iltezam became inspired to join the struggle at the age of 15. Her actions, and those of her fellow villagers in Budrus, quickly became exemplars for the next generation of Palestinian activists following the success of the Just Vision documentary highlighting their nonviolent struggles against the wall.

In the process of learning to identify with seemingly disparate women and reminiscing about nonviolent successes everyone went away with fresh insights and inspiration, as well as new friends. Leila taught us to keep a sense of humor even in the face of injustice, and to work with the authorities whenever possible to reassure them violence is not an option. Advija taught us that persistence pays off, and that even the humblest of citizens has the power to affect international politics when using the right methods. Iltezam too, taught us the importance of tenacity, and the need for clearly stated objectives when battling a much stronger opponent.

Leila instantly connected with the women of Srebrenica. (photo K. Spangler)

Each woman came away from our gathering with something different. Leila explained, “I get motivation from these meetings, when I see their [Women of Srebrenica] strength to fight.” Advija agreed, “You have to be determined. That’s the example for me.” Iltezam summarized everyone’s feelings in her own way, “I’m honored to be here to learn from these women.They are so strong, and we have so much to learn from them. They never give up.”

Advija, Iltezam and Leila recognize the significance of meeting each other. (Photo K. Spangler)

Our meeting proved to be a unique opportunity to learn, share and grow, and the inspiration from each woman’s struggle is sure to be a source of strength for each of us for years to come. And that’s exactly what we hoped for.


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Making Protest Personal

We had not planned to attend the peaceful monthly protest organized by the Women of Srebrenica Association, and we were honored to be able to observe and participate. Iltezam Morrar and I joined our new friends as they prepared for their monthly march with photographs and banners that have been created to recognize their loved ones.

The monthly protest in Tuzla organized by Women of Srebrenica Association. (Photo by Heather Frederick)

On the 11th of every month, honoring the official commemoration date of the Srebrenica genocide of July 1995,  the protest march begins at the Ping Plateau in Tuzla and proceeds to the town’s main square, formally called Square of the Victims of Genocide in Srebrenica. The Women are persistent: their protest is intended to demand truth and justice for the more than 8,000 of their relatives who were killed or remain missing, as well as the continuation of exhumation, identification and burial process.

The women held a banner of pillow cases stitched together with the names of their loved ones who went missing in Srebrenica in 1995. The pillow cases are symbolic:  they represent each missing person. The symbol is powerful and can be witnessed as vehicles pass and honk in acknowledgement, when traffic stops, or when someone lovingly reaches out to touch a piece of the banner as he or she walks by.

On this day, almost seventy citizens have come to support the demonstration. The gratitude shown toward the marching women was evident among people living in Tuzla and it was a testament to how relevant and important the women’s work is, even after sixteen years.

Advija Ibrahimovic unfolds the banner used for the monthly protest. (photo: Kendra Spangler)

As in every monthly protest, local and international journalists are present to film. Today’s march was joined by human rights activists from Italy, high school students from Bologna, and a television crew from Germany. The crew is currently working on a portrait project of women of Srebrenica, as well as a documentary film. Hajra Catic, the Founder and President of the Women of Srebrenica Association, seemed accustomed to microphones being shoved in front of her from all directions. She didn’t even blink. The Association’s youngest member, Advija Ibrahimovic, explained:

“We always invite the media, and the women all know exactly what to say to them.”

What may have attracted the media on this day’s protest was the Association’s recent announcement of their decision to file a lawsuit against former chief International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, and her associates. Many personal objects recovered in mass graves were destroyed because ICTY claimed they could not be used as evidence in war crimes trials against Srebrenica perpetrators.

Iltezam Morrar (right) joins the Women of Srebrenica protest march. (photo by Kendra Spangler)

The women claim that the personal objects were destroyed in 2005, and they believe these objects were found in mass graves that were uncovered in 1996 and 1997. For them, this lawsuit is about justice and holding those responsible for destruction of more than 1,500 personal items belonging to those killed.

For the women of Srebrenica, each and every object is precious. Every piece of clothing or possession that is discovered creates a more vivid memory of their loved ones, and each unearthed item offers a material memory of someone they lost. Earlier at our meeting with the Association, Hajra explained how any object that belonged to their brothers, sons, or husbands is a living reminder not only of their terrible deaths, but of the lives they once shared. The pillow cases with stitched names should not be the only remaining memory of those lost.

Reported by Heather Frederick. Written by Amra Celebic and Vanessa Ortiz.

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Sharing, Learning, Building Solidarity

“We should be united, we should work together because one person alone does not have the power. We should have an international connection.” Hajra Catic, President and Founder of Women of Srebrenica Association.

Leila Seper (left) and Iltezam Morrar share their struggles with women of Srebrenica in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As ten women whose ages span decades gathered around a living room coffee table at the meeting house of the Women of Srebrenica, nervousness and curiosity filled the room. The youngest activist in the group, Iltezam Morrar from Budrus, Palestine, and the slightly older Leila Sheper from Bosnia’s Dosta! movement, were quiet at first, showing respect and humility for the decades of protest and resistance campaigns initiated by the women of Srebrenica.  At first, the elder Srebrenica women seemed skeptical at the idea of learning something new from these two young activists. The variety of experiences around the table seemed worlds away from the reality of the mothers who all lost their husbands, sons, and male relatives during the Srebrenica genocide that took place in July 1995.

After a round of brief introductions, each woman launched into her work and her role in nonviolent struggle.


Leila Seper of Dosta! explained her organization’s structure, strategy and tactics. “Protests are effective, but behind them you must have a really good strategy: you must know how to target your message, including to those in the authorities,” she emphasized.

Leila explained how Dosta is decentralized with a loose formation of leaders and members. The movement does not have a concrete goal or particular time-based objectives beyond raising awareness among Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens and encouraging citizen participation and nonviolent action.  In many ways, this presents a challenge for the movement’s active members — it makes it difficult to measure success, and it makes retention of active membership challenging. However, as Leila explained the diverse campaigns that Dosta has undertaken, it became clear that perhaps a loose, decentralized and leaderless movement offers a camouflaged strategy that other movements can learn from.

Dosta’s use of new media in raising awareness has given the movement an identity and reputation among young citizens as well as security services.   Morrar, who is currently studying in Sarajevo, commented, “I’ve seen Dosta! logos all over Sarajevo, a spray painted logo which features an open hand,  but I didn’t know what it signified.” This is a common branding strategy among youth movements – the symbol itself is public, but participation in campaign design and access to core individuals is available only to those who wish to be active and get involved. Dosta’s strategically targeted collaboration with police ahead of particular campaigns ensures that local government entities are made fully aware that the movement is nonviolent.  This strategy to influence state security forces was common among past movements such as Otpor! In Serbia and Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

Like many recent nonviolent resistance movements that have utilized symbols or colors that resonate for citizens, including Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Burma’s Saffron Revolution and Serbia’s Otpor movement, Dosta uses an easily recognizable symbol – an open hand with the shape of Bosnia and Herzegovina imprinted in the center, the text represents one word:  “Enough!”

As Leila continued, it became clear that it was not only the “brand” that inspired young people to participate in Dosta, but also the newness of such a movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dosta’s ad-hoc campaigns and speedy mobilization is gradually introducing citizen activism and responsibility to a post-socialist, post- conflict society.


Iltezam explains the successful nonviolent struggle captured in the documentary film, Budrus.

Iltezam gracefully launched into her experience in the nonviolent campaign against the construction of the Israeli separation barrier that would run through the village of Budrus in the West Bank in occupied Palestine.  The screening of the documentary film Budrus, over traditional Bosnian coffee, made everyone realize the power and determination behind Iltezam’s young and delicate frame. In what seemed fluent Bosnian language, Iltezam translated subtitles of the Arabic/English/Hebrew language film for everyone while also offering deep context. They watched intently as Iltezam, only 15 years old at the time of the struggle, displayed strategic thinking, discipline and courage.

Iltezam modestly offered credit for the film’s creation to those activists who were documenting each protest activity. “The BBC and other mainstream media wouldn’t cover it. So all the activists who were present brought their own cameras and filmed everything,” she explained.

Like the civil rights movement in the United States, as well as many other movements throughout history, activists are forced to record, frame and transmit their own story when traditional media won’t. Today, social media is becoming a powerful tool for sharing information. The world witnessed the power of technology and social media most recently during the Arab Spring. And in 2008, Burma’s Saffron Revolution made mainstream news headlines thanks to underground video journalists who took great risks to document arrests and police brutality targeting peaceful protestors, mostly Burmese monks.  The film, Burma VJ, illuminates the work of those citizen journalists.

We were all inspired by Iltezam’s first-hand account of nonviolent action in Budrus and her role in the struggle. She shared how her family’s tradition of nonviolent resistance is a feature of her upbringing, and she discussed the long history of nonviolent resistance among Palestinians.

In just one morning, we were all transformed and united by the stories of nonviolent action within our societies, and a great deal of our inspiration came from the fact that it was women who played key leadership and organizing roles in each of the struggles the women represent.

Written by Heather Frederick and Vanessa Ortiz

Photos: Kendra Spangler

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First Impressions

The beauty of Bosnia’s landscape is punctuated with signs of war and ethnic and nationalist violence. The sidewalks, marked with the scars of fallen mortar rounds even after sixteen years, as well as the remaining bullet-riddled buildings, are a sad reminder of a brutal conflict that took hundreds of thousands of lives. After a long drive through eastern Bosnia, we arrive to Srebrenica, where lush mountains surround us. In this impressive landscape, I am struck by the neat rows of white gravestones – over five thousand of them. This is the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery for Genocide Victims . It is against this backdrop that my week-long journey begins.

A visit to this burial and memorial sight for the Bosnian-Muslim victims of genocide offers me a thorough understanding of what the Women of Srebrenica Association is fighting for. Today I met the women who made this memorial possible. Their work is a stunning example of how ordinary women have transformed emotions of sadness and anger into action, and action into impact.

Leila Seper (left) and Iltezam Morrar share their experiences in nonviolent resistance with Women of Srebrenica Association. (photo by Kendra Spangler)

I also met Leila Seper, a dynamic, young female activist from the Dosta! movement. Dosta! (Enough!) aims to promote government accountability, and to spark civic participation among all Bosnian citizens, no matter what religious or ethnic group. Leila is also active in other movements in Bosnia and Herzegovina such as the Kosnica (beehive) program working with women in Bosnia’s two prisons for women, and a new NGO, Okvir (Frame), that will work to protect minorities and their cultures.

(left to right) Advija Ibrahimovic of Women of Srebrenica, Iltezam Morrar of Budrus, and Leila Seper of Bosnia and Herzegovina's Dosta! movement. (photo by Kendra Spangler)

Over the past two days, I have also been fortunate to get to know Iltezam Morrar, female protagonist of the documentary film Budrus. The film highlights the adherence to nonviolent action in the West Bank village of Budrus. Iltezam and the villagers of Budrus protested nonviolently over ten months in 2003 against the construction of the Israel’s separation barrier and the planned confiscation of land and destruction of the village’s olive groves. Iltezam is currently attending the University of Sarajevo in pursuit of a medical degree. Her family’s tradition of resistance to occupation and their commitment to nonviolent discipline are inspiring. The role she played in Budrus’ struggle and her first-hand experience in womens participation in nonviolent action will be a key feature during our gathering.

Tomorrow I’ll share stories and insights from the unique round table discussion with these persistent, inspiring women.


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In Women´s Hands in the Field: Meet Heather Frederick

I’m very excited to be participating with In Women’s Hands. During the next two days, we will bring together women activists and organizers from Srebrenica and Sarajevo – the Women of Srebrenica Association and the Dosta! Movement. Joining us will be Iltezam Morrar of Budrus, a Palestinian village in the West Bank featured in a documentary film by Just Vision. I’ll be blogging this week on these women’s courageous work and the impact they’ve made in their societies.

Heather enjoys her first day in Sarajevo, Bosnia i Herzegovina.

But first let me tell you a little bit about myself. I believe justice in all of areas of women’s rights can be achieved through the strategic use of nonviolent action. It wasn’t until my first women’s studies class in college that I understood how much there is to do before women in America, and around the world, are treated as equals.

I was never told that women should be quiet or not have opinions; just the opposite – everyone in my family has always encouraged intellectual development and outspokenness. And despite being loud and opinionated myself, my family helped me develop my diplomatic skills.

I live in Turkey with my feminist partner and his liberal family. I am learning Turkish so that I can participate in the women’s movement here. Until then I teach English and keep up with my blog, Feminist Activism.

Language is extremely important to me, partly because I love to talk to people, but mostly because I think it gives a huge insight into how we view the world around us. From studying Spanish for seven years I have come to learn that there are ideas and concepts in every language that simply cannot be translated. My favorite example of this is the Turkish word “direniş.” It’s something akin to boycott, resistance, noncooperation, civil disobedience, struggle, uprising, etc. One word encompasses the entire spectrum of possible strategic nonviolent action, (SNVA), and yet there is no exact word in Turkish that means nonviolence.

My activism began during my teenage years. I participated in the Day of Respect to stop bullying, and the Day of Silence to honor the lives of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Asexual and Intersex (LGBTQAI) students who have been silenced. With inspiration from a wonderful teacher, a classmate and I founded the first Gay-Straight Alliance on our high school campus.

While studying Spanish, Linguistics and Women’s Studies at San Diego State University, I dedicated most of my free time to the National Organization for Women (NOW) and VOX: Voices for Planned Parenthood. With NOW and VOX I participated in dozens of campaigns to raise awareness of and address women’s issues including Take Back the Night, Love Your Body, I Heart Consensual Sex, and most influentially, “No on Proposition 85”, a parental notification of abortion initiative in California.

I view every issue as a gender issue, so everything from the safety and living conditions of women in refugee camps and the rights of transgender sex workers to the disabled finding suitable employment and the educational and health repercussions of imprisonment concern me.

My graduate program in Gender & Peacebuilding at the University for Peace in Costa Rica led me to its “Peace and Nonviolent Transformation of Conflict” course. My professor, Dr. Mary Elizabeth King, exuded passion, commitment and dedication, and it was during this course that I discovered the need for strategically using nonviolent action to challenge the world’s injustices. I want to continue to expand my understanding of SNVA so I can educate others and share my knowledge toward struggles to overcome oppression.

We have the power to change the world. Let’s get to it!


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Where Are the Women?

Well, the last I’ve checked, they’re pretty much in the front lines of civil resistance struggles in Bahrain and Yemen. They were strong and present in Egypt, and they’re sprouting publicly and over the World Wide Web in larger numbers in Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Unlike many others, I am not at all surprised. As Yemeni opposition leader Ali Obaid told CNN: “Yemeni women lead the Yemeni revolution and men follow.”

Bahraini women waving national flags participate in an anti-government protest march on Tuesday, March 1, 2011, through the capital of Manama, Bahrain. Tens of thousands of Bahrainis, largely Shiites, participated in the march urging unity among Sunnis and Shiites in demanding political reform - AP

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the recent North Africa and Middle East nonviolent revolutions is the bottom-up media coverage, commentaries, first-hand accounts, and debates led by women from around the world. In the past three months, we’ve witnessed women moving from the background to the frontlines—not only in major street protests, but also on the mainstream evening news as well as across our Facebook pages and the blogosphere.

Women’s active participation steadily made headline news (well, almost) during Egypt’s revolution, and women like Mona Eltahawy were an absolutely inspiring and enthusiastic advocate for Muslim women as Egypt’s revolution unfolded. In late January, Mona vociferously challenged the mainstream media’s coverage of Egypt’s nonviolent movements, particularly the word “chaos” being used to describe the historic events led by ordinary Egyptians, and urging the US and Western countries to “take the side of the people of Egypt.” And weeks later, Mona debated other women around France’s recent ban on the niqab and burqa in public spaces—a debate that women, not policy makers, must lead.

For years now, young Egyptian women like Dalia Zaida and Noha Atef had been blogging courageously behind the scenes, exposing government corruption and abuses as well as educating the Egyptian public on people power and the history of civil resistance. Dalia was responsible for translating and editing the Arabic version of “The Montgomery Story” back in 2009, eventually distributing 2,000 copies throughout the Middle East.

Noha is the founder of Torture in Egypt (“Al-Tatheeb fi Masr”), a web-based campaign that documents and informs about human rights abuses in Egypt. Noha talks about her entry to the blogosphere in a 2009 interview during the 2nd Social Arab Bloggers Meeting. Both these young women shone brightly at the height of Egypt’s revolution, and we can see Noha’s contributions in highlighting women’s participation, while Dalia offers a sobering reality check on the lack of women’s inclusion, cautioning that some of the gains of Tahrir Square are already being lost.

As weeks went by, I observed with pleasure the abundance of “mainstream” information on Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, and Bahraini women. From the BBC to National Public Radio in the US, there seems to be newborn global media interest in the role of women in these nonviolent struggles. I feared, however, that this newfound interest would be short-lived and many would consider the “gender issue” a passing fad. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Women from around the world have seized this opportunity, as evidenced by blogs like Feminist Activist to news aggregators like Women Living Under Muslim Laws—a consistent, timely, relevant online news source on women’s power and activism. Women’s Pixels , Ethiopian Feminist and Rosebell’s Blog are three others worth following.

One big question in my mind: Are men writing about women in resistance, or women’s rights generally? I am doubtful. Aside from the occasional, passionate appeal by NY Times’ columnist Nicolas Kristof, there are few men making women’s rights and their role in community organizing a front-and-center issue. Should it be? Well, if nonviolent resistance is about diverse participation and non-elite driven, bottom-up social action, then how can it exclude women as both role models in movements and as leaders when the struggle is over?

At a recent panel discussion at the American Foreign Service Association, I heard a senior US international development official speak about women and development:

We also have to lead by example. We need to have women in the process, so we have to look at ourselves, too. We have to challenge the culture in the countries we support, and we also have to challenge our own. This means consistently asking simple, direct questions, like: “Where are the women?”

On behalf of so many women activists around the world, I appeal to all men involved in civil resistance to consistently ask that question in their work, when they write, when they plan and strategize, when they teach, when they are filming, when they speak at public events, when they blog, and when they conduct literature reviews and research.

The resources cited above are only a small sampling of the voices and actions of women around the world, a great majority told and shared by women. That is resistance—challenging the status quo, moving against the tide, confronting an injustice. Only when we all make the conscious effort to ask, “where are the women” can we begin to ensure that men and women are fully represented and working together—as equal partners—in every endeavor… from revolution to victory.


(this piece was originally published last month in Waging Nonviolence)

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Resistance Through Art: Challenging Repression and Tradition

In our travels to the West Bank late last summer, we met artists who are activists in their own right. Dina Awadd, Ahmedd Fayez Zakarne, Abeer Qazim and Abdelfattah Abusrour are all on different creative paths, all which focus on freedom of expression and challenging repression. Art through music, dance, crafts and illustration have long been used in resistance movements to expose injustices. Artists often break out of society’s status quo by creating alternative forms of expression – rap, graffiti, modern dance and jazz. Many of these art forms were created to challenge repressive policies, racism and conservative social expectations that prohibit creativity and artistic expression.

Palestine young people, particularly women, are also breaking with tradition through different art forms. Their artistic resistance not only challenges occupation, but also challenges their own societies, particularly the role of women.


Music of resistance is everywhere in Palestine, and it offers a double entendre and double goal of addressing the obvious oppression of the occupation and the more subtle oppressive features of Palestinian society itself. Like most artistic forms of expression, and perhaps more than others, music knows no boundaries and crosses the walls – all the walls – of separation and prejudice.

Under her hijab, Abeer Qazim’s enthusiasm and style have impressed us (see the recent blog) In addition to offering a humbling personal view on what a veiled Muslim girl might think of men and love, Abeer revealed a mature and refined expression of her femininity and aspirations. Like many young Palestinian women we met, Abeer is engaged in a double struggle — as a Palestinian struggling against the occupation, but also as a woman facing the many constraints of a patriarchal society. Beneath her hijab lies the passion of a true artist.

Facing the obstacles imposed by her society, Abeer has chosen to confront and overcome them through the musical arts, a form of resistance that will always be one of the most powerful mean to free individuals from both internal and external chains. She is part of a musical group called “Stars Way,” formed by Muslim and Christian youth who are creating dance music about everyday life. The initiative is a form of multi-cultural self-expression that hopes to break persistent myths and stereotypes around religious and cultural polarization in the region. Abeer enthusiastically discusses the group’s ideas in this short interview:

Palestinian Rap

Rap music, which developed over two decades ago by African-American youth living in urban poor communities, was a form of rebellion against a socio-economic order that kept them in the margins of American society. The genre has spread across the globe, translated and adapted by marginalized and dispossessed youth resisting repression by exposing injustices using intensely rhythmic music structured around shout-and-scream lyrics, reflecting both anger and power. Palestinian rap plays precisely that function.

One of the first groups that achieved global popularity was DAM, formed in the late 1990s by Palestinians from Lod in Israel – Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Their powerful lyrics, delivered both in Arabic and Hebrew, gave the group immediate access to the music underground of Tel Aviv, where they have been hailed and celebrated as heroic rebels. DAM’s musical example led to a proliferation of Palestinian hip-hop and rap groups in the West Bank and Gaza, many whom gathered secretly, especially in Gaza. Unable to reach out to audiences through traditional concerts, they reached their fans through YouTube.

Slingshot Hip Hop, a fascinating documentary by female filmmaker Jackie Reem Salloum, offers a vibrant testimony of the everyday lives and challenges of DAM’s young rap artists. DAM offers artists multiple platforms of resistance – against occupation and also against conservative traditions often imposed on youth, especially women. Young female rappers like Safa’ Hathoot performs in an environment where protest rap is unusual for women, even scandalous. In “Freedom for My Sisters”, Safa’ sings: “The Arab woman is like a wounded bird in the sky, afraid to land and to be shot by hunters, imprisoned in her own house, dying of the thirst of freedom, but only able to drink her own tears – how can they dare ask me why I cry?”

These young Palestinian female singers and musicians are pioneers in their society and offer a fresh face of new youth who are courageously embracing femininity, resistance and freedom of expression.


Theater and dance are two powerful instruments of liberation for youth and women. Under the British mandate, theater was broadly used as a vehicle of political expression and resistance in Palestine. In the aftermath of the Nakba in 1948, theaters, like many other cultural institutions, witnessed a dramatic setback that lasted decades. The revival of theater in Palestinian society has been slow to emerge. However, in the 1980s and onward, there was a revival by several families of actors and directors, and the birth of the first Palestinian contemporary theater troops.

In the 1990s, international donors began supporting cultural projects as part of the efforts of the international community to support the peace process. Artistic endeavors seemed less politically charged to foreigners, which could explain why many artistic projects attracted funders’ attention. Palestinian actors and directors often trained in Europe, the U.S. and sometimes in Israel began to open cultural centers and theaters.

Youth perform in a stage production of "The Gaza Monologues" at the Al Rowwad Camp in Bethlehem.

Theaters were often founded in refugee camps as part of youth empowerment initiatives and to offset the destructive impacts of life in the camps. Such examples include Al Rowwad Center in the Aida Camp in Bethlehem, founded by Abdelfattah Abusrour, and the Jenin Freedom Theater, founded by Juliano Mer Khamis, a Palestinian Israeli actor. The Theater “is committed to the principle that, for artist, spectator and listener, the creative process is one of embracing the unknown and rearranging reality, and that this is the first step to imagining and accepting alternatives.”

Unfortunately, these artistic initiatives are far from being widely accepted by the communities they challenge, Mer Khamis has often received death threats, and there have been several criminal attempts at setting fire to the Jenin Freedom Theater – initiated by residents of the Jenin refugee camps.


Liberating the minds and voices of young women through theater is already a courageous and dangerous step forward, but liberating their bodies an altogether radical step in a society that closely monitors the ways young women are supposed to behave. Dance appears to be one of those “final frontiers” that Palestinian youth choose to navigate and cross in defiance of moral taboos and obstacles that permeates Palestinian society.

Traditional dance is of course not the issue, as the revival of folk dance poses no threat to society and, on the contrary, has been considered an essential feature of cultural resistance to the occupation. Mastery of traditional dance forms offers young Palestinians a solid cultural education and understanding of their identity. Participation in alternative and Western dance forms (tango, salsa, modern and jazz) risks open a Pandora’s box of what is seen as free bodies and therefore free sexuality. Oriental dance such as belly dancing is one of the most sensual and provocative dances in the world, but it in many Middle Eastern countries, it is only practiced among women where they indeed enjoy dancing in all freedom far from men’s “lusting” eyes. How can young people liberate all dance forms in Palestine so they can be recognized as respectable and public artistic forms for all audiences, both male and female?

Two young people we met are ready to meet that challenge – Ahmedd Fayez Zakarne from Jenin, and Dina Awwad from Bethlehem.

Ahmedd studied English literature in the U.S. where he developing a strong interest for ballet and modern dance. In Jenin and Nablus, he teaches English, but he is determined to open a dance school. He explains,

“I would fight my own society the same as they fight the Israelis. I will in no way or condition accept their hypocrisy of fighting against an occupation enforced on them, while at the same time attempting to occupy my own mind, soul, and body.”

In Jenin’s conservative society, expression through dance is rarely seen. Ahmed is not discouraged and believes that he will find a way. In the absence of being able to offer dance classes, Ahmedd includes “controversial” topics into English language lessons such dance, sexuality, openness to other religions, traditions and national experiences, and how stereotypes and judgmentalism are always misleading. He is trying to get young people to think independently and challenge societal norms.

Evenutually, Ahmedd wants to acquire a degree in dance and establish his own dance company in the West Bank. Alternatively, Ahmedd thinks that organizing a dance school project with foreign and domestic dance instructors is also a worthy endeavor, and he acknowledges that it will take some fundraising. In either scenario, Ahmedd says his dance education is meant to be free to the students “to let nothing stand between the passion and the art.”

Dina Awwad has Italian style sensuality, à la Sofia Loren. She told us of how she wants to free the bodies and minds of her fellow Palestinian sisters from decades of repression. Dina has dreamt this for years and realizes that what has held her back is fear: fear of what people will say and what people will think. This realization hit her while attending an innovative workshop on leadership in 2010 organized by the Holy Land Trust, a forward thinking organization in Palestine in the area of social transformation. After this transformative experience, Dina believes that nothing is impossible, “you just need to believe in yourself and find the courage from within.”

Dina Awadd welcomes us to her family's historic home in Bethlehem. Like many young women in Palestine, she straddles the parallels of traditional society and freedom of expression.

Dina is embarking on a path that she believes will lead to freedom for women in Palestine. She is not talking about political freedom – she goes much further than that. Dina refers to a much more fundamental level of liberation: she is talking about sexual freedom, social freedom – just being who you are and exploring yourself and your body, something which is taboo for women in Palestine.

When Dina talks about romance, she explains how there seem to be only two possible choices for women in Palestine; follow the traditional way like your mother and grand mother (marriage, children, home); or, accept that you will intimidate men and risk being single, perhaps for life.

Dina refuses to see her life as offering only these two extreme options. She believes there is another path and another way — her way. She is prepared to create her own choices and help women realize their personal goals using dance as a method to unlock the societal chains that imprison many of the young women of Palestine.

Many thank to Dina, Abeer, Ahmedd and Abdelfattah for introducing us to their work and allowing us into their homes, communities and creative spaces.

by Anne Marie Codur
(edited by Vanessa Ortiz; photography, video editing and layout by Vanessa Ortiz)

Ahmedd Fayez Zakarne can be reached at zakarne@gmail.com or at facebook.com/ahmedd.zakarne

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Nonviolent Movements: Addressing Women’s Rights

The uplift of women and their increased participation in public policy is now widely viewed as fundamental to expanding economic growth, improving health status, reducing poverty, sustaining the environment, and consolidating democracy in societies long bowed to authoritarianism and tyranny.1

March is Women’s History Month, an annual declared month worldwide that highlights contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society.

One short piece that is quite timely in terms of the nonviolent revolutions we’re witnessing in the Arab world and beyond was drafted in the 1960’s during the U.S. civil rights movement. It is a “rationale memo” written by two civil rights activists and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Both white, the authors, Mary Elizabeth King and Casey Hayden, raised their concerns on why it was important to highlight women’s issues as part of the movement’s strategy, and why opening up dialogue about women’s rights was important.

Such ideas and comments are illustrative of conversations that are likely taking place right now in nonviolent movements around the world, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, as women struggle to be recognized and have their issues addressed.

As we contemplate engaging in the post-revolution phases of some of the  countries that are currently experiencing democratic transition, the views and roles of women should be at the forefront of our planning.

Sex and Caste – A Kind of Memo
by Casey Hayden and Mary King

November 18, 1965

We’ve talked a lot, to each other and to some of you, about our own and other women’s problems in trying to live in our personal lives and in our work as independent and creative people. In these conversations we’ve found what seems to be recurrent ideas or themes. Maybe we can look at these things many of us perceive, often as a result of insights learned from the movement: Sex and Caste: There seems to be many parallels that can be drawn between treatment of Negroes and treatment of women in our society as a whole. But in particular, women we’ve talked to who work in the movement seem to be caught up in a common-law caste system that operates, sometimes subtly, forcing them to work around or outside hierarchical structures of power which may exclude them. Women seem to be places in the same position of assumed subordination in personal situations too. It is a caste system, which, at its worst, uses and exploits women. This is complicated by several facts, among them:

1) The caste system is not institutionalized by law (women have the right to vote, to sue for divorce, etc.);
2) Women can’t withdraw from the situation (a la nationalism) or overthrow it;
3) There are biological differences (even though those biological differences are usually discussed or accepted without taking present and future technology into account so we probably can’t be sure what these differences mean). Many people who are very hip to the implications of the racial caste system, and if the question is raised they respond with: “That’s the way it supposed to be. There are biological differences.” Or with other statements which recall a white segregationist confronted with integration.

Women and problems of work;

The caste-system perspective dictates the roles assigned to women in the movement and certainly even more to women outside the movement.

Within the movement, questions arise in situations ranging from relationships of women organizers to men in the community, to who cleans the freedom house, to who holds leadership positions, to who does secretarial work, and who acts as spokesman for groups. Other problems arise between women with varying degrees of awareness of themselves as being as capable as men but held back from full participation, or between women who see themselves as needing more control of their work than other women demand. And there are problems with relationships between white women and black women.

Women and personal relationships with men:

Having learn from the movement to think radically about the personal worth and abilities of people whose role in society had gone unchallenged before, a lot of women in the movement have begun trying to apply those lessons of their own relations with men.

Each of us probably has her own story of the various results, and of the internal struggle occasioned by trying to break out of very deeply learned fears, needs, and self-perceptions, and of what happens when we try to replace them with concepts of people and freedom learned from the movement and organizing.

Institutions: Nearly everyone has real question about those institutions which shape perspectives on men and women: marriage, child-rearing patterns, women’s (and men’s) magazines (etc.) People are beginning to think about and even to experiment with new forms in these areas.

Men’s reactions to the questions raised here: A very few men seem to feel, when they hear conversations involving these problems, that they have a right to be present and participate in them, since they are so deeply involved. At the same time, very few men can respond non-defensively, since the whole idea is either beyond their comprehension or threatens and exposes them. The usual response is laughter. The inability to see the whole issue as serious, as the strait-jacketing of both sexes, and as societally determined often shapes our own response so that we learn to think in their terms about ourselves and to feel silly rather than truth our own inner feelings. The problems we’re listing here, and what others have said about them, are therefore largely drawn from conversations among women only – and that difficulty in establishing dialogue with men is a recurring theme among people we’ve talked to.

Lack of communication for discussion: Nobody is writing or organizing or talking publicly about women, in any way that reflects the problems that various women in the movement came across and which we’ve tried to touch above. Consider this quote from an article in the centennial issue of The Nation:

. . . . However equally we consider men and women, the work plans for husbands and wives cannot be given equal weight. A woman should not aim for a “second-level career” because she is a woman; from girlhood on she should recognize that, if she is also going to be a wife and mother, she will not be able to give as much to her work as she would if single. That is, she should not feel that she cannot aspire to directing the laboratory simply because she is a woman, but rather because she is a wife and mother; as such, her work as a lab technician (or the equivalent in another field) should bring both satisfaction and the knowledge that, through it, she is fulfilling an additional role, making an additional contribution . . . .

And that’s about as deep as the analysis goes publicly, which is not nearly as deep as we’ve heard many of you go in chance conversations.

The reason we want to try to open up dialogue is mostly subjective. Working in the movement often intensifies personal problems, especially if we start trying to apply things we’re learning there to our personal lives. Perhaps we can start to talk with each other so we can deal with ourselves and others with integrity and can therefore keep working. Objectively, the chances seem nil that we could start a movement based on anything as distant to general American thought as a sex-caste system. Therefore, most of us will probably want to work full-time on the problems such as was, poverty, race. The very fact that the country can’t face, much less deal with, the questions we’re raising means that the movement is one place to look for some relief. Real efforts at dialogue within the movement and with whatever liberal groups, community women, or students listen are justified. That is, all the problems of women functioning in society as equal human beings are among the most basic that people face. We’ve talked in the movement about trying to build a society which would see basic human problems (which are now seen as private troubles), as public problems and would try to shape the institutions to meet human needs rather than shaping people to meet the needs of those with power. To raise questions like those above illustrates very directly that society hasn’t dealt with some of its deepest problems and opens discussion of why that is so. (In one sense, it is a radicalizing question that can take people beyond legalistic solutions into areas of personal and institutional change.)

The second objective reason we’d like to see discussion begin is that we’ve learned a great deal in the movement and perhaps this is one area where a determined attempt to apply ideas we’ve learned there can produce some new alternatives.

1.  Mary E. King, “What Difference Does It Make? Gender as a Tool in Building Peace,” in Gender and Peace Building in Africa, ed. Dina Rodriguez and Edith Natukunda-Togboa (Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica: University for Peace, 2005).

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