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#SheDefends: Honouring Middle Eastern activists on International Women Human Rights Defenders Day Open in fullscreen

Shams Al-Shakarchi

#SheDefends: Honouring Middle Eastern activists on International Women Human Rights Defenders Day

Women in the Middle East have fought - and sacrificed - for freedom [Twitter/Getty]

Date of publication: 29 November, 2017

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There is a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the Middle East, but progress - and sacrifice - has been made by brave women human rights defenders.
While thousands of men defend human rights, women face unique challenges for their activism. They are targeted not just because they are demanding change, but because they are women.

Driven by deep-rooted discrimination against them and stereotypes about their appropriate role in public life and politics, they are more prone to attack than men because they are seen as breaking conservative social norms.

November 29 is International Women Human Rights Defenders Day and has been marked with tributes to women worldwide who bravely fight for their rights.

Over the last few months in the Middle East there has been cause for celebration for those who have seen their fight succeed. 

Leading Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif was arrested and threatened as she campaigned to get women behind the wheel. The struggle never stopped and in September, the kingdom finally lifted the ban.

"It's just the start to end long-standing unjust laws have always considered Saudi women minors who are not trusted to drive their own destiny," Sharif posted on her website.

Also in Saudi Arabia, while no laws were changed, Saudi women still celebrated a significant milestone in the campaign to end male guardianship, when rights activist Maryam al-Otaibi was freed from 104 days' detention without a male guardian to bail her out, in an apparent first for the kingdom.

In Lebanon, women's rights group KAFA celebrated the scrapping of a controversial law (joining Jordan and Tunisia) that allowed rapists who marry their victims to go free. But activists said it was only a small step towards ending violence against women in the country and will continue to push the government for reforms.

Despite progress made in 2017, stark injustices against women in the Middle East remain.

The lack of protection and access to justice, and little political support from male-dominated governments for their causes has meant those determined to fight could find themselves in the hands of the authorities.

Most recently, on November 10, the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh sentenced activist Naima Al-Matrood to six years in jail followed by a six-year travel ban.

Matrood was arrested in April 2016 and charged with allegedly participating in a number of anti-state demonstrations and rallies, being linked to a media cell, and violating public order by creating two social networking accounts on Twitter and Facebook to demand the release of some detainees, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights said.

In Iran, Atena Daemi, has been imprisoned since November 2016 after being convicted of charges including "gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security, "spreading propaganda against the system", and "insulting the supreme leader".

Fellow Iranian Narges Mohammadi remains in jail for campaigning to abolish the death penalty.

In Syria, Razan Zaitouneh and Samira Al-Khalil were kidnapped in 2013 and have been held since. A lawyer, Zaitouneh was defending political prisoners in Syria since 2001. 

Now released on bail, Bahraini activist Ebtisam al-Sayegh was arrested for retweeting a series of posts critical of Bahrain's king and its security agency and charged later the same month with "terrorism".

International Women Human Rights Defenders Day has also this year remembered the agents of change who paid the ultimate price.

Shifa Gardi was a reporter for the Kurdish channel Rudaw. She was killed by a roadside bomb on February 25 while covering the battle for Mosul in Iraq. Rudaw said that Gardi, 30, had broken the stereotypes of male-dominated journalism.

Orouba Barakat was a prominent human rights activist and member of the Syrian National Coalition. Since the 1980s, she had opposed the regimes of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad.

In September, Barakat and her daughter, Halla, a journalist, were stabbed in their home in Istanbul.

And Aysin Büyüknohutçu, a Turkish environmental defender and farmer, was actively involved in local politics and the legal and civil fight against stone quarries in Antalya. Büyüknohutçu, along with her husband – also a well-known environmental activist – led a campaign and lawsuit against a marble quarry, managing to get its operations shut down. She and her husband were murdered in May at their home.

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