International Women’s Day: Feminism and Sorority in the Gulf

Image of participants from webinar

By ECDHR staff

On March 8th, 2022, International Women’s Day, ECDHR hosted a webinar with an all-women panel, entitled Women’s Solidarity in Human Rights Activism: Storytelling from the Arab Peninsula. The event was held in collaboration with the International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates (ICFUAE), ALQST, and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), within the proceedings of the Alternative Human Rights Expo.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we chose the topic of sorority among Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) as the guiding thread for the event. The feminist concept of sorority was defined during the second wave of feminism (1960-1980) “as a bond of female brotherhood that would overcome the differences of class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and nationality, putting gender before any other existential condition[1]”. At ECDHR, we indeed believe that the differences in the level and forms of gender inequality that women face around the world should not prevent us from sharing a common struggle.

Western feminism has often imposed its understanding of both gender oppression and liberation, neglecting the voices of women with less influence but similar yearnings for change. Thus, when choosing the format of the event, both the organisers and speakers felt that the best way to create sorority and challenge systems of oppression was through storytelling, as this provided speakers a space to share their collective experiences and struggles as WHRD in the Gulf countries. During the event, the strength of the voices and stories of these women captivated the audience and served to be a powerful example of the potentiality of sorority.

After the introductory remarks of Member of the European Parliament Alessandra Moretti, which reminded the audience of the importance of EU institutions for the promotion of women’s rights, the panel started with Habiba Al-Hinai, a WHRD from Oman. Habiba soon captivated her audience with her stories of feminist combats. She shared with the public the discriminations lived under patriarchal Omani personal status laws which continue, to this day, to deprive women of the right to pass their nationality to their children. She talked about her international advocacy work to change this ruthless system that treats Omani women as second-class citizens. Additionally, she mentioned that during her work she has often denounced the international community for turning a blind eye to the Omani people’s democratic demands of 2011, prioritising national interests before the rights and freedoms of Gulf citizens. In such an international context of impunity, the Omani government has escalated its use of harassment and reprisals against women for their advocacy work. Whilst having personally experienced these targeted reprisals, her determination to continue fighting for women’s rights is an inspiration for younger generations.

Habiba’s intervention was followed by Hala Al-Dosari, a WHRD from Saudi Arabia. As many Saudi WHRD, “growing up in Saudi Arabia traumatised her into feminism.” The staggering limitations on Saudi women’s freedoms have long been a central theme to feminist international advocacy, however, it was shocking to hear Hala’s description of the extent to which women are dependent on their male guardians and discriminated against. For instance, most non-Gulf citizens are unaware that women are unable to work night shifts due to family and travel restrictions. The economic dependence which women are forced into makes them vulnerable to domestic violence and abuse.

Once the dramatic situation of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia was summarised, Hala described her efforts to build an advocacy community. It is indeed thanks to social media that her activism has been amplified. She has been able to build an advocacy community and has achieved great successes such as the right for Saudi women to drive. The Saudi government has obviously not been compliant with such successful activism, rather it has targeted and silenced WHRD through numerous campaigns of repression. The only voices allowed are those affiliated with the royal family, who promote the narrative of economic and social progress that serves to further the government’s diplomatic and economic interests. Currently exiled to the US, Hala still faces harassment for her advocacy work.

Radya Al-Mutawakel, a WHRD from Yemen, described the growing challenges faced by women in the country. Since 2014, Yemen has been home to a brutal war involving armed groups and the Saudi-led military coalition. Radya’s recount was especially poignant: she recalled how past successes in the implementation of women’s rights have been abruptly erased by the brutality of war. In fact, human rights and women’s rights can flourish and be ensured only in a country where social institutions and the rule of law dictate social life. But in war, no rule of law exists. Women’s rights are instead at the mercy of armed groups. Survival has become the priority, and rights have regrettably become a luxury. Radya shared her fears that women’s rights will further shrink because of the conflict: in particular, starvation and sexual violence have become weapons of war employed by all parties to the conflict. While the scenario described appears hopeless, Radya and WHRD in Yemen lack neither hope nor resilience.

The last speaker, Jenan Almarzooqi a WHRD from the United Arab Emirates currently living in the United States, could not attend live, but shared her call for solidarity in a recorded speech. The discrimination and injustice her family have been subjected to for the sole reason of having asked for democratic reforms has driven her to the advocacy world. As one of the few women human rights defenders from the UAE still free to advocate for women’s rights, she has oftentimes felt isolated. She, therefore, calls for unity and sorority among Gulf WHRD to pursue broader and more effective actions. She ended by commemorating WHRDs that are no longer with us, and by acknowledging the courage of those that are still serving prison sentences.

The speakers and the moderators then engaged in a brief discussion concerning the best strategies to adopt, so as to amplify Gulf WHRD’s voices and work. Most importantly, they highlighted the need to oppose those domineering voices that propagate the regimes’ narratives. The authoritarian GCC governments have indeed attempted to monopolise and dilute the human rights discourse by promoting a façade of international commitments. However, foreign countries should not allow themselves to be seduced by these narratives, they should instead provide a platform for independent WHRDs and take measures to enhance their freedom of expression. Oftentimes exiled in foreign countries, or silenced in their homelands, Gulf WHRD would benefit from uniting. Accordingly, Habiba Al-Hinai proposed setting up a Women’s Gulf Committee as an umbrella organisation to facilitate collective action in this regard.

Finally, during the event the audience had the occasion to connect with WHRDs, listen and learn from their experiences, and gain valuable insights into the obstacles they face.

[1] Sorority – Concept, origin, etymology and feminism – Daily Concepts (conceptdaily.com)

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