Why does the world ignore violence against Arab women in public spaces?

2019-09-08 08:21:01


One morning, Enas Abdel Wanis was about to leave home to go to work at the National Council for Civil Liberties and Human Rights (NCCHR) in Benghazi, in , when she discovered her car had been burnt. Her crime had been to advocate for better security for civilians and the disarmament of militias that had been terrorising her city. Since then, Wanis has had to comply with the security restrictions set by her family: to do her job (document and monitor human rights violations), she now has to be chaperoned by her father on field visits.

It is the same story in Yemen, where Morooj Alwazir, co-founder of , says: "It is a struggle to even be part of society, it is a struggle to speak your mind, to feel safe in your own neighbourhood, your only safe space is your bedroom."

While the deteriorating security situation is hard for everyone, Alwazir says it is especially hard for women, whom it discourages from leaving their homes. Women who have lost husbands in the conflict in find they are stigmatised, and opportunities to earn a living are severely restricted because the streets are unsafe. "Every time I am on my way to the airport, I feel like civil war is about to happen tomorrow. I see trucks and trucks of weapons coming into the country – it is very scary," Alwazir says.

In , people's lives have been brought almost to a standstill by the breakdown of security over the past three years. Many poor women working in the informal sector who regularly buy their stock from large markets to sell on in their neighbourhoods are unable to make a living: commuting outside their immediate vicinity risks theft and abuse by thugs. When girls and women are harassed in public spaces, few dare to intervene in case the attackers are armed.

The situation is similar in . Samah Krichah, a Tunisian activist and board member of thinktank the Democratic Lab, also tells of how police do nothing to hold perpetrators of violence in check in a context where women's mobility has been severely limited by the rise in political violence and armed militia, enabled by the flow of weapons from Libya. Since 2012, new groups such as the ultra-radical Islamist Salafis, have claimed the authority to verbally (and sometimes physically) "chastise" unveiled women, acting in a typically militia-like fashion.

Yet neither the themes nor the narratives of this year's , which focuses on militarism, come close to recognising the way in which the absence of human security and rule of law is creating a perfect environment for the perpetuation of violence against women in Arab countries that have experienced tumultuous change.

The campaign rightly points to the evils of militarism, but makes no mention of how the dismantlement or weakening of armies has opened borders in Libya, Yemen and Iraq to the infiltration of terrorist networks that have targeted women in their campaigns to purify communities of everything they consider to be "un-Islamic".

The 16-day anti-violence campaign refers to the state's responsibility in perpetuating violence, and justifiably so: the dysfunctional role of the police in protecting women from violence on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Iraq is a flagrant violation of their most basic citizenship rights. However, the campaign makes no mention of militias and their role in terrorising women.

For example, the role of the army and male protesters in sexually assaulting women, but completely omits to mention the sexual assault endured by women at the hands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements in December 2012 and since then.

The fad in western donor circles these days is to support democratisation programmes in "transition" Arab countries that focus on women in the constitution and women's political participation. While both are of pivotal importance to women's long-term empowerment, we cannot afford to become disconnected from the realities they are experiencing now.

The absence of basic security on the streets is hindering women's ability to work, to get an education, to be politically active or to attend to their family and community needs. The absence of security also directly or indirectly affects the ability of the male members of their households to earn a living, which may cause conflict at home. It has ripped families apart as people leave Libya and Egypt in droves in search of a life that offers relief from violence and economic instability. Often, it is the women who get left behind.

This vicious cycle can be stopped only by announcing nationwide campaigns to disarm militias, clear these countries of weapons, reform the security apparatus and declare a new law of the land. Without this, our efforts to counter gender-based violence will remain disconnected from women's priorities.