Countries in the MENA region are not alone in denying women’s rights and persecuting women activists. But the combination of authoritarian regimes, patriarchal norms, and conflict and militarization puts women defenders at heightened risk. Since 2020, COVID-19 has added to the burden on women while distracting the world from rights abuses.
The Democracy Index classifies the majority of countries in the Middle East and North Africa as “authoritarian”. CIVICUS estimates that eight out of ten people in the region live in countries where governments violate the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression. The stifling of dissent and closure of civic space take many forms, including widespread surveillance and laws that limit speech, mobility, and collective action. Media and the Internet are widely regulated and monitored. Cybercrime laws have been used to charge and detain human rights activists in several countries. And women human rights defenders are today facing an unprecedented crackdown.
Patriarchy is deeply embedded in social norms, reinforcing the supremacy of men as household heads, income earners, and decision-makers. In many countries, restrictions on women’s choices and movements are encoded in legal frameworks, including family or “personal status” laws, laws governing property ownership and inheritance, and citizenship laws. Guardianship laws put male relatives in charge of women’s movements and personal choices. Of the 20 lowest ranking countries on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, 12 are in the MENA region, with Iraq and Yemen in last place.
Much of the region has been touched by conflict in the 21st century. Even as their lives are upended by the violence and displacement of war, WHRDs’ ability to organize is undermined by repressive measures justified in the name of “security”. The use of force and violence are normalized by war, and violent masculinities are entrenched. Human rights defenders working in conflict zones in the region face threats and assassination. Sexual and gender-based violence is widely used as a weapon of war. Women also bear the brunt of the massive social disruption as people are uprooted. Collectively, states in the Middle East and North Africa hold a quarter of the world’s conflict-displaced population.
And, adding to all of that, since 2020 COVID-19 has exposed and heightened gender inequalities in the region. It is deepening the confinement and abuse experienced by women, while reducing funding and space for rights defenders. WHRDs are seeing human rights and equity issues pushed off the table. At the same time, they fear for the lives of fellow activists imprisoned for their work, who face new dangers in overcrowded and unsafe jails.
“… sometimes you feel burnt out. It’s tiring to always think about if and how you can do something because everything that you think you can do might actually jeopardize the women you work with or your organization. How do you sustain and maintain your very existence while at the same time change the patriarchal views? … How do you change social norms when the government has all the tools – the media, the laws – that put out the ideas that degrade women.”
Former Director, Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre, Sudan
“Governments monitor and control all activities. They do this because they are afraid. They monitor and control everything Even if you are working for the environment. Even if you are working to educate children. Even if you are working to raise human rights awareness. The government feels insecure and shuts down civic space.”
Iranian lawyer, human rights advocate, and human rights expert
"The civil society that does exist is totally monopolized by the Assad regime and acts on his behalf. The Syrian regime, after all the crimes it committed, has managed to close down civil society and women human rights defenders.”
Syrian activist and lawyer. Co-founder of the Syrian Women’s Network and the Syrian Women’s Political Movement
“It used to be that women were excluded from the peace process because they … didn’t have enough chairs to accommodate us … Now we are being told that they don’t have the bandwidth to include women.”
Director of the Peace Track Initiative, Human Rights Research and Educational Centre, University of Ottawa