The Incredible Courage of Women Human Rights Defenders in the Middle East

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Zainab Al-Khawaja & her daughter Jude / Razan Zaitouneh

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is an independent, non-profit and non-governmental organisation that works to provide support and protection to human rights defenders (including independent journalists, bloggers, lawyers, etc.) in the Gulf region and its neighbouring countries by promoting freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. This post was originally published on December 10, 2014, and an edited version is republished on Global Voices with permission.

On International Human Rights Day, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) paid tribute to the courage of women human rights defenders across the Gulf region and its neighbouring countries. The region is not hospitable to human rights defenders in general and women are even more at risk in some of the most dangerous countries in the world to speak your mind, such as Iraq, where a critical comment can get you killed; or Syria, where being a human rights defender means risking your life and liberty; or Bahrain, where tearing a photo of the king could land you in jail for seven years; or Saudi Arabia, where women have been arrested for trying to drive; or Iran, where protesting about acid attacks on women will incur punishment.

The crisis in Iraq and Syria has made the wider Gulf region more unstable and the situation of women human rights defenders even more dangerous, particularly with the rise of the Islamic state group known as ISIS. As ISIS has spread across Iraq and Syria, women have been murdered or even enslaved.

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One example of the widespread damage that ISIS inflicted on ancient Mosul

On 22 September 2014, Iraqi lawyer and women’s human rights defender Samira Saleh Al-Naimi was murdered by a group of masked armed men belonging to ISIS, who opened fire and killed her in a public square in the very heart of Mosul. GCHR reported that she was kidnapped by ISIS from her home the week before after she described the widespread damage that ISIS inflicted on ancient Mosul as “barbaric”.

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Razan, Wa'el, Samira and Nazim

The capacity of human rights defenders to carry out their work within conflict zones and elsewhere in Syria has been severely restricted. Women’s human rights defenders have been jailed or kidnapped, like Razan Ghazzawi or Razan Zaitouneh, and driven into exile or hiding in Syria since the conflict began.

This week also marks one year since Zaitouneh and her three colleagues from the human rights monitoring group that she heads, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), were abducted in Duma, a city near Damascus under the control of armed opposition groups. Zaitouneh, a lawyer, has defended political prisoners in Syria since 2001 and since the beginning of the crisis in 2011 has played a key role documenting violations. GCHR joined over 50 other NGOs calling for the release of Zaitouneh, Wa’el Hamada, who is also her husband, Samira Khalil and Nazem Hamadi. 

Civil society activists, humanitarian aid workers, writers, journalists, lawyers and those who document human rights violations are deliberately targeted by all parties to the conflict. Tens of thousands have been detained in dire conditions, many dying in prison. Reports of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and systematic torture, including rape, and other ill-treatment at the hands of both government security forces and armed opposition groups were received by GCHR since the conflict began in 2011.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has also documented violence, including sexual assault, against women in Syria at the hands of government forces, ISIS, Kurdish fighters and other armed opposition groups. In a recent report, they note that Syrian women hold an important role as human rights defenders — documenting violations, organising protests and offering humanitarian aid — in many cases also becoming the sole providers for their families.


It is not only in countries with open civil war where women are suffering. In Bahrain, women’s equality is fairly advanced, particularly compared to Saudi Arabia. Women have the right to drive, be elected to Parliament, hold high-level professional jobs and even become ministers — but women also can be fired from their jobs, jailed and even tortured alongside men.

A week before elections were held on 22 November, over a dozen young women were arrested in Bahrain, some during highly traumatising night raids, including two pregnant women and one woman with a baby. According to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), they were charged with “establishing and organising a public referendum” for organising polls before the elections, yet some of them were reportedly tortured and severely mistreated.

In addition, the Bahraini Ministry of Interior continues to detain Zahra Al-Shaikh and her baby, who was born prematurely and has health issues. She is reportedly mentally distressed and suffering greatly. She was arrested on 27 October 2014 as she visited her husband in jail, and charged with illegal gathering. She has been arrested several other times in violation to her right to freedom of assembly.

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Maryam Al-Khawaja & Zainab Al-Khawaja

Zainab Al-Khawaja, a leading Bahraini human rights campaigner, gave birth last month barely a week after being freed from jail. She was sentenced to three years in prison on 4 December for ripping a photo of the king during one of her many hearings on 14 October, and then sentenced in other cases on 9 December to 16 months in prison effective immediately on charges of insulting a public servant and destroying public property. She had been freed on 19 November following international advocacy on her behalf by GCHR, BCHR and many other NGOs and members of European Parliament. She also has three hearings on 9 December and faces five other charges which, according to her lawyer, clearly violate her right to free expression.

Her sister Maryam Al-Khawaja, co-director of the GCHR, was also jailed for 19 days upon arrival in Bahrain on 30 August and falsely charged with assaulting two policewomen. She was given a one-year prison sentence on 1 December, in a trial which she boycotted. In reality, Al-Khawaja herself was assaulted and her shoulder muscle torn, yet nobody has been called to account for this assault. She had made the trip to try to see her father, whose life was at risk following a hunger strike in prison. 

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Ghada Jamsheer

Also in Bahrain, women’s human rights defender Ghada Jamsheer was jailed on 15 September 2014 on charges of defamation via Twitter after she tweeted about corruption at King Hamad University Hospital, which is headed by a member of the ruling family. She was released this week but re-arrested within hours on sham charges, to the great distress of her mother and daughter. Jamsheer is the president of the Women's Petition Committee (WPC), a network of Bahraini women human rights defenders who campaign for the codification of Bahrain’s family laws and their reform. 

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Souad Al-Shammari

Saudi Arabia

In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, women’s rights are severely restricted, and it is risky to advocate for women’s rights in any way. According to the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia women’s rights defender Souad Al-Shammari was arrested on 28 October 2014 in Jeddah. She was interrogated for tweets she published on her Twitter account and faces alleged charges of “calling upon society to disobey by describing society as masculine” as well as “using sarcasm while mentioning religious texts and religious scholars.”

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Dr. Hala Al-Doseri

Women who advocate for the right to drive have been arrested, interrogated, defamed, had their cars confiscated, and faced serious family conflicts due to the authority's insistence on involving their guardians in their activities, reported Dr. Hala Aldosari, a women’s rights defender who worked on the Saudi Women’s Driving Campaign. She spoke at a UN side event in September 2014, organised with GCHR, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), CIVICUS, and the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA).

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Samar Badawi and her husband Waleed Abu Al-Khair

Saudi human rights defender Samar Badawi also travelled to Geneva for the 27th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council in September to raise awareness of women’s rights as well as the many human rights defenders who are currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, including her husband and brother.

“We ask for the right of women to be elected, to drive vehicles,” she said.

She told the UN Council that it “bears the responsibility” for human rights violations in Saudi Arabia “because Saudi Arabia is a member of the Council.” She has previously been jailed in Saudi Arabia for her women’s rights activism, and was banned from travel on 2 December while preparing to fly to Belgium for the 16th European Union (EU) NGOs Forum on Human Rights.

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Nasrin Sotoudeh


Moving to Iran, women human rights defenders are routinely jailed, interrogated, threatened and harassed for their work. Following protests against acid attacks on women that were held in Tehran and Isfahan on 22 October, a number of women’s rights activists were detained including prominent human rights defender and lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. Both protests ended in the violent beating and arrest of several activists as well as the use of tear gas to disperse the crowds that had gathered.

Mahdieh Golrou, a student, human rights and women’s activist as well as a member of the Council for Defense of Educational Rights, was arrested after a raid on her house following her rigorous participation in the acid attacks protests. She had stated on one of her Facebook posts after the protests: “I am a woman. I am an Iranian woman who is afraid and is always worried. […] I am a woman, and these days, my womanhood scares me.”

This is only a small sample of the threats that women human rights defenders face across the region, one of the most restrictive areas on earth to be a woman, let alone a woman who dares to speak out against human rights violations. The GCHR is campaigning for an end to judicial harassment of women human rights defenders, including their jailing and sentencing on trumped up charges, as well as for an end to all attacks on women human rights defenders in the Gulf region.

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