by Sanam Anderlini

This short article was published in “Expansion or Contraction? Women’s Rights in the MENA Region in 2015” (Wilson Center, 8 March 2015). The full publication is available here.

2014 was a tough year in the MENA and Asia region, and 2015 will not be much better. Apart from Tunisia, where women fought successfully against the rising tide of conservatism, women — especially civil society human rights and peace activists — find themselves caught in the crosshairs of both non-state extremists and heavy-handed state authoritarianism. In Libya, many activists have fled after finding themselves on militias’ kill lists. In Iraq, ISIS continues to assert its authority, blatantly and grotesquely abusing women in the areas it controls. Local women’s organizations are overwhelmed with the demands of displaced and fleeing populations. In Egypt, the military regime continues to persecute and jail activists and journalists. In Syria, the war goes on and on, leaving widows in its wake.The irony is that while the international community claims to value women’s rights and respect women’s voices, it is the extremists who understand the power and influence of women. They actively recruit women to spread their ideology, while targeting and seeking to silence those who challenge them and speak out for equality.

Despite the risks, many activists are remaining at the frontlines. They focus on the sources of the problems: pushing back against discriminatory legislation, challenging false representations of religion and tradition and providing alternative narratives, and still trying to hold their governments accountable to human rights provisions. Recognizing that unemployment and frustration are key drivers of extremism and militancy among young men, some women are demobilizing militias and de-radicalizing young men by offering them work and a means of serving their communities.

The activists are exhausted and overwhelmed. But they recognize this is a critical juncture in their history. They will not let the future be shaped by autocrats, extremists, or international actors pursuing their own interests. So, in 2015, they will continue to pursue a vision of their countries that is rooted in respect for human rights, pluralism, peace, and democracy. As we mark 20 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and 15 years since the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, the international community should, once and for all, listen to the women. They are leading by example.

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