In Saudi Arabia, reports of torture of women’s rights activists

Loujain Al-Hathloul

Women’s and human rights activists, who have been arrested and arbitrarily detained for their activism, are being abused in Saudi Arabia prisons. Amnesty International obtained new reports of torture and escalating abuse of human rights activists who had been detained since May 2018. Their testimony matched earlier Amnesty reports concerning ten activist women prisoners who were tortured in November 2018. The new reports document that the incarcerated have been subjected to torture, including sexual abuse, during their first three months of detention, when they were detained informally in an unknown location. “One woman activist was wrongly told by an interrogator that her family members had died, and was made to believe this for an entire month. According to another account, two activists were forced to kiss each other while interrogators watched. One activist reported that interrogators had forced water into her mouth as she was shouting while being torture. Others reported being tortured with electric shocks.” 

Earlier reports state that while informally detained, activists were tortured with electric shocks and flogged repeatedly, which caused some to be unable to walk or even stand properly. More recent reports expand the number of activists who have experienced such torture while in prison. 

The activists – including Loujain al-Hathloul; Eman al-Nahjan; Aziza al-Yousef; Shadan al-Anezi; and Nouf Abdulaziz – were moved from the Dhahban Prison in Jeddag to Al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh. Other activists, including Samar Badawi and Amal al-Harbi, are still in Dhahban Prison. Nassima al-Sada was moved to al-Mabahith Prison in Damman. All activists have been detained for months without being formally charged or referred to trial. The crackdown on human rights activists saw a wave of arrests and raids of political and activist organizations, including the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, human rights lawyers and academics. 

Saudi Arabia has dismissed Amnesty’s claims, calling them baseless while also defending their use of their own independent investigation into the allegations. Saudi backed investigators visited the women in prison and interviewed the detainees. Given Saudi Arabia’s involvement  in the killing of journalist and regime-critic Jamal Khashoggi and the high-profile case of 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammad, the latest cases of human rights abuses from the Saudi regime could damage their ability “to attract foreign investment” and so any State-sponsored investigations are highly suspect.

The women and activists detained are being used as political pawns for good international PR in Saudi Arabia. Insiders have hoped that the women will be released in time to coincide with a signification international event, like the 2020 G20 Summit set to be held in Riyadh. They hope the Saudi regime will attempt to wrap up any more “embarrassing things” on the international stage before the meeting is set to take place. Activists like Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo, and groups of other academics, are working to nominate al-Hatloul for the Nobel Peace Prize, with the hope that the importance of the nomination highlights “a young person who wants nothing more than to see half of her country have the same legal rights as the other half.” 

(Photo Credit: CBC)

Hats off Madame Simone Veil!

In France, feminists and humanists are mourning Simone Veil, the emblematic woman who in 1975 presented and defended her abortion bill in the almost exclusively masculine French parliament.

She has been perceived as a rebel and she would say that she never accepted that women had restrictive rights. As a young magistrate in charge of prisons from 1957 to 1964, she changed the extremely repressive conditions of women in prison. During the Algerian War, she acted for the rights of Algerian political prisoners putting in place a strategy to curtail the execution of male Algerian prisoners on death row. Meanwhile she also worked to stop the mistreatment of Algerian female political prisoners, regrouping them in a special unit under far better conditions where they were able to pursue their education.

Simone Veil knew what being in prison meant, having been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau when she was 16 along with one of her sisters and her mother, who died in 1945 from exhaustion and typhus after they had been transferred to Bergen-Belsen. She survived the worst with an extreme desire to salute and respect life. She always said that she kept the memory of her inspiring mother at her side always, especially in her fight for the respect of women’s and human rights.

Among her other achievements at her various positions in the French administration was the recognition of dual parental control and family legal matters, rights for single mothers and their children, and adoption rights for women.

In 1974 Simone Veil became the first female full minister in a French government. The previous attempt to have women in an administration occurred during Leon Blum’s Front Populaire government in 1936 with 3 women nominated “sous secretaire d’etat” (Undersecretary of State). At the time women did not have the right to vote in France.

Simone Veil’s first legislation was to have contraception recognized in the French Health care system, removing the financial burden of contraception.

The event that made her feminist stand highly visible was “la loi Veil”, the bill to legalize abortion in France, that passed on January 17, 1975. Remarkably, she was in a center right government. The bill was fully supported by the left but not by the members of her own party and she needed some of their votes to pass it.

The bill itself was cautious and called for improvement but it represented a necessary start. France had some of the most restrictive laws for women with the Code Napoleon still wielding its patriarchal control of the nation. However, things were changing, feminist movements were increasingly visible and the solidarity for the recognition of sexual and reproductive rights in the French law was total.

Importantly, the principles for the existence of the bill didn’t revolve around the right to privacy but rather around the social impact of the code of silence and hypocritical stand against women’s right to access abortion. About 300 women would die every year in France from botched abortions. The slogan “abortion to the rich and punishment for the poor” was chanted in demonstrations for abortion rights.

With this bill, Simone Veil placed abortion in a context of contraception and not murder while addressing the responsibility of society in confronting the social needs of women of all socio-economic backgrounds, including elements such as financial coverage of pregnancies, childcare, and health care. She later established paid maternity-leave.

Simone Veil relied on a strong feminist movement of solidarity to achieve the advancement of women’s rights. For instance, in 1972, the lawyer Gisèle Alimi transformed a trial against a young woman who had an abortion after a rape and the women who helped her, including her mother, into a political scene for the cause of women’s rights. She had supported Simone Veil in defending the rights of the Algerian women prisoners, and remained her eternal ally and vice versa, although being from different political sides.

During the debate, Simone Veil asserted that the fetus was not yet a full human being. She used the WHO statistics about pregnancies and the flimsiness of life, to remind that 45 pregnancies out of 100 miscarried during the 2 first weeks of pregnancy. She emphasized the embryo as a becoming not a being, as opposed to the woman who is pregnant. She claimed that the legalization of abortion was an absolute necessity to keep order while normalizing the role of women in the society.

Despite all her precautions, she had to face the most violent opposition from her own party, with anti-Semitic, racist and sexist slurs invoking images of Nazi times against her. She explained later that she found her strength in the memory of her mother and her own battle to stay alive. In 2008, in an interview, she said that she still received hate mail for her role in the liberalization of abortion in France. But she never flinched.

While Minister of Health she continued her battle for the women’s workplace rights, imposing recognition of the status of nurses and other positions in majority held by women. She also pushed for the increased presence of women in medical institutions at the upper level.

She was also a staunch supporter of reconciliation between France and Germany and an architect of the European Union. In 1979, she became the first woman President of the European Parliament. There she worked restlessly for male-female parity in politics. She always believed that affirmative action was the only way to change the mentalities and to guarantee better presence of women in every section of the society. She always reminded people that it would benefit the entire society.

In 1995, after the scandalous episode of the “juppettes” (short skirt) terms that symbolized the exclusion of women from Chirac’s administration, Simone Veil was part of group of ten women, five from the right and five from the left, who had held ministerial responsibilities to work on a manifesto to obtain female-male parity in public representation. They asked the candidates to the next presidential election to sign it. The female-male parity is now in the Constitution.

In 2008 after being elected at the Académie Francaise, she reflected on the situation of women in society, acknowledging that although access to contraception and abortion were crucial for the independence of women, women were still the target of basic discriminations: workplace inequality, underrepresentation in positions of power, undervalued societal roles and often perceived as fillers.  She ended that interview by recognizing that the way for women’s rights was long and added that the climate was still not in favor of women.

Simone Veil has been described as a radical feminist and a radical humanist. She described herself as French Jewish laic woman who rebelled against male domination and all sorts of domination and adopted the European ideal “united in diversity.” She practiced solidarity with a resolute vigor always joining the cause of the defense of the most vulnerable.  May her courage and unshakable capacity to denounce sexism and xenophobia and to build coherent resistance be an inspiration at the time of constant challenges for human and women’s dignity. Hats off Madame Veil!

 

(Photo Credit: Le Monde)

It’s election time in France, and women’s rights are on the agenda!

Laura Slimani

It is election time in France! It is a decidedly contested race, and women’s rights have gained some visibility in this unsettled political context.

Marine Le Pen, the extreme right wing candidate has used deceiving methods to attract women’s votes while her party’s anti women’s rights vote at the European parliament reach a perfect score. The website “Womens’rights against extreme rights” was launched at the beginning of the campaign to debunk her fraudulent claims.

In an unusual move for France, the right wing candidate Francois Fillon made religious claims on women’s right to abortion, demonstrating its reluctance to apply strong public policies to improve women’s rights.

The center right candidate Emmanuel Macron former minister of Finance in Hollande’s administration has defended measures that have increased women’s precarity. Still, as a candidate he claims that he will support women’s rights in general terms.

Candidates on the left, such as Benoit Hamon or Jean Luc Melenchon have shown more determination to articulate a program that includes important feminist demands. Melenchon’s campaign published a document entitled: “Equality between women and men, to abolish patriarchy”. Hamon’s campaign has produced documents as well. Both are very similar in their approach to increase representation of women.

We talked with Laura Slimani, a spokesperson in Hamon’s campaign, and she shared with us some of their vision on women’s rights.

 

(Photo Credit: Huffington Post / AFP) (Interview by author)

For women’s rights and gender equality, the State must spend time and energy to change people’s minds

Najat Vallaud Belkacem

Najat Vallaud Belkacem’s first position in government was as Minister of Women’s Rights, in Francois Hollande’s administration.  She became only the second Minister of Women’s Rights ever in France. The first, Yvette Roudy, served under President Mitterrand in the 1980s. Najat Vallaud Belkacem became the first woman Minister of National Education, her current position. We met her in her office to discuss what has to be defended and improved in the realm of gender equality and women’s rights in this period of electoral uncertainty.

As Minister of Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, her actions were marked by her commitment to collective work with women’s groups and associations, prodding legislators into enacting laws for the furtherance of women’s rights and gender equality. Under her administration, legislation against sexual harassment, in favor of additional protection for women victims of violence, and to make abortion and contraception completely free was passed. Protection for abortion centers has been reinforced. She asserted that “abortion is a right in itself and not something dependent on conditions.” She also worked for legislation to reinforce the notion of education of gender equality starting in “maternelle” (pre-kindergarten, a public school in France). She accomplished much despite a meager budget. The politics of austerity also hindered access to public services such as abortion centers. In the deleterious political climate with the rise of the extreme right, she also faced racist slurs. Nonetheless, she secured important headways for women.

Sincere and relentless political engagement became her way of action for gender equality and women’s rights. Her message for us is that, to secure women’s rights and gender equality, the State must spend time and energy to change people’s minds. Here’s our interview:

 

(Photo Credit 1: Mounir Belhidaoui/RespectMag) (Photo Credit 2: Phototèque Rouge/Marc Paris/ RespectMag)

Women and Water: Natural, Human, and Women’s Rights

This month I want to vary a little from my initial theme and talk more broadly about the right to water and the right of water, without highlighting any specific organization.  While the right to water and the right of water may seem to be the same thing to many people, the two are extremely different.  I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference on the right to water, where the intersections of these three issues were discussed.

The right to water is the idea that people have a right to water resources, and to use them to their best advantage.  When people talk about how women in the developing world should have access to clean water, this is a right to water.  The same can be said for restoring the rights of indigenous peoples to the water resources once taken from them by colonialists – they are fighting for their right to water, and their right to use water. (This can also be considered a water right, which deals with water from a legal, property standpoint).  It is generally agreed that all human beings should have a right to water.  Where there is disagreement is in how to enforce that right and how to ensure that all people have access to that right.

The right of water looks at the issues from a deep ecology or spiritual ecofeminism type of perspective; meaning that it looks at water as the right-holder.  As a natural resource, and perhaps the one most necessary for sustaining the life of human beings, water has a right to be preserved and protected.  Since water cannot physically represent itself, people must protect the rights of water.

Women fall into this junction of human rights and water at many different sections.  First, and perhaps the most obvious, women have been tied to water through religions for centuries.  Traditionally, water has been personified as a woman — the sea is feminized.  ‘She’ becomes a source of tremendous natural (I use natural here to mean from the world of nature) power that men must conquer and control.  Once water is feminized, the similarities between water and the oppression of women become more apparent.  While women are oppressed and restricted, water is conquered, forced to change its course, and privatized.

Second, women are the primary gatherers of water in the developing world.  In some places, women must walk miles to the nearest water source, sometimes more than once a day, in order to bring back enough water for their families and their domestic duties.  These walks are long, not necessarily safe routes, putting the women and children who walk them in danger.  A better global stewardship of water resources would make these challenges less dangerous and time consuming.  Attention to water conservation and climate change issues would make water scarcity less of a problem.

The UN’s report on the health of water stated that half of the world’s hospital beds are filled by people sick or dying due to water-related illness that could be completely preventable with access to clean, safe water.  These are not new statistics.  For years now, it has been evident that water resources are becoming scarcer, and the water that is left is more polluted than before, and that developing countries are bearing the brunt of that (with notable exceptions around the developed world).

Is this exemption from international relief due to the feminization of water resources? I think that is a large part of it.  Water quality and quantity is an issue that directly affects human life.  We cannot exist without water.  Water has been defined as a human right – the South African government admits that water is a natural right that all people should have access to.   Granted, South Africa is not the best example when it comes to implementation of equitable water practices, but the government has taken the step to declare water a natural right. Yet access to water, the right to water, is still debated, couched in legalese, allowing nations to disregard it and manipulate that right how they see fit at the moment in time.

The right to water has been marginalized much as women have been.  ‘She’ (the sea, the river, the stream) is restricted and not consulted in the decisions regarding her fate.  Thanks to feminism, women have been able to regain control of many of the decisions about their lives, in certain areas of the world.  However, the decisions concerning water resources are still left to the minds of men rather than consulting the women who are both the primary water managers and are likened to water in traditions.  Here is where the linkage needs to take the next step.

Yes, access to water is a human right. Yes, women are the primary interactors with water in many developed countries.  And yes, water is often coded as female.  Since all of these are true, than the access to water is a women’s right as well as a natural right and a human right.

 

(Photo Credit: UN Water)