Title: These Girls
Director: Tahani Rached
Country: Egypt, Cairo
These Girls by Egyptian Canadian filmmaker Tahani Rached is an intimate portrait of the lives of several street-involved girls in Cairo who range in age from 10 to 22. The film opens with a shot of a teenage girl in jeans and a t-shirt riding a horse in the middle of day time downtown Cairo traffic. The girl riding the horse is named Fatma, but her nickname is Tata. Tata is really the star of this film. She is a vibrant, obnoxious bad-ass who makes it clear that she will fight with whoever gets in her way or threatens her friends. She doesn’t care if it’s police or a father dead-set on committing an honour-killing. All the girls in Rached’s film are tough and sometimes downright brazen in their assertions that they can defend themselves against violence with violence. And violence is a daily reality of their lives on the streets. The girls face violence from each other, their parents, the police, and particuarly men who want to rape them. The girls live with the constant threat of being kipnapped and gang raped and share stories of girls being taken and held captive for days by men who have dragged them off the street.
A lot of the violence these girls face is similar to what street-involved youth around the world, and even here in Canada face. A significant difference is that if these girls become pregnant out of wedlock, they face the possibility that a member of their family might hunt them down and kill them in order to maintain the family’s honour. Abeer, who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is because she was gang raped, ends up having to hide from her father, who Tata attacks with a razor to protect her friend. Abeer’s baby is born without a birth certificate because Abeer can’t produce a marriage contract indicating who the father is.
Abeer’s situation is one of the many problems the girls face that Abla Hind, a middle-class woman who, desipite not being a social worker (she states she only has a dipolma in tourism), is in many ways an important support for the girls and someone they turn to for advise when they are in trouble. Hind’s relationship with the girls is quite fascinating and she admits that she feels she needs them more than they need her. The girls are clearly struggling with poverty, lack of family support, and violence much of which they try to cope with by smoking joints, sniffing glue, and popping pills. But it is clear that they love and support one another and so have become a make-shift family. Although the film is heartbreaking, the girls’ fiereness and resilience is inspirational.
However, as with many documentaries of this type, I had the sense of being a voyeur and wondering if, even unintentionally, if documentaries like this are not unavoidably exploitational unless they are used to concretely address the social problems they depict. As Jennie Jediny writes in her review of the film:
These Girls is a nauseating experience, and understandably so — these women appear not only powerless, but destined for an inevitably short and miserable life. They live in poverty, have little chance of escaping the street and give birth to children who are recognized by neither the state nor their families. Rached doesn’t avoid this reality — by the end of the film, many of the girls have admitted they are relentlessly sad and depressed, and that their laughter comes from a very hollow place — but she backtracks too often to a false sense of hope. Perhaps it’s easy to see the girls’ bond with each other as encouraging or as a symbol of unity, but it is also rather inevitable that a connection will be made between people forced into any particular situation, whether positive or negative. The repeated shots of Tata, one of the strongest personalities, riding in the Cairo streets on a stolen horse, is not necessarily an image of joy or freedom, but rather the very lack of it.
The subject matter documented in These Girls is undeniably crucial, and Rached’s effort at not only finding these girls, but also gaining their trust and their stories is commendable. What remains in question is her ability to convey not only the dire situation of these women, but also the political implications involved in presenting a cultural issue that affects women on a global level. While the women in Rached’s documentary had my complete attention, I had not so much the feeling of participating in a dialogue as that unfortunate tendency of not being able to avert my eyes from a car wreck.
As someone who works in the social services field with Arab girls and young women struggling with issues of violence, I found the film educational and quite relevant to my work. But I also understand where Jenny is coming from in her review. However, as the film was produced by Studio Masr, an Egyptian company, I feel that the target audience is Egyptians and the filmmakers’ intent is to humanize Cairene street girls in their eyes. As Tahani explains in a 2007 interview about the film:
Because I meet these girls in the streets like everyone else in Egypt does and I see them, I wanted to decode their private world and I started to prepare for that movie from 1997 and began filming in 2004. It was produced by Studio Misr.
Prior to the filming I did a field study with the production group that lasted for six months in order to build trust between us and the street girls. Through them I came to know a lot about the charity organizations that provide for them as well as the psychological support they receive through organizations such as Amal (Hope) to which Abla Hind was one of its members. She is featured in the film with her compassionate personality radiating love and humanity; she assumes the multiple roles of friend, surrogate mother and gives them all the love that they have missed.
In my mind, I wanted the viewer to interact with the girls, to come to love them and empathize with their down-trodden condition. These girls live hard lives; they are victims to circumstances such as broken families which they escaped from the moment they could get a chance.
After that another set of circumstances spirals into effect and that is the oppression of society to these girls and we are all responsible for that. In a sense, they are victims of a society that also suffers from poverty and need, a society where making a living has become difficult as is the preservation of one’s humanity and dignity.
Unfortunately, because of the girls use of “bad language” in the film, it was banned in Egyptian cinemas. But Tahani felt that she should not have been expected to censor the girls’ speech. She explains:
When I shoot a documentary, a realistic film, I cannot ask the girls to speak in a limited vocabulary, these are words we hear on the streets every day. I believe that reality and truth should be exposed without any intervention or censorship. I am happy that my film is being shown in festivals and various cultural centers throughout this country which proves that there are venues and other possible options to show the movie apart from the commercial outlets.
In the same interview, Tahani reflects on the girls’ plight and what is needed to improve their lives.
Personally, what they lack is love; these girls need love and warmth such as one would find in the character of Abla Hind; she does not attempt to change the circumstances of these girls and offers pragmatic advice. These homes and welfare organizations should basically change the way they operate; they also need funding from the government and support from society at large beyond the mere slogans. Each one of us should reconsider the way we treat these girls; the film screams to solve their problem.
These Girls has won critical acclaim and made the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, and New York Film Festival.
Director Tahani Rached was born in Egypt in but settled in Quebec in 1966. She worked as a National Film Board of Canada staff filmmaker form 1980 to 2004. Rached never studied film but learned by doing with the support of other filmmakers.
Review of These Girls in Slant Magazine available online
Review of These Girls in Al Ahram Weekly Online available online
Interview (2012) with Tahani Rached by Mai Serhan available online
Interview (2007) with Tahani Rached by Nelly Youssef available online
I had the opportunity to meet Sebenzile Matsebula here in Ottawa during the Women’s Worlds Conference which took place from July 3-7 2011 at the University of Ottawa.
Matsebula is an internationally recognized disability rights activist. She worked as the Director of the Office on the Status of Disabled People (OSDP) in the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki for 8 years. She is currently the Executive Director of Motswako Office Solutions, which is recognized by the South African Government as a Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) contributer. In 2009, South African President Jacob Zuma appointed Matsebula to the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Advisory Council, which is mandated to advise the government on Black Economic Empowerment in order to remedy the economic legacy of Apartheid. She is the mother of two grown sons.
Sebenzile Matsebula was born in Barberton, in the Eastern Transvaal, South Africa. In 1957, at the age of ten months, she contracted polio. She ended up in the hospital with a very high fever. The illness resulted in both her lower limbs becoming paralysed, therefore Matsebula must use a wheelchair. Matsebula studied at the University of Botswana and Swaziland where she obtained a B. Sc. Biology, Statistics and Environmental Science. She has furthered her studies in the field of Biometrics at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon in Canada.
According to Matsebula she first became involved in the disability rights movement while she was still in Swaziland:
I remember having many interactions with [William Rowland], Friday Mavuso, Maria Rantho – all those people that came out to Swaziland to create an awareness of this new shift in thinking. We had come from a culture of a welfare state, where disabled people were looked after and cared for by charities, by the good Samaritans. Then there was this movement, saying, in effect, “No, that actually isn’t the right way…disabled people have a responsibility to effect changes in their own lives.” That was my first exposure, which I must say was a wonderful exposure. I was involved with the sector from 1986 as a researcher – because I was trained in the sciences – but it wasn’t until 1988-89 that I got involved with the movement as a movement of people with disabilities. And I have been involved ever since, with an increasing awareness and an increasing understanding of what disability rights are all about.
In a 2004 interview with Disability World, Matsebula described some of the achievements of the Office on the Status of Disabled People (OSDP) :
Well, you could write a book about that; but let me pick up some highlights. There are several aspects: At government level one of our key successes has been the training in departments. When our new democracy started, a lot of posts were created to ensure the mainstreaming concept, and people were deployed into government departments to facilitate this mainstreaming. Those people would have had experience in social welfare, as teachers, and whatever, but they did not have experience or an understanding of disability. We then trained those people so that, as they discharged their duties, they had a clear understanding of disability as a concept, as a principle, and as a way of living.
That has been a very successful project because, besides creating awareness and making people do their work effectively, it has enabled us to gain allies in government. Because of their strong understanding of disability, these people have become passionate about their work and go out of their way to promote disability issues. So we now have what we call “focal persons”, but they’re actually allies that serve as our ears and eyes and inform us of what is going on and of any problems. If we need an entry point into a department, we know there is somebody who will work with us meaningfully.
The following is a statement Matsebula made at the Danish Civil Society Conference in 2006:
I contracted polio at ten months of age in the Eastern part of South African where I was born. I then lived through an era of disempowerment as a black African, as a female and as a disabled person. Therefore I can relate to all forms of discrimination, marginalisation and disempowerment in a real sense.
Yet inspite of rather difficult social circumstances my experience in life as a adult was of a more positive one resulting from now living in a new political dispensation that promotes the rights of marginalised sectors of the society, the equalisation of opportunities and self representation particularly in decision making processes.
This experience was brought about in my work in my 8 years of working in the highest office of South Africa, in the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki as head of the disability unit. The government of South Africa and its political principals has unconditional political commitment to the respect of rights of all vulnerable groups through the constitution and the bill of rights. This high level political commitment subsequently enabled me and my compatriots to play a meaningful in the development of the country at all spheres of governance. It is commitment that is substantiated by an annual allocation of government resources.
As a result of this equality and equity of local participation, South Africa subsequently has some of the best policies, best practices and programs that govern vulnerable groups.
However in my work on the African continent I have observed real hardships, which are faced by vulnerable groups in African societies as a result of the absence of meaningful policies and a lack of political commitment to the alleviation of tragic social problems.
This is also evident in that the voices of the poor are continuously marginalised in PRO-POOR development processes, which has unfortunately been perpetuated by external influences. From my experience I have a total conviction that sustainable development and the real and true African ownership of processes will be realised only through meaningful and recognised public participation and self representation by all marginalised sectors of our societies.
Profile of Sebenzile Matsebula available online
Interview (2004) with Disability World available online
Integrating disability within government: the Office on the Status of Disabled Persons by Sebenzile Matsebula, Marguerite Schneider and Brian Watermeyer, available online in Disabilty and Social Change: A South African Agenda by HRSC Press
Fatimata M’Baye is a human rights lawyer, co-founder of the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights (l’Association mauritanienne des droits de l’Homme, AMDH) and vice-president of the NGO International Federation for Human Rights (Fedération internationale des droits de l’homme, FIDH).
M’Baye was born in 1957. She was initially not allowed to get an education because of her grandmother, however, her mother, who felt that her daughter was intellectually gifted, fought for her daughter to be allowed formal education. M’Baye was finally allowed to go to school when she was 11 years old, she graduated from high school at age 25. In 1985, after completing her law studies at the University of Nouakchott in Mauritania, Fatimata M’Baye became the first female lawyer in the country. M’Baye was first arrested for her activism in 1986, when she, along with her 14 year old sister, were arrested for distributing flyers protesting the arrests of Black Mauritanian Intellectuals who had written about the Mauritanian State’s racism against Blacks. She would be arrested again in 1998, along with fellow Mauritanian Human Rights activists, after a report on slavery in Mauritania was aired on French Television. After protests locally and outrage internationally from organizations like Amnesty International, M’Baye and the activists were pardoned by the Mauritanian President at the time, Ould Taya.
In 1991, she co-founded the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights (l’Association mauritanienne des droits de l’Homme, AMDH). In 1999, M’Baye became the first African to win the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award. This award, created in 1995, is given out in the City of Nuremberg, Germany.
Over her career, she has defended fellow human rights activists, women wrongfully convicted under Mauritania’s “Sharia” laws, and has been an advocate for the rights of children and the abolition of slavery in Mauritania. Although her activism has focused on conditions in Mauritania, she has also challenged police brutality against Mauritanian migrants in France.
She is a mother of three, divorced, and currently living in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
Fatimata M’Baye’s defense of Rape Victims in Mauritania
M’Baye’s work came to international attention when she was spotlighted in the 2008 documentary, Mauritania: A Question of Rape. This documentary was part of BBC’s Series Women on the Frontline. The Series, introduced by Annie Lennox and shot by all-women crews in Mauritania, Nepal, Morocco, Austria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Columbia, documents the personal stories of women’s rights activists.
The film documents the plight of women who come forward with accusations of rape and are then convicted of zina, sexual immorality, because this is a crime under “Sharia” “Islamic” Laws. Part of the problem is that within Mauritania’s Penal Code, based on a cultural interpretation not an Islamic one, a distinction which unfortunately is not made in the film, pregnancy cannot result from rape, therefore if a woman coming forward with an accusation of rape is pregnant as a result of that rape, she is accused of zina because it is believed that she could not have become pregnant without her consent. This is a truly hopeless situation. As M’Baye states in the film:
We want more than we now have, we want a law that protects us. When a woman has been a victim of rape, when she has lost her honor, when she has lost her future, and when she has no hope left to continue to live, it is the state’s responsibility to protect her.
Fatimata M’Baye and Police Brutality in France
According to a 2009 Amnesty International report on police brutality in France:
On 11 March 2008 she was arrested and held in police custody for 24 hours after protesting at what she considered to be ill-treatment by police officers of a Mauritanian migrant being forcibly expelled on the flight she was travelling on. During the period she spent in custody she states that she was subjected to degrading treatment.
On 11 March 2008 Fatimata M’Baye boarded Air France flight 765 at Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, bound for Nouakchott, Mauritania. She noticed several police officers on board but did not consider it unusual until she and the other passengers heard sounds of a man in distress from the back of the plane, who shouted “Help me! Untie me! They’re going to kill me!”. She says she saw a young man who had his arms strapped to his body with a belt, and was being forcibly restrained by border control police officers who were trying to silence him. Fatimata M’Baye and another passenger, a doctor, called on the police officers to untie him and protested that they were treating him in an inhuman and degrading manner.
The flight captain told the police officers to untie the young man as this was forbidden during flights. They refused to do so, so he ordered them to disembark. The passengers applauded this action. A few minutes later approximately 20 more police officers boarded the plane and one told Fatimata M’Baye and the doctor to disembark. Fatimata M’Baye said she would not leave the plane until she was told on what grounds she was being ordered to do so. She says the police officer told her “we have ways to make you do so”, and in response to what she perceived as a threat of physical violence, she disembarked.
Fatimata M’Baye was taken into police custody at the airport, where she was stripsearched. At around 6pm she was told that she had been arrested for “opposing a forcible expulsion” and would be held in custody for 48 hours. At 11.30pm she was taken to a detention cell in a different part of the airport. She was stripsearched again and, while naked, told to “spread her legs” so the officers could check that she was “not hiding anything”. She was deeply humiliated by this procedure which appeared entirely unnecessary as she had already been searched when she entered custody. She protested to the two police officers present and the search was finally halted.
Fatimata M’Baye remained in custody overnight and the public prosecutor was informed of her detention. However, she was released the following day at approximately 3pm and the public prosecutor did not pursue any charges against her. The doctor who had also protested about the treatment of the migrant being forcibly expelled, and had likewise been detained, was also released around the same time. He states he was never informed of the reason for his detention.
No further information is available on the fate of the young man being expelled. According to Fatimata M’Baye’s understanding, he was returned to Mauritania on the next flight.
A video interview, in French, with M’Baye about this case is available online.
Fatimata M’Baye and the Forced Fattening of Female Children in Mauritania
On Oprah Winfrey’s show about Beauty Around the World, the fact that in Mauritania a woman being fat is considered beautiful was discussed, and the fact that some women were being forced fed, particularly in rural communities was addressed. The practice of fattening young girls in preparation for marriage is called leblouh. According to M’Baye, as quoted in a 2009 Guardian article:
The fattening is done during the school holidays or in the rainy season when milk is plentiful. The girl is sent away from home without understanding why. She suffers but is told that being fat will bring her happiness. Matrons use sticks which they roll on the girl’s thighs, to break down tissue and hasten the process.”
“If she vomits she must drink it. By the age of 15 she will look 30.”
M’Baye asserts in the article that the fattening process is linked with early marriages, as young girls are plumped up, so that they look more mature and therefore can marry younger. She states:
I have never managed to bring a case in defence of a force-fed child. The politicians are scared of questioning their own traditions. Rural marriages usually take place under customary law or are overseen by a marabou (a Muslim preacher). No state official gets involved, so there is no arbiter to check on the age of the bride.
Portrait of Human Rights Activist Fatimata M’Baye 1999 Amnesty International article available in German online
Mauritania: Serious Attacks on Freedom of Expression and Association 1998 Amnesty International document available online
Mauritania: A Question of Rape video available online
2008 Video Interview with M’Baye in French available online
Girls being force-fed for marriage 2009 Guardian article available online
Human Rights Issues in Mauritania
Fighting Slavery in Mauritania BBC Radio Documentary available online
Mauritania’s Campaign of Terror: State-Sponsored Repression of Black Africans 1994 Human Rights Watch Report available online
Hadijatou Mani Koraou, a Bouzou, was born into slavery in the Republic of Niger. In 1996, she was sold by her mother’s owner to a tribal chief by the name of El Hadj Souleymane Naroua, a Hausa, at the age of 12 for the equivalent of $500 US. This transaction was part of the local tradtion of Wahiya in which a young girl is sold to man to be his servant and concubine. In the local custom, the girl is known as Sadaka. Mani worked as a slave for about 9 years, performing domestic and agricultural labour. She was first raped by Naroua around the age of 13 and continued to be subject to rape, resulting in the birth of four children, but only two survived.
I was beaten so many times I would run to my family. Then after a day or two I would be brought back. At the time I didn’t know what to do but since I learned that slavery has been abolished I told myself that I will no longer be a slave.
In May of 2004, the government of Niger passed a law criminalizing slavery. Timidria, an anti-slavery and human rights organization founded in Niger’s capital city of Niamey in 1991 by activist Iguilas Weila. Timidria means “solidarity or fraternity” in Tamahaq, the language of the Tuareg Berbers of Niger. It was Timidria’s efforts, with the support of Anti-Slavery International, which led to the government of Niger criminalizing slavery (a practice that the government long denied even existed in their country). After the law as passed, Timidria went to work educating slaves across Niger about their rights as the activists knew that many slaves would have no idea that they were free because most slaves are illiterate and don’t have access to radio or television.
On August 18, 2005, most likely in response to the government of Niger’s moves to enforce the ban on slavery, Naroua freed Mani, granting her a “liberation certificate”; however he did not permit her to leave. Mani did not want to stay with her former master so on the pretext of visiting her sick mother she escaped his household. Mani went to the civil and customary tribunal of Konni to gain her full rights and ensure that she could legally leave Naroua and go live somewhere esle. The tribunal ruled in Mani’s favour. Mani went to live in her paternal home and married Ladan Rabo.
However, Naroua insisted that Mani was his wife. Naroua filed a complaint against Mani at the civil and customary tribunal of Konni. At first his application was denied, as the tribunal ruled that Naroua had never married Mani according to religious rules. However, this decision was overturned and eventually led to Mani’s imprisonment as is explained below in the case summary:
On appeal, the Court of First Instance of Konni set aside the decision of the tribunal. Instead, it was held that under customary law a female slave automatically became a master’s wife after he liberated her, so the Applicant had to remain in Mr. Naroua’s household. The Applicant appealed the decision of the Court of the First Instance of Konni to the Judicial Chamber of the Supreme Court of Niamey, requesting “the application of law against slavery and slavery-like practices.” While the case was pending, the Applicant returned to her own father’s home and, with the help of her brother, married another man of her choice.
The Supreme Court of Niamey quashed the decision of the Court of the First Instance on procedural grounds without addressing the issue of slavery. The case was then sent back to the Court of the First Instance for review. On April 6, 2007, the Court of First Instance of Konni ruled that the Applicant be divorced from Mr. Naroua on the condition that she wait three months before marrying another man. Challenging the ruling, Mr. Naroua filed an appeal with the Final Court of Appeal. Aware of the Applicant’s marriage, Mr. Naroua filed a criminal complaint against her with the Court of the First Instance of Konni. The Court convicted the Applicant, her new husband and her brother of bigamy, issued an arrest warrant, and sentenced each of them to six months in prison and a fine of 50,000 francs. The Applicant and her brother were detained.
While in detention, the Applicant appealed the conviction to the Criminal Division of the Final Court of Appeal. The Final Court of Appeal entered an interim order in July 2007, releasing the Applicant and her brother from prison pending the final decision on the divorce issue by the Divorce Judge of the same Court.
Mani came to international attend when she, with the support of Anti-Slavery International and Interights, brought forward the first test case to ECOWAS on African government’s responsiblity to protect their citizens from enslavement, charging that the government of Niger violated her rights by not protecting her from being sold into slavery. As is explained in the case summary:
On December 14, 2007, the Applicant lodged a complaint with the Court of Justice of The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) under Articles 9.4 and 10.d of its Supplementary Protocol A/SP.1/02/05 of 19 January 2005 amended Protocol A/P.1/7/91 of 6 July 1991 relating to the Court of Justice. She sought a declaration that Niger had violated Articles 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 18(3) of the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights for failing to take appropriate measures in abolishing slavery and discrimination against women based on their social origin. She also sought fair reparation for the damage she suffered during the nine years of slavery with Mr. Naroua. The Defendant, Niger, objected to the complaint on two grounds: one, at the time when the Complaint was filed, the Applicant was no longer a slave, leaving her without standing on the issue of slavery, and two, the Complaint should not survive, as all domestic remedies had not been exhausted, specifically the Applicant had never challenged her status as a slave or “fifth wife” in the domestic courts.
One of the most important reasons why Mani took this step was to ensure the freedom of her two children, as it has been customary in Niger for the children of slaves to automatically become the property of the slave’ s master.
In 2008, Mani won her case. The government of Niger has been ordered to play Mani $19, 750 US in compensation. This is what Mani says she will do with the money:
With the compensation I will be able to build a house, raise animals and farm land to support my family. I will also be able to send my children to school so they can have the education I was never allowed.
Immediately following the ECOWAS Court’s judgment, the government of Niger committed to respecting the judgment, which it acknowledged was binding on it. On 17 March 2009, the government paid the compensation due to Hadijatou in full. As a result Hadijatou has rebuilt her modest home, which she shares with her mother and her young child, and bought several cows and goats that enable her to be economically self sufficient. She has invested some of the monetary award in savings for her family for the future. The criminal case against her for bigamy, which had been pending throughout the ECOWAS proceedings, has been lifted and she is now a free woman living as part of a family and a community.
Hadijatou has been honoured for her courage in various contexts, including being awarded the US State Department’s ‘International Woman of Courage award 2009′. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said of Hadijatou and her case:
“Hadijatou is such an inspiring person. Enslaved by being sold at a very young age, she never gave up on herself or on her deep reservoir of human dignity. When she finally escaped from slavery, she didn’t forget those who were still enslaved. For her inspiring courage in successfully challenging an entrenched system of caste-based slavery, and securing a legal precedent that will help countless others seek freedom and justice, we honour and salute her.”
As a result of the case, Hadijatou was named in Time Magazine as one of the top 100 most influential people in 2009.
Hadijatou Mani Koraou vs The Republic of Niger (case summary available online)
Brief Case Summary available from the African Human Rights Case Law Database available online
Profile of Hadijatou Mani Korau in Time Magazine available online
Niger ex-slave wins landmark case (2008 BBC News article available online)
Niger begins enforcement of ban on slavery (2005 BBC News article available online)
Niger Anti-Slave Activist Charged (2005 BBC News article available online)
L’esclavagisme dans l’espace nigérien by Abdel Kader Gady (essay in French avaiable online)
Fighting Slavery in Niger Pays Off (afrol News article available online)
Born into Bondage: About Slavery in Niger by P. Raffaele (2005 Smithsonian Magazine article available online)
Niger: Slavery an Unbroken Chain (2005 IRIN article available online)
Gender Equality in Niger (report available online)
Anti-Slavery International’s Website
One of my Facebook friends invited me to a demonstration on March 8th on Parliament Hill. It was to protest the assault and rape of 25-year-old Sudanese artist Safia Ishag (On a side note, Sudan has a great tradition of painting having produced such artists as Ibrahim el Salahi and Ottawa’s own Hamid Ayoub). Allegedly, Safia was raped and beaten because she was seen attending rallies and handing out leaflets criticizing the Sudanese government. I was shocked by this story and by the video of Safia Ishag describing her abduction and rape at the hands of men who accused her of being a communist. I ended up attending the demonstration which was organized by Sudanese political exiles in Ottawa. In the early 90s, this community became the focus of international media attention when one of their members, an exiled Sufi Karate Champion Hashim Mohamed, attacked Hassan al Turabi at the Ottawa airport. That’s the interesting thing about Ottawa where 1 in 4 immigrants is a refugee…you can find political exiles from almost every country.
While trying to collect information about Safia Ishag I came upon the blog The Beauty of Islam by a Sudanese American International Relations and Gender Studies Major named Riham. Riham wrote the following post about Safia on February 24th 2011:
As a human being, let alone a Sudanese woman, I am speechless after hearing Safia Ishag’s rape story. She is tremendously brave for coming out and publicly telling her story of what happened to her on that horrible day when she was raped and tortured by three Sudanese government personnel in Khartoum. Having been raised in America on the concept of freedom of speech, I can hardly imagine someone being punished for participating in a peaceful protest. I’m disgusted by the Sudanese government! They have killed, raped, and tortured far too many people and have gotten away with it. Spread her story, so that people everywhere are aware of what is going on within Hassan Al Bashir’s regime. InshAllah, through awareness we can all participate in ending this corrupt regime and putting to justice those that were involved in this inhuman crime.
I share Riham’s sentiments. The following is a translated transcript of the video Safia Ishag has made about her attack. The video of Safia’s testimonial, uploaded on February 23rd 2011, is available with subtitles in English on Youtube. Please be advised that the content may be disturbing for some readers.
I am Safia Ishag Mohamed. I am 25 years old. I graduated from the Fine Arts College of the University of Sudan. I graduated from the painting department last October, 2010. I had my bachelor degree exhibit and it was about the role of women. All the paintings were about women and their role in society. I have a mission through my art to show that other than the spoken word you can spread your message through painting and it can be a powerful message. I participated in the Youth Forum for Social Peace and we showed how to reject ethnic discrimination. I participated in the rallies of January 30 and I was a member of Girifna.
After the rallies of Jan 30 I felt that I was being watched and I even told my friends that there are people watching me. On Sunday 13 February I left the University to get some things from the bookstore on Hurriya Street. I went out to get some papers and paints. When I bought them and came back two men found me and told me: you girl wait! I tried to run away from them but they caught me. I tried to scream so they covered my mouth so I can’t scream. They put me in a small white car. They were hitting me inside the car. Until I started paying attention, in the car I wasn’t paying attention to the road but I noticed we got on the Bahri Bridge. They took me next to Shandi’s station, to a building where the car when inside. After that I came down from the car and they were still hitting me. Two people came from inside a room. They started hitting me too. Two holding me and two hitting me. I went into the room. They threw me on the ground. They were hitting me while asking me if I was a communist and what is your relationship with Girifna. They told me: we saw you handing out flyers and you are one of the participants of the rallies of Jan 30. They were verbally insulting me with bad insults. I feel too embarrassed to speak those insults. The beating continued for a long time. After that one of them…I wear my hair short…with the beating my headscarf fell from my head…so one of them told me: your hair is cut short, this is the style of the communist girls and you are not a decent girl. He asked me: have you ever had sex before. I told him no. He said: you are a liar. I want to see if you had or had not. I tried to resist as he wanted to remove my skirt. I resisted him removing my skirt. I tried to resist so he hit me and I passed out. When I awoke I found two holding my legs and a third penetrating me. I was in a lot of pain. They were 3 taking turns on me. They tied my hands with my headscarf. They removed my skirt and underwear. And they were taking turns. They would leave me for a little bit then they would hold me again and repeat the process. Three of them were involved. During this process they were hitting me. After that they told me to leave: but if we found you again the issue would escalate. They had hit me on my leg and I was not able to walk on it. I left with difficulty, I was scared. Fear made me walk a long distance. Until I found transportation and went to Souq al Arabi. I wasn’t paying attention where I was going as I was scared they would find me and repeat what I went through. I went back home. I was scared. I was very scared. I got on public transportation and got home. My mother asked me why are you late. It was 11pm. So I told her we had an exhibit, I couldn’t tell her what happened.
My leg is still suffering from the beating and I cannot walk well. I was not strong enough to say what happened to me but there were people around me. They took away some of the pain I went through. That is why I wanted to be an inspiration to other girls so they could speak out of their experience with courage. So they can out these people. These are not people. So we can out these beasts. Because seriously this is not humane. I want to send a message to any girl that got tortured. I want to tell her to be strong, to stand for the struggle. To change the situation we have to sacrifice. Things are not easy but people need to be patient. And with my art I am going to send a message. I will paint and have exhibitions about the issues important to women. I thank all the people who stood next to me and I will be strong so that things become better. I went on the rallies and handed out flyers and worked because I know that there are women being raped in Darfur and in Khartoum. They don’t have the courage to come out because this is a difficult subject for families. So I want to be courageous and show them that…that change will happen. That the situation will not continue like this.
The use of rape as a weapon of political violence is all too common around the world. The perpetrators hope that the shame of being raped will silence the activists and send a message to fellow activists that “You could be next.” What the perpetrators don’t expect is for these women to come forward with their story of rape and use it as their own political weapon. This is what Safia Ishag has done with her story; instead of taking the shame on to herself, she is putting it where it belongs, on her attackers and their supporters both in Sudan and internationally (This story has been covered both in Sudan and the Middle East). I am always inspired by the bravery of women activists in the so-called “developing” world. We have so much to learn from their strength, perseverance and ingenuity. Particularly when it comes to resisting sexual violence as a weapon of political oppression. Safia’s defiance by publicly telling her story reminds me of the “naked protests” by mothers in the state of Manipur, India in retaliation for the alleged rape and murder of an alleged member of a rebel group by the Indian Army. By protesting naked, these women were saying “You can’t use sexual violence to shame us. We have no shame!” This is very powerful.
At this point, let me explain just what Girifna is, as far as I can tell. Girifna can best be described as a pro-democracy movement, led mostly by students and based in Khartoum. Girifna means “We are Fed Up” in Arabic. They started being active leading up to the Sudanese election in April 2010 (The first multi-party election since 1986). Although Sudan has a long history of political oppression that even pre-dates Bashir’s time, they also have a long history of resistance; 25 years ago they got rid of a dictator by peaceful mass uprisings (much like what we have seen recently in Tunisia and Egypt). In a 2010 interview with a Girifna activist Amjed Farid, Enough Project member Maggie Fick describes this history:
In early 1985, popular discontent with President Jaafar Nimeiri’s regime led to a coup by a group of military officers. However, Farid argued that this significant political and military change was precipitated by civil society, “not by political parties.” After the medical doctor’s union in Khartoum began a strike, their efforts were multiplied by demonstrations by university students in Khartoum and then by a public strike by some of the powerful trade unions. After people gathered in the streets, the army came to support this effort and to remove President Nimeiri from power and install a civilian government to hold elections; this sequence of events, which occurred in March and April 1985, came to be known as “the Popular Uprisings.” Farid seemed to cite this example to illustrate that when citizens get fed up and have had enough of their government, it is often the students and the young activists who build momentum at the grassroots to take action and generate change.
Girifna members started organizing with a focus on voter education in order to ensure that people got registered to vote and knew their rights. They set up a Facebook Group, a Website, a Youtube Channel and an online radio station. Text messaging and Skype help them coordinate their activities across the country. Then they moved on to election monitoring. They don’t support any one opposition party but they are vocally against the country’s ruling party. The group is supported internationally by Sudanese activists and exiles living abroad who offer financial support and technical expertise. Many of these groups key organizers are women.
Right now is a critical point in Sudan’s history as Southern Sudanese have voted to secede this past January. Then the Egyptian protests inspired young Sudanese, led by Girifna, to rally against their dictatorship (Sudan’s Bashir and Egypt’s Mubarak, although both dictators, famously loathed one another). The regime is feeling more threatened than ever before so it is no surprise that it is cracking down on organized resistance. According to Amnesty International’s Sudan researcher, there have been several rapes and reports of torture while in detention (Hassan al Turabi as well as his daughter are among those who have been detained).
It is important that we become better informed about our own governments’ involvement with Sudan and the activism of the Sudanese people so that we can support this resistance to political oppression.
I pray for Safia Ishag and the activists in Sudan.
As I left the protest for Safia on Parliament Hill, one of the older male protesters began shouting “We are all Safia Ishag”.
To give readers a glimpse of the spirit and dynamism of Sudan’s people, I am including a link to the amazing song and video B Sotak (With Your Vote) aimed at getting the April 2010 vote out. Produced by NasJota Records as part of the Sudan Votes Music Hopes Initiative and rapped in 3 languages (Arabic, Dinka and English) it shows the ethno-cultural diversity of Sudan, celebrates it, and encourages the Sudanese people to come together across religious, ethnic, and tribal lines. It is beautiful. Check out the video on Link TV. You can also learn more about the making of this video and the public education videos Girifna has made in this post on Inter-Muse’s World Music site.
On the Girifna Movement in Sudan
SUDAN: Rights groups criticize Khartoum crackdowns (2011 article available online)
In challenge to Sudanese ruling party, student activists rally for democracy by R. Hamilton (2010 article available online)
Interview (2010) with Girifna activist Amjed Farid by Maggie Fick with The Enough Project available online
B Sotak Video available on Link TV (Amazing!!!)
Sudanese Elections: Music & the Vote with NasJota and Girifna (video on Inter-Muse World Music site)
Sudan Votes Music Hopes Website
Human Rights Watch Report: It’s an Every Day Battle: Censorship and Harassment of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders in Sudan (February 18, 2009) This 21-page report documents the government’s efforts to repress those who seek to report on issues it considers sensitive, including human rights, the conflict in Darfur, and the ICC’s investigation.
On Women’s Protests against rape in Manipur State, India
Women Rage Against ‘Rape’ in Northeast India by S. Z. Hussain (2004 article available online)
Interview (2008) with Manipuri Protester avaiable online
India’s Intifada by Satya Sagar (2004 article available online)
I was recently searching for the website of the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer Association (EWLA). I wanted to add it to my African Links Page. I had first learned about the EWLA when its Director Mahdere Paulos came to Ottawa on a tour of the Canadian produced documentary It’s Time: African Women Join Hands Against Domestic Violence in 2008. I had a chance to speak with Mahdere Paulos and even still have her business card. But through trawling the internet I was surprised to discover that the EWLA website is no longer online and according to Ethiopian bloggers Paulos has fled Ethiopia. What’s happened?
First, let me describe the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer Association and its work:
Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) is an organisation that has been working since 1995 to raise awareness of women’s legal rights in Ethiopia using diverse media such as newsletters and the internet. ELWA aims to influence the drawing up of laws, ensuring that gender is taken into account, and to put in place practical measures to help economically poor women access legal services. The organisation hopes to put women’s rights on the government agenda, with the ultimate goal of eliminating all forms of legally and traditionally sanctioned discrimination against women.
EWLA uses newsletters, the media, and the internet to get its message across. For example, EWLA also has a 10-minute educational radio programme that airs once a week on the national Radio Service (Saturday mornings from 8:40am to 8:50am). The association also has a documentation centre that provides reading materials on women’s issues and other related matters to students and individual researchers. These communication tools are meant to ensure that EWLA’s research on the social, economic and political impact of discrimination against women reaches key people in government and throughout civil society.
Interpersonal approaches also characterise ELWA’s work. The organisation has an ongoing public education training programme for women on women’s rights, assertiveness and reproductive health and rights. The objective of the training is to enhance awareness on women’s rights among female students and women workers.
The documentary It’s Time is part of a larger project undertaken by the Law Courts Education Society of British Columbia (now Justice Education Society) in partnership with organizations in Ethiopia and South Africa to develop training for all levels of the criminal justice system, such as police, prosecutors and judges to work together to combat domestic violence in these countries. British Columbia’s own justice system’s experience with integrating their criminal justice system’s handling of domestic violence is the basis for this training. According to a 2009 Law Now article:
In the early 1980s, British Columbia’s justice system lacked an integrated plan amongst police, prosecutors, and victim service workers that dealt with domestic violence. These stakeholders were united in 1985 by a training program created by the Victim Services and Crime Prevention Division. The program defined domestic violence, identified the stakeholders’ roles, and emphasized strong communication between those stakeholders.
Since 1989, the Law Courts Education Society (LCES) has been dedicated to improving access to the legal system through hands-on, targeted, two-way education between the public and those working in the justice system. As a non-profit organization with ongoing public and private sector financial and volunteer support, the LCES is able to offer a unique and comprehensive collection of justice-related educational services and work effectively towards creating a justice system that is accessible to all.
Ethiopia only began addressing women’s rights at the legislative level in 1995. In 2005, the country revised its penal code to outlaw domestic violence, however, it was apparent to organizations like EWLA that Ethiopian authorities needed training on how to address domestic violence. EWLA’s Director Paulos led the way on developing a project to get training from the Law Courts Education Society in Ethiopia. According to the 2009 Law Now article:
The project would face many obstacles including an existing lack of trust in the justice system. In addition to early marriage, prevalent cultural practices included rape, abduction, and female genital mutilation. Traditionally, domestic violence was considered a crime only if it resulted in serious injury. Police did not feel compelled to get involved in these family issues, thus allowing the practice of a husband beating his wife to root itself in Ethiopian society.
The following are comments from members of the Ethiopian police force who participated in these trainings:
I had no idea about domestic violence previously. During this training I called my wife to apologize for what has happened during our married life.
We also need to address gaps in the law for women who are abducted, raped and then forced to marry the rapist. Other men often facilitate the rape. No one will marry her so she is forced to marry the rapist and then expected to take him food in jail several times a day. It is double victimization.
When I met Paulos in 2008, I had no indication that the work of her organization was in jeopardy, although it did face obstacles financial obstacles like most NGOs. However, it appears that something has gone very wrong.
It seems that this is not the first time EWLA has had trouble. In 2001, the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice place a suspension on EWLA that was eventually lifted subsequent to the international response from activists and women’s organizations from around the world. During this suspension, EWLA’s bank accounts were frozen. At the time of this suspension it appears that the Ethiopian government did not give any clear reason why they wanted EWLA shut down but activists suspected that is was part of an overall effort on the part of the government to suppress independent civil society organizations.
But recently in 2009, Ethiopian blogs began reporting that EWLA’s Director, Paulos, had fled to Kenya in July of that year after resigning from EWLA. I haven’t found anything on the internet to confirm or deny this. However, I did confirm that Paulos is no longer the Director of EWLA and that in March of 2010, Paulos made a presentation in the United States to the Ethiopian Lawyers Association of North America about her work with EWLA. What really happened and why?
Mahdere Paulos is quite an accomplished women. According to the It’s Time website:
Mahdere Paulos holds a law degree from Addis Ababa University. At 23 she was a high-court judge in Addis Ababa. She has practiced law since 1996, and has worked with EWLA in a variety of capacities including legal aid officer, paralegal trainer, and board member. She has been Executive Director of EWLA since April 2005. Recognized internationally for her advocacy and public education initiatives on gender-based violence and child marriage, Ms. Paulos has presented at numerous African and international conferences, including the Joint Consortium on Gender Based Violence in Dublin, Ireland, December 2007. In 2006 the International Centre for Research on Women hosted a series of speaking appearances by Ms Paulos on child marriage in cities across the US, including Washington DC, Chicago, and New York. She has met with government officials in the U.S. State Department, USAID, and Congress, as well as with international nongovernmental organizations, partner organizations, and the press to raise awareness about the problem of child marriage. Ms Paulos is the Chairperson of the Kembatta Women Self-Help Center, and the Network of Ethiopian Women Association. She is an advisory board member of the Initiative Africa Organization.
Zenaye Tadesse, Managing Director of the association, told The Reporter that the shortage of money came about after the association re-registered as a local Non-Profit Organization (NGO) as per the new Charities and Societies Proclamation, which mandates 90 percent of its funds to be raised from local donors.
According to Zenaye, aside from cutting jobs, the association has been forced to stop its various activities and has been limited to providing free legal consultations in Addis Ababa and six regional states through volunteers. Among the activities that have been cut back are undertaking researches, awareness creation and trainings, and publication and dissemination of informational materials.
The association used to get as much as 11 million birr from various international rights groups, donors as well as contributions from its members. EWLA, which claims to have helped close to 80,000 women since its inception, needs as much as 8 million birr a year to implement its goals. Zenaye added that the association needs 1,200,000 birr a year just to provide free legal consultation service.
This new Charities and Societies Proclamation also affected activities of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and the Ethiopian Bar Association. I wonder why there is this new law that seems to be deliberately trying to cut off the funding that would allow Ethiopian civil society organizations to be fully independent and thus able to criticize government policies. According to an Expert Brief from the Council on Foreign Relations by B. E. Bruton, the United States increased reliance on Ethiopia to police the Horn of Africa in the War on Terror has actually exacerbated conflict in this region and allowed for the entrenchment of an authoritarian political regime in the country:
Arguably, U.S. reliance on Ethiopian military might and intelligence has served to exacerbate instability in Somalia. Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, and the extended presence of Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu, instead of quelling conflict, has triggered a local backlash that has served as a rallying point for local extremists. It was the development of a complex insurgency against the Ethiopian occupation that effectively catapulted a fringe jihadist youth militia, the Shabaab, to power. International jihadists have now capitalized on the local insurgency, and on U.S. support of the Ethiopian invasion, as an opportunity to globalize Somalia’s conflict. The presence of foreign expertise, fighters, and funding has helped to tip the balance of power in favor of Somalia’s extremist groups. Additionally, there is growing concern that the conflict in the Ogaden may give birth to indigenous jihadist movements.
Anti-American sentiment in Somalia is pervasive, and stems in large part from U.S. complicity with the Ethiopian invasion and reported Ethiopian human rights abuses in Somalia. Ethiopia has also reportedly engaged in human rights abuses within its Ogaden region, which borders Somalia, where the government is engaged in a counterinsurgency effort against an ethnic Somali separatist movement. Though Ethiopia has denied these charges, human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented atrocities committed by both sides in that conflict. The U.S. decision to withdraw its military personnel from the Ogaden in April 2006, and the subsequent failure of the international community to seek accountability for these atrocities, has cemented a widespread public perception in Ethiopia and Somalia that the United States is willing to turn a blind eye on human rights abuses in exchange for cooperation in the counterterror effort.
This Expert Brief also poses the following question:
Is Ethiopia still a democratic country, or is the regime of President Meles Zenawi regime headed towards dictatorship? The perception that Ethiopia is a fundamentally democratic country remains strong, particularly among European nations. The lack of any consensus would require the United States to take a lead and potentially isolated role in pressuring Ethiopia for reform.
Finally, U.S. efforts to promote democratic reform in Ethiopia are impeded by a lack of willing partners on the ground. Democratic civil society groups generally fear for their safety and are not willing to mobilize in a public advocacy effort. This means that U.S. efforts to counteract repressive measures by the government will not be supported–or legitimized–by a corresponding local effort. International organizations that might have engaged with opposition political voices have already been expelled from the country.
I am planning on contacting the EWLA’s Facebook Group in order to learn more about its cuts in funding and what may have happened to Mahdere Paulos. If you have any information, please pass it along.
Update: October 21, 2010. I have been able to correspond with Mahdere Paulos. She really has fled Ethiopia due to fear of government retaliation. According to her, the government interpreted her outspokenness against the Charities and Societies Proclamation as opposition. She says that she and the EWLA were also accused of giving false information about the government that ended up in the US State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report on Ethiopia. This is quite troubling news.
It’s Time: African Women Join Hands Against Domestic Violence Documentary Website
Joining hands to stop domestic violence in Africa by Kevin Smith in LawNow July-August 2009 (article available online)
Amnesty International: Ethiopian Parliment Adopts Repressive New NGO Law (January 8, 2009)
Human Rights Watch: Analysis of the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation in its Draft Form
Analysis of the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation (NGO Law) by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law
U.S. Policy Shift Needed in the Horn of Africa by B. E. Bruton 2009 Council on Foreign Relations Expert Brief available online
Human Rights Watch: Ethiopia Donor Aid Supports Repression (October 19th 2010)
Human Rights Watch: Yoseph Mulugeta, former Secretary General of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (October 8th 2010)