The Heroines of the Arab World
Twelve women challenging their societies to change the status quo.
Sixteen-year-old Amina Filali became a cause célèbre for Moroccan women’s rights activists when she committed suicide by swallowing rat poison after she was forced to marry her rapist in accordance with a court order. Her act triggered a human rights campaign — including a sit-in outside Parliament, a petition, and a Facebook group — to repeal Article 475 in Morocco’s penal code, which allows men to escape punishment for crimes if they wed their victims. One week after Filali died in the northwestern city of Larache, hundreds of women’s rights advocates filled the streets in the capital, Rabat, to protest the retrograde law.
Computer security consultant Manal al-Sharif made headlines in May 2011 when a colleague filmed her driving a car in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, as part of her advocacy campaign for Saudi women’s right to drive. The video was posted on YouTube and Facebook, and it soon spread like wildfire. Four days later, about 600,000 people had already watched the footage. Although officials jailed her for nine days as punishment for breaking the prohibition on female drivers in Saudi Arabia — the only country in the world with such a ban — her actions successfully galvanized a rare bout of popular protest in the kingdom. On June 17, several dozen Saudi women got behind the wheel to repeat Sharif’s act of defiance.
SALWA EL-HUSSEINI, SAMIRA IBRAHIM, and RASHA ABDEL RAHMAN
On March 9, 2011, Salwa el-Husseini, Samira Ibrahim, and Rasha Abdel Rahman were just peaceful protesters at a sit-in at Tahrir Square — a small group of thousands who had gathered to protest against the ruling military regime. But that changed when they were arrested by the Egyptian military along with 15 other female activists, strip-searched, and subjected to “virginity tests” in which the hymen is forcefully penetrated to check for blood. The three broke long-standing social taboos by speaking out about their treatment: Husseini agreed to be filmed as she recounted what happened at a news conference, while Abdel Rahman gave graphic details of her abuse in court. Although a military tribunal cleared the doctor who performed the tests of all charges, Ibrahim won a major victory when a Cairo administrative court heard her case and banned virginity tests on female detainees in military prisons.
Pediatric consultant Najwa Fituri is in charge of treating premature babies at the al-Jalaa maternity hospital in Benghazi, Libya, but when the revolution against Muammar al-Qaddafi descended into a bloody civil war, she heeded a new calling: smuggling drugs to treat anti-Qaddafi fighters. A member of the female empowerment group Women for Libya, Fituri hopes to be part of a new generation of Libyan women. “If [women] are qualified, they should be leaders of Libya,” she told the BBC in December. “Everyone has the right to dream.”
Without the perseverance of human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, the world would be even more in the dark about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s killings and torture of civilian protesters. Her daily reporting on the Assad regime’s atrocities — which she posted to her website, the Syrian Human Rights Information Link — served as a critical source for foreign media. Although forced to go into hiding in March 2011 after the government accused her of being a foreign agent, Zaitouneh was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Award for her human rights activism in a conflict zone, and she was a co-recipient of last year’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Foreign Policy also honored her in 2011 as one of its top 100 Global Thinkers. “I’m very proud to be Syrian and to be part of these historical days, and to feel all that greatness inside my people,” she said in a video accepting the award. “We highly appreciate all the help … of those who supported us in any way around the world.”
LINA BEN MHENNI
As one of the few Tunisian activists to blog using her real name under the regime of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, linguistics teacher Lina Ben Mhenni was risking her safety even before the uprising against the Tunisian regime began. Although her blog — as well as her Facebook and Twitter accounts — were censored under Ben Ali, Ben Mhenni forged ahead with her reporting during the early weeks of the uprising as the only blogger present in the cities of Kasserine and Regueb when government forces violently cracked down on protesters in the Sidi Bouzid region, regularly posting photos and videos of the violence. Today, Ben Mhenni continues to publicly condemn the widespread corruption in the current government. “The majority of young people do not feel any change at all and I think that they are right,” she wrote in an October 2011 op-ed for the Guardian. “To talk of a revolution we have to cut totally with the past and with the old regime.”
The sharp rhetoric of Asmaa Mahfouz played a crucial role in galvanizing the Egyptian revolution’s massive protests in Tahrir Square. The activist and co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement famously posted a video to YouTube challenging Egyptians to join her in Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011, to protest the human rights abuses of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime: “If you think yourself a man, come with me on Jan. 25. Whoever says women shouldn’t go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with me.”
Mahfouz may have helped topple Mubarak, but she still attracted the ire of the military junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), that came after him. In August 2011, she was court-martialed by the SCAF and charged with inciting violence, disturbing public order, and spreading false information through social media. Later that year Mahfouz was honored for her persistence when the European Parliament named her a co-recipient of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Tal al-Molouhi symbolized the Syrian regime’s repressive policies long before the revolutions of the Arab Spring. A high school student who blogged poems and wrote articles advocating for Palestinian causes and a more just Syria, Molouhi was arrested in 2009 for her writing. The Arab blogosphere denounced her arrest as an example of the capricious and fanatical crackdown on free speech in Syria. In February 2011, Molouhi — who was brought into court chained and blindfolded — was sentenced to five years in prison. “This is my Homeland, in which I have a palm tree, a drop in a cloud, and a grave to protect me,” says one of her poems. “My master: I would like to have power even for one day to build the ‘republic of feelings.'”
Known as the “Mother of the Revolution” in Yemen, journalist and activist Tawakkol Karman emerged as a leader of the Yemeni protest movement after Tunisian activists ousted their president, Ben Ali, in January 2011. In addition to organizing student rallies in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, Karman led mass protests calling for the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, including an Egypt-inspired “Day of Rage.” A grassroots organizer and the chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains, Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, becoming the first Yemeni to win the prize and the youngest Peace Prize laureate.
Asma al-Ghoul is not your typical Palestinian activist. A secular feminist who writes for the Ramallah-based newspaper Al-Ayyam and blogs at AsmaGaza, Ghoul is known for her vocal denunciations of violations of civil rights in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, catching the media’s attention when she walked on a public Gaza beach with a mixed-gender group in 2009. When she publicly denounced her uncle — a senior Hamas military leader — in an article, he threatened to kill her. After she was beaten by Hamas security forces in March 2011 while trying to cover rallies calling for Hamas to reconcile with Fatah, an international outcry prompted the Hamas government to apologize and promise an investigation.