Some time ago I attended a meeting of women’s rights activists from across the Arab region. We were in Cairo to discuss the great threats that women faced at the time ― the murder of human rights activists in Libya, the escalating war in Syria, the growing threat of a full-scale civil war in Yemen, as well as the violence and discrimination that women face in everyday life.
During lunch, our discussion turned to the growing protests against police violence in the U.S. As women who had grown up under dictators, who had been mistreated, victimized by the authorities, who faced daily suspicion and discrimination, we could recognize ourselves in the protesters. As activists, we wanted to show our solidarity with those demanding justice for the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, and countless other victims of police violence in the U.S. We made our own placards declaring #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter, and posed for photos to share on social media.
I was reminded of that moment last week after the brutal murder of Nabra Hassanen, killed as she walked home from her Mosque in Virginia. Here was another face we recognised. A young, Egyptian-American woman whose life was ended by an appalling act of male violence. Having worked with many activists in the women’s movement in the U.S., I had hoped to see them express their solidarity with Nabra, but I waited in vain.
My work has always involved reaching across communities, across borders. It has been about building movements whose strength comes from diversity and credibility. Working with women’s movements in Europe, in the U.S., everywhere we could find allies, has always been part of our method. Through this approach groups in the Arab region have collaborated on important work with American partners aimed at ending violence against women. These partnerships have always been appreciated.
But just as we value the efforts made by the women’s movement in the U.S. to eliminate violence against women in the Arab region by, for example, tackling FGM, we also notice their silence when a Muslim woman is murdered on their own doorstep.
I have been proud to serve as an advisor to women’s groups across the world, and to recommend women experts from my region when American activists have sought to understand the problems that we face, and build responses based on local experience. Representation is central to dealing with the particular issues facing communities. Giving women a platform to discuss their problems is far more effective than thinking you can speak on their behalf.
If an organization has concerned itself with the rights of women in majority Muslim countries but ignored the rights, dignity and safety of Muslim women in their own backyard, we have to ask why that is. It would be harder, if not impossible, for these crimes to go unremarked if women from minority and marginalised communities were sufficiently represented within the ranks of these organisations.
The women’s movement in the U.S. has recently seen a huge boost in energy and activism. Millions took to the streets across the country as part of the Women’s March. There is a moment to be grasped here, to recognize the assault on the rights and freedoms of women in the U.S. In order to seize the opportunity, the movement needs to reflect the experience of all women. Much has been said about the panel of white men in the Senate conspiring behind closed doors to take healthcare away from millions of Americans, but far fewer people have recognized and reported that the reinstated ban on refugees will disproportionately affect women.
The Women’s March, Black Lives Matter and the unrelenting racism and misogyny of the Trump administration have hugely energised women of colour. The established women’s movement needs to recognise this. If the old guard does not welcome these activists into the fold and start addressing the intersectional relationship between all forms of discrimination, they risk becoming irrelevant to millions of women.
Women’s groups in the U.S. have been great allies for the women’s movement in the Arab region, but that support for ending violence against Muslim women cannot stop at the border. Where were your calls for justice for Nabra Hassanen?