The first of the two events was a moving performance of the the play The Space Between Us, performed by the Open Clasp Theatre Company at The Customs House, South Shields. Four women take refuge in a church as a biblical level rainstorm hits the Northeast of England.Eman is a Muslim originally from Syria, Cheyanne is Traveller from Northeast England, Eyshan a Roma from Eastern Euriope, whilst Zeyna is an asylum seeker from Nigeria. While the storm continued outside, all four women have time to reflect on their lives and the myriad of ways many of their basic human rights have been denied to them.
Then today I attended an Amnesty International conference put on by the Scarborough Amnesty International group to celebrate International Women's Day. Along with music, poetry, fascinating testimony from a human rights defender from Sri Lanka and some excellent North African-style food, there was a fine presentation from Hugh Sandeman, AIUK Country Coordinator for Algeria and Libya, about the progress of women's rights in those countries where change had taken place since the Arab Spring two years ago and the neighbouring North African states such as algeria and Morocco.
Hugh highlighted three major tensions. Firstly, there is the tension between jobs and education for women. There are now many more women in higher education, but the skills and education of women is still not reflected in the jobs market of countries in North Africa. The second tension was between laws and family codes and traditions. New laws are seemingly protecting women's rights, yet the suffocating blanket of family codes and traditions means that women are still not getting the legal protection they deserve. Lastly, there is the tension between women's aspirations and women hav ing a real political voice. The role of women was crucial in the downfall of a number of the dictators in the region in 2011, yet they have been largely sidelined since and in the case of Egypt there was not one woman on the committee to draw up the new constitution after the fall of Mubarak.
Social change IS taking place, but clearly there is still a long way before women in North Africa can really say that they have claimed the full rights they deserve.
Hugh also talked about the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (UNCEDAW). It calls on all countries to not just bring in laws but ensure that they really have eliminated discrimination against women in the social practices of their countries. All five countries in North Africa had reservations with regards to this, due to specific interpretations of Islam. However, there was progressin 2011, when Tunisia said that they would accept everything in the UNCEDAW.
Amnesty International has initiated a flood of reports and missions since the uprisings began in early 2011. All of them are directed at or relevant to the rights of women.
Amnesty has also highlighted some cases of individual women who have been notable human rights defenders in the region. One of these is Anna Suleiman. In December 2011, she and a friend were protesting in the middle of Cairo, against attempts by the interim government to limit the rights of women, when she was assaulted by a policeman. As a consequence of this she had to go to hospital, yeyt today she is uncowed and campaigns, not just for herself, but others who have been similarly injured. There has been a systematic attempt by security forces in Egypt to terrorise and humiliate women who dare to operate in the public realm. There have been many very deliberate mysogynistic attacks be men on women.
Other testimony was of women in Egypt in March 2011, barely 2 months after the fall of Mubarak who was detained after a peaceful protest and not only beaten, but forced to undertake the horrendous humiliation of virginity tests. At the other end of North Africa,Hugh told us about a young woman, who was raped and then forced to marry the rapist, to keep him out of trouble as the law allowed him to escape prosecution if he married the woman he raped. He continued to abuse her once they were married, leading to her suicide.
We were also told of Nassera Dutour, from Algeria, which did not experience the Arab Spring who is a spokesperson for an NGO which campaigns on behalf of families of those who 'disappeared' during the civil strife of the 1990's. It is nearly always women who are left behind to keep campaigning for those who disappeared. Nassera has done great work, despite the fact that in Algeria there has been a deliberate attempt to prevent the empowerment of women through civil society.
The issue of human rights in North Africa is one where the women who are bravely campaigning deserve our support. The issue is very complex. Women face a tremendous struggle to get theright laws to protect and empower them onto the statute book and even then there are many obstacles to them claimimng the full rights they should have.
Women's Rights are the rights of all women, regardless of local values. Many women campaigners face hard choices about which fight to take on and when. They want us to keep listening to them and to support them in their struggles.
2013 also sees the centenary of the death of Emily Daavison the Suffragette martyr, buried in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin in Morpeth, Northumberland. She was knovked over by the king's horse Amner at the Derby on 4th Juine 1913 and died four days later, without reciovering consciousness. Surely one of the best ways to mark the centenary of Emily's death is to continue to support those women across the world who are striving for their rights.
Tomorrow is Mother's Day and on the day after 11th March it will be 30 years since my mother passed away. It was my mother who first introduced me to ideas around human rights when I was a boy.. Here's to her memory and to that of Emily Davison and to all women past, present and future, who have played and continue to play such a crucial role in the struggle for universal human rights.