I have a small pile of Saffron on a plate beside me as I write, it is the same colour as my (dyed) hair! The sun shining through the window of my apartment is highlighting strands of gold amongst the deep red of the Saffron, a gift from Zarifa Ghafari, an Afghani woman who visited the Elliott School on Friday. She pressed the small capsule of Saffron into my hands before boarding a bus to the White House and told me with a bright smile ‘it is the best in the world’. I looked down and felt a deep pang of sadness at the sight of her burnt hands. Hands that hold, cup, caress, write, bake, feed, stroke, play, feel, flutter, brush, type, tap, drum, wipe, clean, massage, and heal. Hands that were attacked by a group of men in Afghanistan. Her crime? Being the first woman Mayor in her deeply conservative district, Wardak Province. She told me that 80% of burns victims in Afghanistan are women who have been attacked in similar ways for doing something the Taliban do not like. In her case, she was ‘not allowed’ to do her job. She said she will not be intimidated, although she knows her life is in danger.
Zarifa, is one of the U.S. State Department’s 10 Women of Courage Awardees of 2020. They are each honoured for their work as human rights defenders working in different countries on issues as diverse as: ending FGM/C in Burkina Faso, supporting the families of the disappeared in Syria, drawing attention to the harassment and imprisonment of journalists in Zimbabwe, calling out government corruption in Bolivia, defending the rights of LGBTQI people in Azerbaijan, protecting children from forced recruitment by militias in Yemen, ending gender-based violence in Armenia and speaking out against the persecution of minority groups in China, Malaysia and Pakistan.
The women wanted to create media awareness of these issues to reach as many people as possible. They wanted their voices to be heard and their stories to be told. And so, the Elliott School hosted an event with them and I engaged three of the women in a public conversation. Each of the women shared the terror of living under repressive regimes and the grief at the loss of loved ones. Needless to say, it was a deep privilege and a very humbling experience to sit side-by-side with these women. In honour of these women and to mark international women’s day I am re-counting a small part of their stories here.
The first woman I spoke to was Amaya Coppens, a 25 years old medical student from Nicaragua. Amaya led peaceful marches against the Ortega regime in the 19th April student movement of 2018. She and fellow students took to the streets to protest the regime’s slashed social welfare payments and destruction of indigenous lands. They were attacked by the police and over the course of the movement more than 500 people were killed. Amaya was imprisoned for 11 months and detained in horrific conditions. Although she is now ‘free’ the regime will not allow her to complete her medical degree. She pointed to the purple bandana on her wrist that represents the feminist movement in Nicaragua, they were wrapped around their faces during the protests to hide their identities. She told me that while she was a heroine in Nicaragua after the protests, now as an outspoken feminist, many have shunned her. Seemingly, it is one thing speaking out against an oppressive regime, it is quite another to speak out on behalf of women’s rights.
The second woman I spoke with was Rita Nyampinga from Zimbabwe. She was imprisoned for being a women and worker’s rights activist. In Zimbabwe, women are unable to inherit property, child marriage laws are not implemented, and same sex relationships are criminalized. Journalists who speak out against the government and its laws are harassed and detained. Rita has been on a crusade for more than 35 years to raise awareness of the awful conditions in the prison system particularly for women, as there is no running water, hygiene and health are impossible to maintain. The simple act of asking for food and water and menstrual pads while in prison is considered anti-government. Determined to do whatever she can to help, Rita founded the Female Prisoner's Support Trust to gather volunteers and provide enough food, water, clothing and hygiene supplies for women to survive the inhumane prison system.
Amina Khoulani of Syria was the third woman I spoke with. She handed each of us a pink rose before our panel discussion and spoke about what flowers represented to her, peaceful protest, and how flowers were an important part of the marches against the Syrian regime. She was detained and imprisoned for six months in one of Assad’s detention and torture centres (which have detained over 140,000 Syrians) as were her husband and three brothers. Devastingly, she recently found out that her three brothers were executed. She held up photographs of them for us to see them and acknowledge their lives. She is now dedicating her life to seeking justice for the families of the disappeared through the creation of a women-led organization called Families for Freedom.
Each woman told her story with eloquence and passion. Each woman is living under constant threat of harassment and attack. Each woman has hope for a better world, a free and peaceful country, a place where women and men are treated as equals. After each woman shared her story there was a huge round of applause and the audience stood to recognize all they had endured and their courage in the face of such adversity.
Later in the day, myself and my colleagues were discussing the incredible resilience of the women in challenging gender discrimination and political repression, when the conversation turned to the U.S. presidential race and our disappointment that Elizabeth Warren had been forced to bow out. We talked about how thankful we were to be able to identify as feminists publicly and speak out on behalf of women’s rights without being beaten or imprisoned. What an odd gratitude to have?
Yesterday, the UNDP published a report of the Gender Social Norms Index which clearly states that progress towards gender equality and women's rights is not something we can assume. The report revealed that almost 90% of people, both women and men, display ‘prejudiced sentiments’ towards women, and the problem is getting worse! In a 2019 report about progress on the women, peace and security agenda, the UN Secretary General cited misogynistic, sexist and hate speech by political leaders against women politicians and human rights defenders as one of the key triggers for the increase in gender-based violence against those women globally. Shockingly, ten women are killed everyday in Mexico, and tomorrow, women there are going on strike for one day to draw attention to this crime.
It is now the end of the day and the sun is casting a shadow across my writing desk. Two bowls of Saffron-coloured Lilies sit either side of my laptop. One bowl of Lilies is in the dark, the other is in the light. The light-filled Lilies have tips of gold that remind me of Zarifa, her bright smile and her bravery in fully inhabiting herself as a woman and as a leader in Afghanistan. I was nervous about writing this blog today, on International Women’s Day, because it is discussing such dark events and typically I like to celebrate women's day with joyful stories. Yet, these are the stories that wanted to be told. We won’t know how far we’ve come unless we know where we are coming from. We won’t be able to support each other unless we know what help is needed. I have no doubt that if you are reading this blog, you are doing your bit to create a more just and equal world. As the poet, Erin Fornoff says ‘If the future’s something we have to brace ourselves against, can we find a space in the dark, and lift courage from the mess?’ I believe, that by the simple act of sharing our stories, we are each creating a little more light in the world.
Happy International Women’s Day!
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‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter’ - Martin Luther King Jr.