Last week, a group of twenty-five women who were demonstrating for peace and democracy in Baghdad's Tahrir Square were violently attacked. Gathering as they had every week, the women were greeted this time greeted by a mob of armed men who were reportedly bused in specifically to target the demonstrators. The women were physically and sexually attacked, and a 19-year-old woman's clothes were reportedly torn from her body. News of this horrific exchange in Iraq comes on the heels of an Egyptian general's public admission that his forces deliberately employed so-called “virginity tests” to intimidate women in the more famous, Cairo-based Tahrir Square during March's revolution. Around the world, these kinds of deliberate, organized attacks on peaceful female protesters register a worrying trend of diminishing--and increasingly unsafe--public space for women's political participation.
In the first half of 2011 alone, we have seen evidence of this in practically every region of the world. Take Ivory Coast, where a women's protest of former President Gbagbo's refusal to cede power was targeted for attack by government soldiers. Although the women were unarmed and peaceful, the forces opened fire, killing seven women. Days later, on the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, men and women gathered to remember the fallen women and add their voices to the peaceful protest; forces loyal to Gbagbo again attacked, killing three men and one woman.
In Libya, the world watched in horror as Iman al-Obeidi burst into a hotel room filled with international press to report her rape by government forces targeting civilians in an attempt to terrorize the Libyan people and maintain Muammar al-Qaddafi's grip on power. Obeidi fled the country only to be deported--against international outcry--and has since gone into hiding, fearing for her life. Widespread reports of use of rape and other human rights abuses have been chronicled throughout the Libyan forces.
Nepal's conflict is more distant in time and memory than those of Ivory Coast and the Arab Spring, but women on the ground there who are still organizing to implement the country's peace process and new constitution continue to be marginalized from national debates, and face physical harm for their efforts. In early May, police attacked and beat 21 women who had gathered to peacefully protest in support of the peace process and a new Constitution outside of the Constituent Assembly.
There are a few cases where women have been able to overcome targeted campaigns of violence against them by their own efforts. Cuba's famous Damas en Blanco--wives and mothers of jailed dissidents who walk the streets of Havana clad in white each Sunday to symbolize peace--were also subject to an Iraq-style campaign of violence by men bused in to taunt and psychically attack them. After suffering repeated attacks, the Damas lobbied the Church to intervene on their behalf, and received assurances that they would continue to be able to march for peace, in peace.
The courageous acts of women everywhere who put themselves at risk in the name of peace and justice are foundational to the democratic process, yet often place them at risk by the states they seek to improve. The act of targeting women for violence is neither geographically, ethnically, religiously or racially unique. Rather, it is a consistent, political tool indicative of a calculated effort to quash the democratic process and maintain hold of power through force.
It is also indisputably illegal. International human rights standards expressly protect not only women's bodies from men's arms, but also their rights to participate within their countries' (generally male-dominated) political debates. Yet as 2011 unfolds, we are seeing more and more evidence that our promises that women should be able to help shape the future direction of their societies ring increasingly hollow.
Women should not be martyred for peace, as they were in Ivory Coast; neither should they be responsible for their own security, as in Cuba. How many more Tahrir Squares must we witness before we take action to stop the violence? How many more women will continue to have to fight... for peace?