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The feminists on the frontline

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Feminism has never been more fashionable, but what about the women putting themselves in the firing line for the cause? Stylist pays tribute to those fighting on the frontline.

Feminism – like any nebulous, intangible issue – is only jolted to life when you witness the way it plays out in your own experience. Whether it’s discussing body image, Brazilian waxes or Mrs Carter, over the past five years, writers like Caitlin Moran, Hadley Freeman and Lucy Mangan, along with the well-debated No More Page 3 and The Everyday Sexism Project campaigns, have propelled modern feminism up the agenda.

It’s a timely reminder that the insidious and flippant can sinkhole into huge issues that affect us all – from equal pay to our sexual safety to media representation. This renewed galvanisation of women is inspiring. But while the issues we discuss in the office or the pub are vitally important, there are still women throughout the world who are denied the most basic of rights – of education, healthcare, of owning their own bodies and their own identity – every day.

The statistics remain horrifying. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 700 women die daily due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth. In Pakistan, up to 1,000 women die annually in honour killings. Around 70% of Afghan women will have no choice but to enter into a forced marriage. Only 18% of Ethiopian women can read or write (compared to 42% of men). And in Saudi Arabia, a woman can’t even travel without the permission of a male guardian.

For a few brave women, feminism is more than just a concept for discussion, it’s about putting their own safety on the line and forcing the world to become a fairer place, by filming the unseen, giving sanctuary to the hunted and fighting seemingly insurmountable powers for the rights of the disenfranchised. These are the women fighting at the frontline. Here are their stories.

Sharron Ward 42, is an award-winning documentary maker from London whose work includes Addicted In Afghanistan (2009)

Being a documentary maker and journalist is often about giving a voice to people who are denied one – increasingly in many parts of the world those people are women. In Libya, the 2011 civil uprising promised a freer future for women, but the opposite is happening. I’ve seen armed Islamist militia threaten women if they’re outside without wearing a hijab. At night they’ll raid cafes. If women are found – simply drinking coffee – they’re dragged out and labelled as prostitutes. My work gives these women a voice.

In July last year, I was in Janzour in northeast Libya to interview women in a refugee camp who’d been forced out of their homes, unfairly accused of being Gaddafi supporters. Some of these women had been tortured and raped, their sons and husbands had been taken by government forces and they have no idea where. Though I’d been granted permission to film, as I tried to leave I was detained by security forces. They took my equipment, passport and, later, my mobile phone. They accused me of being a spy.

They weren’t violent – I’d already informed the British Embassy of my situation so they were careful – but there were threats. At one point an officer came in, laid his gun on the table and said, “You know, I think torture is a great idea.” I was held for almost three days while the British Embassy negotiated my release. I had to leave the country without my equipment and it’s not safe for me to go back. It doesn’t put me off, though. Reporting in these places helps you realise how good we have it in the UK, but that doesn’t make the feminist movement here any less valid. We still have a national newspaper featuring a half-naked woman. It makes you think, ‘Actually, how far have we come?’

Sharron has filmed for Amnesty International (amnesty.org.uk).

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Nimco Ali 29, from London, is the CEO and co-founder of Daughters of Eve, an organisation that campaigns against female genital mutilation (FGM )

FGM doesn’t belong to a certainculture or religion. It’s a way to control a woman through shame and stigma, so I knew that speaking out against it publicly would be risky, even in Britain. The World Health Organization estimates about 140 million women worldwide are victims of FGM. It is a brutal procedure – recently a 13-year-old Egyptian girl died while being ‘operated’ on. In Somalia, where I was born, 98% of women undergo it. Though illegal in the UK since 2003, it’s estimated that there are 3,000-4,000 new cases in Britain each year.

I moved to the UK when I was four and though I’m from a family where women are valued and educated, FGM is so entrenched that when I was seven, I was taken back to Somalia to undergo the procedure. I can still remember the agony and I’m heartbroken every time I think of another girl going through that.

Yet I was so scared about the backlash it wasn’t until this year that I began doing more publicity, agreeing to be interviewed on This Morning and quoted in the national press. The weeks following were terrifying. One night I was walking home when a man came up to me on my street shouting, “Why are you talking about your vagina?”

When I argued back, he punched me in the face, giving me a black eye and cut lip. On another occasion a man threw a cup of urine at me. Then recently, a friend said he’d heard someone we knew was offering to kill me for £500. I broke down sobbing. It’s horrifying that someone can hate you that much.Though I’ve spoken to the police, I didn’t press charges – I’m scared it could make the situation worse. My family ask me to stop, but I won’t. Unlike a lot of victims, I have a voice. If I stayed silent I’d be complicit in their suffering.

Daughters of Eve is at dofeve.org

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Khanim Latif 42, is the director of AS UDA , an Iraqi women’s rights organisation, and opened the first independent women’s shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan. She lives in Iraq

My big sister was 14, and I was 12, when she was married off and forced to leave the family home. The decision was my father’s and I remember thinking then, ‘Why is it the man who has the final word?’ I think my passion for women’s rights dates back to that moment.

Though Iraqi law has been changed to inflict harsher sentences for honour killings, little has been done to enforce it. In 2012, there were almost 300 honour killings in Iraq. In the same year, in Kurdish Iraq, 97 women committed suicide after suffering domestic violence. Around 73% of women in the same area are forced to undergo FGM. When a couple is accused of adultery – a crime here – it’s often only the woman who is punished.

Running the shelter is dangerous work. We’re often standing between the woman who has come to us and the furious brother, father or husband who wants her back. Once a man broke into the shelter and shot his wife.

The woman survived but the police refused to press charges. We can be targets, too: a couple of years ago, an extremist Islamic cleric published a pamphlet denouncing me and five other activists as ‘bad women’, encouraging people to attack us. The threats have never materialised into physical attacks, but I am scared it’s only a matter of time. I am an obvious target because I’m a liberal woman and refuse to cover up with a scarf. But I’m motivated by hope. Women are becoming increasingly involved in Iraqi politics and this is crucial for

change. Protecting women in the short-term is one thing, but changing our society’s mentality is the only way to ensure our safety and freedom in the long-term.

AS UDA is supported by international development organisation Christian Aid UK (christianaid.org.uk).

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Humaira Bachal 25, from Karachi, Pakistan set up a school to provide opportunities in education for girls

Last year the world discovered just how dangerous it is for a Pakistani woman to be educated when 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen on the way home from classes.

Though she survived, the violence goes on. In June, 14 female students died when their bus was blown up. I was around the same age as Malala when, in 2001, I set up my own school with my sister and three friends. Official literacy rates for Pakistani women stand at around 42%, though in rural areas, it can be as low as 8%.

Because my mother insisted on it, my sister and I were the only girls in our neighbourhood who went to school. But when I was 13, my father wanted me to quit. One day, as I was collecting my school things, he slapped my face and told me I couldn’t go. When my mother argued, he broke her arm. She still told me to go. I am who I am because of my mother.

I began by teaching just 10 children. I went door to door trying to persuade mothers and fathers to allow their daughters to come to class. I was shouted out, called evil and immoral. Neighbours tried to force my family out of our home and there have even been plots to kidnap me. Of course it’s terrifying, but so is not having a future. I now have a school which educates 1,200 boys and girls, with a staff of 25. And last month, I was brought on stage at the Chime for Change concert in London by Madonna, who’s supporting our bid to build another floor at the school.

I’m most hopeful when I look at my own family. My brother’s five daughters are all in school and my father helps motivate other men to educate their own daughters. Sometimes the battle means changing one mind at a time. Watch Humaira Dreamcatcher by film maker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy on YouTube, created with Chime for Change (chimeforchange.org).

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Emily*, 37, is an Independent Domestic Violence Advocate (IDVA) who works for Solace Women’s Aid (solacewomensaid.org) supporting victims of domestic abuse

Sadly, I’m not surprised that two women die every week in the UK at the hands of an abusive partner. Latest Home Office statistics estimate around 1.2 million women have suffered domestic violence, with fewer than one in four reporting it – a figure which drops to one in ten if the violence includes a serious sexual assault. The violence I see can be horrifying. I once worked with a woman who had been kicked so hard she had to have a kidney removed, another whose face was so damaged she lost her eye, and I’ve known babies born with disabilities because of the violence inflicted on the mother when she was pregnant.

The whole purpose of my job is to mitigate the level of harm a woman faces, but if I’m working with a woman who’s in danger, then, to an extent, I’m at risk too. There have been times when an abuser has gone through his partner’s handbag and found my number. He’s phoned me up, swearing and threatening me, warning me to stay away. Once, when there was a possibility an abuser had found out who and where I was, I had to be escorted home by the police.

I’ll often accompany victims to court. In a previous job I once had a case, which involved a horrifically violent defendant who actually lived near me. I went to court in full disguise, including a wig, to make sure I wasn’t recognisable to him.

It’s crucial that feminism stays on the agenda. Be it Page 3 or pay gaps, any discussion that addresses the power imbalances that women face is vital. Domestic abuse is a very clear example, on a micro-level, of extreme power imbalances at their worst. If we’re going to improve the situation, we must empower women.

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Hafsat Abiola, 39, from Lagos, Nigeria is a woman’s rights activist and political advisor. She splits her time between Nigeria and Brussels where her husband and children live.

I know only too well the risk you take when you fight for what you believe in. My parents are part of Nigeria’s political legacy. In 1993 my father, Moshood Abiola, was elected as President with around 60% of the vote. But the country’s corrupt military rulers annulled the election results and imprisoned him. My mother, Kudirat, had taken his place as party leader when in 1996, she was assassinated. Two years later my father died in prison.

I knew immediately I had to carry on their work. Within 24 hours of my mother’s assassination I was doing an interview on CNN, denouncing her killers. I couldn’t let them win. There was – and still is – a prevailing notion in much of Nigeria that women are men’s property and we must conform to their will. If I hadn’t spoken out, the message would have been, ‘This is what happens when a woman has power and influence’.

Though Nigeria is now a democracy, I wish I could say it was a safer place to be a woman. The truth is that 545 women out of every 100,000 die in pregnancy or childbirth. That’s double the global average and accounts for 10% world’s maternal mortality rate. More than 47% of women are mothers before they’re 20. In north-western parts of the country, where 70% of women are illiterate, girls as young as 13 are forced into marriage – their bodies just can’t cope with childbirth.

In 1999, I founded the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND) in memory of my mother. We encourage female leadership by training and supporting women in schools and universities throughout Nigeria as well as helping victims forced marriage and sexual violence. Along with my work for KIND, I am a special advisor to the governor of my home state, Ogun and ensure that public funds are spent correctly.

Of course, this makes me pretty unpopular with certain people. I’ve had some fairly threatening phone calls that have left me shaken. I have someone stationed outside my house at all times and I have bodyguards when I travel. My mother paid the ultimate price for her struggle but it won’t stop me. Because the best way to ensure your own safety is to create a safe world for everyone. You might have to take risks to change the world, but better that than become a victim of the status quo.

Hafsat is involved in Gucci’s Chime For Change, a global campaign which aims to raise funds for female empowerment throughout the world. See chimeforchange.org for more.

Words: Katie Mulloy

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