Political empowerment of women and gender minorities is currently declining around the world, directly linked to a broader pushback against democracy. Women and non-binary activists continue to protest the world over, although faced with more and gender-specific threats and backlash than male activists.
Patriarchal authoritarians have good reason to fear women’s political participation: when women participate extensively on the frontlines of mass movements, those movements are both more likely to succeed, more likely to stick to non-violent discipline and more likely to lead to more egalitarian democracy. PAX stands with women activists in Sudan, Iraq, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus who continue to take to the streets, defying traditional norms and overcoming systematic violence and exclusion to demand political change and influence.
Sudan: rising up against military crack-downs
Sudan’s 2018 “Women’s Revolution” showed the strength and impact of women activists at the forefront of the resistance movement, propelling it forward with an unwavering determination towards the non-violent overthrow of al-Bashir’s dictatorship. Estimates suggest that women have made up at least 60% of the demonstrators since the start of the revolution. Since the 25 October 2021 military coup, women activists remain a core driving force in mobilising communities and maintaining the movement’s momentum to see meaningful social and political change.
They continue to take their place on the front lines of violent crack-downs that resistance activists across the country face week after week at the hands of security forces. Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, Sudanese women are paying a steep price for their roles in the revolution and resistance movement. Videos, photos, and testimonials received from protesters highlight the ways in which women are being targeted by Sudanese security forces, including being whipped, beaten, sexually assaulted, raped, harassed, and arrested, held, and interrogated for several weeks without charge or access to legal advice.
The militarised nature of the governing powers in Sudan is tied to some of the country’s traditional gender norms, whereby masculinity is socially understood as inherently violent. Sexual violence is being used to terrorise and deter protesters from taking part in demonstrations and from making their demands for a freer, more just society. Rape, for example, serves as an attempt to break not only the non-violent ethos of the Sudanese revolution, but also protesters’ sense of self since the two have become entwined. The Sudanese revolution, through its commitment to nonviolence, as well as its aspirations for freedom, peace, and justice for all Sudanese irrespective of gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, challenges not just social and gender norms, but it also threatens the very foundation of such a conceptualisation of masculinity. Perhaps that is why the resistance movement, and particularly the leadership and majority role of women activists, is, from the perception of Sudan’s security forces, so dangerous. Nonetheless, women activists in Sudan continue to rise up.
Iraq: making women’s political gains count
Another case in point is the participation of women and girls in Iraq’s ‘October Revolution’ in 2019 as a watershed moment for gender equality in Iraq. Women joined the public calls to end corruption and to provide basic resources and services to the people of Iraq, whilst additionally standing united against systemic oppression and patriarchal norms. Their participation and the integral role they played defied patriarchal gender roles and norms and reasserted their position in public spaces. At the demonstrations, a safe space was created for men and women to participate equally and together; a revolution in itself. When Covid-19 gripped the country, activists were forced to return to their homes and women were the first to leave. The pandemic reiterated the deep discrimination women face in Iraq; cases of domestic and sexual violence soared, girls were forced into marriage at younger ages and higher rates, and emotional and physical abuse rose.
The strides that women made during the October demonstrations will not be forgotten, and Iraqi women will no longer be silenced. In the October 2021 elections, women’s representation in parliament increased by nearly 30 percent, showing that the behaviour and mindsets of Iraqi people are also transforming. The safety of women activists in Iraq needs to be prioritised in the coming period, with greater protection mechanisms needed to ensure that public space, discussions, and decisions include and elevate the position of women. While women’s activism has turned largely online to fight for greater equality, they continue to be routinely targeted; physically and sexually abused, socially shamed and ostracised, forced to leave online spaces, and often abandoned by their families. Despite this, young feminist women from all around Iraq continue to rise up.
Ukraine: countering patriarchal militarisation
Courageous women activists continue to non-violently take to the streets of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, confronting tanks and soldiers in the streets of Ukraine and risking detention and incarceration in Russia and Belarus. Putin’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine is connected to Putin’s war on women. Patriarchal gender norms shape the masculine working culture of international decision and policy-making concerning security matters.
With Russia’s decisive turn towards authoritarian consolidation and now full-fledged dictatorship, it took up anti-gender leadership at an international level to legitimize Russia’s aggressive and conservative foreign policy, while decriminalizing intimate partner violence in its domestic policies. Displaying extreme force and misogyny alongside framing the West as emasculated by gender equality policies enables the Kremlin to portray Russia as the last “real man” standing. The current threat of nuclear warfare is subsequently the epitome of hegemonic masculinity. Now is the time, especially in the midst of war, to question misogynic narratives of brute militaristic force and support non-violent activists working to build the structures and culture for peace, cooperation, and well-being.
Women and non-binary activists lead and sustain non-violent protests in the face of the most profound repression and violence. Sustained flexible resourcing is key, recognizing that women’s leadership increases non-violent discipline, campaign success and result in more peaceful and egalitarian democracies. PAX works together with partners and activists to strengthen non-violent resistance and meaningful participation during war and political transition towards egalitarian peaceful societies.