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women’s rights

Egyptian history was made last week when Hala Shukralla became the first woman to be elected leader of a major political party. She will represent Al-Dostour; a centre-left party founded by Mohammed ElBaradei, with a strong youth following and links to the revolution of 2011.

Her election has been reported as reflecting a major shift in the country’s attitudes since the revolution and Hosni Mubarak’s removal from power, but I can’t help but feel that this doesn’t do justice to the Egyptian people. The media coverage gives the impression that the women’s rights are a new concept in a Egypt and, although it is true that negative and oppressive attitudes towards women were prolific in the years leading up to the revolution, throughout the majority of the 20th century Egypt was an exemplary patron of sexual equality and progressive thinking in the Arab world.

In his book ‘On the State of Egypt: What Caused the Revolution’ Alla Al Aswany writes that Egyptian women were ‘the first to be educated and to work in every field, the first to drive cars and fly planes, and the first to enter parliament and government.’ He tells the story of Hoda Shaarawi, the pioneering Egyptian feminist who in 1919 ‘took the Turkish burka off her face at a public ceremony as a sign that the liberation of the country was inseparable from the liberation of women.’ So if for many years women did enjoy the benefits of a more liberal and moderate Islamic society, even engaging in politics, what changed? Why did Egypt become a country where sexual harassment and oppression of women were the norm?

The answer lies with the infiltration of Wahhabist ideals that entered Egypt in the late 1970s. Wahhabism is a fundamentalist form of Islam, popular in the Gulf states, that spread into Egypt via the millions of impoverished people who returned after having spent years working in Saudi Arabia. In December 2013 Al Aswany wrote, in an article for the New York Times, ‘…for Wahhabis, a woman’s job is to please her husband and provide offspring. Wahhabi preachers promote female genital mutilation, to control women’s sexuality. A woman must cover her body completely and may not study, work or travel. She cannot even leave the house without her husband’s permission.’

Under the Mubarak regime, the local enforcement and consequential further social entrenchment of these ’moral codes’ saw the situation for women worsen but, can we really say that the Egyptian majority changed its views on women’s rights over the past 40 years? Can it really be assumed that an entire generation, who had enjoyed the benefits of a moderate Islamic society, would change their beliefs so drastically and so quickly?

Is it not fairer to say that fear and the repression of democracy stopped these people from voicing their true views on the issue of women’s rights and that it largely still does today? Under Mubarak’s rule debate on these issues was not an option and even afterwards, in June 2012, a group of women protesters were ambushed and sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square, in an attempt to discourage their speaking-out on the issue.

The stifling of political debate of any kind still continues today, with the Egyptian government imprisoning political campaigners just last week. But as 2011 proved, Egyptians will not be silenced or discouraged from voicing their demands for liberation. So perhaps in this sense there has been a change in social attitude, a confidence that was not there before to demand the sexual equality that has been beaten out of this great nation over the past 40 years. Hoda Shaarawi was right; the liberation of Egypt IS inseparable from the liberation of women, and the battle has not been won yet. We can only hope that Hala Shukralla’s election can further encourage Egyptian women to carry on fighting.

Written by Francesca Bassenger. Image © Lorenz Khazaleh.

© Bertrand NOËL

© Bertrand NOËL

Feminism: the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Now, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? In fact, in the 21st century, this statement should be common sense. But for some reason, the word ‘feminism’ has become a term that needs to be justified or defended. Anyone who identifies as a feminist, to many, will invoke images of bra-burning, angry, man-hating radicals who will rant to anyone who will listen about how unfair the world is to the female half of this glorious species. Let’s be clear, sexism does exist. This is a fact and, hey, it can go both ways, but let’s face it the brunt of this vice is borne by women. The fight for women’s rights has been going on for decades, and while the feminist movement has brought about significant social and legislative changes that protect women from exploitation and injustice, there is still a long way to go, and a lot more to learn.

It is interesting to observe the developments in feminist movements across the world, from protests in India against rape and other forms of violence against women to Malala advocating girls’ education in Pakistan. Then there is FEMEN. In case you haven’t heard, FEMEN is a feminist group out of Ukraine that strongly believes in ‘sextrimisim’ (a.k.a. getting naked in public and causing a ruckus) as a viable means of promoting women’s rights. You may have heard of them flashing Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel at the Hanover Trade Fair earlier this year, or crashing a number of fashion shows across Europe exposing their bare chests with political slogans in black ink painted across them.

While their methods are quite radical and arguably questionable, I am reluctant to throw stones just yet. Before we direct any judgment towards these ladies, let’s take a look at their ideologies, shall we? Firstly, it may or may not be important to note that this group was started by a man; Viktor Sviatsky. Initially, it is easy for skepticism to build over the legitimacy of a breast-baring feminist group based on the ideologies of a man, but bear with me.

(Officially) FEMEN was founded by Anna Hutsol in Ukraine 2008 after her eyes were opened to the sex trafficking of Ukrainian women. It all started as skimpy-dress protests but things quickly escalated into topless protests. Basically, FEMEN’s ideology is sextremism, atheism and feminism. The mission is ‘complete victory over patriarchy and all its forms which are dictatorship, religion and the sex industry.’ Their main aims are political deposition of governments that enforce political, social and economic environments hostile to women (for example those that promote Sharia law); criminalising prostitution, and banning religion from interfering in the civic, sex and reproductive lives of women. Their rationale behind going topless is that it destroys the patriarchal understanding of the meaning of female sexuality thus benefiting their revolutionary mission. These stances, naturally, will elicit debates which, at their core, pose philosophical questions.

But the more universal issues they aim to highlight are Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Sex trafficking and slavery. According to recent estimates, 66000 women have undergone FGM and an additional 20000 girls under the age of 11 are at risk in the UK alone. Sex slavery is a billion dollar industry and most of the victims are women. These are real issues that need to be addressed, we can all agree on that. It’s easy to lose these important messages in the shock-factor and the media hype. Or maybe this highly aggressive form of provocation is moving people to do their research and understand these issues. Whether this later translates to actual change is up for debate.

It is true: FEMEN branches have staged a number of high-profile ‘sextremist’ acts targeting politicians, prominent religious leaders and fashion shows where they have not only exposed their sharpie-marked breasts but burnt Salafist flags and chain-sawed crucifixes whilst generally screaming at people. After effectively being driven out of Ukraine due to death threats and attacks, the organisation moved to Paris where they are now based and opened branches in 10 countries across Europe. FEMEN is now taking on the UK, calling for a radical feminist revolution on the other side of the English channel and urging British women to join the ‘naked army.’

So will British women answer their call? The British public is generally sensitive to women’s rights, at least officially. Let’s not forget the backlash that ensued from that now infamous ‘calm down dear’ gaffe by the beloved P.M. David Cameron. Due to the nature of the issues highlighted by FEMEN, there may be a number of recruits to this radical ideology but personally, I don’t believe FEMEN will be successful in the UK. Here’s why:

The political culture in the UK is very different to the political culture in Ukraine from which FEMEN was born. The avenues for expression and influencing change on these issues are a lot more accessible in the UK than in Ukraine, therefore the absolute need to take such extreme measures to prove a point is not present. The chances of affecting public opinion on women’s rights whilst topless and screaming at people on the streets of London are also pretty slim. Powerful organisations and government institutions have been set up to deal with FGM, human trafficking, domestic violence against women, and other issues. While these problems are still severe, work is being done. On the philosophical issues that affect the perception of women and their freedoms, the culture is changing, legislations in the UK have been passed to try and balance the scales. It is a matter of enforcement, perhaps law changing society. Social reforms are not going to happen overnight.

The UK is one of the most culturally diverse countries in Europe. FEMEN is not culturally diverse and doesn’t engage women from different cultural backgrounds. This is one of its greatest weaknesses. One moment they are preaching freedom for all women, but then proceed to tell Muslim women that they are oppressed and/or brainwashed if they choose to wear a Hijab. The UK is notorious for valuing political correctness. For better or worse, I seriously doubt such extreme views would ever take root here. FEMEN only recruit women that are willing to show their half-naked bodies to the world. What about those women (out of their own independent choice mind you) who are not? This is the fundamental problem with this movement. They are inadvertently defining the parameters of freedom based on their own subjective ideologies. This is why I think their movement is not going to stick with the UK majority. But hey, if they manage to get people talking about rights and fairness and justice, then that is positive news all round.

Written by Irene Kyomuhangi. © Photo Bertrand NOËL.

To see more photography from Bertrand NOËL, visit the links below.


To find out more about FEMEN visit femen.org


Following his first trip to Papua New Guinea to raise awareness about violence against women, Vlad Sokhin returns to address more specific aspects of this issue. He says…

“This being my second trip, I wanted to approach the topic of violence against women from different angles. I wanted to show sorcery related cases, violence against children or women who escaped from their husbands to the street, becoming sex workers as their only survival option.

I met abused minors during my first trip to PNG, but wasn’t sure if I wanted to include their photos in the project. Theirs are very sensitive cases and I believe that the child’s identity should be protected.

This time I talked to some parents who asked me to take a picture of their kids. They told me that it was very important for them to know that someone outside of their hometown, outside PNG, would know what is happening in the country. As for sorcery cases, I had heard about them before, but never had the chance to meet survivors.”

Sorcery related violence is prevalent in rural villages in Papua New Guinea. In 2011, Amnesty International submitted a document to the ‘Universal Periodic Review of Papua New Guinea’ outlining the severity of the issue and its concerns.

According to Amnesty International ‘puri-puri’ (the traditional belief in sorcery) was responsible for at least 50 murders in 2008 alone, and many more are thought to have gone unreported. Although men can also fall victim to these accusations, it is 6 times more likely for women. On his recent trip Vlad Sokhin came face to face with some of these women and told us their terrifying stories…

“When I worked in Port Moresby this January, my fixer (who is from Highlands), mentioned that in his province villagers sometimes kill women, because they think that they are witches who use black magic to make people sick or even die.

The unexpected death or serious illness of a villager can provoke people to search for a ’cause’ and quite often they ‘pick up’ a woman, accusing her of being a witch. Usually it’s a woman from the same family, but it can be any random woman, with anything in her past that could raise suspicion.

For example, one of the survivors, Dini Korul from Wormai village in Simbu province told me that 4 years ago she had a dream, where one of her neighbours got sick. She went to her neighbour’s house and told them about the dream. Nothing happened after that, and her neighbour was fine. 3 years later, Dini’s son died at the age of 22 from a stomach infection.

After his funeral, five of his friends came to Dini’s house and accused her of being a witch and causing the young man’s death. They reminded her of the dream she had 3 years before and based on that, they tried to kill her.

They tortured her in a pigsty. Her tormentors lit a fire then, cutting her body with bush knives and burning it with hot iron bars, they forced her to admit that she was a witch. After numerous refusals they burned her vagina with the red-hot iron and were about to kill her, when women from another village called for help. Dini survived and spent over 10 months in the Kundiawa hospital. She was ‘lucky.’ Many other women are burnt to death or slaughtered.

Nevertheless, there are very few options for survivors. Many are disabled for life. They are expelled for their communities forever and can’t go back to their houses. Most times, relatives don’t want to shelter them, because they are afraid of the possible consequences.

Dini Korul however, did go back to her home village. Now, she almost never leaves the house during daylight, living in fear of being exposed to brutal punishment again.

Superstition-driven violence happens mostly outside of big cities and only this time did I have the chance to work in the countryside. I visited the Highlands region, mostly working with sorcery related cases in the villages around Kundiawa town, in Simbu and Jiwaka provinces. There, in some areas, it happens in almost every village.

Sometimes village elders penalise the perpetrators, forcing them to pay compensation to the victim’s husband. Usually this money doesn’t benefit the victims themselves, because their husbands are afraid to be found helping them.”

Fear of a repeat attack, or revenge on family or friends, is a big problem in the fight against all gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea. In many cases it stops these crimes from being reported and consequently, the attackers are rarely prosecuted. At a hospital in Kundiawa, Sokhin witnessed the strong hold that this fear has on victims and their families…

“I arrived to Kundiawa town after an 8 hour trip through the bumpy Highlands highway and one of the first people I met was a woman, called Emate, who survived a sorcery-based attack. She was at the local hospital ward and was barely able to speak, but had a strong wish to share her bitterness with me.

This was a fresh case. Her body was full of burns and scars. We talked in the ward, which was full of people. Men, women, children, all that noise, smell and insanitary conditions… When I asked her what happened, everyone stopped talking and there was complete silence. All eyes were on us.

Emate’s niece, who looked after her, drew the curtains around the bed and whispered in my ear, ‘Please speak more quietly and do not say the word ‘sorcery’. If the other patients find out why my aunt is here, they could spread the word to her tormentors and those men would come here to kill her. Now they think that Emate is dead and we want to keep it this way.’

The fear in eyes of that young woman shocked me more than the brutal wounds on Emate’s body. I did not expect that even at the hospital, dozens of kilometres away from her home village, Emate could still be in such grave danger.

Amnesty International has urged that local authorities investigate cases like Dini and Emate’s more vigorously and put strategies in place to prevent such violence from continuing. The changing of Papua New Guinean attitudes towards women and gender equality, is especially key.

Pressure from the international community is one way to ensure that these changes take place but if people don’t know, then they can’t help. It is this that pushes photographer Vlad Sokhin to continue sharing the stories of these women with the world, and hopefully, what will encourage you to share them too. We just did.

Written by Francesca Bassenger, photography © Vlad Sokhin.

To see more of Sokhin’s work, visit www.vladsokhin.com

Link to original Amnesty International Report to UPR (May 2011)

Papua New Guinea was a country I had been longing to visit for a long time. After I moved to Australia last year, I started thinking about making a photo-project there.

By chance, in December of 2011, I read a report about domestic violence in PNG made by the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission of Papua New Guinea. It really touched me, and so I decided to launch this project.

I contacted all of the social centres I could find in Port Moresby. The workers were very friendly and helped me approach people.

One of my local fixers brought me to the dangerous settlements where I met some assaulters. Most of them where members of local criminal groups, called ‘Raskols.’ One of the groups allowed me to photograph them and I was able to interview their leader Peter Moses. Later I met more assaulters in hospitals (they were having treatment after having a fight with the police) and in prison.


I went to a police station and spoke to the ‘big boss.’ He allowed me, not only to go inside a prison cell, but also to photograph anywhere within the police station. He also let me go on city patrol with the mobile squat team.

The prison was a small building of about 10 cells, with 10-15 people inside each of those. Every 15 minutes mobile squat patrols brought criminals to the police station.

A couple of times I was locked by a guard in a corridor between cells. We entered together, but he received a call and had to go back to the main building. I hadn’t finished photographing yet. When he left, the convicts started to tell me their stories. One of the prisoners recounted in full detail how he had mutilated his wife with an axe.

I listened and waited with impatience for the guard to release me from that hell. Soon he came and brought a man, aged 50. “Take a picture of him too,” said the policeman to me. “He was just caught on the street for raping a 5-year-old boy.” I barely restrained myself from hitting him…

Out of all the prisoners and gang members I met, not one of them had regret for what he had done. They laughed through the iron-barred doors and begged me to photograph them. With smiles on their faces, they talked about how they had bitten their wives, or about the women they had raped.

I was most shocked by the story of Peter Moses, the leader of the ‘Dirty Dons 585′ Raskol gang. He told me how he had raped his last victim about a year ago. Peter had gotten drunk on Friday evening in a nightclub and forced one woman to go with him out of the building. On the street he grabbed her by the hair and dragged her into a taxi, telling the driver to take him to the 9 Mile Settlement.

The driver brought them there without objecting. There, on the street, Peter raped the woman. Later he called his friends from the settlement, also members of the gang, and they came to pick up the slack. When I asked Peter how many people had raped the victim, he said: “Not many … thirteen or fourteen men.”

Soon someone informed Peter’s wife of what her husband was doing. She ran out of the house and found Peter in the act. A few hours later she left him and moved into her parents’ house, leaving the children to live with Peter.

“Now you understand how Papua New Guinea’s women are?” said Peter Moses ending his story. “For a small fault, my wife left me with the children and now my father is forced to look after them…” Genuine surprise stole of the face of the gang leader, but not repentance for what he had done. By Peter’s words, he has raped more than 30 women, 3 of them were murdered.


I got official permission from the chief of Port Moresby General Hospital, and with that had access not only to the hospital itself, but also to the family support centre and antenatal clinic. I want to thank Dr. Maria Lavrentieva (Russian Honorary consul in PNG) , who helped me to obtain this permission.

I never approached any women alone. There were always social workers, doctors, police officers or psychologists around. When they explained my reason for working on the project , the women had no objections to speaking with me. They were happy to share their sorrow, and wanted me to give them a voice through my photographs.

There are organisations that work to help assaulted women…. the UN, MSF, Red Cross, ‘WeCare’ (The Foundation of Women and Children at Risk), City Mission… but the problem is widespread and there aren’t enough human resources to provide help for all the victims.

For example, the City Mission in Port Moresby has a refugee centre, where women can be protected for up to 3 months. Unfortunately, they shelter only 30 women at a time. For a city with a population of more than 300,000 people, it’s next to nothing.

For many PNG men it is very commonplace to strike their wives. For the young boys from the settlements, raping a woman is a way to be accepted as gang members.

Unfortunately, some women also accept this, continuing to live oppressed by their male partners. They prefer tolerating the violence to being expelled onto the street with their kids, or going back into the parents’ house. In most cases, abused women don’t take their male partners to court, being scared by the negative reaction of their relatives or neighbours. Sometimes parents even send their daughters back to the violent husband, if he pays them a fee to cover all the ‘damages.’


My aim is to rise awareness, not only in PNG, but worldwide. When I started coming to the hospitals, refugee centres and police stations every day, I witnessed how women were treated. When they agreed to be photographed, all beaten, with tears in their eyes, staring into the lens of my camera, I felt that I must tell the world about their suffering. Then I promised myself to return to PNG, and continue to work on the project.

My dream is to make a big photo-exhibition in one of the main streets of Port Moresby. People would go there and see the faces of their abused relatives, wives, sisters and mothers. Perhaps such an event would cause men to think about changing their attitudes to their ‘meri’s (Papua New Guinean Pidgin for ‘woman’), then it would be a major success. Not mine, but of all Papua New Guinean women.

As told to Francesca Bassenger by Vlad Sokhin, photography © Vlad Sokhin.

To see more of Sokhin’s work, or to find out more about the issue, visit www.vladsokhin.com