By Marina Skovgaard Dokken

The following are interviews with four female human rights activists from the MENA region. The interviews were conducted during the Youth Activism Workshop 2018, a collaboration between Amnesty International Norway and MENA set in Beirut, Lebanon.

Sarah Mohsen, Egypt

Sarah works with a non-governmental organisation called the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, in the Research and Documentation Unit. She specialises in digital rights and freedom of creativity.

What inspired you to be an activist?
The Egyptian revolution [in course of the Arab spring] in 2011 was a big part of it. I’ve always wanted to work with human rights but didn’t know how to before, while afterwards, it was easier to get engaged. However, my parents wouldn’t allow me to participate in protests, so I got active on social media. For a long while, I volunteered for different campaigns online and worked from home.

Has your activism had any effect on your government?
Not a direct effect, but people have started to talk about human rights. It can be demotivating to continue working when you see all the wrongdoings around you and meet as much resistance as you do from the government. But as long as human rights violations exist in Egypt I will work on it because that means someone is suffering unjustly.

Do you think activism has the power to create change?
I actually do. It’s really hard to be a human rights activist in Egypt – there is a high level of personal risk, but also the organisation is always at risk of being shut down. But over this past year, we have had two work vacancies, and we had lots of applicants despite the personal risk of the job. That adamant willpower gives me hope.

As an activist, do you feel powerful?
Yes, because I’m able to continue despite everything. I have limited tools to use, but I’m using them, and there’s power in that.

Do you feel that your activism empowers you as a woman?
Yes. In my organisation, we have very few women compared to men. That makes every woman count, and so I definitely feel like the space I occupy is important.

Aisha, Morocco

Aisha is a student activist for Amnesty International. She mostly works online and on campus, and she was the organiser of a women’s week with lectures, art exhibitions and various other events. Her passion is for women’s rights and environmental issues.

What inspired you to be an activist?
I come from a family of strong women, and I love them for it. They imposed their values on me, as well as the idea that I don’t have to accept things for what they are. Also, I do feel that my true self is oppressed – I can’t say openly that I’m an atheist, or bisexual. In fact, I can’t even be fully free as a woman. And still, I go to a good university and have lots of other privileges that many others don’t have. I’m grateful for what I have, but that privilege is also a duty.

Has your activism had any effect on your government?
Not on my government, because we haven’t really addressed it, but on society. People I’ve talked with have told me I’ve changed their mind. These are small victories, but I see their ripple effects. Just getting people to talk about this has a big effect.

Do you think activism has the power to create change?
Yes. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t believe in it.

As an activist, do you feel powerful?
I don’t feel powerful alone. I feel powerful when I’m engaging with people. That’s where the slow but steady change is happening.

Do you feel that your activism empowers you as a woman?
You know how people with different disabilities need supportive equipment? People with poor sight need glasses, people who can’t walk need wheelchairs, and so on? To me, activism is like glasses – I wish I didn’t need it, but I do. So in that sense, it’s empowering.

Helen Zein Eddine, Lebanon

Helen is a journalism student and says she doesn’t consider herself a full-on activist yet. She has volunteered through a youth network with the International Labour Organisation against the kafala system in Lebanon and for her studies she is specialising in migrant domestic workers.

What inspired you to be an activist?
Engaging with this gives me a better perspective on the issues I want to write about when I’m a journalist. It allows me to get to know the people who aren’t seen in the media and hear their amazing stories.

Do you think activism has the power to create change?
Yes, definitely. It would be a very bleak world if it didn’t. Even in journalism, it’s important to take a stance, and I don’t think that’s wrong, either – if you remain silent, you have taken the side of the oppressor, you know?

As an activist, do you feel powerful?
In Lebanon, there are so many people – lawyers, doctors, civilians – who donate so much time to different causes. It’s not always effective, but it is nevertheless inspiring to know that there are so many people out there who care. There’s power in that solidarity.

Do you feel that your activism empowers you as a woman?
Absolutely. So much is about speaking up and taking up space. Also, it is so empowering to meet female activists and share experiences across backgrounds and just be able to relate to each other’s struggles without having to explain that reality to someone who doesn’t experience it.

Pashtana Durrani, Afghanistan

Pashtana is a social activist engaged in political, educational and human rights activism. She is a youth leader in Amnesty International’s global youth collective and has over 2000 volunteers working with her on different issues.

What inspired you to be an activist?
There were two factors, one related to my educational activism and one to my political activism. All the boys in my region go to school. I myself did go to an international school, but I was lucky to have that privilege. A lot of other girls didn’t, because they couldn’t afford it, or because their families didn’t want them to. When you don’t have a right, you have to take it. That’s why we Afghan girls have to work – not fight, work – for our right to education. As for political rights, my father is a political activist, and one night we were awoken by a knock on the door. It was the army, who filled the house and arrested my father without any warrant. When you’re an Afghan living in Pakistan people try to pin everything on you, and that’s why it’s so important for people to know their political rights – you can’t be arrested without a warrant, people can’t enter your house without being allowed to, and so on.

Has your activism had any effect on your government?
It has had a social impact. Politics are changed through policy-making, which isn’t really an impact. The impact happens more in everyday life – people who get to go to school, or don’t starve, and so on.

Do you think activism has the power to create change?
All voices, small or big, have an impact. Saying that you’re an activist for something, even to a small group, will be a statement, and might let some of them know there are others who think like them.

As an activist, do you feel powerful?
When you’re young and in school, nobody listens to you, because you’re not a lawyer or doctor, or otherwise academically qualified. But as an activist, you are an expert because you’re living in the reality you’re working against every single day. Activism is a powerful tool because you only need a conscience to be qualified. If you have that, people listen to you, regardless of your age.

Do you feel that your activism empowers you as a woman?
My activism is the only safe space for me. In all other contexts I have roles – daughter, citizen, sister – that dictate my behaviour. As an activist, I can say whatever I want.

Do you have any last message you’d like to share?
If there is a little girl or boy somewhere out there who wants to do so much, but people tell them they’ll grow up to a normal life, I want that person to know this: You don’t need to be a certain age or have a certain qualification to speak up, you only need a conscience. Being active is a noble thing to do. We shouldn’t teach children to claim their rights when they’re older. Tell them to fight for it in their homes, to make a space for themselves already now. That way, they will always be able to be true to themselves.

Marina Skovgaard Dokken is a student at the Psychology Programme, and quite bad at sticking to a single field of study. She loves books, cold weather, tattoos and disappearing into the wilderness. Matters close to her heart are LGBT+ rights, indigenous rights and nature conservation. She thinks that intersectionality and human rights are the bee’s knees.

Illustrator: Karin Kristensson

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