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The Sacrifice of Women Who Participate in Nation-Building in the Middle East and North Africa

As we reflect on the importance of International Women’s Day in 2015, it is important to consider the role that women play in the process of democratic nation-building across the world.  In the Middle East and North Africa, women activists in Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Saudi Arabia (to name a few) continue to push the boundaries imposed on them oftentimes risking the ultimate sacrifice.

In Egypt, Shaimaa Sabagh, a female Egyptian activist, was killed on January 24, 2015 while participating in a protest in Cairo.  Sabagh’s death, which has been widely captured by national and international media, occurred shortly after police shot tear gas and birdshot bullets at her group of protesters.  The right to peacefully protest, which is severely restricted Egypt, is a fundamental component to democracy.

In Libya, a popular female blogger and civil rights activist, Intisar Al-Hasiri, was found slain on February 24, 2015 in Tripoli.  Al-Hasiri was a leader within civil society in Libya, working with organizations committed to the promotion of education, music and art.  Politically, Al-Hasiri was a well-known blogger and outspoken advocate of human rights, democracy and rule of law in violence-stricken Libya.  Since 2014, there has been a significant increase in political assassinations of women’s rights activists in the country by Islamic fanatics who are hell bent on silencing women, as well as other minorities.  

In Saudi Arabia, two women, Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysa al-Amoudi, were arrested in November 2014 for defying their country’s ban on women drivers.  Although released in February 2015, it is believed that their detention was the result of their open opposition to the driving ban posted on their Twitter accounts.  With local elections slated to occur this year in Saudi, and women allowed to vote and run as candidates for the first time ever, Saudi women’s rights activists are making brave and bold moves to remove restrictions on women in the country.    

However challenging women’s political participation in the Middle East and North Africa is, there has recently been some positive gains.  In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has appointed the first female mayor of Baghdad, Zekra Alwach.  A country that is plagued with sectarian violence, terrorism and extremism, the task at hand for Mayor Alwach is great but the opportunity to lead is even greater.  While achieving such a position of leadership is a milestone for women in Iraq, it is what Alwach does as Mayor to help spearhead opportunities for other women in the country that will make the greatest impact for women’s political leadership.

When reflecting back on this year’s International Women’s Day, it is important to celebrate the many achievements of women around the world in their fight for the promotion of democracy.  However, we must also remember the many sacrifices that women advocates in the Middle East and North Africa (as well as around the globe) face to engage in the political process in hopes for a more inclusive and accountable community.