Challenges to reform and peacebuilding initiatives by Women Human Rights Defenders in the
Middle East and North Africa

MENA Libya Egypt Sudan Syria Iraq Saudi Arabia Iran Bahrain Yemen

The Report

The Defenders

Omaima Al Najjar Saudi Arabia 6:17
Mozn Hassan Egypt 6:08
Mariam Jalabi Syria 6:44
Muna Luqman Yemen 5:56
Yanar Mohammed Iraq 6:41

Nasrin Sotoudeh | Iran | Full Documentary

The silencing of Women Human Rights Defenders

Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in the Middle East and North Africa face a daunting array of tactics designed to intimidate and silence them.

There are no limits to what the authoritarian leaders will do to achieve this silence.

Unfinished Revolution details the restrictions and punitive measures that are used to quell the voices of women and limit their effectiveness.

In recent years, human rights observers have noted an increase in attacks on women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and the use of unique forms of repression against them and their organizations. By framing them as immoral or as dangerous foreign agents cruel and violent punishments are made justifiable.

Using a “security” pretext, civil society organizations of all kinds have been framed as outlaw enterprises attacking the state. They have been de-registered and de-funded. National security laws have been used to restrict their freedom of expression, assembly and association, with some countries exacting prison terms for public gatherings of more than 10 people. In several countries, large-scale public protests have been banned outright.

Those who are allowed to continue their work require government approval and are routinely monitored. Given the risks, some practice self-censorship in order to maintain their permission to operate.

UN member states have the right to veto the participation of NGOs in international peace processes. They can also withhold visas for travel. Some MENA governments use these powers to block the participation of women’s rights groups.

Unfinished Revolution details a wide range of restrictions and punitive measures used to supress the voices of women, stymie their organizations, and limit their effectiveness:

  • Restrictions on speech, movement, assembly and collective action
  • Public shaming and smear campaigns
  • Continuous surveillance and harassment
  • Physical and sexual violence
  • Criminalization of human rights work using charges such as “terrorism” or threats to “morality” or “public order”
  • Interrogation and investigation
  • Imprisonment
  • Torture
  • Kidnapping
  • Disappearances and extrajudicial killings
  • Economic sanctions
  • Media bans and censorship
  • Travel bans
  • Revoking of citizenship


The women interviewed for this report describe their first-hand experience of many of these tactics, and the devastating impacts on their lives and their work. These include exile and displacement, trauma and burnout, and having few alternatives but to shut down or work underground.

Those in exile are cut off from their families and in a constant state of worry about their safety. Pressure and guilt can lead to self-censorship. In their new countries, they face significant social and economic challenges—including limited access to housing and employment, language and cultural barriers, discrimination, and more threats of assault and persecution.

Eleven of the fifteen women interviewed for Unfinished Revolution are living in exile as a result of relentless persecution.

When WHRDs are driven to flee their home countries, communities lose some of their most vocal members. The collective ability to organize is diminished, leaving them more vulnerable and less able to pursue and secure their rights.


“What is new is that attacks on WHRDs are being normalized across the region. [G]overnments are using escalating insurgency and terror laws to suppress WHRDs.”

Women Human Rights Defenders MENA Coalition

“[Iran is] one of the most repressive countries in which to organize … most WHRDs are already in jail or awaiting trial sentences … We don’t hear voices from Iran.”

Maryam Shafipour
Iranian human rights activist
Leader of the #FreeNarges campaign

“If you are a woman inside Yemen you are already dead or in prison. You have no chance. Absolutely. Anyone working for human rights in Yemen is in danger.”

“We are still being excluded. We are being ignored because we are not approaching the peace process the way that men are. We are looking at issues of justice and transitional justice. We are looking at human rights. What disappoints me is that what we are calling for isn’t viewed as peace. If this isn’t peace building, then what is?”

Mona Luqman
Co-founder of the Women Solidarity Network in Yemen and Chairperson of the NGO Food4Humanity

“Many direct family members can be subjected to arbitrary arrest or torture if they support the WHRD … Families … can use multiple violent strategies to ‘discipline’ them including isolation, torture or killing in the name of honour.”

Azza Soliman
Egyptian lawyer, human rights defender, feminist
Co-founder, Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance

Unfinished Revolution