An illustration by Fred Martins on African Activism - Source: ADD
When you look around the world today, you will find many movements fighting for a cause. Governments, organizations, and citizens work together to eliminate prejudice, discrimination, and injustice. Sometimes they do so successfully, and other times they don’t – often failing to agree with one another and sidelining the objective entirely. In the midst of their commotion, a particular group of individuals raise their voices to fight the injustice – activists. They dedicate their time, entire being, and energy to support a cause. But is their sacrifice appreciated, celebrated, or even acknowledged?
Terms like ‘activist’ often garner mixed feelings when used. Partly because they address controversial topics, and partly because some individuals who claim the label practice a light form of activism that doesn’t match the perseverance needed for real change. Not only is such blind activism unhelpful, but it can also deter the progress of the cause. An example is the #ChallengeAccepted trend, the initial cause of the movement – alarmingly increasing death rate of Turkish women as a result of domestic violence – was buried. It was buried in a string of empty black-and-white pictures that only portrayed the stereotypical image of blue-eyed, white beauty. Women of color, disabled women, and all the other groups of women were barely represented, if at all. Not to say that digital activism isn’t effective but real change requires participation on multiple levels that do not distract from the main cause.
The world is filled with activists striving for real change. They devote and endanger their lives for their cause. This cause could be anything: climate change, feminism, civil rights and even fighting for the rights of martyrs. As you can already tell, there’s a lot to be vocal about in today’s world. Many of the voices we hear actively discussing these issues, pursuing their solution, and advocating for their resolution are the lesser-known activists behind the scenes.
In perilous times against governments, activists and journalists pay the hefty price of standing up to oppression. Either jailed, beaten to a pulp, or exiled, these individuals know all too well what it truly costs to support a purpose. Female activists in particular suffer additional woes when reprimanded for their activism. In Middle Eastern and African societies, where women are expected to play the gentle, polite, and submissive role in any relationship, activism is not only rebuked for challenging the state of affairs, but also for challenging the boundaries society has created for them as females.
With odds stacked against female activists, it is understandable that patience for diplomacy and decorum wears thin. When you continuously climb up the hill of advocating for a cause and you’re met with corruption, ignorance, and sheer disrespect that questions your right to even represent a cause, one begins to question if unconventional, less cordial techniques would yield results instead.
Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan academic and feminist, has resorted to such means to have her voice heard. Using curse words, ‘vulgar’ imagery, and sexually explicit metaphors, Nyanzi calls out Uganda’s leadership and its oppressive regime. In 2018, a poem that used graphic sexual imagery of the Ugandan president’s birth earned her an 18-months jail sentence for ‘cyber-bullying’. A brutal and disproportionate sentence, but she remained unapologetic – screaming obscenities when her verdict was being announced.
Her relentless and unwavering determination for equality and rights gained her devout supporters – among the ordinary and influential. Eventually, the charges against her were dropped and she was released from prison. Albeit, it is unlikely to be the last time she rubs shoulders with the law. The price Nyanzi has paid for the struggle for equality and freedom can be seen when she returns home. Every protest, campaign, and prison sentence puts her life at risk and leaves the future of her children hanging in the balance. She is consciously aware of this and yet, she continues to speak for those who cannot. That is the selfless, unapologetic, and honorable spirit of activists around the globe that peddle the wheels of change in the background.
Stella Nyanzi - Source: The Guardian
It cannot be ignored that many believe the traditional role of women as weaker and subordinate counterparts is validated by religious beliefs. This is a continuous area of debate in majority Islamic countries like Sudan. Under the previous regime and their religious justification, women in Sudan were subjected to several suppressive laws that aimed to dictate their dressing, marital status, occupation, and overall freedom. In turn, when women activists stand up to these laws, they suffer the backlash of both the government and religious fanatics who label them as ‘persons against religion’. This is deadly.
An example of this scenario is the case of Weam Shawgi who spoke up against an Islamic cleric for women’s rights in Sudan. Her frustration was evident in her tone – one that many sensed was unacceptable for a woman against a religious man. In raising her voice and addressing those issues, she put a mark on her own head. In the weeks and months that followed, Weam lost her business, friends began to distance themselves, and she was continuously being terrorized. She would receive death threats from religious extremists who believed it was a religious duty to execute her. Luckily, she left the country and later returned during the 2018 Sudanese revolution. One would think that her troubles have ended, but that is not the case. Weam is still unable to leave her home confidently nor openly declare her presence in public out of fear for her life. When asked in a recent interview if she’d take any of it back, she answered, ‘I do not regret it…’. The social stigmatization and prejudice that she faced and continues to face today illustrate the true pangs of being an activist.
Weam Shawgi - Source: Twitter
It is also worth noting that the means of penalizing female activists is tailored to dehumanize and violate them according to their gender. Sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence are used alongside conventional torture methods. When Mona Eltahawy, a renowned journalist and feminist, joined the front lines of Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution, she was taken into custody. Her hands were not only beaten like hay – possibly to prevent her from ever writing again – but she was also sexually assaulted. But did she succumb to their attempt to silence her? Never.
Mona Eltahawy overlooks Tahrir Square in 'Almarai', sans-serif !important, Egypt the day after riot police assaulted her in November of 2011 - Source: BBC
Mona Eltahawy continuously spoke in graphic detail of her assault. She wrote about her experience and she continued to fight for the Egyptian revolution. In a recently published essay, nine years later, in her newsletter, she explained, “…I share because 12 other women could not share”. That is the role of activists. To commit themselves to a cause, swallow the consequences of activism, and take it upon themselves to be the voice for the voiceless.
In comparison to the hidden struggles that activists face, fleeting acts of activism pale in comparison. Momentary-activists do not witness the harassment, arrest, and marginalization that accompanies the process. They belittle the enormous burden that activists bear in the name of fighting for a cause. It is for this reason that the plight of activists must be acknowledged. Their survival and diligence must be appreciated- not only by the groups they stand for but by everyone around the world. Their achievements must be celebrated and their voices amplified. Otherwise, we are all unconsciously supporting a cycle that penalizes courage and aids oppression.