The overwhelming majority of UN member states, by ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), recognise that “the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the world and peace require the participation of women on equal terms with men in all fields”. The political and public participation of women in society and the historic work of women’s organisations and feminist groups have been one of the major expressions of democracy and an indispensable engine for the recognition of women as independent beings with full rights and agency.
Every day, more women identify themselves as human rights defenders. Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are all women and girls working on any human rights issue, and all who work to promote women’s rights and rights related to gender equality, or who work in non-traditional human rights fields such as environmental issues and defending the rights of the LGBT community.
Why are women human rights defenders targeted?
The reasons behind the targeting of WHRDs are multifaceted and complex and depend on the specific context in which the WHRDs are working. Often, the work of WHRDs is seen as threatening traditional notions of family and stereotypical gender roles. Although all human rights defenders come under attack, WHRDs are specifically targeted and face additional obstacles, for reasons such as:
- the very fact of their being women, girls, or gay, bisexual or transgender people;
- their self-identifying as feminists (male or female); or
- their LGBT activism.
The challenges faced by WHRDs include:
- patriarchy and gender-based discrimination, such as slandering them as “bad mothers” or questioning their sexual orientation, or mocking their physical appearance or lack of “femininity”;
- gender-specific violence and threats, such as sexual harassment, rape or the threat of rape;
- targeting of family members and loved ones – attacks by the authorities, state institutions and individuals on WHRDs’ families;
- underfunding of women’s organisations, and lack of support for women’s participation in political and public life – women’s organisations receive too little funding and political support for their activities, resulting in women not having time to juggle the demands of personal matters and public or political activities at the same time;
- hostility and ostracism from the government, religious groups and the community, who may see promoting human rights as threatening religion, honour, culture or the authority of the state; and
- online harassment, such as attempts to hack their accounts or verbal harassment on social media sites.
In Oman, WHRDs face similar challenges, including much harassment. In February 2020, for example, a group of women running the “Omani Feminists” Twitter account, which discusses issues of women’s rights in Oman, were subjected to harassment by the security services and in the end forced to close the account for the sake of their safety.
An Omani student was also thrown out of her Sultan Qaboos University accommodation on 23 July 2020, after calling for the permits female students need to leave the hall of residence – in violation of their right of freedom of movement – to be abolished. The sanctions imposed on her included not being allowed to study in January, and being dismissed as chair of the university’s debating society.
On 11 June 2012, WHRDs Basma al-Keumy, a lawyer, and Basma al-Rajehy, a writer and broadcaster, were arrested along with about 20 other protesters in front of the General Police Headquarters in Muscat, and held in administrative detention until 24 June. The protesters were calling on the Omani government to respect human rights and release all detained human rights defenders in Omani prisons.
The Omani Centre for Human Rights would like to take this opportunity, on International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, to celebrate all women everywhere – whatever their nationality, ethnic origin, or political or religious persuasion – who strive to bring about progress in their communities, to claim their rights, and to defend their fellow human beings against all forms of injustice, discrimination and marginalisation.
The rights to freedom of expression, to education, tohealthcare, to fair employment, to social and physical protection, to political participation, to religious and intellectual freedom – all these are rights acquired at birth that nobody can be denied, for any reason or in any circumstances.
 Omani Centre for Human Rights, Annual Report 2020. https://ochroman.org/eng/2020/12/annual2020/
 Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, 26 June 2012. Oman: End the Detention of Women Human Rights Defenders