Remembering Female Prisoners of Conscience on International Women’s Day

Women's Day blog photo (00000002)

Female Prisoners of Conscience (starting top left, clockwise): Diane Rwigara (Rwanda), Khadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan, now released), Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee (Iran), and Atena Daemi (Iran) 

Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us take a moment to consider the plight of female prisoners of conscience, a group of women distinguished both by their exceptional heroism and by their extreme vulnerability.

As the United Nations has increasingly emphasized in recent years, even among activists, journalists and politicians generally, Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) face heightened danger; they are “subject to the same types of risks as any human rights defender, but as women, they are also targeted for or exposed to gender-specific threats and gender-specific violence.” The factors behind these heightened risks are complicated, but can relate both to the type of work that WHRDs often engage in (advocacy related to women’s issues), as well as who the WHRDs are (women, challenging traditional gender roles). Far too often, WHRDs face stigmatization, exclusion, violence and imprisonment.

Take the case of Diane Rwigara, for instance, a 35-year-old Rwandan politician currently being held in pre-trial detention. Diane’s crime was attempting to run against Rwanda’s authoritarian president Paul Kagame in the most recent election. Within 72 hours of her announcement of her candidacy, nude pictures allegedly of Diane were leaked on social media. When this public shaming failed to intimidate her, she was arrested—along with her mother and sister—and charged with a slew of specious offenses related to forgery, incitement to insurrection, and promotion of sectarian practices. Although Diane and her female relatives were arrested about six months ago, the government has refused to release her and her mother on bail while they await trial. There have been credible reports that the women have been tortured while in prison. If convicted, Diane’s mother and sister could spend up to seven years in prison; Diane herself faces a 15-year-sentence.

Sadly, Diane’s story is not unique. In fact, it hews closely to the authoritarian playbook on how to target a WHRD. Those who follow prisoner of conscience cases might remember a similar fact-pattern playing out with respect to Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent Azerbaijani investigative journalist, who was arrested in 2014, after a leaked video of her having sex with her boyfriend—obtained through illegal surveillance in her home—failed to shame her into silence.  After spending nearly 18 months in prison, Khadija was finally released in May 2016, however she remains under a travel ban for at least three more years.

In addition to specific attempts at sexual humiliation, invasions of privacy against female political prisoners remain routine. For instance, in 2015 Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, an Iranian writer and political activist, was sentenced to six years in prison after authorities ransacked the home she shares with her husband Arash Sadeghi (another well-known activist) and discovered that her personal diary contained a fictional story about a woman who burns the Qur’an in an emotional response to a film in which a woman is stoned to death for adultery. For this private protest of gendered violence, Golrokh was subjected to an abusive interrogation and ultimately convicted of “insulting Islamic sanctities.” Abuse of Golrokh and her cellmate, Atena Daemi, another prominent WHRD, has continued to date; the two have been on a hunger strike since early-February to protest their recent beating by prison guards and to demand their return to women’s ward of the prison.

So, this International Women’s Day, let us take a moment to honor Diane, Khadija, Golrokh, Atena and many, many others for their bravery and sacrifice. Better yet, let us be the voice they have been denied and demand their release.


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