Global Roundup:Women vs Istanbul Convention Withdrawal, Survivor in Zimbabwe Faces Potential Jail Time, Thai Sex Workers Protest, 2Spirit Fashion Designer on TikTok, Black Muslim Women Storytellers

Compiled by Samiha Hossain

Activists shout slogans, hold banners and wave flags during a protest against Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, an international accord designed to protect women, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 19, 2021. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Thousands of women in Turkey protested the country’s withdrawal from an international treaty to prevent violence against women earlier this week. The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, was signed in 2011. In March of this year, President Tayyip Erdogan announced the withdrawal, claiming the country would use local laws to protect women's rights. The protests this week erupted right after Erdogan defended the withdrawal against those who, he said, portrayed it as "a step backwards" in the battle with violence against women. 

Women protesting in the capital Ankara chanted "We will not be silenced, we will not fear, we will not bow down." More than 1,000 people demonstrated in central Istanbul amid a heavy police presence as well. 

I find it unbelievable that the government is taking away rights instead of improving them. We wake up every day to a femicide or a trans murder and as women it's not possible to feel safe in this country. - Ozgul, 26-year-old student

According to Canan Gullu, president of the Federation of Turkish Women's Associations, women and other vulnerable groups have been more reluctant to ask for help and less likely to receive it since March. COVID-19 has worsened economic difficulties, which has caused a dramatic increase in violence against women. One monitoring group has logged roughly one femicide per day in Turkey since a sharp rise five years ago.

Some conservatives along with Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party say the pact undermines the family. The convention does not discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation, which some believe promotes homosexuality. In fact, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic sent a letter to Turkey's interior and justice ministers this month expressing concern about a rise in homophobic language by some officials, some of which targeted the convention.

Erdogan appears to think he understands violence against women better than those with lived experience who are making it clear they do not feel safe in the country. It is crucial that we show solidarity with those protesting in Turkey and listen to their demands.

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A Zimbabwean woman in a rural area near Harare. The accused said the dead man had cornered her as she was cooking at home. Photograph: Majority World CIC/Alamy

CW: Sexual violence 

A 19-year old woman who says she was defending herself against a sexual predator has been charged with murder in Zimbabwe, which has sparked conversations and concerns surrounding how the legal system fails to protect survivors. Tariro Matutsa says she acted in self-defence when she picked up a piece of firewood and hit 40-year-old Sure Tsuro several times last month. He had cornered her while she was cooking, exposed himself and aggressively demanded sex.

Women’s rights activists say Zimbabwe’s self-defence law is too weak to protect women because the courts have the power to decide whether or not harm was intended. According to the law, if a person “genuinely and on reasonable grounds, but mistakenly, believes that he or she is defending himself or herself or another person against an unlawful attack, he or she shall be entitled to a complete or partial defence to any criminal charge.”

Novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga whose writing highlights women’s struggles, believes women should not be prosecuted for defending themselves. She discusses how cases like Matutsa’s make women even more hesitant to protect themselves from sexual violence.

This is yet another example of how women are seen as objects of male sexual pleasure and men’s general wellbeing in Zimbabwe. Even when a woman defended herself from a man whose intention is to violate her sexually, she is expected to put his wellbeing before her own...Now she is blamed for the consequences to the deceased’s family brought about by the deceased’s own behaviour. - Tsitsi Dangarembga

Similar to Matutsa, in 2016, Benhilda Dandajena, a visually impaired domestic worker, fatally stabbed a fellow worker who was trying to rape her. She was sentenced to three years in prison, a year and a half of which was suspended. Such cases highlight how victims of sexual violence in the country have to go through lengthy judicial processes and even jail. 

The Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association and Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) have offered Matutsa legal representation and counselling. She has been released on bail after a week in detention and is due back in court in July. 

Our law needs to be looked at, so that police can have discretion when they look at the evidence. It should also allow the magistrate to grant bail. But when they say it’s murder, then [the case] needs to go to the high court. - Beatrice Mtetwa, lawyer

Survivors of sexual violence already have to deal with the trauma of their assault and the ensuing social backlash and stigma – to add to that, they may also be punished by the state if they manage to protect themselves. Fuck the patriarchy for placing women and girls in impossible situations. Women’s rights activists in Zimbabwe continue to demand for better.

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A sex worker demonstrating outside the Government House in Bangkok. Photo Chana La/iLaw

Sex workers in Thailand protested the most recent COVID-19 lockdown by attaching their bras and panties to the gates of Bangkok’s Government House, which is the official office for the Prime Minister and his cabinet. Many demonstrated outside with high heels containing message cards lined up outside as well. Some protestors also wore aprons with bikini outlines and displayed placards expressing their financial struggles due to the pandemic. One such sign read “No money, no honey, no GDP.”

We're Thai people, and we generate income for the country. Please accept the reality that prostitution exists, and it does have value and dignity just like other professions. - Sirisak Chaited, one of the protestors and LGBTQ+ activist

Services such as go-go bars, massage parlors, gentlemen's clubs, and karaoke centers have been closed since the lockdown. In addition, providing sex services such as prostitution has become punishable by law, with offenders facing up to two years in prison and/or a fine of up to US$1250. Many sex workers who have tried offering their services online found that they were easily tracked. Protestors are demanding that the government provide them US$156 of financial support monthly. 

We work with our bodies, just like many others out there, but the government doesn't even see us as human. - Protestor (unnamed)

Throughout the pandemic, it has been clear that issues affecting marginalized communities have only been exacerbated. Sex workers in particular are subject to criminalization, surveillance, sexual abuse, misogyny, transphobia, social stigma among many other things. At the very least, the government should support them through these particularly difficult financial times. Sex workers in Thailand are not afraid to take up space in powerful ways and demand their rights. 

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Two-spirit fashion designer Geronimo Louie, also known as @geronimo.warrior on TikTok, is using the platform to celebrate his culture and identity as well as urge for more representation of LGBTQ+ and Indigenous communities in the fashion world. Louie is from the Chiricahua Apache band and the Navajo Nation. He takes inspiration from the traditional ribbonwork of the Ojibwe people in Canada by incorporating colorful designs into his pieces. 

I wanted to embrace more of my two-spirit identity, and one of the ways that we do that is going back to our cultural teachings and understandings as two-spirit individuals, because we as Indigenous queer people and two-spirit people have always been here. - Geronimo Louie

Louie talks about his journey overcoming internalized homophobia and toxic masculinity in dismantling the gender binary on TikTok. He is a big proponent of self-love and self understanding.

It really made me feel scared at first. I was like, 'Oh my god, there's going to be this man walking around wearing women's traditional clothes,' [about myself]. As I started to understand my identity more and my place within my community, teaching my values, how sacred I am as a queer individual within my community — just as sacred as anybody — I started to feel more comfortable. - Geronimo Louie

Although his style is diverse, Louie always ensures to incorporate traditional Indigenous pieces which hold special significance in Navajo culture into his outfits such as ribbon skirts, velvet tops and turquoise jewelry. Louie wants everyone to educate themselves on the history and teachings behind fashion trends before wearing them. 

Louie also works with Diné Pride, an organization based on the reservation of the Navajo people that provides resources for Indigenous LGBTQ+ people. He discusses how there is rampant systemic racism, discrimination, and homophobia against queer people of colour. Being a part of Diné Pride is a way for him to assert that Indigenous queer people are here to stay and take up space. 

In creating space for Indigenous and LGBTQ+ people, Louie hopes that more people of colour get recognized for their contribution to the fashion industry, be featured in the media and given the spotlight they deserve. Too often, the industry steals and appropriates elements of people of colour’s designs. Louie also hopes to create pieces that non-Indigenous people can wear and create sustainable outfits that push other designers and brands to consider the negative impacts of fashion on climate change. 

I think, a lot of the time, it's very hard for people to understand that we're still here because there are people that grew up learning that the genocide of Indigenous people had started and ended. But in reality, we're still here as individuals...We're here to actually begin and finish what our ancestors were here for, which is essentially just living life and protecting mother Earth. - Geronimo Louie

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Cadar Mohamud is a 28-year-old Black Muslim woman from Toronto, Canada, who has started a digital storytelling platform called The Digital Sisterhood to connect Black Muslim women around the world and share their diverse stories. She was inspired by the many experiences she’s had where people saw her hijab and othered her by assuming she’s Arab and not Canadian. She was also profoundly impacted by the murder of George Floyd and what is happening in Palestine. Ultimately, Mohamud wants to create something both authentic and empowering for Black Muslim women. 

Intersectionality for me means accepting myself in all of those levels, recognizing that I am a Black woman. That I am a woman. I am also a Muslim woman and (my) experiences are intuitive to those intersectionalities ... and I do fit somewhere. - Cadar Mohamud

Nine Black Muslim women run the Digital Sisterhood. These writers, graphic artists, web developers, small-business owners and filmmakers are from Canada as well as the US and Saudi Arabia. 

Being Black and Muslim, it is overwhelming, there is a sense of hopelessness you feel in the face of injustice … I kept feeling like I was being suffocated because of what happened to George Floyd...It was a clear manifestation of the continued racism people have … this person literally choked to death because a person did not value their life. (I’m thinking) I’m Black, I’m Muslim, and (I’m) thinking, this could happen to me. - Team member Muna Sckeomar, filmmaker from Minneapolis

The Digital Sisterhood podcast, the most popular content featured on the platform, has been met with positive feedback from Muslim women around the world. Mohamud shares personal stories on the podcast such as her experience of first wearing the hijab and how she came to understand it was people’s perception she feared rather than the hijab itself. As a Muslim woman who now wears the abaya, she has to live in fear and constantly think about her safety in public spaces.

The platforms hopes to one day make films where Black Muslim women are centred as fully realized main characters. According to a recent study by the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, across 200 popular films between 2017 and 2019, only one film had a Muslim woman in an ensemble lead role.

When women like Mohamud and her team come forward and share their stories and make space for other Black Muslim women to do the same, they are challenging the notion of Muslim women as a monolith. Though these women may share some experiences of white supremacy, Islamophobia and misogyny for example, their identities are still complex and distinct from one another. It is through these complexities that the Digital Sisterhood is creating global solidarity.

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Samiha Hossain (she/her) is a student at the University of Ottawa. She has experience working with survivors of sexual violence in her community, as well as conducting research on gender-based violence. A lot of her time is spent learning about and critically engaging with intersectional feminism, transformative justice and disability justice.

Samiha firmly believes in the power of connecting with people and listening to their stories to create solidarity and heal as a community. She refuses to let anyone thwart her imagination when it comes to envisioning a radically different future full of care webs, nurturance and collective liberation.

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