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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

This year, women became the face of resistance

From those who fought our causes to those who lost their lives fighting them, women have given the world a lot to write about this year, writes Shelina Janmohamed

Palestinian teenager Ahed Al Tamimi, 16, being hauled before an Israeli military court last month / AFP
Palestinian teenager Ahed Al Tamimi, 16, being hauled before an Israeli military court last month / AFP

Close your eyes and picture the last 12 months, a year of tumultuous change. The image you remember might be the iconic photograph of Saffiyah Khan, the 20-year-old woman whose image confronting a member of the far-right English Defence League at a hate rally in the UK went viral.

The women’s march in the United States triggered the participation of nearly 5 million women at an estimated 600 other marches worldwide. Some of those images, like those of the women who held hands in peace and unity across Westminster Bridge following the attack on the London capital, might move you.

You might see the piercing eyes of 16-year-old Ahed Al Tamimi, the young Palestinian girl kept in detention in Israeli prisons for protesting the armed soldiers outside her door. Her cousin was killed. Ahed and her mother are in jail. Her father is not allowed to even set eyes on her in the courtroom. As the soldiers occupied Tamimi’s lawn, she is pictured slapping one. A prominent Israeli journalist was infuriated by a girl’s resistance. Ben Caspit wrote menacingly: “in the case of the girls, we should exact a price at some other opportunity, in the dark, without witnesses and cameras.”

The images and stories of 2017 clearly depict one thing: this was the year that women became the face of resistance.

Acts of resistance among women appeared in headlines, images, on social media, on our streets and in our conversations. They manifested among activists and politicians, on screen and in print, in our voting booths and epicentres of power and from rural villages to the biggest corporate boardrooms. Women's solidarity in resistance became a tsunami in 2017.

Female journalists lost their lives. In India, Gauri Lankesh was shot outside her home. She was critical of the country’s caste system and right-wing Hindu nationalists. In Turkey, Syrian journalist and human rights activist Orouba Barakat and her daughter, Halla, were found stabbed to death. She was a member of the Syrian National Coalition and had opposed Hafez and Bashar Al Assad and was said to be investigating torture in prisons by government forces.

Political resistance prevailed from elections through to presidents. It was the black women of Alabama whose votes were a decisive force in the rejection of Republican incumbent Roy Moore. It was Carmen Yulin Cruz, the female mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, who was a vocal critic of the US government’s woefully poor response to Hurricane Maria. In Liberia, the first female elected head of state, president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is proactively stepping down after two terms in office, a noteworthy move in a region in which heads of state are usually ousted, killed or paid off.

Women have been literally been standing in the face of death and resisting it. Zahida Begum has been saving Rohingya women fleeing from murder, rape and persecution in Myanmar. Vijayalaxmi Sharma is campaigning against child marriage in Rajasthan after she saw her 14-year-old best friend die in childbirth.

The systemic oppression against women finally hit our barometers with the sweeping #MeToo anti-harassment campaign. Time magazine featured the women who triggered it as the "person of the year".

Yet this only tells us how far the resistance still needs to go. In the 90-year history of the "person of the year" category (dubbed "man of the year" until 1999), women have only featured eight times, two of them within groups. Even inanimate objects have made it to the cover twice.

It was perhaps Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, whose new TV adaptation became a global phenomenon that symbolised the year’s resistance. It depicted every form of oppression, every potential hell, every misogynistic attitude, whether extreme or every day. Published three decades ago, it is chilling to know that it was based on events that have already happened in real life.

The protagonist, Offred, expresses her newly ignited and fearless resistance: “If you didn’t want us to be an army, you shouldn’t have given us a uniform.” This was the year of women’s solidarity, and what women wore as their uniform was the face of resistance.