"Women who stand up to attacks, defend the rights of all"

Rana Ayyub, Rozina Islam and Sincha Dimara (Top L to R) Ambika Satkunanathan, Peng Shuai and Nighat Dad (Bottom L to R)

International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) has published an article featuring stories of women who are overcoming various challenges to create a safer civic space for all. The list includes journalists facing persecution, students protesting the hijab ban in South India, a Sri Lankan lawyer testifying about human rights abuses, and striking Naga World Hotel workers in Phnom Penh who are resisting persistent government intimidation.

The IFEX published the article titled ‘Women in focus: Standing up to attacks and defending the rights of all’ to mark the Internationals Women’s Day, 8 March.

IFEX is a global network of more than 119 independent non-governmental organisations that work to defend and promote freedom of expression as a human right.

Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, Prothom Alo’s special correspondent Rozina Islam, Sri Lankan lawyer Ambika Satkunanathan, Papua New Guinea’s journalist Sincha Dimara, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, Pakistani lawyer Nighat Dad, Women strikers of Cambodia and hijab ban protests in South India have been featured in the article.

Rana Ayyub

Rana Ayyub is an award-winning Indian journalist and Washington Post columnist. Rana has been viciously trolled by Hindu nationalist groups for her work criticizing prime minister Narendra Modi. In January, online attacks instigated by pro-Saudi trolls intensified against her when she tweeted about the human rights abuses inflicted on the Yemen population. At one point, she received 26,000 tweets on a single day threatening her and her family with rape and murder. This “digital lynching” was followed by a government order freezing her bank accounts and assets after she was accused of misusing funds she had raised for Covid-19 victims, says the IFEX article.

Ayyub remained defiant, IFEX added quoting her as saying, “The smear campaign against me will not deter me from my professional commitment to continue to do my work as a journalist, and especially to raise critical issues and ask inconvenient questions, as is my duty as a journalist in a constitutional democracy.”

“The violence directed against Ayyub reflects the rising threats faced by Muslim women journalists in India. Recently, more than 20 journalists were “auctioned-off” in a malicious app that featured photos and other information culled from their social media profiles. The app is no longer available, and the police said they have already apprehended the app developers – but this latest cybercrime is just one of the many forms of violence that women journalists have to endure and survive under an increasingly intolerant regime,” the article reads.

Rozina Islam

Rozina Islam is an investigative journalist with Prothom Alo who has written about corruption and problems with the pandemic response of Bangladesh. The award-winning journalist was arrested and detained for seven days in May 2021.

Her passport, mobile phone and media accreditation card were confiscated, and she was barred from entering government ministries to conduct her work as a journalist. She was charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, says the report.

“Groups, including several IFEX members, have signed a joint statement saying that there has been no real substantial review of Rozina’s court case, and asking the government to respect the journalist’s fair trial rights. They also warned against the decline of press freedom in Bangladesh.”

Sincha Dimara

“Sincha Dimara has been with EMTV, Papua New Guinea’s public broadcaster, for 33 years. She was suspended as head of EMTV news because of alleged political interference. Pacific media groups and journalists rallied to support Dimara, who was suspended for 21 days without pay for insubordination. According to reports, her suspension was related to an editorial dispute over a news report that criticized a police procedure – and annoyed a government minister. EMTV staff members who walked out in support of Dimara were initially suspended, and then fired,” reports IFEX.

Ambika Satkunanathan

Ambika Satkunanathan is a prominent lawyer and former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. On 27 January, she spoke at the European Parliament’s Sub-Committee on Human Rights to raise the issue of deteriorating civic space in the country under the government of prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Sri Lanka government described her speech as misleading and false, the IFEX article reads.

"Eight civil society groups responded, expressing deep concern over the Sri Lankan foreign ministry’s statement, which refuted Satkunanathan’s testimony. They say that the statement “clearly constitutes an act of harassment and intimidation,” adding that she accurately described a situation that had already been reported by the United Nations, as well as by many domestic and international human rights organizations.

Satkunanathan is worried that the government statement could be “aimed at silencing critique of government policies and actions.” She also mentioned the spread of disinformation against her after the ministry released its statement. But she asserts her right to speak out against the abuses committed by those in power."

Peng Shuai

“Chinese tennis champion Peng Shuai shocked supporters and the public last year when she accused a former high-ranking Chinese Communist Party official of sexual harassment. She soon disappeared and her online accounts were removed, alarming fans and sporting bodies across the world.

She was interviewed by French outlet L’Equipe on 7 February, during the Winter Olympics, but the interview failed to reassure her supporters that she is safe,” IFEX article reads.

“Peng made the revelation in November, but she later retracted her statement. Chinese censors were quick to filter keywords related to the issue. She has made a few public appearances in recent months, but doubts remained whether she is actually free to talk and move around. The French reporter who interviewed Peng was also not completely convinced about her safety. He later described the interview as “propaganda” since advanced questions were submitted as a requirement, and a Chinese Olympic official was present to serve as interpreter – even though Peng can speak in English”.

Human rights groups and the women’s professional tennis tour (WTA) continue to demand an independent probe into the allegations made by Peng, reads the article.

Nighat Dad

“Nighat Dad is a Pakistani lawyer and the founder and director of IFEX member Digital Rights Foundation (DRF). Her work on digital rights – particularly the digital rights of women, minorities and dissidents – is internationally recognized. In a Twitter thread, she reflects on how DRF’s work has made a difference in the lives of women through their Cyber-harassment Helpline. She describes how their team worked hard to address a particular case of sexual violence which she described as “extremely traumatizing” for the victim, but one in which ultimately the perpetrator was arrested, and prosecuted,” reads the article.

Women strikers of Combodia

"On 18 December 2021, over 1,300 employees laid off by Naga World casino in Cambodia organized a strike demanding compensation and their reinstatement. Since then, the strikers have encountered various forms of violence and intimidation at the hands of authorities," the IFEX article reads.

Civil society groups have noted that the women strikers “have been repeatedly and disproportionately targeted by government efforts to disperse the peaceful strike.” Some workers have accused police officers of sexual harassment. Authorities have also arbitrarily invoked Covid-19 protocols to force the suspension of the strike.

Despite these difficulties, the strikers have not backed down, and continue to assert their rights, the article reads.

Hijab ban protests in south India

"In February, women students protested the ban on the wearing of hijab or headscarf in some state-run colleges in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

The ban had been backed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which claimed that it was necessary to maintain public safety. But human rights groups say the ban is the “latest example of Indian authorities increasingly seeking to marginalize Muslims, exposing them to heightened violence.”

Protesting students said they were prevented from entering their classrooms, and heckled by Hindu nationalist activists. The personal information of female students who led the protests was also leaked online."

"Students have already filed a court petition questioning the constitutionality of the hijab ban.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly has advice for the local government: “Instead of engaging in communal politics, Indian authorities should focus on protecting the rights of all women and girls, including to freedom of religion and expression, and to education.”