Alert: Afghanistan one year on: open season on the defence of human rights

Hunting out Feminists in Egypt – Azza Soliman and Mozn Hassan Embody the State’s Refusal of Feminist Activism in both Private and Public Spheres

The Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRDIC), of which OMCT is a member, is a resource and advocacy network supporting women human rights defenders worldwide.

The targeting by the government of Azza Solimanand Mozn Hassan also attempts to further destabilize other WHRDs dismantlingpatriarchy and fighting for rights in Egypt. It attempts to deliberatelydiscourage women from dreaming and collectively taking action for just andequal societies. Taking into account both Azza Soliman’s and Mozn Hassan’sregional work, such attacks also attempt to hamper regional collaboration amongWHRDs. Needless to say, such attempts will inevitably fail, and feministmovements and WHRDs in Egypt and the region will continue to thrive.

Recentevents in Egypt have made it clear that the Egyptian state seems determined toclose down the civic space of feminists – and indeed, others – who work oncritical issues such as violence against women (VAW) in both private and publicspheres. While civil society has been directly targeted by agents of the state,including police and courts, women and feminist activists are very much underfire. Egyptian feminists and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) Azza Solimanand Mozn Hassan have had a taste of all the patriarchal weapons the state canmuster to stifle their activism, which are typical of the tools normally usedby both state (and sometimes non-state) actors against WHRDs under repressivegovernments. Despite the pivotal work they conduct for combating VAW and otherhuman rights violations, and despite the support services they have beenproviding survivors with for years, they are described as spies, persons who“harm national security” and those who incite “irresponsible liberation” ofwomen. Both women are included in “Case 173” also known as the “NGO ForeignFunding Case”. The former description references some of the charges usedagainst them – which include life imprisonment. While that risk hangsover their heads, they are banned from travel. Soliman’s assets and those ofher law firm have been frozen. Deliberations about freezing Hassan’s assets aswell as those of Nazra for Feminist Studies (an NGO where she is the Director)have been underway, and a verdict is expected 11 January 2017. Freezing assetsof individuals generally strips them of their resources and the ability tosustain themselves on a daily basis.

AzzaSoliman is a prominent Egyptian WHRD[1],lawyer and feminist who has been working for more than 25 years on women’srights in the private sphere and their access to justice. Her work addressesthe fact that many women and people in marginalized groups in Egypt areseverely deprived from their basic rights in laws and practice. She works toenhance accountability for VAW and was the first to propose a civil lawgoverning the right to divorce, inheritance and custody among other rights forboth Muslims and Christians, and the Nationality Law for Egyptian women marriedto non-Egyptians. Also, Soliman worked on combating corruption, throughincluding women in political decision making processes and positions in public,academia, and business sectors. She has also challenged the Egyptian governmentin Egyptian courts through using the Convention on the Elimination of all Formof Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and other international conventions.

Soliman wasthe first to break the silence on various societal taboos such as incest,martial rape, and human trafficking in women, in relation to marriage. In 1995,she founded Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA) and is now thehead of its Board of Trustees. CEWLA is located in the slum area of Bulaq Al-Daqrourand subsequently serves many of the most economically and politicallymarginalized women in the Egyptian judicial system. Soliman is one of thefounders of the international Musawah movement, which develops progressiveinterpretations in the Islamic Shar’ia law related to the family and women’srights. A consultant for various UN agencies in the Arab region, she is a boardmember of Sisters In Islam which works to empower women for change in the Arabregion and is also an advisor for the Middle East and North Africa Women HumanRights Defenders Coalition.

Mozn Hassan is a feminist and WHRD who founded Nazrafor Feminist Studies in 2005, and has documented human rights violations andcoordinated the response to the alarming number of sexual assaults on womenparticipating in public protests during and after the Egyptian revolution of2011. Her work and that of Nazra ensured that survivors received medical,psychological and legal support. Hassan and Nazra engaged in coalitions ofwomen’s groups that successfully lobbied for the inclusion of women’s rights inEgypt’s 2014 Constitution and ensured the passage of amendments to the EgyptianPenal Code to include sexual harassment and expand the definition of sexuallyviolent crimes. Believing that feminism and gender are political and socialissues affecting freedom and development in all societies, Hassan and Nazramentor young women in politics, including encouraging candidates forparliamentary, municipal and union elections from across Egypt’s politicalspectrum. Despite being targeted by the state, she is recognized globally forher advocacy and role in feminist struggles. She is a board member atGlobal Fund for Women, and was a member of the International Planning Committeefor the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) 13th Forum, inaddition to being a Regional Consultant to the WHRD Coalition in the MiddleEast and North Africa (MENA). Hassan received both the Charlotte Bunch Awardfor Human Rights Defenders in 2013 and the Right Livelihood Award in 2016, thelatter of which is commonly known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”.

Soliman andHassan have been targeted in the current context of escalated attacks on civilsociety and human rights organizations in Egypt. The tactics used by thegovernment against them are paralleled by those used against others: there iscurrently a closure order issued, for the renowned El Nadeem Center for theTreatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, and there-opening of the case no. 173 for 2011 known as the “NGO ForeignFunding Case”,which includes the assets freeze of Founder and Executive Director of the CairoInstitute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), his family and others. Moreover, 3Nazra for Feminist Studies staff members were officially summoned before theinvestigative judge on 22 March 2016 followed by that of Hassan on 29 March2016. A travel ban has been put in place for Mohamed Zaree, the Egypt OfficeDirector of CIHRS.

Theimposition of a travel ban on Soliman, along with the freeze of her personal assets andthose of her private law firm came without an official verdict, which is alsoalarming, if not illegal. These were preceded by her arrest on 7 December 2016and her release through bail amounting to EGP 20,000 (which currently equatesto 1,112.32 USD- bearing the float of the Egyptian Pound), which is a highamount and was never used in other recent incidents. Furthermore, a request wasmade by the investigative judge to freeze theassets of Hassan and that of Nazra for Feminist Studies. This crackdown is negativelycrowned with the parliament’s passing on 20 November 2016 of an unprecedented NGO Law that would completely annihilatecivil society in Egypt[2].

Punishingtwo respected feminist advocates with being potentially sentenced to lifeimprisonment is baffling both because of their human rights work, and becausethese threats are orchestrated by a government that seemingly prioritizeswomen’s human rights, including through proudly asserting its strong intentionto combat VAW. This issue was highlighted by feminists during the time of themob-sexual assaults and gang rapes between 2012 and 2014, when the government,political parties and other similar groups remained notably silent.

Thetargeting by the government of Azza Soliman and Mozn Hassan also attempts tofurther destabilize other WHRDs dismantling patriarchy and fighting for rightsin Egypt. It attempts to deliberately discourage women from dreaming andcollectively taking action for just and equal societies. Taking into accountboth Azza Soliman’s and Mozn Hassan’s regional work, such attacks also attemptto hamper regional collaboration among WHRDs[3].Needless to say, such attempts will inevitably fail, and feminist movements andWHRDs in Egypt and the region will continue to thrive. Also, it is important tonote that the escalation in the measures taken against Soliman and Hassan ismore severe than that directed to other human rights defenders in the same case(Case 173), likely signifying an intensity due to the fact that they are womenand feminists.

In fact,the vision and advocacy of these two feminists, along with others representingdifferent generations of the Egyptian feminist movement paved the way forlegislation and measures to be taken towards this issue. However, it is clearthat both Soliman and Hassan are seen by the government to have “crossed theline” since they defy the patriarchal norms that are enshrined and upheld bythe state and society. These women human rights defenders speak loudly andclearly about VAW taking place in homes, perpetrated by family members, at thehands of state actors, and in the streets- streets that in the eyes of thestate, fall within the territory of the state, and subsequently, have strippedthe state from its long coercion of assuming the role of “women’s protection”on their own terms, while feminists challenge and defy patriarchy, changeattitudes and societies – hence the “irresponsible liberation”, of which Hassanis accused.

TheEgyptian state cannot be allowed to stifle Hassan and Soliman’s activism. Thegovernment cannot co-opt the feminist movement as many say it did in the 1950s.If it were to succeed, the discourse on women’s human rights and women’s rightsto bodily integrity will be a conservative one that ensures no rightswhatsoever for women in a country with a defective civic space, and silence onthese issues will prevail, where the state supported media perfectly tailored adiscourse, or rather a smear campaign, that enables non-state actors to conducta witch hunt for feminists of the like of Soliman and Hassan.

In fact,feminist activism, especially when it addresses issues as sensitive as thosecourageously tackled by Soliman and Hassan, is not only targeted by the state,but also by large segments of society. Working on sexual violence in the publicand private spheres, as well as on political rights of women, or reforming thepersonal status law, does not merely challenge the state. In addition, becausepatriarchy is not only present at the structural state level, and because it israther a very diffuse form of power, this kind of work is also challenged andnegated by many other societal actors, including people in family and communitystructures, school systems, in law, in media and in religious institutions, toname just a few. Hence, state targeting of feminists is a way of stigmatizingthem in their societies in ways that appeal to those who would rather believefabricated and trumped-up charges than truly rethink the patriarchalnorms that feminists challenge. This way in which feminists remain stuckbetween and antagonized by both state and other societal actors,supports theidea that WHRDs face a range of different violations and challenges because ofsexism and misogyny, and different and additional tools of targeting andstigmatization than male human rights defenders do.

These rolesof gender-related oppression must be explored, particularly in cases such asthose of Hassan and Soliman. Mozn Hassan and Azza Soliman have been engaging inextraordinary defense of rights for decades. They must not continue to bepunished by the Egyptian government for this feminist work, and they must notbe used as high profile “sacrificial lambs” in state efforts to close downcivil society organizing.


[1]Please read Mozn Hassan’s intergenerational feminist analysis for AzzaSoliman’s feminist work in Egypt on

OpenDemocracy published on December 1st, 2016,


[2] Please read: “Egypt: A Letter and legal memorandum to thePresident, demanding the repeal of the NGO Law”:

[3]Please read Zeina al Gazhar on regional collaboration among WHRDs in theMENA on Open Democracy published on 29 November 2016

On regionaldimensions of attacks targeting WHRDs in Egypt please read Semanur Karaman andSara Brandt on Open Democracy published on 12 July 2016

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