Tunisian Women: We Will Stand Up. Directed by Hajer Ben Nasr. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2013. 56 minutes.

Forbidden Voices. Directed by Barbara Miller. New York: Women Make Movies, 2012. 96 minutes.

Reviewed by Mayesha Alam

Women Human Rights Defenders: Dissent, Democracy, and Dictatorship in the Digital Age

Being a woman human rights defender is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, made all the more difficult in dictatorships where dissent can cost you your life. Yet, very little systematic research exists on the trends and scale of violence against politically active women around the world. Recent research initiatives, such as the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security’s index, which I helped create, and the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project’s monitoring of targeted violence against women in politics, contribute to expanding the evidence base for future analysis. Alongside these types of important data collection and dissemination projects, documentary films also provide critical evidence of how women human rights defenders, against the odds, are changing the societies in which they live.

The women profiled in the films reviewed here—Tunisian Women: We Will Stand Up and Forbidden Voices—show that fighting for democracy and defending human rights is vital work in a world beset by conflict and authoritarianism. In showcasing the agency, impact, and challenges of women human rights defenders, these films also touch upon a range of intersecting topics such as life under censorship, civil resistance and democratic revolutions, forced exile, and the role of technology in social movements. As such, these films can serve as useful teaching tools at undergraduate and graduate levels of instruction.

Tunisian Women: We Will Stand Up, directed by Hajer Ben Nasr, is about the defiance of Tunisian women—from various professional, personal, and political backgrounds—since independence in 1956 and their crucial roles in delivering democratic change. As the film makes clear from the outset, women have been political leaders since antiquity (e.g., Carthage was founded by Queen Dido), and Tunisian women gained the right to vote before women in countries that many might consider more progressive, such as France or Switzerland.

Yet, the political contributions of Tunisian women as activists, revolutionaries, lawyers, scholars, mothers, and artists all too often have been suppressed and written out of history. Even though the 2011 Jasmine Revolution brought an end to the Ben Ali dictatorship and the country began its transition to democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and other fundamental human rights remain shaky. Despite surveillance, harassment, defamation, intimidation, and even torture, Tunisian women remain actively engaged in fighting for justice and dignity. As democratic politician Maya Jribi explains in the film, whatever the risks and costs, the struggle continues and so women must speak up and stand up. Poignant and provocative interviews with a range of journalists, intellectuals, and activists such as Zeineb Cherni, Saida Garrach, Amel Hamrouni, and Radhia Nasraoui can be extremely helpful for helping students understand the complex issues at play in the Tunisian context and extrapolating lessons to the wider region or beyond.

The visionary behind the Forbidden Voices is Swiss filmmaker Barbara Miller, known also for #Female Pleasure and Crossing Paths.1 The documentary follows the lives and struggles of three female bloggers and activists—Cuban Yoani Sánchez, Chinese Zeng Jinyan, and Iranian Farnaz Seifi—whose efforts to expose abuses of their respective governments and to organize popular support for democracy have been met with extreme repression. The award-winning film is compellingly produced and through its focus on these three women also shines a spotlight on censorship and dissent.

The role of the internet and social media is crucial to mobilization, even somewhere like Cuba where, as Yoani Sánchez explains, private internet access is not available to ordinary citizens and people must go to public places like hotels to get online. Yet, just as the internet provides a platform and a megaphone for women human rights defenders who use blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and other mediums to transmit their messages to a wider audience, it also leaves them susceptible to censorship, surveillance, and trolls.

In authoritarian regimes, facts and evidence can be manipulated and denied to suit the government’s narratives. In one segment of Forbidden Voices, Sánchez details the physical violence she endured at the hands of agents assigned to silence her, sharing photographs, video, and audio of her abduction and beatings. Yet, doctors at the hospital in Havana where she went for treatment were forced on camera to deny she suffered from any such injuries or symptoms. This is but one example of the dystopian reality facing Sánchez and her compatriots. Recognizing these struggles, in 2011 then—US First Lady Michelle Obama honored Sánchez and others at the International Women of Courage awards ceremony in Washington, DC, explaining that “they’ve received death threats. They have been beaten, kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured…. And time and again, these women discovered a very simple truth: that courage can actually be contagious.”2

As Iranian writer and activist Farnaz Seifi describes, the worst part for many of these women is not the threats and violence they personally suffer but, rather, the adverse impact of their activism on their family: parents, partners, and even children become targets. Seifi, who had to leave Iran because of her blogging and now lives in Germany, explains that when you are forced to move from your country because you speak up and demand the most basic rights and freedoms, it leaves a “deep hole in your heart” that nothing can fill. Whether for those in exile or those who remain in their countries of origin, it is difficult to overstate the importance of international allies such as Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and others in offering solidarity and supporting the work of activists worldwide.3

The work of the women featured across these two films, some of whom have since passed, continues—their challenges evolve and persist. The struggle for civil liberties, human rights, freedom of speech, rule of law, and democracy is unfinished in Tunisia, Cuba, China, Iran, and throughout the world.

Suggested Readings

Keck, Margaret E., and Kathryn Sikkink. 2004. Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Rowbotham, Sheila. 2013. Women, Resistance and Revolution: A History of Women and Revolution in the Modern World. London: Verso.

Tripp, Aili Mari. 2001. "Women and Democracy: The New Political Activism in Africa.” Journal of Democracy 12, no. 3 (July): 141-55.

Warren, Roslyn, Anna Applebaum, Briana Mawby, Holly Fuhrman, Rebecca Turkington, and Mayesha Alam. 2017. Inclusive Justice: How Women Shape Transitional Justice in Tunisia and Colombia. Washington, DC: Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.

Zieter, Kirsten, Sandra Pepera, and Molly Middlehurst. 2019. Tweets That Chill: Analyzing Online Violence against Women in Politics; Report of Case Study Research in Indonesia, Colombia, and Kenya. Washington, DC: National Democratic Institute.

1 Female Pleasure, directed by Barbara Miller (New York: Abramorama, 2018), 101 minutes; Crossing Paths, directed by Barbara Miller (2008).

2 For the full transcript of this speech, see Michelle Obama, “Remarks by the First Lady at the International Women of Courage Awards,” The White House: President Barack Obama, March 8, 2011.

3 See, e.g., Amnesty International, Challenging Power, Fighting Discrimination: A Call to Action to Recognise and Protect Women Human Rights Defenders (London: Amnesty International, 2019).

Mayesha Alam is the author of Women and Transitional Justice: Progress and Persistent Challenges in Retributive and Restorative Processes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and coeditor of Women and Gender Perspectives in the Military (Georgetown University Press, 2019).