Today, we list out inspirational women from Asia who stood up against dominant power structures, battling patriarchy while seeking to dismantle majoritarian and communal power structures.
Their efforts, despite being recognized by international bodies tend to be forgotten in the discussions of fierce women inspiring many in their home countries. With the rise of right wing politics across the world of late, it is crucial to recognize the role of these women who have stood up to such politics.
1. Rana Ayyub
Rana Ayyub is a brave investigative journalist and author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Coverup, who dared to go against the tide. A 26-year-old Muslim, Rana did the unimaginable. She went undercover for eight months, taking on a fake identity amidst the vultures of Indian politics, all the while tracking down police officers and administrators, collecting crucial evidence of crimes and corruption. She believes her sting operation can implicate the who’s who of right-wing Indian politics in the anti-Muslim Gujarat massacre of 2002. Her work has already helped send a state Home Minister, who is now the President of the ruling party in India, to jail. She has been honoured by various institutions for her investigative work and the dangers associated with it. Rana stood tall with her work as a journalist after several outlets refused to carry her story for its explosive nature, and its accusations of the role the current Indian PM played in the Gujarat massacre. Subjected to constant vilification online and death and rape threats off it for her work, the UN had to write to the Indian government seeking her safety. Rana Ayyub’s story is of the bravery of a minority fighting patriarchal and communal majoritarian power setups.
2. Israa Al-Ghomgham
Sectarianism plays a divisive factor in the geopolitics of the Arab Muslim world. Israa Al-Ghomgham is a Saudi Arabian human rights activist whose activism centered around securing rights for Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority. From the dawn of the Arab spring to 2018, she has actively documented the protests and subsequent crackdown against dissidents by the majoritarian government. As per Human Rights Watch, she was sentenced to death in August 2019 for a series of crimes, including participating in protests, inciting protests, chanting slogans against the regime, attempting to inflame public opinion, filming protests, publishing on social media, and providing moral support to rioters. Al-Ghomgham was a leader of the protests that have been simmering since 2011, supporters of which accuse the government of anti-Shia discrimination, and demand the release of political prisoners. However, Human Rights Watch notes that the prescribed charges were not “resembling reasonable crimes.” Despite her activism not yielding the desired results, her standing up to an autocratic rule for her rights is a start in securing better conditions for minorities.
3. (Late) Asma Jahangir
Asma Jahangir was a Pakistani human rights lawyer and activist who stood up for women and religious minorities at a time when her country was going through a military-led “Islamization” program. A founding member of Human Rights Commission Pakistan, in 1980, she helped form the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), a pressure group campaigning against Pakistan’s discriminatory legislation, most notably against the Proposed Law of Evidence. Under this law, the value of a woman’s testimony was reduced to half that of a man’s testimony. She also campaigned against the Hadood Ordinances, where victims of rape had to prove their innocence or else face punishment themselves. She had actively resisted forced religious conversions, established women shelters, questioned military governance in politics, and advocated against laws sanctioning patriarchy. She had also served as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions and Freedom of Religion and Belief as well. Among her notable contributions, she was able to secure justice for a minor, blind pregnant rape victim who was sentenced for being raped. She also secured justice for a falsely implicated Christian boy. Often at the receiving end of vilification for going against the state, Asma Jahangir has been an activist well ahead of her time who has fought for minority and women’s rights in Pakistan.
4. Nadia Murad
Nadia Murad Basee Taha is an Iraqi Yazidi human rights activist. She has played a crucial role in combating the menace that is ISIL. In 2014, she was kidnapped from her hometown of Kocho and held by the Islamic State for three months. A Nobel Peace Prize recipient, she is recognized for her efforts in helping women and children victimized by genocide, mass atrocities, and human trafficking to heal and rebuild their lives and communities. She has overcome immense trauma at the hands of ISIS, as she lived through seeing 600 of her community members murdered by ISIL, including her brothers, and being taken in as a sex slave by ISIL. Nadia was beaten, burned with cigarettes, and raped until she managed to escape. From there on, she has reached out to refugee and survivor communities, listening to testimonies of victims of trafficking and genocide. Nadia has mobilized her own trauma to help thousands of other victims like her.
5. Manal Al-Sharif
Manal Al-Sharif is a Saudi women’s rights activist who helped start the “women’s right to drive” campaign in 2011. Following her driving campaign, Al-Sharif remained a critic of the Saudi government, actively taking up issues including imprisoned female foreign workers, the lack of elections for the Shura Council, and the murder of Lama Al-Ghamdi. Amnesty International stated that, “Manal Al-Sharif is following in a long tradition of women activists around the world who have put themselves on the line to expose and challenge discriminatory laws and policies.” Also a declared prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, Al-Sharif took to protesting in a land that doesn’t accept dissent from anyone, let alone from women, as she advocated for driving rights for women in Saudi Arabia. She has also campaigned for expatriate prisoners detained for their inability to pay fines.