Elsa explained how States in the Gulf region are mostly patriarchal. The simplest example of patriarchy is the fact that women in Saudi Arabia cannot drive. Two women defenders in Saudi Arabia, Maysaa Al Amoudy and Lujain Al-Hathlol, who were caught driving as a statement to allow women to drive, were arrested and tried in the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, which deals with cases of terrorism and State security. They currently await sentencing.
Elsa referred to the situation in Iran, KSA, and Syria, which she considers is especially bad. ‘If we hadn’t publicised certain cases, some of our human rights defenders would already be dead. If no-one knew their names, the government wouldn’t consider them, as if they didn’t exist. Those who exercise their right to freedom of expression face death threats, flogging and indefinite prison sentences.’..‘Some defenders fall silent but others gain confidence when bad things happen – it confirms the need to struggle for their rights. Although the conditions are depressing, it is inspiring to see how tragedies motivate women to raise their voice. Out of their misery they create something beautiful.’
At this point, Elsa further referred to cases of women Syrian refugees in Lebanon and how important their role in the house, family and society was. On that account she mentioned several challenges that humanitarian people who help Syrian refugees face. Having worked in the field she highlights that they are often at risk.
‘As a result of my work I have personally experienced challenges. I was put in a situation were I could have been beaten several times, just because I was helping the Syrian refugees.’ As a woman, and especially after having widened the scope of interest in the region’s several HRD cases, Elsa has begun to feel increasingly vulnerable. ‘The greater the exposure, the greater the risk. In Lebanon the situation is not so bad for women. But on a recent trip to Egypt I felt incredibly paranoid. I was on the constant look out. That is why so many women defenders prefer to stay on the low.’
Elsa is adamant, however, on the necessity of continuing her work to support human rights defenders.
‘Without human rights defenders, the reality would remain hidden. There is a clash between three concepts: reality, delusion and myth. You have the myth, the image that the State wants to portray; the delusion, as people keep quiet to put bread on the table; and the reality on the ground. Human rights defenders, be they journalists, bloggers, lawyers, teachers or women defenders, portray this reality. They are the ones who ask for accountability, for independent judges, for basic human rights.’