Rebecca Solnit: #YesAllWomen changes the story

Where was the NSA?  That’s the question former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren recently asked at his We Meant Well blog — and it couldn’t be a smarter one.  After all, the Isla Vista killer, Elliot Rodgers, made both his own sense of disturbance and his urge for “retribution” against women quite public before he went on his terror spree.  Shouldn’t the agency, whose unofficial motto (“collect it all”) seems to be meant quite literally, have noticed his messages to the world?

Given the ridiculous mass of human communications the NSA collects, both domestically and globally, perhaps not.  But one reason its employees might not have been paying attention was that Rodgers wasn’t an Islamic jihadist-in-the-making or an al-Qaeda wannabe.  He didn’t fall among the few fringe figures since 9/11 who have committed domestic acts of Islamic terror, including Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, who slaughtered 13 at Fort Hood, Texas, the Tsarnaev brothers who briefly terrorized Boston, or Faisal Shahzad who managed to get a car bomb into New York’s Times Square.  Of course, it’s worth remembering that the agency American taxpayers support to the tune of almost $11 billion a year and that has made surveillance in the name of “safety” part of the American way of life somehow missed them, too!  Still, for the NSA one thing is clear enough: the Elliot Rodgers of this world may blow Americans away in numbers that put the casualty counts for what we call “domestic terrorism” to shame, but they aren’t considered “terrorists” and the war they are engaged in — against women — doesn’t qualify for any “war on terror.”

The numbers tell a grim story when it comes to this sort of terror in American life. Among other things, if you’re adding up casualties in this unnamed war, 1,500 women are murdered annually by their husbands or boyfriends.  That adds up to a 9/11-sized disaster every two years.  On the other side of things, in the wake of the killings in Isla Vista, California, and without the NSA stepping in to botch things up, the response to such terror has been extraordinary, and Rebecca Solnit, whose new Dispatch Book, Men Explain Things to Me, focuses on just what violence against women means in our world, offers her usual highly original look at ways in which women (and some men) are reconceiving our world and the horrors in it. Tom Engelhardt

Our words are our weapons
The feminist battle of the story in the wake of the Isla Vista massacre
By Rebecca Solnit

It was a key match in the World Cup of Ideas. The teams vied furiously for the ball. The all-star feminist team tried repeatedly to kick it through the goalposts marked Widespread Social Problems, while the opposing team, staffed by the mainstream media and mainstream dudes, was intent on getting it into the usual net called Isolated Event. To keep the ball out of his net, the mainstream’s goalie shouted “mental illness” again and again. That “ball,” of course, was the meaning of the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.

All weekend the struggle to define his acts raged. Voices in the mainstream insisted he was mentally ill, as though that settled it, as though the world were divided into two countries called Sane and Crazy that share neither border crossings nor a culture. Mental illness is, however, more often a matter of degree, not kind, and a great many people who suffer it are gentle and compassionate. And by many measures, including injustice, insatiable greed, and ecological destruction, madness, like meanness, is central to our society, not simply at its edges.

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Rebecca Solnit: The new feminist road map

Here are two figures, and given how anyone who has been sexually assaulted is likely to feel about the experience, they have to be low-end estimates: the latest Pentagon numbers indicate that about 26,000 men and women (but mainly women) in the U.S. military “were sexually assaulted in 2011, up from 19,000 in 2010”; and the figure regularly cited, even by President Obama and Vice President Biden, is that one in five college women either experience an attempted sexual assault or are raped in their years on campus.

While these numbers can be argued about, they are striking evidence that, so many decades after the modern feminist movement was launched, the gender wars (male version) continue at levels that should shock anyone.  Or thought of another way: for a surprising percentage of women in the twenty-first century, every career path seems to end in the same grim place.

Fortunately, in Men Explain Things to Me, just published today, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit offers a striking and hopeful assessment of where the feminist movement is now, and of the ways of thinking it has made so antiquated that none of us can return to them, no matter the pressures.  Her new book on the gender wars, from which today’s post is taken, offers a fresh look at feminism a half-century later.  She suggests that, whatever has yet to be won, by changing our assumptions feminists have already insured that the biggest battle of all is in the past.  That women are equal to men and deserve equal rights as well, as Solnit points out, is no longer an earth-shattering idea, and that in itself is a great victory, even if getting institutions and individuals to abide by it is another matter.  Featuring a famed essay which originally appeared at TomDispatch and gives the book its title, it ranges from a highly original inquiry into marriage equality to a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women and a moving exploration of how novelist Virginia Woolf embraced the mystery of not knowing.  Simply put, Men Explain Things to Me is a must-read masterpiece. Tom Engelhardt

Pandora’s box and the volunteer police force
Feminism has just started (and it’s not stopping now)
By Rebecca Solnit

[This essay is from Rebecca Solnit’s new book, Men Explain Things to Me, and appears at TomDispatch.com with the permission of Haymarket Books and Dispatch Books.]

The history of women’s rights and feminism is often told as though it were a person who should already have gotten to the last milestone or has failed to make enough progress toward it. Around the millennium lots of people seemed to be saying that feminism had failed or was over. On the other hand, there was a wonderful feminist exhibition in the 1970s entitled “Your 5,000 Years Are Up.” It was a parody of all those radical cries to dictators and abusive regimes that your [fill in the blank] years are up. It was also making an important point.

Feminism is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth — and in our minds, where it all begins and ends. That so much change has been made in four or five decades is amazing; that everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure. A woman goes walking down a thousand-mile road. Twenty minutes after she steps forth, they proclaim that she still has 999 miles to go and will never get anywhere.

It takes time. There are milestones, but so many people are traveling along that road at their own pace, and some come along later, and others are trying to stop everyone who’s moving forward, and a few are marching backward or are confused about what direction they should go in. Even in our own lives we regress, fail, continue, try again, get lost, and sometimes make a great leap, find what we didn’t know we were looking for, and yet continue to contain contradictions for generations.

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Syria: Extremists restricting women’s rights

Human Rights Watch: Certain extremist armed opposition groups are imposing strict and discriminatory rules on women and girls that have no basis in Syrian law, Human Rights Watch said today. The harsh rules that some groups are administering in areas under their control in northern and northeastern Syria violate women’s and girls’ human rights and limit their ability to carry out essential daily activities.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 43 refugees from Syria in Iraqi Kurdistan and conducted telephone interviews with two refugees from Syria in Turkey in November and December 2013. The refugees interviewed said that the extremist armed groups Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) have enforced their interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, by requiring women and girls to wear headscarves (hijabs) and full-length robes (abayas), and threatening to punish those who do not comply. In some areas, the groups are imposing discriminatory measures prohibiting women and girls, particularly those who do not abide by the dress code, from moving freely in public, working, and attending school.

“Extremist groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are undermining the freedoms that Syria’s women and girls enjoyed, which were a longtime strength of Syrian society,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “What kind of victory do these groups promise for women and girls who are watching their rights slip away.”

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Malala Yousafzai: ‘It’s hard to kill. Maybe that’s why his hand was shaking’

Malala-YousafzaiKamila Shamsie writes: Malala Yousafzai says she’s lost herself. “In Swat [district], I studied in the same school for 10 years and there I was just considered to be Malala. Here I’m famous, here people think of me as the girl who was shot by the Taliban. The real Malala is gone somewhere, and I can’t find her.”

We are sitting in a boardroom on the seventh floor of the new Birmingham library, the glass walls allowing us a view of a city draped in mist, a sharp contrast to the “paradise” of Swat, with its tall mountains and clear rivers which Malala recalls wistfully. It should be desperately sad but the world’s most famous 16-year-old makes it difficult for you to feel sorry for her. In part, it is because she is so poised, in a way that suggests an enviable self-assurance rather than an overconstructed persona. But more than that, it is to do with how much of her conversation is punctuated by laughter.

The laughter takes many forms: self-deprecating when I ask her why she thinks the Taliban feel threatened by her; delighted when she talks of Skyping her best friend, Muniba, to get the latest gossip from her old school; wry when she recalls a Taliban commander’s advice that she return to Pakistan and enter a madrassa; giggly when she talks about her favourite cricketers (“Shahid Afridi, of course, and I also like Shane Watson”). And it’s at its most full-throated when she is teasing her father, who is present for part of our interview. It happens during a conversation about her mother: “She loves my father,” Malala says. Then, lowering her voice, she adds: “They had a love marriage.” Her father, involved in making tea for Malala and me, looks up. “Hmmm? Are you sure?” he says, mock-stern. “Learn from your parents!” Malala says to me, and bursts into laughter.

Learning from her parents is something Malala knows a great deal about. Her mother was never formally educated and an awareness of the constraints this placed on her life have made her a great supporter of Malala and her father in their campaign against the Taliban’s attempts to stop female education. One of the more moving details in I Am Malala, the memoir Malala has written with the journalist Christina Lamb, is that her mother was due to start learning to read and write on the day Malala was shot – 9 October 2012. When I suggest that Malala’s campaign for female education may have played a role in encouraging her mother, she says: “That might be.” But she is much happier giving credit to her mother’s determined character, and the example provided by her father, Ziauddin, who long ago set up a school where girls could study as well as boys, in a part of the world where the gender gap in education is vast.

It is hard to refrain from asking Ziauddin Yousafzai the “do you wish you hadn’t …?” question about his daughter, whose passion for reform clearly owes a lot to the desire to emulate her education-activist father. But it’s a cruel question, and unfair, too, given my own inability to work out what constitutes responsible parenting in a world where girls are told that the safest way to live is to stay away from school, and preferably disappear entirely.

It is perhaps because of criticism levelled at her father that Malala mentions more than once in her book that no one believed the Taliban would target a schoolgirl, even if that schoolgirl had been speaking and writing against the Taliban’s ban on female education since the age of 12. If any member of the family was believed to be in danger, it was Ziauddin Yousafzai, as much a part of the campaign as his daughter. And it was the daughter who urged the father to keep on when he suggested they both “go into hibernation” after receiving particularly worrisome threats. The most interesting detail to emerge about Ziauddin from his daughter’s book is his own early flirtation with militancy. He was only 12 years old when Sufi Mohammad, who would later be a leading figure among the extremists in Swat, came to his village to recruit young boys to join the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Although Ziauddin was too young to fight then, within a few years he was preparing to become a jihadi, and praying for martyrdom. He later came to recognise what he experienced as brainwashing – and was saved from it by his questioning mind and the influence of his future brother-in-law, a secular nationalist.

The information about her father’s semi-brainwashing forms an interesting backdrop to Malala’s comments when I ask if she ever wonders about the man who tried to kill her on her way back from school that day in October last year, and why his hands were shaking as he held the gun – a detail she has picked up from the girls in the school bus with her at the time; she herself has no memory of the shooting. There is no trace of rancour in her voice when she says: “He was young, in his 20s … he was quite young, we may call him a boy. And it’s hard to have a gun and kill people. Maybe that’s why his hand was shaking. Maybe he didn’t know if he could do it. But people are brainwashed. That’s why they do things like suicide attacks and killing people. I can’t imagine it – that boy who shot me, I can’t imagine hurting him even with a needle. I believe in peace. I believe in mercy.” [Continue reading...]

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Report finds one in three women abused

Al Jazeera: More than one third of all women around the world have been physically or sexually abused according to a new report by the World Health Organisation.

In what it billed as the first-ever systematic study of global data on the prevalence of violence against women and its health impact, the UN agency said on Thursday that 30 percent worldwide faced such abuse at the hands of their partners.

“These to me are shocking statistics,” said Flavia Bustreo, head of the WHO’s family, women’s and children’s health division.

“It’s also shocking that this phenomenon cuts across the entire world,” she told reporters.

The WHO blamed taboos that prevent victims from coming forward, failings in medical and justice systems, and norms that mean men and women may see violence as acceptable.

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Women make better corporate leaders than men, study finds

Healthline News: Women have more than a “good head for business.” Researchers find they actually have a different cognitive approach to corporate decision making, which may help the bottom line.
Female Directors

“Vive la différence,” as the French are fond of saying. A new study published in the International Journal of Business Governance and Ethics builds on the established correlation between female board representation and better business performance.

The study, “Why women make better directors,” was conducted by Chris Bart, professor of strategic management at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Ontario, and Gregory McQueen, a McMaster graduate and senior executive associate dean at the A.T. Still University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona.

Bart and McQueen began their “moral reasoning” psychological study in the aftermath of scandals at major companies such as Enron, Arthur Anderson, and ALO Time Warner. Bart says that people at the time were asking, “Where were the directors and why did they allow this to happen?”

Over the course of nine years, they surveyed 624 directors using an established survey instrument called the Defined Issues Test (DIT). Approximately 75 percent of the survey participants were men and 25 percent were women.

Nearly all of the companies represented in the study were Canadian, and included large publicly traded and nonprofit entities. According to the authors, theirs is the largest-known moral reasoning study of board directors.

“We’ve known for some time that companies with more women on their boards have better results,” explained Bart in a press announcement. “We set out to find out why.”

Unlike in the U.S., where boards must only protect shareholder interests, Canadian directors are compelled to act in the company’s best interest while taking into account how their decisions will affect the interests of all stakeholders. [Continue reading...]

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War’s silent scourge: sexual violence against women

Melanne Verveer and Peter Westmacott write: Nearly 40,000 people have died already in Syria’s civil war, and close to 100 are still being killed each day. Homes, hospitals, water infrastructure, and sanitation systems have been destroyed. But one element of this ongoing brutality has been largely overlooked in the media: the appalling sexual violence being visited on the Syrian people by government and militia forces. Such use of sexual violence as a tactic of war is shocking — yet depressingly familiar.

Today, Nov. 25, marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the beginning of the 16 days of Activism Against Gender Violence. These awareness-raising campaigns are vital, both because, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeated time and again, women’s rights are human rights; and because, without accountability for sexual violence and other acts of severe violence against women and girls—which are often designed to humiliate and degrade victims and the groups with which they identify — security and development are impossible.

William Hague, the British foreign secretary, has referred to sexual violence as the “silent scourge of war.” The sheer scale of the brutality, and the lack of accountability surrounding it, is nothing short of sickening. During the Bosnian War, between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped, many of them in camps specifically designed for the purpose. But this tidal wave of systematic brutality has resulted in only 30 convictions. All this took place in Europe within the past two decades.

Elsewhere the numbers are even starker. In the 100 days of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, up to half a million women are estimated to have been raped, a staggering figure in a total population of only 6 million people at the time. Of the 14,200 cases of sexual violence recorded in neighboring South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 2005 and 2009, fewer than 1 percent were ever heard in court. It has been estimated that in some conflicts as many as 90 percent of cases of sexual violence go unreported because of stigma, weak legal and judicial systems, or fear of retribution. Gender-based violence constitutes a global epidemic that persists today in both conflict and nonconflict settings. [Continue reading...]

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In Jerusalem, women barred from addressing gynecology conference

Patrick Martin reports: The controversial exclusion of women from various settings in Israel because of pressure from ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders reached a new level this week with a major conference on gynecological advances that is permitting only males to address the audience.

The conference on “Innovations in Gynecology/Obstetrics and Halacha [Jewish law]” is being held by the Puah Institute this Wednesday in Jerusalem. It will include such topics as “ovary implants,” “how to choose a suitable contraceptive pill” and “intimacy during rocket attacks,” in which there are many qualified female professionals, but none will be permitted to speak, at least not from the podium.

Women are allowed in the audience, in a section separate from men.

Several Israeli human rights groups have protested the men-only nature of the conference. While it is considered a private rather than a public forum, and therefore not subject to Israeli policies against discrimination, Puah receives considerable funding from the Health Ministry, these complainants point out.

Such complaints are unlikely to make much of an impression, however. The Health Minister, to whom they are addressed, is actually the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, owing to another sop to the Ultra-Orthodox.

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Women fight religious segregation in Israel

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Has Egypt’s revolution left women behind?

Mara Revkin writes: Millions of women were among the 52 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots in Egypt’s parliamentary elections this week, but preliminary results suggest that Egypt’s first popularly elected legislature since the revolution might not include a single female face. Despite anecdotal reports of massive female turnout in Cairo and the other eight governorates that cast ballots in this first of three rounds of voting, women may very well be the biggest losers of an election that has been hailed as the freest and fairest in Egypt’s recent history. Although 376 female candidates are running for parliament, not a single woman has won a seat so far in the 508-seat People’s Assembly after the first two days of voting on November 28 and 29 and this week’s runoff races. And there is good reason to believe that women will fare just as poorly in subsequent rounds of voting.The second and third stages of elections, slated for December and January, will include Egypt’s most rural and conservative districts where gender biases are more deeply ingrained than the urban centers of Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said that voted this week. Faced with the possibility of an entirely male parliament, many Egyptians are wondering: Were women left behind by the Revolution?

Women have been on the frontlines of protests in Tahrir Square since the earliest days of the uprising and were instrumental in mobilizing the grassroots groundswell on Twitter and Facebook. But as activist youth movements like the Revolutionary Youth Coalition struggle to define their role in the post-revolutionary system — pondering if and how they should convert the momentum of the street into formal political representation — women are increasingly being left out of the conversation. While it’s true that the forty some-odd parties launched since last January have welcomed women as members and in some leadership positions, when it came time to nominate candidates for the parliamentary elections, women were conspicuously absent from the party lists. In late October, as parties began lining up their candidate rosters for the two thirds of parliamentary seats that will be allocated by closed-list proportional representation, Gameela Ismael, one of Egypt’s most prominent political activists and the ex-wife of presidential candidate Ayman Nour, publicly defected from the Democratic Alliance — a primarily Islamist coalition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party — just weeks before the election, citing the coalition’s discriminatory stance against female candidates.

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Can Islamism and feminism mix?

Monica Marks writes: In May, Tunisia passed an extremely progressive parity law, resembling France’s, which required all political parties to make women at least half of their candidates. As a long-repressed party, Ennahda enjoyed more credibility than other groups. It also had a greater number of female candidates to run than any other party, and strongly supported the parity law as a result.

Many Tunisian women developed a political consciousness in reaction to Mr. Ben Ali’s severe oppression of Ennahda in the 1990s. While their husbands, brothers and sons were in jail — often for reasons as simple as attending dawn prayers — these women discovered that they had a personal stake in politics and the strength to stand alone as heads of families. When the party was legalized in March, it found a widespread base of public sympathy and grass-roots support.

As the big winner in Sunday’s elections, Ennahda will send the largest single bloc of female lawmakers to the 217-member constituent assembly. The question now is how Ennahda women will govern. Are they unwitting dupes of Islamic patriarchy, or are they merely feminist activists who happen to wear head scarves?

After interviewing 46 female activists and candidates from Ennahda, I found that many turned to politics after experiencing job discrimination, arrests, or years in prison merely because they chose to wear the head scarf or because their families were suspected of Ennahda sympathies. For some of them, this election is as much about freedom of religious expression as anything else.

“I have a master’s degree in physics but I wasn’t allowed to teach for years because of this,” said a 43-year-old woman named Nesrine, tugging the corner of her floral-print hijab, a veil banned under Mr. Ben Ali but legalized since his departure. According to Mounia Brahim and Farida Labidi, 2 of the 13 members of Ennahda’s Executive Council, the party welcomes strong, critical women in its ranks. “Look at us,” Ms. Brahim said. “We’re doctors, teachers, wives, mothers — sometimes our husbands agree with our politics, sometimes they don’t. But we’re here and we’re active.”

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Yemeni women burn veils to protest regime

CNN reports: Yemeni women defiantly burned their traditional veils Wednesday in protest of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.

Thousands of women gathered in the capital, Sanaa, said witnesses. They carried banners that read: “Saleh the butcher is killing women and is proud of it” and “Women have no value in the eyes in Ali Saleh.”

They collected their veils and scarves in a huge pile and set it ablaze — an act that is highly symbolic in the conservative Islamic nation, where women use their veils to cover their faces and bodies. It’s the first time in the nine months of Yemen’s uprising that such an event has occurred.

Inspired by Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman’s Nobel Peace Prize this month, more and more Yemeni women have taken to the streets and escalated their campaign for help from the international community.

More than 60 women were attacked in October alone by the government, said protester Ruqaiah Nasser. Government forces are raiding homes and also killing children, she said.

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People & Power – Yemen: A tale of two protests

A film broadcast by Al Jazeera in March about the Yemeni women’s rights activist Tawakkol Karman, who today has been named as one of three joint recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Liberian, Yemeni women win Nobel Peace Prize

Reuters reports: Three women who have campaigned for rights and an end to violence in Liberia and Yemen, including Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.

Another Liberian, Leymah Gbowee, who mobilized fellow women against the country’s civil war including by organizing a “sex strike,” and Tawakkul Karman, who has worked in Yemen, will share the prize worth $1.5 million with Johnson-Sirleaf, who faces re-election for a second term as president on Tuesday.

“We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society,” Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland told reporters.

“The Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 is to be divided in three equal parts between Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

Johnson-Sirleaf, 72, is Africa’s first freely elected female president. Gbowee mobilized and organized women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the war in Liberia, and to ensure women’s participation in elections.

The Committee added: “In the most trying circumstances, both before and during the Arab Spring, Tawakkul Karman has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.”

In April, Tawakkul Karman wrote: The revolution in Yemen began immediately after the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia on 14 January. As I always do when arranging a demonstration I posted a message on Facebook, calling on people to celebrate the Tunisian uprising on 16 January.

The following day a group of students from Sana’a University asked me to attend a vigil in front of the Tunisian embassy. The crowd was shouting: “Heroes! We are with you in the line of fire against the evil rulers!” We were treated roughly by the security forces, and we chanted: “If, one day, a people desires to live, then destiny will answer their call,” and “The night must come to an end” – the mantra of the revolutionaries in Tunisia.

The demonstration was astonishing; thousands turned up, and Sana’a witnessed its first peaceful demonstration for the overthrow of the regime. “Go before you are driven out!” we cried.

That night student and youth leaders visited me, along with the human rights activist Ahmed Saif Hashid and the writer Abdul Bari Tahir. We agreed that we could not let this historic moment pass us by, and that we too could spark a peaceful revolution to demand an end to a despotic regime. We decided there was to be no backing down, despite the repression we knew would come. The rallies grew daily, even though the government deployed thugs against us.

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