On the 15 December 2017 Israeli soldiers raided Ahed Tamimi’s home and shot her cousin in the head at close range shattering his skull. Ahed and her cousin ran outside to confront the military, who were loitering in her front yard. A video of Ahed slapping one of them went viral.
In response to the confrontation members of the Israeli media focused their attention on her appearance – already a well-known activist, Ahed’s shock of curly blonde hair, blue eyes and light skin formed the basis of a classified investigation two years ago into whether her family were real, or were put together for the purposes of propaganda.
One explanation for the obsession with Ahed’s looks is that she doesn’t fit neatly into the tired stereotype still pedelled about women in the Middle East – that they are more comfortable cleaning the family home than entering public debates on who should be the next prime minister. Drawing attention to women’s looks, body shape and clothes rather than the substance of their work is something women are subject to all over the world.
Ahed’s supporters liken her to Rosa Parks and Joan of Arc. She has become a symbol of resistance and is a glaring example of the asymmetrical nature of power between the occupied and the occupiers. At just 17-years-old Ahed faces 10 years in prison for charges including aggravated assault, whilst the soldier who shot her cousin hasn’t even received a slap on the wrist.
The sentence Ahed faces is not surprising for Israel is doing it’s best to quash this new generation of activists, male or female, by prosecuting roughly 500 to 700 Palestinian children every year. Last year alone they killed 14 children in Palestine.
Ahed is one of a number of young, female activists standing up for human rights across the Middle East. Bana Al-Abed was just seven-years-old when the Syrian regime escalated their attack on Aleppo last year with indiscriminate barrel bombs and triple-taps which killed civilians, the people who came to rescue them, and the makeshift medical centres where they were being treated.
Bana tweeted when her home was destroyed in an air strike and her family was running out of food and water. Eventually she left on board the green buses, has since settled in Turkey and has landed a book deal detailing her experiences. Time magazine has said Bana is one of the most influential 25 people on the internet.
Despite attempts to discredit Bana’s tweets, which led to her Mum admitting she helped craft them, they shone an urgent spotlight on the reality of life in war-torn Syria for children. Inside Aleppo Bana was one of approximately 7.5 million children who are growing up knowing nothing but war.
There are 2.4 million children living as refugees and 6,000 schools that can no longer be used. On the 20 February UNICEF issued a blank statement saying that they no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering. More than 1,000 children have been wounded or killed in the first two months of 2018.
Nada Al-Adhal from Yemen was just 11-years-old when she fled her home to escape being married off to a 26-year-old man. The marriage would ruin her chances of studying, she told viewers in a video that received 8 million hits in the first few months after it was posted. She said she would “rather die” than be forced into a child marriage.
Now 15 years-old Nada has established the Nada Institute for Human Rights which fights against child marriage, child labour and child soldiers. A recent study estimates that over 65 per cent of Yemeni girls are married before the age of 18 compared to 50 per cent before the conflict. There is no legal age for marriage in Yemen and in 2009 a bill to set the minimum age to 17 was rejected.
Bana, Ahed and Nada are part of the next generation of women from the Middle East who are speaking out for human rights, but they are certainly not the first to do so. Despite the attempts of Western journalists to frame the Arab Spring as the first time women in the region became politically engaged, they were instrumental in kicking the British out of Egypt in 1919, fought against the French in Algeria until the 1960s and in Palestine in 1948.
Their stories put a human face to tragedy and bring home the real cost of war and abuse. It’s vital that we listen to them.