The Stories We Share
Reflections on Photographing Women’s Rights Abuses in Conflict
By Samer Muscati
Over a decade of chronicling human rights violations around the world, I’ve taken thousands of photographs. But there is one that is especially dear to me.
In July 2012, on the eve of Libya’s first democratic national election, I was working with Human Rights Watch researching barriers to women’s political participation. As the sun started to set, I happened upon a slight elderly Libyan woman wearing a traditional white hijab, holding lonely vigil in the square outside the Benghazi courthouse. She told me her name was Haja, and this square was her second home; it was here where she had spent many evenings supporting the revolution the previous year.
Haja proudly displayed her voter registration card around her neck and waved Libya’s new national flag while people approached her to pay their respects. Haja told me that Libyans had “sacrificed a lot to get here.” She was a local icon because of her steadfast participation in the protests that eventually led to the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi.
I love this photo for many reasons. Haja’s kind eyes, gentleness and uncompromising conviction reminded me of my own hijab-wearing grandmother, who had passed away a few months earlier. I also admired the fact that she was a woman defiantly standing in the midst of a throng of men in a conservative society, refusing to be relegated to silence. Haja had more optimism and drive than her revolutionary peers born decades later. And this image gave me hope and strength during the turmoil that was the Arab Spring.
A few years later, in the summer of 2015, I was in South Sudan documenting the civil war. It was here, in the world’s newest country, that I met another inspirational woman, Nyacour, outside a small, muddy shelter at a camp for displaced persons. She was one of dozens of women who had escaped marauding government forces and allied militias committing horrific human rights abuses.
Survivors told me how these men killed, beat and raped scores of civilians, and particularly women. They burned down homes and food stocks in more than two-dozen small towns, villages and settlements. These repeated, systematic attacks on civilians caused widespread displacement.
Despite the atrocities that they had endured, these women were the lucky ones. They had survived the onslaught and made it alive to this camp. Although intended as a place of refuge, the camp was more suffocating than most I had previously visited. Service providers could not keep up with the influx of new arrivals and every inch of the camp was occupied. A fog of anguish and despair loomed over its inhabitants.
But even in this desperate place, miracles unfold. When Nyacour invited me inside her shelter, I did a triple take: underneath a mosquito net, in a makeshift crib, were her tiny newborn triplets.
I stood frozen in my gumboots, feeling both sadness and exhilaration. How amazing to witness life flourish here, despite all odds. At the same time, these babies transported me back to my own infant twin girls a continent away. When I told Nyacour of my twins, she responded with the most generous smile. We shared a moment forged in the bond of parenthood. I visited Nyacour again the next day to participate in a community celebration in honour of the triplets. It was astonishing to see people who had lost almost everything laugh and love.
The interviews that I conducted over the years have scarred me, but I am also fortunate to have met incredible women in every conflict that I documented. And their resilience and strength continue to inspire me. One of the many complexities that I have witnessed in my work is that profound despair can exist alongside hope.
I have also learned that although misogyny is engrained into the fabric of every culture, gender inequalities worsen during times of conflict as women face increasing levels of violence, including rape, trafficking, abduction and early marriage. An estimated one in five refugee or displaced women has experienced sexual violence, although the actual numbers are likely higher given the stigma discouraging victims from disclosing these experiences. Some 60 percent of preventable maternal deaths take place amid conflict, displacement and natural disasters.
Women are often the last to flee their homes and towns, as they usually ensure the safety of family members before their own. Those who make it out safely are still at risk of abuse because the sole responsibility for acquiring food, wood and water for their families rests on their shoulders. Discriminatory social norms translate into women and girls receiving less food than men when supplies are short; physical insecurity prevents women from accessing health care and other essential services. During crises, families are more likely to pull their girls out from school, and those girls are less likely to return than boys. Despite this, women still manage to be the glue that holds communities and families together. Yes, they are survivors, but they are also resistors, activists and community leaders.
When it comes to human rights advocacy, how the story is told and who gets to tell the story is just as important as the story itself. As a human rights advocate, I collect information—facts distilled from narratives—that I use to produce a compelling story to push policymakers and others in positions of power to act. I hope that this information will help end abuses, hold perpetrators accountable and lead to remedies for victims.
In today’s digital age, advocates must rely increasingly on multimedia to help make their case. To catch the attention of the public and governments, facts alone are rarely sufficient. In the summer of 2015, the world silently watched as hundreds of migrants drowned every month trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. But everything changed, at least for a moment, on September 2, after a photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body, face down on a beach, went viral.
Images have far more impact than words alone. They present enormous advocacy opportunities but also a range of ethical challenges. Researchers should obtain people’s informed consent before any interview or photograph, which can be tricky in situations when someone has rarely (or never) encountered a camera. Even if people agree to share their experiences, we must always remember that these are ultimately their stories and their images. The interview and photography process must be done respectfully and with dignity, and result in no harm. This means steering away from narratives and photographs that reinforce stereotypes. The famished African. The subjugated Arab woman. The white saviour. It is crucial to try to capture the multiple complexities of the person being photographed.
Equipment such as a camera can also act as a barrier by creating more distance between a researcher and an interviewee. But if practiced sensitively, photography can serve as a bonding agent. Often, immediately sharing photographs with an interviewee and asking them to approve the pictures we use puts them at ease and invites them to become more active participants in the process. It is a testament to the tenacity of survivors that they are often willing to share the most intimate details of their abuse. Despite having lost so much, they remain committed to stop the abuse from happening to others.
I try to teach my law students that the most important trait of a successful human rights advocate is humility. Our role is never to ‘give voice to the voiceless’. Survivors of atrocities and other oppressed people already have a voice. The problem is that those in power refuse to listen. Our role is to provide a platform.
To this day, I remain conflicted in my work in international human rights advocacy. I constantly struggle with thoughts of whether I am an intruder and if I should be the one doing this type of work. I am also uncomfortable with the accolades I receive for doing this work while my local counterparts—the ones who continue to face daily threats of violence—are often times forgotten.
On most days, I believe that we can make the world a safer place if everyone stands up to injustice. This includes those of us who have the privilege of working and living in relative security and wealth, as long as we approach human rights work with humility and persistent critical reflection. While international advocates are often glorified for “exposing” human rights abuses, we have a responsibility to link these findings back to the roots of many of the worst human rights crises in the Global South—imperialism, colonialism, racism and capitalism—and to acknowledge that our privilege is borne from and often reinforces other people’s oppression. We also have a collective responsibility to ensure local activists have the tools and resources to document, report and advocate on their own behalf. They are far more compelling rapporteurs than outsiders.
Although it may seem trite, we must also not lose sight of how much we each have in common, and the journeys that we all take in search of better lives during our short time on this planet.
Haja, Nyacour and I come from different cultures, generations, genders, religions and distant corners of the world. But I imagine we share the same hope that our children and grandchildren will be able to grow up in a better world, devoid of violence, persecution and discrimination. On some days, this dream feels more possible, even if only for a moment: after Libya’s first democratic election, or after the miraculous arrival of triplets in the midst of chaos. When these extraordinary women are captured on film, they invite us to imagine that world, too.
Samer Muscati is the director of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program and a former senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. His photography exhibition, “Uprooted and Dispossessed: Portraits of Women Caught in Conflict and Colonialism,” was named one of the “20 must-see shows at Contact Photography Festival 2018” by NOW Magazine and will be on display at U of T’s Hart House until May 31.