Persecution, imprisonment, death and controversy whittled down from 10 to five the number of women able to accept awards from Secretary of State John Kerry and First Lady Michelle Obama as international women of courage.
Honorees from Tibet, Vietnam and Syria were unable to attend the ceremony yesterday at the State Department in Washington because they were denied the right to travel, imprisoned or in hiding. An Indian gang-rape victim -- who demanded justice and whose plight mobilized massive protests against gender violence -- was honored after she died from her injuries.
In addition, Samira Ibrahim, an Egyptian woman who campaigned against sexual abuse of female protesters by security forces, was denied the award after anti-U.S. and anti-Semitic comments were found on her Twitter account.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday that the controversy over Ibrahim shouldn’t overshadow the important advocacy work for a variety of causes by the other awardees under difficult and dangerous circumstances.
The nine women who were honored include the posthumous award for the 23-year-old Indian physical therapy student who was brutally gang-raped. She managed to give police statements from her hospital bed and demand justice against her six attackers in December before dying from internal injuries. The attack, on a bus in New Delhi, sparked mass protests demanding that Indian government and law enforcement enact laws and training to better prevent, investigate and prosecute widespread violence against women.
The woman, whose identity has been kept confidential, has become known in the Indian media as “Nirbhaya,” a word meaning “fearless” in Hindi. After praising her bravery, Kerry called for the audience at the awards ceremony to stand for a moment of silence.
Other honorees included Tsering Woeser, also known as Wei Se, a Tibetan author, poet and blogger. She runs the website Invisible Tibet and has emerged as a leading voice documenting persecution of ethnic Tibetans in China. She was denied a passport by the Chinese government, and was unable to travel to Washington for the award.
Razan Zeitunah, a Syrian human rights lawyer and a founder of the Local Coordination Committees, was honored for her reporting on the killing and torture of civilians by Syrian security forces. She is in hiding for her safety, unable to travel for the award.
Vietnamese blogger Ta Phong Tan also was unable to receive her award, as she is serving a 10-year prison sentence and two additional years of house arrest for publishing articles critical of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
“This just speaks to the extreme difficulty or the conditions that these women confront and their courage that they have displayed in speaking out” in their home countries, Nuland said, when asked about the three women who were unable to travel to receive their awards.
Their bravery and that of the five honorees who were present are an inspiration, said Obama, who joined Kerry in the presentations at the State Department.
“These women have inspired millions to stand with them, and find their own voices, and work together to achieve real and lasting change,” she said.
The award “is not simply an honor bestowed upon a few, but a call for all of us to open our eyes to the injustices around us, and to ask ourselves just what kind of courage we’ve got inside our own hearts, she said. The State Department has bestowed the awards annually since 2007.
The other awardees included Malalai Bahaduri, who overcame family prejudice and societal barriers to become the first female member of the Afghan National Interdiction Unit, which arrests and prosecutes drug traffickers. Elena Milashina, a Russian human rights activist and journalist, was honored for reporting on terrorist attacks, trafficking and military disasters, despite physical and verbal attacks.
Others recognized by Kerry were: Julieta Castellanos, rector, National Autonomous University of Honduras, who has has pressed for systemic reform of the country’s police and justice sector institutions; Josephine Obiajulu Odumakin, president of the Campaign for Democracy, whose advocacy for women’s rights in Nigeria led to her arrest and detention seventeen times during the dictatorship of General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida; and Fartuun Adan, executive director of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in Mogadishu, Somalia, who has championed human rights, peace-building, and the rehabilitation of child soldiers.
Asked to Leave
‘‘The life stories of the women we’ve honored today are tremendously inspiring and heroic; it has been an honor to welcome them to the United States, and to introduce them to more Americans,” Sharon Wiener, acting ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, said in an interview. “We hope their visit to the United States will galvanize them in their work and that they will make even more contributions to their countries and to the world in the years to come.”
Before the ceremony, Ibrahim, whom the State Department had flown to Washington for the award, was asked to leave, Nuland said.
“We did not consider some of the public statements that she made appropriate,” Nuland said. Ibrahim had been nominated for the award by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and there were “obviously some problems with our review process,” Nuland said.
In the State Department’s earlier announcement, Ibrahim was to be honored for drawing attention to so-called virginity tests forced upon her and other women during anti-government protests that brought down the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
After Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian researcher at the Hudson Institute, a research group in Washington, reported March 6 that messages on Ibrahim’s Twitter account celebrated a terrorist bombing that killed Israeli tourists in Bulgaria and cheered the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., the State Department opened an investigation.
Ibrahim initially told the State Department that her account had been hacked, Nuland told reporters, though later March 7, Ibrahim sent a message in Arabic saying she refused to apologize for “anti-Zionist” remarks, according to a translation by Egyptian activist Mina Rezkalla.
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