Young feminists and young women from across NAWA (North Africa and West Asia) / MENA (Middle East and North Africa) are an integral part of local, national and regional movements for environmental and climate justice. We are here:
Sally Souraya | Lebanon
“I am an extraordinary Climate activist”. This is how Nouhad Awwad introduces herself to the public on her website, flagging up a journey she is proudly leading in the field of environment and climate change since 2013 in Lebanon, the Arab region and around the world.
The seeds of this journey grew up gradually with her, in the way Nouhad was raised by her mother. As a kid, she was taught to keep her environment clean. “It started purely as a religious way of living with and respecting nature, but then it turned to become a strong passion to environment”. By the age of fourteen, Nouhad started joining initiatives to clean the beach. Since then, she incorporated environment in all aspects of her life and advocated for it using different means: from blogging about nature to developing small initiatives and delivering trainings on solid waste etc. Whilst her parents wanted her to be a medical doctor, Nouhad confidently knew that environment was her meant-to-be path.
She refused to attend the medics’ exams and stood up for her choice: “I told them: This is not me! This is not my life! I want to study Environment”.
With this firm determination, she studied a BSc. in environmental health and a master’s degree in Environmental Sciences with a focus on environmental policy planning.
As an activist, Nouhad is part of the Arab Youth Climate Movement and The Mediterranean Youth Network. She was part of the Lebanese official delegation to COP21 and COP22. In 2017, she has been elected as YOUNGO focal point to empower youth to have a voice at UNFCCC and promote youth participation in local and national climate change projects.
By becoming part of bigger global movements on climate change, Nouhad did not loose her focus on the environmental issues faced in her country. She is confident that her participation in big global conferences and events, as a representative of Arab youth, is ultimately paying off. She is investing all the knowledge and skills she gains in pushing for better environmental policies in Lebanon. Nouhad’s participation at local and international level intertwines and complements one another. She is aware of the importance to keep a balanced contribution to the local, regional and international levels. Nouhad is currently working on numerous grassroots campaigns for climate justice issues in Lebanon. She develops various local initiatives to serve protecting the environment and safeguarding a sustainable future.
Whilst only a few women in the MENA region are climate activists, Nouhad believes that this do not necessarily reflect a lack of interest from the women themselves, but more a mentality and pattern. Women continuously face pressure to tick boxes made up for them.
It is how they are unfortunately raised and repeatedly reminded to fit in certain expectations: “Women here are expected to be married and have children”. This is what Nouhad, same as other women, keeps on facing in her society. She is often asked endless questions such as “Until when are you going to do this? Time will pass and you will start to realise that your choices were wrong. Get married! Get a stable job! What is the benefit of being a climate activist? You are wasting your time. No one is going to listen. Nothing will change. Decisions are in the hands of big people!”. The list of questions goes on, and Nouhad’s perseverance too: it goes on and on and on. Nouhad believes “Climate activism is like a snowball, which will grow with time. Our small work today will be that big ball down the hill one day”.
As a young Lebanese woman wearing Hijab, none of these aspects of her identity seemed to be an obstacle to her journey, or at least she does not let them be. She considers her identity as part of her journey as an advocate.
She tries to break up the stereotype about the Middle East, where women are often seen to be passive and not empowered enough to drive or contribute to the changes needed in their communities.
Wherever she is, whether speaking on a international panel, or writing on her online platforms, Nouhad speaks up for what does not seem to be obvious and clear for the global community: “We, young women in the Middle East, care for the environment. We are determined to be active and drive change”.
On the other hand, Nouhad’s message to women in the Middle East, who might not be aware of how much they could contribute to protect the environment they live in: “You are not expected to be climate activists, joining initiatives to clean the beach or going on marches to advocate for policy changes, to be contributing to environmental movements! By raising your children to be environmentally oriented, you will be doing a great favour to the environment. Start from there and do simple things such as turning off the lights when they are not needed, using less plastics, etc. Small easy steps can be done and they all count”. Nouhad believes that what we are missing nowadays is “the feeling” of being aware, connected and united with nature. “We are made of nature. We are part of it. Everybody is born as a nature’s advocate and we work on returning to this by real doings. If we believe in this, everything will change”.
“What will you do today to save our #ocean?”. On the occasion of the World Environmental Health Day, this simple yet complicated question was posted on “Diaries of the Ocean” Facebook page. The wording of the questions was intentionally opted to simply invite people to reflect on what they will do rather than just what they could do. This invitation does not only hold an optimistic view towards people’s willingness to save the ocean, but equally explicitly highlight that this could be done today and everyday. The key starting point to take responsibility towards saving the ocean relies on considering the ocean as “our” ocean, which could only happen if we start to understand it. An understanding of the ocean constitutes the essence of what Jina Talj, a marine scientist from Lebanon, is advocating for through founding “Diaries of the Ocean” almost one year ago.
Jina, who holds a degree in Environmental Sciences and a Master in Marine Ecology, has been actively involved in climate and environmental issues for the past seven years. She attended COPs, where she took part in negotiations and then worked with other activists on a civil society draft of the Accord for the government of agree on. Moreover, Jina worked on different campaigns related to climate change, biodiversity and mercury pollution of the sea.
Throughout her activism’s journey, Jina’s knowledge and expertise as a scientist interweaved with her advocacy skills.
For her, being a scientist and an advocate always go hand in hand, as one indivisible identity to serve her mission.
Over the years, Jina’s contributions to environmental movements in Lebanon kept on moving from one step to another, and ultimately evolving from one level to another. Nevertheless, her focus revolved around the ocean marking an important chapter on her environmental path, which is sadly driven by the undeniable truth, that: “We know more about the surface of the moon than we know about the ocean. The challenge is that the ocean is still mysterious”.
However, this truth does not make the ocean far from being affected by human behaviours, nor keep human beings protected from the reverse effects that their behaviours towards the ocean would have on them. Thus, “Diaries of the Ocean” was initiated as a way to unveil the mystery and share the stories of the ocean through daily posts on a blog and a Facebook page. The posts are centred on what is happening in the ocean, including the harms people are doing to the ocean in terms of pollution, climate change, overfishing, etc. In addition, “Diaries of the Ocean” brings information about the different animals living in the ocean and their adaptations to their respective environments.
With perseverance and optimism, what started initially as daily posts on a blog/page is now fruitfully turning into different awareness projects targeting students mainly. Soon, “Diaries of the Ocean” will also be officially registered as an organisation in Lebanon. Alongside with Jina, “Diaries of the Ocean” has been exclusively run by three other Lebanese women scientists. “The vision is to keep a feminist identity of the organisation: An unfamiliar identity especially in the Middle East region”. As Jina was explicitly revealing that point, she explained: “Our intentions are not to be discriminatory and gender biased in our approach. But,
we believe in our roles as women and we would like to reach a point, where we are recognised as women scientists with an added value to environmental activism”.
Reading between the lines of this wish, the prevailing challenge is for the great impact of Jina and her colleagues’ actions to be recognised and valued regardless of their gender.
Unfortunately, this challenge they continuously face in their work is centred on how they, as women, are perceived by the men they work with. “It is all about the preconceptions they have!”. Jina describes her experience in one of the projects “Diaries of the Ocean” is currently working on, which involves delivering awareness and training sessions to fishermen: “I feel that the fishermen do not take us seriously as if they do not trust our knowledge because we are women or even worse they cannot accept the fact that a woman might know more than them!”
For Jina and her colleagues, who believe in the knowledge they are bringing through their projects, facing these attitudes would never stop them. In the contrary, this make them more determined and they find it in itself empowering.
With confidence and simplicity, Jina admits that: “Being a woman in the environmental field makes it challenging, perhaps difficult, but not impossible. All I do is to keep going until I get what I want”.
What Jina wants is basically what is needed in terms of informing people and changing their mentality, attitudes and behaviours not only towards the ocean but also towards women.
Samirah Siddiqui | Pakistan & the UK
Kosar Bano’s story
When Kosar Bano joined the Agha Khan Rural Support Programme as a community mobiliser, the trees had already grown up. “Humaray bachay! (Our children!) That’s what the women called their beloved trees,” she exclaimed, as she told me about an exceptionally successful natural resource management and livelihood programme in her province of Gilgit-Baltistan, Northern Pakistan.
Kosar explained how the women of Gojal, Hunza Valley stopped deforestation in its tracks. AKRSP’s holistic programme involved saplings, sustainable forest management techniques, vocational training and land rights. This combination tackled several intersectional socioeconomic issues and provided an alternative to rampant deforestation of the threatened indigenous coniferous forest. Obtaining land rights was particularly radical; although women across Pakistan play an invaluable role in small-scale subsistence agriculture and livestock farming, the forest is considered the domain of men due to conservative attitudes. The Gojali women were emboldened to nurture their newly reforested land, referring to the trees as their children.
Craftsmanship also played an important role. When Kosar joined, the women had begun putting their carpentry skills to use, making and selling handicrafts and furniture with the mature wood. Their enterprise was so successful, they were running (predominantly to an all-male audience) training workshops for other carpenters, sawmill owners and suppliers. The Gojali women became guardians of their forest and called the shots from beginning to end. Kosar was convinced this was the only way forward.
The battle for recognition
Feminist to the core, Kosar is aggravated by Pakistan’s historical amnesia and lack of recognition for the women championing environment and climate justice locally.
She once called out a leading NGO for being in the same league as male-dominated government bodies and insular academic circles, failing to recognise local women’s agency and contribution to climate change mitigation.
Chastising them for their tendency to portray women as passive and lacking agency, she rolled her eyes at the imperialist inclination to depict themselves as knights in shining armour, bestowing change and women’s empowerment.
Stunned by the challenge, the NGO invited her to speak at a climate change event where the Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan was also in attendance. As the sole female speaker and grassroots activist on the panel, Kosar couldn’t help but feel intimidated by the sea of rustling and restless men. She glanced up and spotted a handful of women in the audience and remembered who she was there to represent.
Kosar addressed the Chief Minister directly, “Do you know what the women of Gilgit are capable of?”. She narrated the Gojali women’s success, “The solution is to educate and train women to become community leaders”. Kosar advocated for the recognition of women’s instrumental role in climate change mitigation and to increase representation and engagement of women at a regional and national level. “The response was overwhelming, people really appreciated what I said,” she told me. The audience listened, spellbound, and even more people poured in to hear her speak.
Emboldened by the support, Kosar went on to remind the audience of Gilgit’s forgotten feminist past. She regaled the tale of Dadi Jawari, a 17th century female ruler of Gilgit, the first in a heavily male-dominated society. Dadi Jawari stepped up when local government couldn’t and built irrigation channels, functional to this day. In the desert mountain landscape of 1630s Gilgit, this was no easy feat. One would think Jawari’s tremendous contributions to her community would cement her legacy forever but somehow, she was still overlooked. Kosar reminded the Chief Minister, “This is what women do when they’re in decision-making roles.”
What are the objectives of Kosar’s activism?
“There needs to be more active engagement and participation for women in decision-making.” Kosar is driven to increase representation and get women participating at all levels.
“How will we influence effective change if there isn’t enough representation for women?”, she asked rhetorically.
Kosar wants to change the narrative of passive Pakistani women. She told me of numerous Gilgiti women who are educated around the world but find no opportunities when returning home. In a male-dominated system saturated with misogyny and nepotism, prospects for women are few and far between.
A few months after her address to the Chief Minister, Kosar smiled as she made her way through the winding roads and forests of Gilgit and drove past the newly named Dadi Jawari Road. She leant forward and said, “I hope this is a sign of more recognition for Gilgiti women, but the struggle is not over.”
About Kosar Bano
Kosar Bano joined the AKRSP ten years ago as a Mobiliser and is now the Gender and Development Specialist for Gilgit-Baltistan AKRSP. “I’m a gender activist first and foremost”, she also heads the Gender Resource Group, an advocacy network with a national focus. She is currently a Chevening Scholar at the University of Sussex, pursuing an MA in Gender and Development.
Zile Huma | Pakistan
Three years ago, after qualifying Civil Services Exams, unlike other civil servants I did not wish for my appointment in a big ministry providing many facilities. I chose to serve at Ministry of Climate Change.
The reason behind choosing this ministry was my childhood memory of flood in my small village where I spent my half-life. That flood washed away shops, houses and crops of people and took lives as well. That flood affected mostly children, women and old people. Since that day word “Climate Change” stuck in my mind. I, being a female from a developing country, which is among top ten countries mostly affected by the climate change, decided to combat this.
I joined the Ministry of Climate Change, doing great efforts to create public awareness and involve young minds through media and countrywide awareness campaigns. Besides my routine duties of media coverage at the ministry, I also come up with innovative ideas and always volunteer myself to implement them. For example, I conducted a painting competition on “Climate Change: Pakistan’s Resilience”, which received one hundred and thirty one paintings not only from students from big cities, but also rural areas. The first three winners were girls, and the second runner up was a young female from a small place called Jamshoro in Sindh. I also arranged a plantation campaign in public schools, especially girls schools of Islamabad, to involve young minds to fight against climate change. I have also guided and helped students to participate in an international poster competition being held in Nepal this year. Around 50 students from Pakistan are participating in this competition, mostly females.
I have also arranged a regular radio program on weekly basis in which different officers from different departments of the Ministry of Climate Change, including myself, participated and created public awareness. Ten to fifteen live calls in each program with a significant number of female callers, was proof that this program succeeded to involve the public. Currently, I am working with my team to arrange first ever Conference of Parties of students in Pakistan called “COP in My City”. This is simulation exercise on the Conference of Parties session held every year under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Besides these activities, I regularly write in leading newspapers on environmental issues to create public awareness.
I personally believe that if these small initiatives are repeated again and again in different forms, they can bring bigger changes.
This can be a “Green Path” for coming generations.
Samreen Khan Gauri | Pakistan
Let’s be protectors of our environment
It was Monday, the first work day with the usual rush, excitement and anxiety of work! In the morning, I left the house slightly early to arrive at my pick up point in order to reach work on time. Just five minutes away from my home, the pickup point for my office vehicle is located on a busy road. I was used to waiting there for around 5-10 minutes daily while observing people.
Every day, it felt unpleasant waiting as there is a filthy site of garbage just across the road in front of where I wait everyday, unfortunately, I don’t have the choice to stand elsewhere to avoid this sight. The mound of garbage kept increasing until somebody from the community set it on fire, which is a usual practices in our area because we don’t have a proper system or mechanism in place for solid waste management. Garbage is everywhere and is the most distasteful side of my community and country.
On that particular morning, something changed inside me after seeing a little girl between the age of 10 and 12 holding a big plastic bag on her shoulder walking towards the heap of garbage. She then sits in the middle of the garbage dumping site and starts picking items that could be useful from the dirty pile, which no one would think to touch. I was stunned to witness the scene where a little girl on this pleasant morning should be in school instead of picking from garbage to earn her livelihood. Unfortunately, picking and selling useful items from the garbage pile is one of the occupation of people living in extreme poverty. I felt terrible and gloomy inside, in fact helpless to avoid this from happening, such a shame for environmental protection and impact of climate.
This is symbolic of how heap of garbage accelerates environmental hazard and why this little girl has to choose picking garbage to earn money.
There is a direct link between climate justice and this little girl’s life – how lack of socioeconomic justice in developing countries affects one’s life.
The constant presence of garbage shows the feeble civic administration, negligence of environmental protection and setting the garbage on fire is nothing but abandoning of climate fortification while thousands of children like the girl putting their health and life at risk!
I was distressed and thought about what could be done so I wrote a letter to the municipal authorities about the situation. I met the municipal council to reveal and convince them to fulfill their due role and responsibilities. After several attempts and follow-ups, municipal cooperation cleaned the corner, however that was not enough. I do plan on holding a meeting with influential community members to motivate them for environmental protection and cleaning the area. I have also established a youth group as in a role of vigilance, protector and activist. I should try to hold a plantation drive in my area. I am building strong contacts with elected representatives and government authorities to ensure seriousness and action to ensure environmental protection. Luckily, I found the girl picking garbage and tried to convince her parents to get her enrolled in a government-owned school where education is free. I gave her a baby plant to grow outside of her house situated in the slum area. I assume that at least now the plant will protect her from environmental hazard! May be one day, my little efforts will change people’s perspective to become change makers from individual to collective efforts for climate justice!
Do not Cut our Trees!
This is a unique success story about a woman activist who stood in front of corporate company and government to protect her native land and the ecosystem of the area from being damaged. Mohali is a 45 years old lady belonging to Tharparker Desert of Pakistan. Thar, the land of harsh weather, infertile and shifting sand dunes is becoming a territory of hope. Sparse population, extreme temperatures, and feeble socio-economic conditions makes the lives of women difficult. After discovering coal mines in the area, there was a sudden shift of interest from corporate companies and government in the area which changed the socio-economic life of the local community.
Buildings arose and field sites were captivated with heavy machineries. For installation of heavy equipments and transportation, there was a huge drive of cutting trees to clean the area while building airport runway. Large number of trees were cut which was the source of providing fodder for livestock especially camels. The poor community had lost their main source of income of livestock (animals). There were more than 2500 trees removed in order to clean the coal mine site.
As the desert already faces acute shortage of plantation and harvesting, the damage was alarming to the ecosystem of the area. Mohali, a woman emerging as a community leader decided to raise her voice and called a community meeting to address this issue. Initially, she faced several negative reactions, and lack of cooperation from the community, as it’s a male dominated society therefore creating traditional barriers. Community elders didn’t want the corporate companies and government to get a negative impression and resistance so the community could get employment through labour work in the project.
Mohali tried hard to convince the community, especially the male members, to join hands and raise their voices to protect their motherland from damage.
After constant trying, the community finally agreed to hold a dialogue with company administration and convinced them to be vigilant and protect the environment.
Initially the corporate company didn’t pay attention to the issue, seeing the empathic attitude of company administration, Mohali who led the campaign, decided to take assertive actions and started demonstrating in front of the site. After many days, the administration became concerned and worried when seeing the accelerated reaction from the community. Administration decided to hold dialogue and negotiate with the community and Mohali representing the community successfully negotiated to start plantation drive of up to 5000 plants and cutting trees was not allowed. She also got assurance of obtaining maximum labour/job opportunities for local residents. This was all due to the bravery and courage of a women to protect the environment and ecosystem of the desert area of Thar.
Clean drinking water is basic human right!
The alarming threat of clean drinking water scarcity constitutes one of the biggest challenges to Pakistan as per a recent survey that reveals 84 % of the population do not have access to safe drinking water. Most supplied drinking water is heavily contaminated with arsenic, well above the permissible limit of 50% per billion.
The shocking situation grabbed the attention of a young woman journalist, Sara Shaikh, as she felt enormous pain and concern over the situation. She is also a common citizen who risks her life by consuming highly contaminated water because there is no alternative except to purchase expensive bottled water.
This threat is not less dangerous than that of terrorism because it has been taking millions of lives every year, especially those of children.
Water is the most important and basic necessity for human life. Without water, life can’t exist.
All over the world, more than a billion people do not have access to safe drinking water because the increasing population of the world has lowered the level of ground water. Water is indeed a basic human necessity and having access to clean and safe drinking water is an indispensable human right. Having paid attention to the water crisis, the least the government can do is to ensure smooth provision of this most basic public health necessity to the deprived people and to prevent thousands of Pakistani children from dying.
Considering the high magnitude of the issue, Sara decided to raise the issue using her journalistic abilities and focus. She found out multiple reasons for water contamination and got the attention of authority to look into the meter. She investigated how underground water supply lines were entangled with sewerage system and found both lines were mixed up therefore making it easy for the water to get highly contaminated for human consumption. The ultimate solution is to replace old and damaged underground pipelines as they have already expired. Sara perused local government and advocate the issue through her continuous writing and in-depth reporting. Her blogs and stories reveal the issue in a very effective and impactful manner and states that potable water is becoming a rare commodity all over the world. In some region, water is even more costly than milk and every year unhygienic practices tied with impure water usage cause a number of diseases which results in high costing treatment for water-based illnesses.
She wants municipal government to take this issue on top agenda while planning development work for the city.
She is meeting the authorities, following up on ongoing work, convincing the local people to put pressure on local representatives of the municipal government.
She is become a symbol of resistance and people’s voice to ask nothing but their basic right of access to safe drinking water!