Trials of Spring

After the Arab Spring and the toppling of the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a progressive official in Yemen remarked, “Now is not the time for women. For their freedom. It’s not the right time.”

“But when is the time?” asks Belquis Al Lahabi, a human rights activist and a leading voice in Sanaa’s Change Square, the centre of Yemen’s anti-government protests in 2011.

Since the Arab Spring erupted across northern Africa and the Middle East, it is easy to forget the roots of the uprising and focus purely on the destruction that ensued - namely, in Syria. But for huge swathes of the population across these countries, the struggle for democracy, human rights, women’s rights and liberty continues. We hear little of the personal stories of the women involved in this struggle, but one collection of short documentaries strives to share these stories - and demonstrate how it was women who were at the forefront of the revolution.

Trials of Spring puts names to the individual faces lost in the typical press images of crowds of protesters congregating in city squares and unravels the personal struggles of seven women trying to bring about change in different ways. As director Gini Reticker said in the discussion after the screening as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, “The whole goal of this project was to elevate the voices of women.”

Each of the six shorts focuses on a different country - Bahrain, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt and Yemen. The series is accompanied by a feature length documentary about Hend Nafea, a young Egyptian revolutionary and human rights worker. All seven films tell the stories of women and the extraordinary work they carried out during the revolution in their respective countries.

Salwa Bugaighis was a Libyan human rights activist. She played an active part in the 2011 revolution, which overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. She had been a member of the National Transitional Council, the rebellion’s political wing, and was vice-president of a preparatory committee for national dialogue in Libya. She was also a doting mother to three sons.

When she was a teenager and law student, a group of Gaddafi's men entered the lecture theatre and hanged her professor in front of the students. This, said her sister, Iman Bugaighis, is what inspired her activism. Many were stunned after the hanging, “But Salwa,” says Iman, “She had her voice.” The short interviews with Iman, along with one of Salwa’s sons, Wail el Gheriani, and her niece, Nada Husam Eddin, all paint a picture of the type of woman she was. Wail says: “Whenever there was a discussion related to the government, my parents told me ‘do not repeat this at school’.” But as tensions rose in Benghazi, the whole family knew they were doing the right thing. Salwa's family home became the centre of events.

“It wasn’t our tradition to be that involved in something. The men at first were a bit dumbfounded but then they found their courage,” says Nada, herself an inspiring advocate of women’s rights. On the day of the election, Salwa posted a picture of herself at the polling station on Facebook, encouraging men and women to get out and vote. Hours later, she was assassinated in her own home.

In the short on Yemen, Belquis Al Lahabi tells how government policy began becoming increasingly more restrictive from the 80s onwards - with women suffering the brunt of the oppression. After activity exploded in Tunisia in January 2011, activity that culminated in the toppling of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Al Lahabi went to stand outside the Tunisian Embassy in Sana’a - and told an Al Jazeera journalist that she had a message for Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“I hope that the movement progresses and for the fall of the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who threatened us with Afghanization, Iraqization and Somalization,” she said. “Today we say to him, we threaten him with Tunisization!”

The first days of the revolution were peaceful, and led by women. Women’s issues were strongly represented, and issues such as child marriage and illiteracy were broached. But gradually, women got pushed back, further and further – until they were wiped out of the revolution all together. Although a National Dialogue Conference was convened and 30% of the seats were reserved for women, their voices were crushed and ultimately women’s rights made very little progress. Now, the country is in the full throes of bloody fighting between the Houthis and supporters of Ali Abdullah Saleh, and those loyal to the new government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. As Al Lahabi remarks, “The women called for peace and it’s a state of war.”

In the discussion that followed the screenings, conversation turned to how, although the revolution appeared to be one coherent body, united in its fight for social change, this wasn’t necessarily the case. Often, while women set the ball rolling for change, as soon as the protest gained momentum men took over and banished women, and with them women’s rights, to the back benches - and often subjected them to violence and abuse from within their own ranks. But along with the women documented in Trials of Spring, millions more continue to work tirelessly for social justice, children’s rights, women’s rights and a life free from persecution - and as Trials of Spring shows, they will not be beaten just yet.

Words by Imogen Robinson