What do driving, voting, wearing pants, and protesting have in common? They are forms of political expression for many women in the Arab world right now. This political expression is often a basic effort to participate in political systems and give voice to simple needs like getting to work, or taking a child to school, as well as more powerful human needs of influencing a movement for major political change.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed in Beijing in 1995 that women's rights are human rights. Since 1995, the human rights of women, particularly those of women living in political conflict and civil war, have seen some very serious challenges.

Systematic abuse of women's human rights, including the use of sexual violence, is a common occurrence in political conflict and civil war. Rape has been a weapon in war for ages. But since the 1990s, state-sanctioned and planned violence and repression against women has seen a terrible resurgence.

Estimates of the number of women and girls raped during the 1994 Rwandan genocide are between 250,000 and 500,000. Some 20,000-50,000 women were raped during five months of conflict in 1992 in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In some villages in Kosovo, 30-50 per cent of women of child-bearing age were raped by Serbian forces. In Sierra Leone, at least 50,000 women were victims of war rape between 1991 and 2002. In Iraq, at least 400 women and girls as young as eight were reported to have been raped in Baghdad in the first months of war in 2003. Evidence from Peru, Kashmir, and Sri Lanka is as devastating.

We have seen allegations against the Libyan military, under Muammar Gaddafi's direction, for mass rape, which the International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently investigating. Under the ICC's code, multiple rapes constitute a crime against humanity alongside murder, enslavement, forcible transfer of populations and torture.

We have seen the use of ‘virginity tests' and policing of women's bodies as sites of political protest in Cairo. But we have also seen waves of women protesters in the streets of Sana'a, in Tahrir Square, and ripples of women driving quietly with their husbands in Jeddah. In Tripoli, women such as Eman Al Obaidi have broken the polite barrier of invisibility in the media, demanding help and a voice.

Women like journalist Laura Logan, who broke the code of silence of women reporters, refused to accept abuse as the price of her career. Disappointingly, the West has not risen to the occasion and supported women's rights as human rights in the political conflicts of our region. (Clinton has been rather quiet about Saudi Arabia's women drivers, for example.)

Sadly, leaders of global financial institutions seem to operate on a double-standard as well. Women economists are welcome at the IMF, but hotel maids and colleagues have been treated as disposable property by its former leader.

Political participation

Dominque Strauss-Kahn may go free after being held on charges of sexual assault, as the reputation of his accuser, a desperate immigrant woman who already once escaped war and poverty, has garnered as much media attention as the alleged crime. Respect for women's human dignity is clearly not just a problem for the Arab world. Several American politicians have recently illustrated this point as well.

We have seen the systematic use of shaming and cultural rationale for excluding women from political participation. In violent political conflict, women suffer most. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that 80 per cent of refugees are women and children. Sexual violence exacerbates conflicts and increases insecurity.

Women are less safe to go about basic tasks like preparing meals, collecting water, taking children to school. Political participation becomes nearly impossible. Women's participation in peace negotiations is limited, averaging 8 per cent of the 11 peace processes overseen by the UN, for which there is data. Fewer than 3 per cent of signatories to peace agreements are women.

But there is variance. Some civil wars and ‘revolutions' do not include systematic perpetrations of violence against women. And we must ask why and how the limitation of violence against women might help a future reconciliation process that includes their voices.

One example of this variance is the absence of sexual violence in the Tamil Tigers' forced displacement of tens of thousands of Muslims from the Jaffna peninsula in 1990. (The Sri Lankan army's record is otherwise.)

Also, in El Salvador's civil war, systematic violence against women was rare. When it did occur it was almost always carried out by state forces, rather than the left-wing revolutionaries. The revolutionaries fighting against the government made a political calculation: terrorising a population with rape is not effective when you want long-term, reliable intelligence from them or to rule them in the future.

These cases beg the questions: Why do some societies choose to fight through political conflicts differently? And might we imagine massive political transitions that are non-violent, towards both women and men? Political systems that see women's rights as human rights are those with respect at their core, respect for integrity of the body, for the individuality of the mind, the sanctity of the family. So, women of the revolutions: drive on.