Maria Munir

Stonewall (United Kingdom)

When I was born with facial palsy, people instantly dismissed me. My dad handed out traditional Asian sweets to celebrate my birth and was met with disapproval. He spoke for me so that I could have the chance to then speak for myself. It worked. My childhood was one of speaking truth to power, from challenging an MP on the Iraq Invasion, to teaching Pakistani women and children about the importance of voting. I grew up not knowing the language to describe who I am. It was only when studying at the University of York that I really understood who I was – a human rights defender. From delivering a petition to 10 Downing Street to protest human rights violations in occupied Kashmir, to getting my facial palsy awareness campaign broadcast on British TV, I knew I was the kind of campaigner who did not see proximity to an issue as the sole reason for campaigning.

What led me to come out in front of international media as non-binary to then-President Obama in April 2016? It was the fact that people in states like North Carolina were being faced with the prospect of proving their gender before going into public restrooms. I stood with them – and it made all the difference. Obama issued guidance to all public schools in America. I got the UK Civil Service to reform their graduate scheme to be trans-inclusive. I was in every newspaper and on the well-known news channels in the country, and abroad. Yet, I was asked if I have a womb live on air. I was asked if I was a chair, an inanimate object, on radio. I was sent death threats, as well as letters of encouragement, and was harassed by strangers who were paid to cause me grief.

I come from a family which has faced many struggles. My dad was subject to human rights abuses as a migrant worker in Saudi Arabia. My family faced racism and prejudice when moving to the UK. I did not feel as though it is my place to feel upset at the vitriol I was facing. When I met Nepali migrant workers in Malaysia, their stories resonated with me, as did their determination to just move on. That is something that people around me did not always understand – and yet, studying human rights defenders as part of my LLM with the Centre for Applied Human Rights spoke to me. People don’t see themselves as human rights defenders, especially when their trauma is enveloped within the very thing they’re fighting for.

My campaigns have focused on getting those who aren’t immediately affected by an issue to engage with it. That’s what drives me. I want people to understand how to make space for human rights defenders in a shrinking civil society space. I want organisations to be aware of how to keep us safe and mitigate risks, whilst empowering us with the resources we need. I want my work to not be about me – I want my work to be about us. I want us to be able to fight for our rights, and have people who are willing to learn standing beside us.