It was hard to stay optimistic about women’s rights in 2022, as severe restrictions were imposed globally: on women’s dress in Iran, on education in Afghanistan, on reproductive rights in the USA. Yet the brave protests and fightbacks by women – and men – give hope that 2023 can see some positive change.
Anti-hijab protests in Iran
Women in Iran have been required to wear the hijab or head-covering since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and this restriction has been the cause of many protests. But in August 2022, hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi ordered a stricter crackdown on hijab-wearing. Soon after, the arrest and subsequent death in custody of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, for allegedly not complying with hijab regulations, sparked months of protests which nearly toppled the regime.
The situation quickly escalated into widespread demonstrations and civil unrest across the country, with demands for greater rights for women and even the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The government has responded with teargas and gunfire, resulting in nearly 500 deaths, at least four executions and over 18,000 arrests.
International response has been widespread. Human rights groups and UN officials have condemned the government’s deadly response and sanctions against Iran have been imposed. Spokesperson for the UN High Commission for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, expressed deep concern:
“Women should not be punished for what they are wearing. Women who defy these compulsory veiling rules should not be punished, should not be subject to violence.”Ravina Shamdasani, Spokesperson for the UN High Commission for Human Rights
Bans on women’s education in Afghanistan
Just before the end of 2022, the Taliban in Afghanistan made the shocking announcement that women would be banned from universities, sparking international condemnation. Gordon Brown, UN special envoy for global education wrote:
“It is a decision that has done more in a single day to entrench discrimination against women and girls and set back their empowerment than any other single policy decision I can remember.”
Despite initial reassurances by the Taliban when they resumed power in 2021 that women would be allowed to study and work, they soon banned girls from secondary education, making Afghanistan the only country in the world to prevent half its population from being educated. The day after the university edict, the ban was further extended to primary education, although this has not been officially announced.
These restrictions are particularly tragic given the previous flourishing of girls’ education in Afghanistan where, as recently as two years ago, female literacy had doubled, with more than 3.5 million girls in school and about 100,000 in higher education.
Abortion bans in USA
It’s not only in the Middle East that harsh restrictions have been imposed against women. In June 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, the landmark legislation which had protected women’s constitutional right to abortion for 50 years. This was not an overnight decision: powerful right-wing and Conservative Christian groups have been lobbying against abortion for decades.
Within a week of the Supreme Court decision, eight states (mainly in the south and mid-west) had made abortion illegal. This had increased to 13 states by the end of 2022. Many of these even ban abortion in cases of rape or incest. The British Medical Journal points out that the restrictions will increase maternal mortality and harm those with the least power and resources the most, particularly black women.
How women are fighting back
Women are bravely resisting restrictions on their lives across the globe. In Iran, women have been at the forefront of the protests, burning their headscarves and cutting their hair. In an attempt to quell the unrest, the Iran government has now conceded that they will review the mandatory hijab law, though claims that the morality guidance patrols have been abolished have not been confirmed.
In Afghanistan, young women students are unsurprisingly distraught at the ban on university education. One Kabul University student told the BBC: “How can I react? I believed that I could study and change my future or bring the light to my life but they destroyed it.” Women have held protests in Kabul which, given the brutal responses of the Taliban to dissent, are particularly courageous.
Encouragingly, more than 60 Afghan (male) academics have so far resigned in protest at the university ban. Many male students have also walked out in solidarity with their female classmates: “It is our duty to stand with them”, said one. These public shows of support are brave and important.
In the USA, women and young people are making their voices heard in opposition to the abortion ban. The 2022 mid-term election results were surprisingly successful for the Democrats, with abortion being a defining issue. President Biden commented: “Women in America made their voices heard.”
In addition, legal fights against the ban are taking place across the US, with the ban currently blocked in seven states and abortion still legal in 26 states, although limited in several cases. These challenges are set to continue throughout 2023.
What can the UK do?
At the very least, the UK must join the UN and other international organisations in condemning the bans on women’s education in Afghanistan and repression of women in Iran, and continue to put pressure on the governments there – though the UK government’s record in both countries is woeful. It took six years for Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe to be released from unlawful captivity in Iran, and only after the UK finally repaid an outstanding debt to Iran. Despite pledges to resettle 5,000 Afghan citizens in the first year under the Afghan Resettlement scheme, only four have so far been brought to safety, with thousands more applying whose lives are at risk.
We should also support women’s fight to regain abortion rights in the USA and be vigilant about maintaining them here. As 85% of the British public believe in women’s rights to abortion, any attempts to overthrow them would be met with strong resistance.
2023 must be a better year for women.