Women Everywhere Are Standing Up Against ‘Gender Apartheid’

The tragic death of Mahsa Amini connects us all at a time when it has never been more important to band together and push back against all forms of oppression.

A protest in front of the Iranian consulate in Istanbul in response to the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in Iran after being detained for allegedly not wearing a head scarf “properly” in public. (Onur Dogman / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

It’s been humbling to see the outpouring of support for Iranian women following the death of Mahsa Amini—after she was taken into custody by the so-called morality police for ‘inappropriate hijab.’ At rallies across the world, women have cut their hair in solidarity with their sisters protesting in Iran. Iranian American journalist, Masih Alinejad, took out her scissors live on Good Morning America, expressing outrage that “Masha was killed for a bit of hair that was visible” under her veil.

I’ve been listening to colleagues in Iraq and Afghanistan to better understand what it means to them to wear the hijab. Many tell me that it is a profound expression of their faith, but they also feel strongly that policing women’s choice of clothing is an act of political repression. As the CEO of an international women’s rights organization, I know that choice is one of the most fundamental rights we possess—the freedom to choose what to wear, whether to have sex, when and if to give birth. The freedom to choose to go to school, to work outside the home, to earn money and then to choose how to spend that money. I also know that it is my privilege and duty to listen and to amplify the voices of women who cannot speak out.

A group of Afghan women leaders I met with recently, described restrictions on dress and movement imposed on women by the de facto government in Afghanistan as ‘gender apartheid.’ They told policymakers at the 77th U.N. General Assembly in New York, that women in Afghanistan are prohibited from traveling any distance without a male relative, required to cover themselves from head-to-toe in public and school beyond the sixth grade is banned. At the meetings, Najiba Sangar, an Afghan human rights activist and feminist made a powerful plea that “the gender issue should not become a secondary priority for some of the U.N. state members because women’s rights are human rights.”  

So, it was particularly poignant for me to see a group of women in Afghanistan holding placards outside the Iranian consulate in Kabul bearing the name and image of Mahsa Amini. Economic sanctions have hit Afghan women hard and they are coping with a loss of freedoms and a hunger crisis. When we asked Afghan women in our “No One Hears Our Voices” survey, a staggering 92 percent of women reported that their weekly household income has dropped since U.S. troops left Afghanistan last summer. A quarter reported having no income at all. To put it in the words of my colleague, Arizoo, they are “surviving, not living.”

But Afghan women’s rights activists, like those I met at UNGA, refuse to give up. They’re putting pressure on the international community to find ways to get aid directly into the hands of Afghan women. Fortunately, generosity from our donors means that we’ve been able to continue supporting women in Afghanistan with cash, skills training and a safe place to gather.

Before they even get to our training centers, participants must navigate overwhelming challenges on almost a daily basis, from the threat of violence and intimidation to suicide bombings. Colleagues tell me that Taliban officials wait outside to interrogate women about what they have learned.  

And yet Afghan women still choose to come together in our classrooms—in the thousands. The strength they draw from each other is inspiring. It is this same determination that compels their Iranian sisters to stand in solidarity and demand better treatment.

There are few lengths to which women will not go in pursuit of their rights and, in my work helping women survivors of war rebuild their lives, I am constantly energized by what happens when women come together and realize their inherent power.

Angelique and her fellow ‘change agents’ work with our programs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). For decades, families in the communities we serve in the DRC have ignored the law and refused to allow women to own land. Men forcibly seize land from women or prevent them from buying or inheriting land or property in the first place. Recently, a group of women—who learned about their rights in our program—decided to stand up to widespread resistance and skepticism in their community. They persuaded their husbands, families and village elders that everyone benefits when a woman becomes economically self-sufficient and that they have just as much right to own land as their husbands.

They proved that there is strength in numbers. Angelique is now the proud owner of a piece of land and has the freedom to choose which crops to grow on her land, to employ others to work on it or even pass it on to her daughters. Along with more than a hundred other women who now have land titles in their name, they are a powerful testament to what is possible when women come together in solidarity.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres admitted recently, somewhat dispiritingly, that “gender equality is going backwards.” He’s right. Our ability to choose for ourselves is under attack. The loss of our freedoms is mounting—from abortion rights, to lack of access to education, to being told what we must wear. The tragic death of Mahsa Amini connects us all at a time when it has never been more important to band together and push back against all forms of oppression.

That’s why, as feminists, we will stand with our sisters wherever there is a need—in Afghanistan, Iran, the DRC or here in the U.S. We know, in the end, we must prevail. There is no other choice.

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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Laurie Adams is the chief executive officer of Women for Women International (WfWI), a leading global organization dedicated to working with women survivors of war.