Dear Men of the West, Look to the Middle East for Lessons in Feminism

In the West, men do not face the threat of execution, job loss, torture or prison for standing in solidarity with women’s emancipation. So where are the men fighting for gender equality? 

Members of the Iranian community in South Korea shout slogans near the embassy of Iran on Oct. 1, 2022, in Seoul, South Korea, after Masha Amini died in Iran while in police custody. (Kichul Shin / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Dear men of the West,

Look to the Middle East for your lessons in feminism, and take notes.

Earlier this year, the Iranian government executed 21-year-old karate champion Mohammad Mehdi Karami and 39-year-old Seyed Mohammad Hosseini for their involvement in the protests that have shaken the country since the death of Jina Mahsa Amini in police custody on Sept. 16, 2022. 

Weeks after the Taliban announced that university education had been suspended for all female students, a Kabul professor ripped up his diploma live on Afghan television, saying, with tears in his eyes, that if his sister and mother couldn’t study, he would not accept this education. Days later, he was arrested and beaten. 

There are countless examples of men in the Middle East standing up for women’s rights. They refused to accept the degrading and dehumanizing repression of women. They would not stay silent despite the danger of speaking out. They knew they could die fighting for women’s freedom, and in many cases, they did. 

The men of the Middle East have historically been portrayed as rugged, patriarchal and violent, whose cultural and religious values and norms stand in contradiction to liberal (read: Western) values. And yet they are taking to the streets and risking their lives for women’s freedom.

Jin Jiyan Azadi (Woman Life Freedom), a phrase initially coined by the Kurdish women’s freedom movement, became the battle cry during the protests in Iran last year—and it is a slogan that you, men in the West, could take a few pointers from. 

In the so-called advanced industrialized countries such as Germany, the U.S., and the U.K., we have gender pay gaps that mean women are paid less than men for the same work. Meanwhile, right-wing judges have taken away the right to safe abortion, making decisions about women’s bodies and obliterating their bodily autonomy. All the while, an invisible unpaid care crisis is robbing women of their time and earning potential. 

These examples are well documented. They are talked by (mostly) men at high-level meetings at summits where heads are shaken. They are denounced in press releases or obfuscated in vacuous speeches. But at this rate, it will take another 300 years to achieve gender equality. 

As repulsive as the unpaid care crisis and gender pay gap are, they are not so starkly life and death as the gender apartheid in Iran and Afghanistan. 

In the West, men do not face the threat of execution, job loss, torture or prison for standing in solidarity with women’s emancipation. So where are the men fighting tooth and nail for gender equality? 

No country in the world has achieved gender equality yet, but it is about time you men in the West start taking some real action. You will lose nothing by standing for gender equality, but there is much to gain. More rights for women does not mean less rights for you. It is not a zero-sum game. 

On Sept. 16, the world will take to the streets to remember a 22-year-old Kurdish woman killed by Iran’s so-called “morality police.” The Iranian government has already imprisoned many women’s rights activists in anticipation. On the day itself, who knows what price protesters might pay? 

So on this day, and every day, look to the Middle East for your lessons in feminism; take an example from the brave people risking their lives there for equality, stand in solidarity, get angry, and carry that same passion to any place or situation where you see that women’s equality is at stake. It’s the very least you could do.

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Anuscheh Amir-Khalili was born in 1977 in Iran. At 8, she fled to Germany because of the Iran-Iraq war. Today, her mission is to empower women with similar backgrounds. She founded Flamingo e.V., a Berlin-based NGO supporting refugee women in Germany. With Band of Sisters, she launched a project focusing on the feminist cohesion of women* from the Middle East.