Last month, thousands took to the streets of China in response to the Chinese Communist Party’s severe pandemic lockdowns. The demonstrations were not only a rallying cry for the end of the country’s rigid COVID restrictions; they were also a showcase of the people’s determination for freedom and human rights.
We have seen time and time again that when faced with repression by authoritarian regimes, seemingly ordinary individuals step up to become champions of change in their communities. While governments and multilateral organizations are often slow to react to international crises, brave individuals leap into action — often at significant personal risk — to protect freedom, expose corruption, and reform unjust systems.
As we head into 2023, we reflect on several regional trends in our end-of-year blog series, “Champion of Change: 2022 in Review,” that have manifested themselves in the face of a global rise in authoritarianism. Through this series, we celebrate the activists who have bravely challenged these trends and championed human rights around the world.
Champion of Freedom: The Fearless Women of Iran & Afghanistan
by Kenza Bouanane & Claudia Bennett
The condition of women and girls is a significant indicator of the democratic status of a country and 2022 proved that, in many places around the globe, the diagnosis isn’t good: The systematic assault on women’s rights under authoritarian regimes was illuminated time and again, especially in the Middle East and South Asia. In Iran, the women-led revolution has galvanized a generation and, in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s takeover has forever changed the course of the country.
Sept. 16 was a date for the history books, and one that will hopefully pave the way for a transition to democracy. It’s the day 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was murdered after being arrested by Iran’s “morality police” for improperly wearing her hijab. Some of her hair had come loose. Three days after her arrest and a short “re-education session,” she was pronounced dead. The regime claimed she suffered a heart attack, but witnesses maintain she was beaten to death while being transported to a detention center.
Ninety-five days since Mahsa’s death, and not a day has gone by without protests across the Islamic Republic. Her death sparked protests in more than 103 cities across the nation and started a revolution with no sign of stopping. Iranian women have decided they’ve had enough of the country’s discriminatory strict dress codes and compulsory hijab laws. They’re demanding freedom from repression.
They are now on the frontlines and unveiled, protesting the regime by setting their hijabs on fire and cutting their hair. They are chanting “death to the dictator” and “women, life, freedom” — the movement’s slogan.
In Iran, their admirable defiance is punishable by death. Since Mahsa’s death, an estimated over 475 civilians have been killed, and at least 18,000 people have been arrested. Furthermore, the judiciary announced there would be public trials for the protesters where, thanks to 272 of 290 Iranian parliament members, the death penalty is on the table for “guilty” protesters. To date, two executions for peacefully protesting the regime’s oppression have taken place. The first was Mohsen Shekari, who was accused of blocking a street in Tehran; and the second was Majidreza Rahnavard, who was sentenced to death for allegedly killing two members of the paramilitary Basij force and wounding four others in Mashhad. Both men were subject to sham trials. Twenty-seven people are currently facing execution.
The oppression of women’s rights is not new in the Islamic Republic. Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist, women’s-rights advocate, Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF) speaker, and member of HRF’s International Council, has been campaigning against the compulsory hijab law for eight years. She left Iran in 2009 and continues to advocate for women’s rights there from exile in the United States. In 2020, Masih accused the regime of killing activists and imprisoning journalists and lawyers who peacefully protested “to terrorize the rest of the population and prevent another uprising.”
It seems history is repeating itself.
On the OFF stage in October, Masih said: “Mahsa Amini became a symbol of resistance. She became a symbol of fighting back the religious dictatorship in the region.” Her name and her story were highlighted by member states on December 14 when in an unprecedented move, the United Nations Status on the Commission of Women voted to remove Iran. This is a win for the Iranian women and girls, but there is more work to be done.
We must protect and uplift women worldwide, especially those under authoritarian regimes. Democratic governments must continue to impose sanctions on Iran’s regime and its rulers, formally condemn the regime’s oppression and engage in diplomatic boycotts. They can’t ignore human rights for the sake of politics.
After international troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, and the government collapsed at the hands of the Taliban, we’ve watched two decades of women’s rights progress severely diminished.
In May, the Taliban decreed women must cover their faces in public and remain in their homes unless absolutely necessary to leave. Women aren’t allowed to travel long distances or enter public parks and gyms without a male chaperone, are increasingly denied essential services, and many are banned from working, squashing any chance for financial independence. To mitigate economic hardship, child and forced marriages to Taliban officials have drastically increased.
In 2021, 27% of parliamentary seats were held by women, but since the de facto administration came into power, women’s presence in the political arena has been effectively eliminated and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been abolished by the all-male cabinet.
Oslo Freedom Speaker Zarifa Ghafari, who served as one of the country’s few female mayors at the age of 26, said her term was marked by continuous death threats, assassination attempts, and the murder of her father by the Taliban. Like many other prominent female figures, she lives in exile.
On Nov. 3, in Kabul, several female journalists, activists, and politicians were arbitrarily detained at an Afghan Women’s Movement for Equality press conference. Just a week later, the founder of the “Spontaneous Movement of Afghan Women,” Farhat Popalzai, and human rights defender, Humaira Yusuf, were taken into custody by the Taliban. Their fate is still unknown. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for the immediate and unconditional release of these activists and condemned theTaliban’s defiance of international human rights standards.
The most alarming of the Taliban’s malicious edicts are the ones that have desecrated the once-hopeful future of this generation’s girls. Afghanistan is the only country where girls are restricted from pursuing higher education. The Taliban has prohibited girls from attending school beyond 6th grade — a complete contradiction to their initial promises of reform. This prohibition not only violates women’s right to education but increases the susceptibility to violence, forced marriage, early pregnancy, and domestic abuse. Combined with an overwhelmed healthcare system, this is a bleak outlook for Afghan women.
With the Taliban regime’s jurisdiction unchecked and forgotten by the international community, restrictions on women’s self-determination in Afghanistan continue to escalate.
We must promote and protect women’s rights worldwide, especially, as we’ve outlined above, these human rights violations are still taking place.
In light of this, the Human Rights Foundation provides the following recommendations:
– International bodies: Demand Afghanistan consciously reaffirm its commitment to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and call upon Iran to ratify CEDAW.
– Democratic governments: Impose sanctions, consequential economic repercussions, and diplomatic boycotts on these regimes.
– Civil society: Amplify the voices of women’s rights activists to pressure dictators from targeted acts of aggression.
Though advances in women’s rights have been historically inconsistent, 2022 has revealed the remarkable intersection between authoritarianism and the status of women. Human rights cannot be upheld if violence against and suppression of women are rampant and emboldened by autocratic rule.
When women’s rights are in peril, democracy will falter.
Democracy is undoubtedly under serious threat. Yet, in 2022, we have seen a movement of change spreading and maturing like never before. From Iran to Afghanistan, Cambodia to Laos, and Nicaragua to Cuba, activists are developing networks, devising new strategies, and harnessing the power of technology to turn the tide on authoritarianism. As 2023 brings new challenges, we invite our community to champion change — on an individual level or as part of a larger movement.