The most important battles for women’s rights are taking place today in the so-called Muslim world. That the priorities and campaigns of social media liberals do not adequately reflect this most pressing rights issue is regrettable but not unexpected. In Iran, previously unimaginable public chants of “the mullahs must get lost” rage as the protest movement sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, which neither internet curbs nor the violence unleashed by authorities in Iran failed to contain, enters its fifth week.
Amini, 22, died on September 16 three days after slipping into a coma following her arrest by Iranian morality police for an alleged violation of the country’s oppressive dress code. Young women have been at the forefront of massive street protests that erupted in response and many symbolically removed their hijabs and/or cut their hair to express their rage. The conservative religious establishment — including its stormtroopers in the form of the Revolutionary Guards — reacted violently to this assertion of rights.
A storm of repression has been unleashed on Iranian women as the world watches them idly. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the situation for the rights of women and girls has deteriorated markedly. Just over a year after denying girls the right to secondary education, the ruling Taliban last week announced sweeping restrictions on the courses young women can enroll in public universities. While Kabul University has a more restricted list of courses prohibited for female students, in the provinces the situation is dire.
Depending on which part of the Dark Country a citizen resides in, she may not be allowed to study engineering, economics, journalism, agriculture, veterinary science, and medicine. What is common to both countries ~ one predominantly Shia and the other predominantly Sunni ~ is that girls and women have seen their dreams and ambitions crumbled. Women are isolated in the workplace, largely absent from the public sphere, forced to cover up and have their mobility restricted.
A recent article by Madiha Afzal on how the US-led international community has effectively made a bad situation in Afghanistan worse for Afghans through its conditions of intervention points out that revenge killings and kidnappings of those working for the pre-Taliban republic to be endemic.
The question facing the international community, caught up in the war in Europe and fears of an impending recession, is whether it can follow the word on women’s rights when it comes to conservative and religious societies. Any discussion of an ethical foreign policy for nations is laughable in the current global scenario, but it bears repeating that the girls and women of Iran and Afghanistan need the support of all progressive states.
A version of this story appears in the print edition of the October 19, 2022 issue.