Like the rest of the world, I was sickened by the recent death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman shot in the protests that followed the dubious election result in Iran. The 26-year-old university student was with her singing teacher at the time of her death. In Iran, women are forbidden to sing publicly, so already we know that Neda was a courageous woman. Because her name means “voice” in Farsi, soon after the mobile phone camera footage of her death was shared around the world, people began calling her “the voice of Iran.”
For Neda’s life not to have been lived and lost in vain, we should begin thinking of her as the voice of women everywhere.
She was described by her fiance and family as a woman who didn’t have much interest in politics, so her death is less about the election controversy and more a sign of women’s enduring strength and determination to stand up for what is right — no matter the repression and intimidation they face.
Even before Neda’s senseless death, I had been struck by the number of women, especially young women, who were brave enough to take to the streets in the Tehran protests. During the election campaign, Mousavi — the man the protestors believe was the true winner of the election — made a promise that he would get rid of laws discriminating against women, so it’s no wonder women have protested in record numbers. And there is an awful lot at stake for women in Iran. We’re talking about demands for basic rights that we in the West take for granted, like marital and financial equality — but we’re also talking about demands for an end to practices that seem simply bizarre and archaic to us: polygamy, the stoning of women and harassment by morality police who can punish women just for wearing fingernail polish.
(Photo by Hamed Saber, Tehran)
This picture of a woman taking part in a silent protest in Tehran a couple of days before Neda’s death is far more radical than most of us in the West might at first realise. No, the two-finger gesture isn’t an insult in Iran like it can be here. What’s outrageous is that her head covering is loose, she’s wearing makeup . . . and those fingernails she’s holding up in a victory sign? Oh, they’ve definitely been manicured. This is an ordinary woman, but this is also a brave woman.
In Iran and some other parts of the world, expressing feminist ideals can be literally a matter of life and death, while in Australia and the rest of the Western world, ‘feminism’ has almost become the new f-word, a word not to be spoken in polite company. I’ve heard too many conversations about gender start out ‘I’m not a feminist, but . . .’
Perhaps the women who came before us did such a good job of fighting for equality and respect that girls and young women here feel that there is little left to complain about. When our daughters grow up they will have the right to vote; they will inherit laws against gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and laws protecting a woman’s right to keep her job after having a baby. Believing that the work of feminism is complete, perhaps many young women feel that it is just an embarrassing throwback, a social dinosaur.
But the courage and strength of the women taking to the streets in Tehran should give us all pause for thought. Our reality here in the industrialised West is not the reality of all women. In too many parts of the world, women and girls are oppressed. Too many girls can’t get the same education as their brothers; they become child labour or child brides. In Haiti, says Amnesty International, the large number of girls who can’t afford schooling either go without an education or enter into exploitive relationships with men so they can pay the fees. In South Africa, women are especially at risk of HIV infection due to the high levels of sexual violence they face, and women in many countries lack protection from sexual assault, domestic violence and sex traffickers. In countries such as Iran and China, women who stand up for basic human rights are harassed or end up in prison.
Our sisters in other parts of the world are risking their lives to speak out, in the hope that their daughters will one day enjoy equal rights. When all this is still going on, how can we say that the time for feminism has passed?
The inequality women are battling against in Iran serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come in Australia and the debt we owe the feminists who struggled on our behalf.
The courage and strength we’ve seen on the streets of Tehran in recent weeks are like a challenge to us: will we take a moment to remember that these women’s struggle was once our struggle? Will we give them our support and do whatever we can to help their cause?
And finally, the protestors’ actions are an inspiration. Though we may have forgotten or overlooked it, the spirit of these women is within us all: a passion for justice and equality, a sense of self-respect and dignity, deep concern for the girls and women of the future, and a fighting spirit that won’t quit till fairness prevails.
Imagine what we could do if we tapped into these qualities. Imagine the world our daughters could create if we nurtured these qualities in them. For let’s not forget that even though it may seem that the major battles have been fought and won for women here, inequities still exist between the genders. Women’s pay in Australia still lags way behind men’s; we are still massively underrepresented at the upper levels of business; and on average the greatest burden of housework continues to fall to us no matter how hard we work outside the home. Meanwhile, too many girls and women will wake up tomorrow planning to starve themselves; too many will feel overly critical when they look in the mirror; too many will experience sexual or domestic violence.
There is still work to be done — here and across the globe — and I salute the women who are fighting the good fight today.
(Photo by Milad Avazbeigi)
There are a great number of organisations to get involved with that help women around the globe achieve the rights we all deserve, including:
Amnesty International researches, exposes and fights human rights violations worldwide. Check out their website for ways to take action against injustice.
Mahboba’s Promise is an Australian aid organisation that helps women and children in Afghanistan, which has the highest proportion of widows and orphans in the world and is one of the poorest countries. Amnesty International has noted that women living in poverty suffer the greatest human rights challenges.
Women for Women International helps rebuild the lives of women survivors of war in countries such as Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda and the Sudan. In war, women’s rights are often one of the first casualties.
Soroptimist International is an organisation of women in management and the professions working to advance the status and equal rights of women around the world.
The UN’s Say NO to Violence Against Women campaign, for which Nicole Kidman is a spokeswoman, is a global movement demanding that governments make it a priority to end violence against women.