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Despite the obstacles, women are our planet’s future

Protesters call on the UN to take action against the treatment of women in Iran on Nov. 19, 2022. (AFP file)
Protesters call on the UN to take action against the treatment of women in Iran on Nov. 19, 2022. (AFP file)
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11 Jan 2023 12:01:05 GMT9
11 Jan 2023 12:01:05 GMT9

Women have made huge global strides in securing greater rights, respect and opportunities, despite theocrats in states such as Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq doing their utmost to reverse this arrow of history.

In a double blow for women, the Taliban has excluded them from both university education and working in NGOs, in addition to the earlier ban on attending secondary school. As well as being a crippling setback for women’s life opportunities, the exclusion of so many family breadwinners — half the population who should be economically active — is a catastrophe for a country already in economic freefall. About 150 humanitarian agencies already suspended operations after the loss of a significant proportion of their workforce.

It is impossible to exaggerate the dehumanizing psychological shock for professional women who went from senior positions overseeing sizable teams of staff to being incarcerated in their homes, forced to cover from head-to-toe, and surviving at the capricious whims of male guardians – with all future hopes summarily extinguished, as if they were nothing. Women say it’s as if their very souls had been ripped out.

Despite Islam calling for women to be educated and respected, regressive theocrats in Afghanistan and Iran simply hate women and seek to exclude them from the public sphere.

In Iran, women-led protests have endured for months against a regime determined to repress both female and male citizens. Each of those poor, innocent executed men have mothers, sisters, wives, who are now suffering the ultimate agony. Some female detainees have gone on hunger strike, protesting against lack of medical care and inhumane conditions. A quarter of the world’s incarcerated female journalists are held in Iranian prisons.

The situation of female prisoners has also reached crisis levels in Lebanon, where mothers in detention don’t have access to formula milk or medicines. A high proportion haven’t even had their cases heard, with nearly 80 percent of the prison population in pre-trial detention. Prison occupancy nationwide is an unsustainable 323 percent.

Thousands of families have already fled Lebanon and experts warn of a collapse in the birth rate as women choose “optional infertility” because having children has become unaffordable. Between 2017 and 2021, births decreased by about 25 percent. With the collapse in value of the Lebanese pound, the average cost of delivery of a baby exceeds $800, assuming there are no complications. Young families must then bear the costs of diapers, milk, medicines, vaccines — if such things are even available.

Despite more than 80 percent of the population being mired in severe poverty, less than 5 percent of Lebanese households receive any government assistance. Around 80 percent have a member who lost their job since 2019. Women were usually first to be excluded, as companies inexorably downsized.

Meanwhile, entities such as Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi in Iraq have vigorously sought to negate the intrinsic role of women in the region’s vibrant cultural heritage, as they try and turn these nations into dysfunctional carbon copies of the Islamic Republic. Female activists and journalists have been terrorized and murdered by mafiosi seeking to exclude women from their deserved roles in society.

Throughout Africa, Daesh and Al-Qaeda have brutally repressed women in areas under their control, conflicting with the strong roles that matriarchs have habitually played in many traditional African societies.

In Ukraine, each side in the conflict has suffered an estimated 100,000 casualties, inflicting unimaginable suffering on innumerable households. With Ukrainian men deployed to freezing frontlines, wives and children have been dispersed across Europe to face precarious futures.

Elsewhere, however, there is a proliferation of hugely exciting opportunities for women. In Saudi Arabia, female participation in the workplace has doubled in five years, from 17 percent to 34 percent. Last week the Kingdom appointed its fourth and fifth female ambassadors following the trail blazed by Princess Reema bint Bandar, the ambassador to Washington. Over the past year a Saudi national women’s football team has established itself, and Saudi Arabia’s first female international referee, Anoud Al-Asmari, was appointed last week by FIFA.

The freedoms and rights we as women enjoy are precious and vulnerable, and must never be taken for granted — particularly when Hezbollah, Daesh, the ayatollahs and the Taliban are working so hard to turn the clock back.

Baria Alamuddin

I stayed recently in Bahrain, where I found a climate of irrepressible optimism at opportunities opening up for women. Girls dominate many faculties of the region’s universities and excel in key subject areas. A new generation of female role models demonstrates how women can lead and set the highest standards. In this context, I am immensely proud of my friend, the lawyer and academic Prof. Rangita de Silva de Alwis, for being elected in June to the UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

The greatest battle we have to fight is against passivity and disengagement. When I was a student at the American University of Beirut, hardly a month went by when we weren’t mobilizing on behalf of one global cause or another. Perhaps we were naive, perhaps we couldn’t have the impact we aspired to, but we had passion and a belief in our duty to try and change the world.

Such aspirations are rare these days. Israel’s extreme-right leaders can hardly keep quiet about their ambitions to gobble up every square inch of Palestinian territory, but where is the Arab world? Where is the democratic West? Where are the Palestinians themselves?

Iranian women burnt their hijabs in extraordinary acts of bravery, but the world can scarcely muster the motivation to follow developments, let alone take action or affirm our solidarity and common commitment to freedom from tyranny.

The freedoms we women already enjoy in fortunate parts of the world were not freely granted to us. Historical female activists risked jail, disgrace or even death to win the right to vote, to work, to participate in government and gain our rightful place as equals, and sometimes superiors, to men. Self-confidence is a crucial factor in women’s readiness to seize their richly deserved opportunities with both hands.

The freedoms and rights we as women enjoy are precious and vulnerable, and must never be taken for granted — particularly when Hezbollah, Daesh, the ayatollahs and the Taliban are working so hard to turn the clock back.

Our most assured means of protecting our own privileges and opportunities is by doing everything in our power to ensure that our sisters around the world can live equally blessed existences — because no society on earth can flourish unless its women are empowered to play their full part.

  • Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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