Maverick Citizen

TUESDAY EDITORIAL

The rise of conservatism tramples women’s rights and threatens their lives

The rise of conservatism tramples women’s rights and threatens their lives
Iranians protest outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on 11 October 2022 following the death of Mahsa Amini. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sedat Suna)

The brutal death of Mahsa Amini in Iran and the overturning of Roe vs Wade red-flag insidious issues relating to religious patriarchy and violations of women’s rights.

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s “morality police” has sent shockwaves not only through Iran but the whole world as people express their shock and revulsion. For those who may still not not be aware of the incident, Amini was beaten so badly that she slipped into a coma and later died of a heart attack from the impact of her injuries. Her crime? Wearing her headscarf too loosely.

Iran is a theocratic republic with laws and regulations based on Ja’fari Shia Islam and is run by an iron-fisted cleric who imposes and monitors very strict restrictions on how women in particular are to look and conduct themselves in public, allegedly to keep them from tempting men. 

What this incident has highlighted are two very serious and insidious issues: the violence of cultural and religious patriarchy with women bearing the brunt, and the imposition that a society’s virtue is represented by women and when threatened could lead to a woman’s often brutal death. 

Social activists in Dhaka, Bangladesh demonstrate on 15 October 2022 in solidarity with Iranian women’s protests following the death of Mahsa Amini. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Monirul Alam)

In an article unpacking the genesis of so-called honour killings where women who are deemed to have brought dishonour to their family are killed, human rights activist and author Rana Husseini explains that the practise dates back centuries and points out several examples in history, including: “In the 1st century AD, chastity, virginity, and the ‘good behaviour’ of women were highly prized across Europe.” All of which are justified through culture and religion. 


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Patriarchal societies tend to be conservative and do not fully subscribe to the notion of women enjoying their full human rights. Instead these rights are limited and curtailed and men take it upon themselves to police and discipline women they feel may be too independent and autonomous. This lays the groundwork for gender-based violence to thrive.

In 2018, the United Nations produced a report warning: “Immediate actions must be taken to stop a backlash which is threatening to undermine, erode, and even roll back hard-won women’s rights around the globe.” It continued: “Alarming pushbacks have been progressing across regions of the globe, with an alliance of conservative political ideologies and religious fundamentalisms”

Read in Daily Maverick: “Stop telling lies about women’s lives – inequality is a political choice of government and business

Ironically, in March 2022, Iran joined the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, whose main purpose is the recognition, protection and advancement of women’s rights. This was in spite of a report in 2020 by UN secretary-general António Guterres that the “situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran remains of serious concern, owing to persistent and gross human rights violations”, including “persistent discrimination against women, girls, and minorities”.

‘The Cut 2, the sequel,’ is a mural created by the street artist AleXsandro Palombo in solidarity with Mahsa Amini and in protest against the Iranian regime, in front of the Iranian consulate on 11 October 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andrea Fasani)

A rally on International Women’s Day (8 March 2022) in front of City Hall in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Etienne Laurent)

A 2020 report by the Women’s Committee of Iran also found that the country had the highest incidence of domestic violence, with 66% of women having experienced domestic violence, which is double the global average.

Not just a physical force

Next month is 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children and it is critical that we examine the increasing threat to women’s rights, not just in the Middle East but across the world. It is also worthwhile to remember that violence is not only physical force but manifests in many different ways, such as earlier this year when the world was shocked by the regressive Roe vs Wade judgment in the US that saw women’s sexual and reproductive rights taken away from them by criminalising abortion. This in effect forces women to see through unwanted pregnancies and is driven by conservative Christian fundamentalists who have been campaigning against this right. 

The win of the conservatives in Roe vs Wade was precipitated by decisions taken by the Trump administration that began with a “global gag rule”  which Trump immediately reinstated after his election as president, effectively prohibiting any US funding to global NGOs providing women with information on abortion or those that were advocates for safe abortions and women’s right to choose whether to terminate their pregnancies. This signalled a step backwards in the battle for the emancipation of women and the recognition of their full human rights, but also effectively rendered many, particularly poor, women vulnerable to the dangers of unsafe abortions.

Read in Daily Maverick: “What really drives anti-abortion beliefs? Research suggests it’s a matter of sexual strategies

According to Human Rights Watch: “Access to safe, legal abortion is a matter of human rights. Authoritative interpretations of international human rights law establish that denying women, girls and other pregnant people access to abortion is a form of discrimination and jeopardises a range of human rights.” Yet in a country like the US, which has positioned itself as a paragon of democracy, this right has been nullified, setting back the gains of the women’s movement and feminist ideals back by at least 50 years. Human Rights Watch warned about this in a 2020 report.

Thousands of people take part in the Women’s March in Washington, DC, on 2 October 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Michael Reynolds)

Operation Save America members – including director Flip Benham (left), and ‘Jane Roe’ of the Roe vs Wade case, Norma McCorvey (middle) – burn a copy of the Qur’an, along with copies of seven ‘wicked’ Supreme Court decisions (ones affirming abortion rights, as well as the rights of homosexuals), and a gay flag at the ‘Making Jesus Real’ Church in Pearl, Mississippi, on  18 July 2006. (Photo: EPA / Jim Lo Scalzo)

In South Africa we have a Constitution that protects and promotes bodily autonomy. It states: “Everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right to make decisions concerning reproduction; to security in and control over their body; and not to be subjected to medical or scientific experiments without their informed consent.” We need to look to this as well as the Constitution’s recognition of everyone’s right to equality as we seek to fight and curb the violence against women we are currently witnessing. The US and Iranian examples of the violations of women’s rights in the furtherance of patriarchy should give us pause for thought on how to guard against the rise of conservatism in our own country. DM/MC

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