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The disturbing ties between authoritarianism and gender apartheid

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi
A woman walks around a commercial district without wearing her mandatory Islamic headscarf in downtown Tehran, Iran, on Dec. 23, 2022. Iran has been gripped by nationwide protests since September, after the death of a young woman in the custody of morality police for allegedly not observing the mandatory hijab.

With one-quarter of the world’s population in a democratic backslide into 2022, we often disregard the enormous price women in the affected countries pay to resist. 

Reflecting back upon the events in Afghanistan in 2021, what the world remembers is human bodies hanging and falling from a military plane during the evacuation at Kabul Airport in the aftermath of the city’s fall. But if we zoom out, it was an ideal snapshot for understanding that what happened in Afghanistan can occur anywhere in the world. A group of extremists, fundamentalists or terrorists can overthrow a democratically elected government by violence and destroy and erase the hard-won gains and achievements of an entire society overnight.

In 2021, women’s equality had a banner year in most of the world. Still, 1 in 3 women were affected by violence and deprived of their fundamental rights worldwide. Today, this figure may be greater. According to Freedom House’s 2022 Freedom in the World report, nations are growing more authoritarian and oppressive rules are challenging freedom as the dominant global model. 

Women pay a higher price under tyrannical regimes due to their vulnerability. For instance, the Taliban declared a blatant and brutal war against Afghan women. The battle inflamed what the International Rescue Committee dubbed one of the world’s most serious human rights crises. The Taliban issued at least 36 oppressive decrees, including a recent ban on girls attending universities and women working for NGOs, since their takeover. Amnesty International recently called it a “suffocating crackdown” on women.

Similarly, the harsh implementation of Iranian authority’s four-decade-long array of rules and constraints against women is dreadful. The regime’s oppression led to the arrest and beating of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly not wearing a hijab in accordance with government standards. Amini died in police custody, paving the way for the weeks-long movement that led to the arrest and disappearance of thousands of protesters, including women. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is another example of a dictatorship that oppresses women. CCP has zero tolerance for allowing women into its inner circle of decision-making. Uyghur women detained in “re-education camps” fare even worse in China. Relatedly, members of Russia’s Feminist Anti-War Movement called the Ukraine War continuation of the patriarchal violence they have been fighting in their own country. These examples and many more in Burma and across Central America, show dictators’ patterns of misogynistic supremacy. This shows that these regimes perceive women as a threat to their authority and control.  

The Taliban weaponizing gender apartheid should come as no surprise given their track record. What is surprising, however, is the speed and efficiency with which they have been able to exercise the authority of the state to subjugate half of the population, and it’s mostly because they receive support from other authoritarian regimes. On Sept. 27, Russia officially signed the Taliban’s first international economic agreement. A month earlier China, backed by Russia, argued that the travel ban exemptions of 13 sanctioned Taliban leaders are“as necessary as ever.” 

Many United Nations resolutions against the Taliban are opposed by China, Russia and Iran. The Taliban and a China firm recently agreed on an Afghanistan oil extraction deal. Russia was the first country that declared willingness to recognize the Taliban government. Collaboration between dictators created a fertile environment for autocratic regimes like the Taliban to become even more brazen in their repression of women. 

In the case of Afghanistan and Iran, the force that pushed back the hardest was women. Women raised the tall pillar of democracy and showed that they are willing to die for their values in the streets of their cities. 

The resistance of Afghan women is exemplary. They sacrifice publicly while they are arrested and disappeared, and they pay the price at home when faced with domestic violence. They also pay the price of poverty and resist economically, with one woman going to the extreme measure of selling her kidney to save her children from hunger while a male family member hoped to sell her 4-year-old daughter for marriage. Authoritarians turn a blind eye to this — they benefit from these more intimate abuses of power and authority, which further enables them to support one another and empower themselves.

The international community played a significant role in holding up statements of solidarity and utilizing resolution 1325 of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, but for the most part, the world has not yet fully committed to turning advocacy into action in favor of women of Afghanistan and Iran. These actions could be putting pressure on authoritarians, leveraging international laws such as the Global Magnitsky Act and targeted sanctions, and supporting advocates who are improving the situation for women on the ground.  

The U.N. Security Council should renew its commitment to women and push for spontaneous alternatives to regimes like the Taliban. It should also maintain individualized sanctions denying Taliban representation in the National Assembly and the ability for its top leaders to travel outside the country. It remains to be seen if additional moves like expanding sanctions will be successful in persuading the Taliban to be more amenable to the demands of the international community, or whether this will be another instance of the council’s inability to address a fragile situation.

Liberalism is still fundamental to the functioning of the global order. While social tensions, economic inequality, populism and regime change have weakened nations worldwide, liberalism has developed an impressive arsenal of arguments and institutions to defend individual freedoms against attacks from oppressive governments. 

The women of Afghanistan and Iran are literally fighting for their lives. If the international community cares about the health, well-being and vibrancy of democracy, it should care just as much as what happens to these women. At the end of the day, we are all bonded in our common push for a better tomorrow.

Naheed A. Farid is an Afghanistan parliamentarian (in-exile) and a fellow at Princeton University’s SPIA Afghanistan Policy Lab. 

Tags Afghanistan–United States relations authoritarian regimes Iran protests Politics of Iran Politics of the United States Women in Afghanistan Women's rights

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