The Arc of History

The Arc of History

Courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied.” 

Those words of Millicent Fawcett are echoed by what we saw on the streets of London yesterday. A pro-Iranian women march met up with a pro-Ukraine one, both chanting “All together we will win.” A large screen in Piccadilly Circus displayed the motto “Woman, Life, Freedom” in solidarity with Iranian protestors. Lovely to see, but no courage is needed to do this in Britain.

Brave Ukraine does look as if it is slowly winning – or at least has stopped losing. If it does expel Russia, without this triggering a wider or more catastrophic war, it will be a significant boost for democratic values – in Europe anyway. Whether those values will extend to Russia is far more uncertain. The odds are against. It will likely retreat into a prolonged sulk, waiting its turn to try again, whether under Putin or another leader. With its authoritarian rulers, military humiliation, failing economy, corruption, oligarchical larceny and many of its educated young fleeing, it is a country ripe for revolution – though whether that happens and, if so, in what form is unclear. Little reason to be hopeful.

What of Iran? And Afghanistan? Yes – Afghanistan: more than a year after the Taliban took over, ordering women back to their homes, Afghan women are still protesting – against being denied an education – despite being threatened with guns, beheadings, beatings. The courage those women show should shame us, especially as they know the outside world will not help them, has given up on the country, and has done little to help those to whom promises of refuge were made. The UK’s Afghan Citizen Resettlement Scheme, designed for Afghans at high risk and announced with fanfare last September, has yet to bring anyone to the UK. The approximately 10,000 Afghans already here came prior to and during last August’s chaotic evacuation.

BBC News recently reported on the treatment of pregnant woman and their babies in rural Afghanistan. Rates of death are high, the treatment poor despite heroic efforts by the remaining female doctors and nurses and the occasional male doctors allowed to help. No new female doctors or nurses are being trained of course. So, as the segregation continues and professional women disappear, women and girls treated as little more than than their child-bearing organs, will live, suffer and die in unimaginably cruel ways. It is sex-based oppression in its purest – and most evil – form.

In Iran, protests against the death of a 22 year old Kurdish woman, following her beating by the Morality Police, have spread across cities for three weeks now, joined by other women and some men. Women are cutting their hair, burning their hijabs and and chanting for freedom. They want regime change not just the removal of oppressive clothing laws. (There have been similar protests by Kurdish women in Syria.) These women are brave: if they are not killed they risk imprisonment, torture and rape. Will they succeed? The odds are against them. It is not the first time there have been protests against the Iranian regime but still it carries on. It is perfectly willing to crush protestors; any concessions will be the minimum necessary to maintain their grip on power.

The arc of history (to misquote Martin Luther King – he was referring to the moral universe) does not always bend towards justice. Decades ago Afghan and Iranian women lived much as we do in the West. Rights once granted can be taken away. People may fight hard for their freedoms but there plenty of people – often men – who will fight equally hard for their freedom to oppress others, especially women. And they usually win. As Germaine Greer put it: “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.” Too sweeping? Yes. Unfair? Possibly. But look at the first steps the Mullahs and Taliban took when they gained power: reducing the age of consent to 9, erasing pictures of women, ordering them to be covered up, stopping them working, going out and being educated. Look at the rapes of Ukrainian women by Russian soldiers, condoned and encouraged by the army and other Russians. Nor should we be complacent about the rights we have in the West. See the US and the Republican Party’s obsession with controlling women’s rights over their own bodies.

What a waste it all is. All those women and girls with all their minds, creativity, thoughts, desires, skills and talent crushed, with all that they could create and bring to society, confined to their bodily functions, even when this harms the society around them and the men and boys in it. The one thing any society can indubitably do to grow, develop and provide a good life for all its people is to educate and free and empower women.

I offer no happy ending. We cannot – and will not – intervene. We can offer what practical help and refuge we can. We should honour the promises we have made. We can listen to them and amplify their voices. We can at least remember their names: Mahsa Amini, 22, murdered for showing a stray lock of hair. RIP.


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