The power of women living in the darkness of Iran, Afghanistan and Russia

Political unrest in Iran, Afghanistan and Russia are all characterized by the strong involvement of women in uphill battles against dictatorial repression.

The death of a woman imprisoned in Iran has led to days of public protests across Iran. In response, the Tehran government violently targeted the participants with batons and bullets.

In Afghanistan, women’s groups have led sustained protests against the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban government for a year. There, whips are the authorities’ weapon of choice to fight back against women’s rejection of second-class citizenship imposed by the ruling radical militant group.

And in Russia, young men are fleeing en masse from military conscription that aims to send them to fight in Ukraine. The police reacted by imprisoning their mothers, wives, sisters and girlfriends who protested the conscription campaign.

The unrest is unlikely to influence the mullahs in Iran to relax religious rules targeting women, persuade Afghan leaders to restore jobs and educational opportunities for women, or derail the Russian president’s plans. Vladimir Putin to step up Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

Nonetheless, the largely spontaneous protests reveal an often latent discontent within political systems that are working hard to foster unanimous support. And the women are in the foreground.

In Iran, the death of Masha Amini, an ethnic Kurdish woman detained on September 13 in Tehran by the so-called vice police, sparked nationwide protests. The government said his style of wearing the hijab, an Islamic headscarf, was inappropriate.

Iranian authorities said she died of an unrelated heart condition. They provided suspiciously edited videos to show she was fine when the vice squad arrested her. Her father said she had always been healthy; the police beat her brother when he tried to follow her to jail.

The death of Masha Amini in ‘morality police’ custody has sparked days of nationwide protests. Image: Twitter

Since then, the country has been in turmoil, with men joining the women’s protests. In response, the government not only called on security forces to fire on protesters, but organized its supporters to show their approval of the crackdown.

Authorities described the protests as “breaching norms”, called participants “rioters and thugs” and spread misinformation that protesters were burning the Koran. At least 75 protesters were killed.

As if to underscore that women protesters are not immune to violent repression, security forces shot and killed Hadis Najabi, a 20-year-old protester who had been filmed throwing off her hijab in full view of police.

Burning hijabs and cutting hair have become symbols of women’s anger and Najabi has become a popular internet heroine. Police riddled her with eight bullets as she protested.

Bareheaded women have been illegal since 1979, when Iran became an Islamic republic. An Iranian analyst ironically noted that the hijab rule was on par with two other fetish symbols of the Islamic Republic: the oft-repeated chants of Death to America and Death to Israel.

Iran’s Islamic rulers have faced many bouts of political turmoil during their rule of more than four decades. The reasons for this are electoral fraud, economic decline, police brutality and the suppression of minorities.

However, the current upheaval is far from the worst outbreak: in 2019, police killed more than 300 demonstrators for protesting high fuel prices.

In Afghanistan, men did not join women in their protests against the Taliban, which arguably weakened their desire for equality. The protests began shortly after the US withdrew from the country just over a year ago and have largely died down.

Strict public dress codes in Afghanistan indicate narrow horizons for women that are even tighter than in Iran. In public, Afghan women must wear a head-to-toe head covering called the niqab.

Girls can only attend primary school; high school and college are mostly banned. The same goes for work outside the home, except in certain medical fields. When women go out in public, they must be accompanied by a relative or husband.

Afghan women dressed in niqab walk near the premises of Wazir Akbar Khan hospital in Kabul on September 1, 2021. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

It is unclear whether men are willing to risk the battle for women’s rights in Afghanistan. There are other deep-seated issues that suck everyone’s energy: unemployment, hunger, persistent Covid, corruption, government mismanagement, declining incomes and drought, to name a few.

The United States has kept about $7 billion in foreign exchange reserves out of the hands of the Taliban, the International Monetary Fund has frozen access to funds intended to ease the economic disruption of Covid and the World Bank has suspended development projects rural and public health.

The fact that Afghanistan continues to host international terrorist groups underlies Western reluctance to help the country in any way.

The budding turmoil in Russia and the role of women within it has erupted with Putin’s decision to call up 300,000 men to fight in Ukraine amid growing signs that his war is not going to be planned. Putin’s action awakened the Russian public to the growing costs of war, in income and lives.

Since the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union, women have played a key role in exposing military abuses against conscripts, including during the debilitating war in Chechnya in the 1990s.

The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia (CSMR), an independent organization organized at the end of the Soviet regime, was instrumental in creating opposition to the First Chechen War. Its activities also focused on informing conscripts of their rights.

Last year, perhaps in anticipation of possible anti-war protests, the government’s Federal Security Service, heir to the Soviet-era KGB, began harassing independent civilian organizations suspected of being ” foreign officials”.

Without a court order, security forces could raid and shut down these organizations at will. In October 2021, CSMR headquarters in St. Petersburg ceased offering human rights services to soldiers and recruits, but continued to monitor military activities.

In February this year, the CSMR examined complaints from parents who said that military authorities were forcing recruits serving in Belarus to sign up for possible combat in Ukraine. The general public was indifferent to such activities until the new mobilization was announced this month.

The protests, often led by women, have spread from the far east of Russia to the borders of Ukraine. In Nalchik, a town near Russia’s eastern border with Georgia, mothers stormed the mayor’s office to protest military summonses.

Russian women sadly watch the funeral of a Russian sergeant killed in Ukraine. Photo: Screenshot/BBC/Getty

In Volgograd, at least ten men and women were arrested for protesting, while in the city of Makhachkala, women in a public square clashed with police in protest against military service.

On internet videos, some were heard shouting, “Why are you taking our children? Who attacked who? Who attacked Russia? It was we who attacked Ukraine. Russia attacked Ukraine! No to war!”

In Moscow, police took a protester into custody, shoved a barbell into his anus and threatened to do the same to his girlfriend, according to Russian-language newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Later that day, Moscow police raided the apartment of anti-war activist Daria Ivanova, ‘choked, kicked, punched, grabbed by the hair’ and then charged her to “discredit the Russian armed forces” and ordered him to appear for questioning, Novaya-Gazeta said.

Internet scans reveal videos of arrests of women in distant Siberian cities: Chita, Irkutsk, Tomsk and Transbaikal. In Khabarovsk, near the border with China, a detainee shouted at one of her captors: “Move up, you bald rat!

At least 2,300 Russians have been detained over the past week, according to OVD-Info, a Russian human rights agency that is still operating. What comes next is not necessarily the ousting of Putin, who put so much political investment and prestige into crushing Ukraine.

Foreign Policy magazine predicted that Putin would double down on his control at home as he doubled down on the war itself. The power of women will not be enough.

“The crackdown won’t necessarily accelerate or streamline mobilization,” the magazine writes, “but it will keep the streets calm and allow Putin to continue his aggression.”