Happy International Women's Day?
It'll only take us three more centuries to gain equality, because conservatives in the US, Iran, and Afghanistan and elsewhere don't want equality at all.
Well this isn’t great: UN Secretary General Anthony Gutierrez said this week that, thanks to significant backsliding, UN Women now estimates that if we stay on our current trajectory, women around the world won’t reach full equality for another 300 years.
And that’s if we stay on our current trajectory. A whole lot of people around the world, from Iran’s theocratic regime to the Taliban in Afghanistan to the Republican Party in the United States, want to prevent gender equality from ever becoming a reality. And their power is growing.
The last century has largely been a good one for women’s progress. But with every large step forward, we’ve seen backlash, and this is a global trend. Right-wing nationalist movements, from those led by Mussolini and Hitler and Franco to the more modern incarnations of those led by Trump and Orban and Erdogan, have inevitably arisen in reaction to periods of progress, and almost always have a necessary component an embrace of traditional gender roles — that is, of men in charge of a family’s financial, political, and social life, and women at home, financially dependent on a male partner, having and raising children.
Right now, we’re in another backlash period. And it’s not just in the US. While women’s rights are expanding in many nations that are embracing democracy, and abortion rights have been expanding worldwide, we’ve seen a backsliding in tandem with the rise of new authoritarians.
With authoritarianism typically comes patriarchy and anti-feminism. With democracy and an embrace of enlightenment ideals generally comes progress for women.
Ask yourself: What’s happening in my country?
Around the world, the Covid pandemic and related shutdowns hit women and girls hard. Girls who left school often didn’t return because of pregnancy, early marriage, or family duties. For women, unpaid work went up, paid work went down, and domestic violence became more common.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin has pushed for a return to orthodoxy and traditionalism, and the Duma — which does his bidding — complied by decriminalizing domestic violence that doesn’t put a woman in the hospital. The Russian Orthodox Church supported this measure; domestic violence, Russian religious conservatives say, is a private matter.
In Poland, the far-right party has captured the country’s Constitutional court; as a result, Polish abortion laws have become the strictest in the European Union.
In Iran, the theocratic government is violently opposing a woman-led uprising which was first against mandatory hijab laws and the cruelties of the morality police, and now is in opposition to the government’s extremism and the country’s financial woes.
In Turkey, Erdogan has campaigned against secularism and against feminism, removing his nation from an international convention to fight violence against women; that convention, Erdogan said, flies in the face of “traditional family values” and promotes homosexuality. Hungary has refused to sign the same convention, for the same reasons: It undermines “traditional family values” and promotes “gender ideology.”
In Afghanistan, the Taliban takeover has been nothing short of catastrophic for women, so bad that a UN Special Report calls it a potential crime against humanity. Women and girls have been stripped of nearly all of their rights. Girls are out of school; women cannot attend university; most women are unable to work; women cannot leave home unaccompanied by a male guardian. Despite a humanitarian crisis ravaging the nation, the Taliban have banned female aid workers from operating in the country. Feminists, female journalists, and female lawyers have been arrested. Women who divorced abusive or neglectful husbands now fear that the Taliban will deem their divorces invalid, which would make any subsequent marriages adultery — and the Taliban publicly flog women for “adultery,” which is often defined to include women who are raped. Maternal mortality and infant mortality rates are ticking up, in part because it’s awfully hard to go to the doctor if you can’t leave your house, and it’s awfully hard for female doctors to exist if women can’t go to university. It is hard to overstate just how unlivable Afghanistan has become for women — and how swiftly the world, and the US in particular, has turned its back and washed its hands of the problem.
And in the US, of course, many of the same conservatives who claim to care about the wellbeing of Afghan women and then oppose asylum procedures that would allow them to come live in safety are enthusiastically fighting against women’s rights in the US. Abortion is now criminalized or soon-to-be-criminalized in most Republican-led states. Outlawing abortion has been a human rights disaster: Women have gone septic, lost their uteruses, lost their fertility, almost died. It’s entirely possible that some women have died because they couldn’t get the abortions they needed, and we simply don’t know about it. While they claim to care about the women they are forcing to give birth, not one single “pro-life” state that has criminalized abortion since Dobbs was decided last summer has also expanded paid parental leave, or created any sort of universal childcare system, or even expanded welfare benefits or food stamps or housing options for struggling moms and their hungry kids. They have done nothing to decrease their infant and maternal mortality rates, which tend to be higher in abortion-hostile states than in pro-choice ones (have you ever wondered why the countries that are the best for children are also the most feminist, while a great many “pro-life” nations and American states are dismal places to be a woman, a baby, or a child? It’s not a coincidence). What conservative leaders in the US have done is spent exorbitant sums fighting in court to ban abortion in nearly every case and to outlaw incredibly safe and necessary medication — knowing that doing so will push many women into making dangerous decisions.
I could go on (and on and on). Anti-feminist leaders are in power in dozens of nations; anti-feminist movements have taken hold in dozens more, and are often tied to anti-LGBT rights movements. There is often an assumption that progress happens by sheer force of, well, progress — that people see their lives bettered and want to keep it that way; that once the ball gets rolling, it only picks up speed.
But that’s not really how it works. Every inch women have gained has been hard-won. Every extra year we’ve lived because we’ve fought for the rights to our own bodies, every bit of joy we’ve gotten from wanted children and love-based marriages, every minute we live free from abusive partners and are able to sustain our own lives, pay our own way, and choose our own course — every single crumb of that was a fight.
And at every moment there were others fighting against women’s rights and feminist progress just as hard. Many of them are now sitting in elected (and not-elected) office. Many of them are working overtime to cement their power, even against the broader will of the public. Their loss is not a foregone conclusion.
So yes, a lot is terrible. But no, despair is not an option — unless you want to lose. And I refuse to do that.
And America still doesn't want a woman for president. Every woman who has ever run for the office has been defeated because of misogyny that begins to be freely expressed from the moment their candidacies were announced.
A society where women have equal status to men just scares too many people. We would have more social and financial autonomy, more political clout, and maybe even a more compassionate world.