It isn’t just the crisis surrounding Draconian measures aimed at controlling our reproductive health, privacy, autonomy, and indeed our lives, that threatens women everywhere. Globally, women continue paying the price of hideous policies and actions devised and implemented by dictatorial men, whose devaluation of women and the human rights for which they advocate, is stunning.
The injury to women activists in a great many countries is often invisible, especially outside their own nations, despite torture, imprisonment, and death. Women suffer atrocities simply because they have had the courage to confront injustices perpetrated by powerful men threatened by women’s voices and acts. These women need to be recognized and honored for their bravery and sacrifice.
Among them is Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, recently sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. Sotoudeh has advocated on behalf of Iranian women prosecuted for removing their hijabs in public. In 2010, she was convicted of conspiring to harm state security and served half of a six-year sentence. Last June she was rearrested on an array of dubious charges and tried in secret. Charged with seven crimes and given the maximum sentence for all of them, with five additional years added from a 2016 conviction in absentia, the sentence was severe even by Iranian standards.
More recently, Mena Mangal, an Afghan journalist, was killed on her way to work in Kabul because of her work on behalf of women’s rights, and in May a promising Russian feminist journalist, Margarita Virova, 25, died after “falling” from an eighth-floor apartment window which Moscow Times reported as not suspicious.
After the Saudi Arabian government jailed several prominent female activists, many of whom had fought for women’s right to drive, media reports revealed that the incarcerated women had been subjected to torture, including electrocution and flogging, as well as sexual abuse in detention. One woman was made to hang from the ceiling. Another tried to commit suicide.
Joining Saudi Arabia, Sudan has threatened the death penalty against women who resist their own oppression. Last year, Sudanese prosecutors sought the death penalty for Noura Hussein, a teenager in a forced marriage who killed her abusive husband after multiple rapes. Saudi Arabia wants to execute Israa al-Ghomgham, an activist who sought equal rights for Shiite Muslims.
In Iran, Atena Daemi, a human rights activist, has been targeted by authorities for her anti-death penalty position. First arrested in 2014, she is currently serving a seven-year sentence for criticizing executions and human rights violations on social media.
There are many more stories of women who survive the discrimination and violence they live with daily because of their activism. But many women do not survive. Among them was Mariello Franco, a leading voice for poor people living in Rio de Janeiro before she died at the age of 38. Gay and black, she was serving a term on the city council when she and her driver were killed. No arrests were ever made.
Elisa Badayos, a human rights activist who worked on behalf of poor people in Cebu, Philippines trying to find disappeared family members, was murdered along with two colleagues in 2017. She is survived by four children. Again, no arrests were made.
Guadalupe Campanur Tapia, a Mexican activist who worked on environmental issues and the rights of indigenous people, was 32-years old when her body was found on the roadside. In a similar story, Juana Raymundo, a 25-year old Guatemalan nurse who also worked for indigenous rights was tortured before being murdered.
In Iraq, Su’ad al-Ali, president of a human rights organization focused on women and children, was leading a protest in Basra focusing on rising unemployment and corruption when she was shot in the head getting into her car. She was 46 and left behind four young children.
And who can forget the image of Razan al-Najjar, 21, the Palestinian volunteer medic in white shot dead last June when she ran toward a border fence in Gaza to help an injured person? Her last Facebook post read, “I am returning and not retreating. Hit me with your bullets, I am not afraid.”
All these remembrances represent only a few of the tragic stories of women around the world who have been grievously harmed, or have given their lives, in the name of human rights and social justice. It is good and necessary to honor them and their sacrifices on behalf of multitudes of others.
But it is not enough. It is not enough to lay wreathes on their graves, or to say their names. It is not enough to allow such extraordinary women to remain invisible. It is not enough when the world continues to ignore the issues for which they fought. It is not enough, so long as men still have sufficient power to harm women and girls and to withhold from them their human rights. It is not enough when men can continue to harness female energy and action and silence female voices. It is not enough when men decide who among them shall live and who shall die. It will never be enough until every woman everywhere has the guaranteed right to decide her own course and to live her life freely and unafraid.