“We Afghan women are asking every international organisation, including the UN, not to ditch women’s rights, because historically women have always been victims…,” she said in a video posted on social media.
Who knows if anyone is listening? US President Joe Biden won’t be. He has made his priorities clear. It’s ‘America first’ for Uncle Joe from now until November 2024.
As for the UK’s Foreign Secretary, the hapless Dominic Raab, he couldn’t even be bothered to pick up the phone in his five-star Crete holiday resort to try and rescue Afghan interpreters who had helped Britain during the last 20 years of conflict.
But women across the world are listening, just as women across the world are suffering. All the evidence shows that women are disproportionately affected by conflict. As I write, there are girls being raped in Tigray by Ethiopian soldiers. The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be female. There are still thousands of Yazidi women unaccounted for after being kidnapped by Isis.
And sexual violence is not just a tactic of war. Mexico has an epidemic of femicide – the “intentional murder of women because they are women”. Around ten women a day are brutally killed, often by someone they know.
And here at home, in one of the most peaceful countries in the world, violence against women is all too commonplace. Between 2009 and 2018, 1,425 women were murdered by men. Journalist and noted expert on violence against women, Joan Smith, argues persuasively that much of this violence is caused not by a man losing control, but is driven by extreme misogyny and should be considered as domestic terrorism.
It is extreme misogyny – the hatred of women and a belief that we are not equal to men – that drives the Taliban. When they last ruled Afghanistan, women were virtual prisoners in their home, only allowed out if they were accompanied by a man or boy. Afghan girls were not permitted to attend school, and women were publicly beaten – or even executed – if they broke the rules.
While women’s equality was not fully integrated into public policy over the last 20 years, there was significant progress. Women were allowed to work; by 2020 the Afghan parliament had a higher proportion of female representatives than the US Congress; and girls could get an education. But all that is at risk now that the women-hating Taliban are back in power.
What drives this contempt for women that has, over the centuries, been codified into law and embedded in cultures around the world? Fear of our sexuality? The relationship between a boy and his mother? There are many theories, and, it seems, far too few solutions.
But one thing is clear, Marzia, the Afghan athlete, fears for her future, because of her sex, and her sex alone. Girls in Tigray are raped at gunpoint because of their sex. Mexican women are murdered because of their sex. And Plymouth murderer, Jake Davidson, shot his mother Maxine first, before killing four other people and himself, because of her sex.
In recent days, there has been disquiet expressed by some trans activists in Scotland that feminists here have cynically conflated the campaign to protect women’s sex-based rights with the terrible situation in Afghanistan. But they have missed the point, deliberately or not. Women must be able to talk about the root cause of their oppression, whatever their experience. To deny us that right is to deny us our voice.
I am very lucky. I was born in the UK. I was able to go to school with my male peers. As a single parent raising two sons I benefited from a welfare system that kept a roof over our head while I searched for work. I can wear what I like. Go out in public alone. And thanks to legislation such as the 1970 Equal Pay Act, the 1967 Abortion Act and the 2010 Equality Act, I have the right to be paid the same as a man, power over my own body, and protection against discrimination based on my sex.
My life, and that of my granddaughters, is infinitely better than if I lived in Helmand Province, but my freedom should not stop me from speaking out when women’s rights are threatened. It is my duty as an elder. My duty as a woman.
A few days ago, Joan Smith was removed from her role as co-chair of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls board, a job she had held for eight years. A long-time member of the Labour Party, she had been appointed by the then Mayor of London, one Boris Johnson, not for her political views but for her noted expertise.
She believes she was sacked by the present Mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, because she had raised concerns about female victims of male violence sharing safe spaces with “individuals who have male bodies”. The Mayor’s office deny she was sacked, saying the board had been “restructured”.
Joan Smith will prosper. She has not been cancelled. Her voice will continue to be heard, and her expertise will, hopefully, continue to inform policy development. She is not an Afghan woman, facing a future filled with fear.
But her treatment has angered feminists across the UK. They believe that Joan Smith was ousted because she argued that sex is not a social construct. That her “restructuring” was rooted in her stubbornness in standing up for women’s sex-based rights.
The world has had a terrible reminder this week of the mortal danger women and girls face because of their sex. And a timely reminder of how fragile those hard-fought rights can be. That is why women must keep speaking up for their sisters, whenever their rights are threatened, wherever we live.