What Iran and Afghanistan can teach us about allyship and solidarity for women in Australia
Kat Vella, Mona's non-fiction editor, explores how collective responsibility is essential in maintaining the rights and freedom for all women in Australia.
Over the past 12 months, feminist struggles have been the driver behind global protests for human rights in Iran and Afghanistan. In Australia, we have the tendency to believe that these struggles are separate to us, that oppressive ideologies are only experienced by women ‘over there’ because here, the work of feminism and women’s rights activists has been victorious. The work here is ‘done’. With that sentiment comes the inevitable admission of how ‘lucky’ we are to live here where those sorts of things could never happen.
The uncomfortable reality is however, that there are many women who live horrifying experiences in this country, yet there is minimal recognition from the broader community to see their struggle as our collective responsibility.
In September, 2022, Iran exploded into a civil rights protest movement from the reaction to Mahsa Amini’s murder at the hands of police. What started with women taking to the streets, burning headscarves, cutting their hair, and chanting “Women, Life, Freedom”, soon ignited a country, and worldwide human rights revolution against the Khomeini dictatorship. Mahsa Amini was Kurdish, an ethnic minority in Iran relentlessly persecuted by the regime. The fact that her murder sparked a revolution is something we need to take note of here.
In December, 2022 Afghan women were banned from attending university after more than 12 months of the Taliban regime swiftly excluding women from key aspects of public and cultural life, despite assuring the international community they had turned a new page. Days later, male students walked out of their university courses in protest and a university professor tore up his teaching diplomas on national television saying that Afghanistan was no place for an education.
In both countries, the atrocities targeted at women, even a woman whose cultural background was different to the majority, were enough to ignite a rapid, collective reaction. Women and men from all walks of life chose to stand up and not tolerate these decisions, even at great personal cost.
The events in Iran and Afghanistan can teach us valuable lessons about showing up for each other and being powerful allies for all women in Australia. This is especially timely as we reflect on January 26. This time every year, all Australians are asked to examine what January 26 means to them and if they can live with the idea of celebrating on a day that means devastation, cultural destruction, and genocide to First Nations people. There is still so much resistance to stand with Aboriginal Australians on this day. Perhaps these lessons could help us think differently.
In Australia you obviously won’t see female students being locked out of universities or women being thrown in prison for not covering their heads. But before we celebrate, the absence of overt discrimination is not evidence enough of a definitive triumph of feminism. You only have to look to the USA, the supposed “Land of the Free” and observe the alarming regression to the 1970s, with the overturning of Roe v Wade. Anti-feminist and anti-women’s rights movements are on the rise, particularly in the online space targeting young men.
Violence against women and girls remains a global issue and despite Rosie Batty, Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins catapulting gender violence to a major national issue in Australia, we are still on a terrifying trajectory.
Men’s violence took the lives of 55 women in 2022, 12 more than the number recorded the year before in 2021. And yet, gender violence is still viewed as a ‘personal’ issue to be confined to the home, and this is still overwhelmingly the mentality in rural Australia where domestic violence is hidden and not talked about.
Where the examples of allyship and solidarity in Iran and Afghanistan really provide a mirror for Australians, however, is when we are confronted with the enduring disparities that exist between Aboriginal women and the rest of the female population in Australia.
In 2022, ABC’s Four Corners found that 315 Aboriginal women had gone missing or been murdered in Australia since 2000. The significance of this number is that the emergency and community response to their going missing or being murdered demonstrates a shameful prejudice. It’s not that white women don’t go missing, they do, also in significant numbers, it’s that the community reacts, their disappearance is taken seriously, and they are searched for in a timely manner, something which is not mirrored in similar cases for Aboriginal women.
The story gets worse. For Aboriginal women, the risk of being wrongly identified by police as a perpetrator in domestic violence call outs instead of the victim of it, sometimes with devasting consequences, often keeps women from reporting violence in the first place. Further isolating them in abusive, dangerous households.
The state of health outcomes for Aboriginal women is shocking in Australia. The findings of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani project published in 2020 show Aboriginal women die younger than non-Aboriginal women, are three times more likely to die in childbirth and experience chronic, yet entirely preventable diseases that will kill them. Their children are also almost 10 times more likely to be removed from them and placed in foster care.
The inequalities facing Aboriginal women are rarely considered as part of the broader fight for women’s rights in Australia. The experiences of First Nations women are deliberately categorised as a ‘them’ problem; a problem too different from the mainstream struggle and therefore overlooked and ignored by white women. A belief that still prevails today. If you are reading this and feel like what Aboriginal women experience could never become a reality for you, consider what your life would look like if you lost your home, your partner, your job, your physical abilities, your mental health, or your physical attractiveness. Think about how quickly your security, safety and opportunities could shatter.
Aboriginal women sit at an intersection between race and gender and therefore experience misogyny differently than the majority female population. They experience sexism and misogyny within the context of racism, which we all have responsibility to change.
Dignity and freedom must be for all women in Australia, not just women that look like and experience life similar to us.
For those of us that might be inclined to believe that this is a ‘them’, not ‘us’ problem, you are incorrect. First Nations women live at the same intersection of misogyny and racism that Mahsa Amini did, and her murder inspired a total revolution.
In November 2022, a young Noongar woman was killed when a man threw a concrete block at her striking her in the head. She was five months pregnant at the time. Diane Millar’s murder was not dissimilar to that of Mahsa Amini. A senseless, cruel act by a man against a woman fuelled by hatred and prejudice. But where was Diane’s public protest? Where was her revolution?
If we can learn anything from the examples of Iran and Afghanistan it’s that we need to listen to Aboriginal women, believe them and take the lead from them. We need to acknowledge and understand that any incident of violence and exclusion targeting any woman, should be a collective responsibility to revolt against. Any presence of hatred toward women is indication that our right to live free and safe, is conditional.
About the author
Kat Vella is the non fiction editor of Mona Magazine. She is an educator, activist and journalist who lives on Wiradjuri Country in Griffith, NSW. She is national committee member of Rural Australians for Refugees and is passionate about social justice, feminism and education. Apart from finding her work at Mona Magazine, she has been published in regional mastheads and The Guardian Rural Network.