Reflections on women in conflict and protest
16 Mar 2023|

Women have been barred from education in Afghanistan and face mass arrests and summary executions in Myanmar. In Iran, failure to wear a hijab to the satisfaction of the morality police was enough to end in death—after being beaten by police, according to witnesses—for Mahsa Amini six months ago today.

Women’s rights are indivisible from national security. That’s the powerful message that came through strongly when four Australian women—one each from Afghanistan, Myanmar and Iran, plus a nationally renowned foreign correspondent and rights advocate—gathered for ASPI’s event for International Women’s Day.

Titled ‘Women in conflict and protest: a conversation on protecting human rights and strengthening peace and security’, the discussion focused on women, the grassroots movements they lead, and how they stand at the forefront of protests and movements to defend human rights.

The panellists were united in raising the international community’s shortcomings in supporting these women’s efforts in consistent, principled ways. Women have distinct experiences of conflict and oppression and play particular roles in responding. That includes bringing unique strengths to popular acts of resistance and to peace processes.

But realities for women across the world show that the importance of their role in peace and security continues to slip through the cracks of the international community’s agenda.

The women, peace and security agenda remains on the backburner, despite the fact that we’ve seen a backsliding, if not a complete unravelling, of women’s rights in many countries over the past few years after decades of progress.

In her keynote address, Shaharzad Akbar, former chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, highlighted that Afghan women started mobilising against Taliban rule as early as 16 August 2021—just one day after the group took control of Kabul. Undeterred by the brutal crackdowns they continue to face, these women have adopted different forms of protest and resistance against the regime, such as establishing underground schools and libraries.

Nos Hosseini, an Australian-Iranian lawyer and refugee rights advocate, spoke about anger against the regime in Tehran and the courage of Iranian women who were ‘unafraid of the bullets they’re met with’.

‘It’s not about the headscarf at all,’ she said of the protests that have now lasted six months and claimed at least 500 lives. ‘It’s about dignity.’

The power of social media as a tool for women protesting emerged as a key feature of the discussion. Mon Zin, a founding member of Global Myanmar Spring Revolution, described social media as ‘the life of the revolution’.

Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement has its own verified Twitter page where protest ideas are posted and discussed. Zin said women use social media to disseminate anti-coup symbols. These include the three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance and democracy movements in Southeast Asia adopted from The Hunger Games film series; bouquets of flowers, a reference to Myanmar’s jailed former leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s signature floral hairstyle; and bright-red lips, a reference to the #RedLipsSpeakTruthToPower campaign aimed at raising awareness about sexual violence against women committed by the junta.

Similarly, in Afghanistan and Iran, social media helps women overcome barriers to their physical movement and access to public spaces. Akbar observed that Afghan women, unable to take to the streets due to Taliban restrictions, have chosen to record videos at home, producing pieces of music and poetry with their faces covered and releasing them on social media.

Hosseini raised the invaluable role social media has played in sharing Iran’s realities with the world, mobilising support not just within Iran but also among the international community. Despite internet blackouts, she said, people have used virtual private networks to disseminate footage and imagery of the protests and the government’s crackdown. She particularly emphasised the role of social media in ensuring that Iran’s story reached the homes and phones of non-Iranians whose support is crucial in amplifying the voices of Iranians and ensuring that their struggle is not forgotten by the international community.

Women are also subverting and repurposing symbols of male power and patriarchy. For instance, Mon explained how women activists in Myanmar developed a tactic to keep security forces at bay by stringing up women’s clothing across the streets. In traditional Myanmar culture, walking beneath women’s clothing is considered bad luck and even emasculating for men.

Hosseini noted that the current wave of protests in Iran involves all genders, ages, ethnicities and religions. People are standing together in solidarity against ‘the gender apartheid regime that’s engulfed and held the Iranian populace hostage for the last 44 years’, she said.

Maryam Zahid established Afghan Women on the Move to address the lack of support available in parts of Australia to Afghan women who are recovering from past traumas and trying to rebuild their lives. The organisation uses community-based approaches to provide social engagement, mental health and settlement support to Afghan and other women from multicultural backgrounds in Australia.

In the face of extraordinary stories of courage of women fighting repressive rimes, Sophie McNeill, senior Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch, underlined the international community’s short and selective attention span for women’s rights. While media, governments and the public often show keen support for courageous women protesters early on, they tend to lose interest over the longer term.

The other panellists agreed. Zahid, for instance, recalled receiving enthusiastic political and media attention in the days following the Taliban takeover in 2021. But that evaporated soon after as a business-as-usual attitude set in.

Looking ahead, Zin encouraged members of the public to participate in online petitions and campaigns supporting the civil-disobedience movement and to let governments know that Australian public opinion stands firmly against the junta and with the people of Myanmar. She also underlined the importance of funding civil-society organisations.

McNeill reiterated the importance of long-term investments in the people on the ground, focusing on their protection, education and empowerment. She urged Australians to talk to their local members of parliament about increasing foreign aid. And she called on the international community to be more consistent in calling out human rights abuses wherever they occur in the world.

The importance of placing international pressure on repressive regimes and to break expectations of impunity was echoed by Hosseini. Overall, as McNeill also said, governments need to learn from mistakes and realise that conversations on human rights, women’s rights and security must not happen in silos.

The discussion brought out the contrast between the incredible resilience of grassroot movements and the international community’s patchy concern. For me, this raised questions about the usefulness of international frameworks such as the UN women, peace and security agenda and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

Authoritarian regimes such as the Taliban, the Iranian state and the Myanmar junta, as Zin noted, simply don’t care about such frameworks, and the international community seems to lack the political will to take concrete action against the regimes’ violations.

What is the use of these frameworks, then, if they are only applied in situations where they are easily accepted and palatable, and are absent where they are needed most? In a recent advocacy video, an Afghan woman called for the world to ‘not forget the women of Afghanistan and help them not to be buried alive’. Her appeal shows what is at stake when the world turns a blind eye to gender-based violence and repression.