Thousands of women in Iran have taken to the streets, courageously removing their hijabs in solidarity with Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, who was arrested by the Iranian police and allegedly murdered for wearing her hijab in an “improper” way. Since then, hundreds of those women have been killed for protesting the government’s crackdown on women’s rights.
In a recent interview with Amna Nawaz on the PBS NewsHour, Nazanin Boniadi, an Iranian-born actress and human rights activist, quoted Iranian actress Katayoun Riahi, who said, “People are no longer fearful of prison, because Iran itself has become a prison.” Those femicides are part of an ample spectrum of gender-based violence that is still widespread in the world.
Gender-based violence (GBV) is a global pandemic that affects the lives of one in three women. GBV may take many forms, including domestic violence, sexual violence and trafficking, and psychological and emotional violence. Forced child marriages, honor killings, and femicides are part of this spectrum of violence. According to the United Nations, “It is rooted in gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful norms.” Although the majority of the victims are women, men and gender-non-conforming individuals also experience this kind of violence.
Domestic violence, the most common form of gender-based violence, is not, of course, a new phenomenon. Before the pandemic, it is estimated that 243 million women and girls (aged 15-49) worldwide had been victims of sexual or physical violence during the previous 12 months, in most cases perpetrated by an intimate partner. That number significantly increased during the first couple of years of the pandemic when lockdowns were instituted. According to a UN survey concluded in September 2021, nearly 7 in 10 women said domestic violence increased in their community since the start of the pandemic, when lockdowns were instituted.
Domestic violence is vastly underreported. According to UN estimates, less than 40 percent of women who are physically abused at home seek help. During lockdown periods, victims may be too scared to call the police for fear their abuser can overhear them. UN Women has called violence against women “the shadow pandemic,” and António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General has said, “Peace is not just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for #COVID19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes.”
Gender-based violence provokes an array of physical and psychological consequences such as body injuries, gastrointestinal problems, sleeping and eating disorders, chronic pain, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and miscarriage and unwanted pregnancies. Psychological consequences include depression, lowered self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, alcohol and drug abuse, and post-traumatic-stress-disorder that can last for a lifetime. However, as noted actress, writer and model Cody Kennedy stated, “Don’t judge yourself by what others did to you.”
The global cost of violence against women had been estimated at $1.5 trillion, a figure that is bound to increase as the pandemic continues. According to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, the number of domestic violence cases rose by 25-33 percent globally in 2020 compared to 2019. The United Nations group UN Women reports that incidents of domestic violence during the pandemic increased 300 percent in Hubei, China; 25 percent in Argentina; 30 percent in Cyprus; and 50 percent in Brazil.
The release of inmates from prisons –which have become a hotbed for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic— worsens the situation. When some inmates are released, they recreate at home the conditions of violence that landed them in prison. That is why family victims should be notified in advance about the release of inmates, and local governments should implement preventative and support measures to avoid dire consequences.
One possible solution would be implementing laws that prioritize women’s safety and bring about harsher punishment against perpetrators of these crimes. Governments should increase public-awareness campaigns, increase funding for women’s organizations, and create more opportunities to foster women’s economic independence. All officials, including medical and paramedical personnel should be better trained to offer adequate support. Violence is a choice, and it is preventable. Prevention cannot be a short-term effort but a long-term commitment.
These are trying times for women’s rights worldwide, as recent events in Iran demonstrate. But they are also a chance for change and improvement. The ultimate perversion is when the government, as in Iran’s case, is the perpetrator of violence against women, an action for which it has been condemned worldwide. A statement in Farsi widely circulated in social media says, “FROM NOW ON– Know Iran by its women– not by its carpets, saffron and cats.”
Women in Iran today are not only protesting for the right not to wear the hijab, they are protesting against a government that has curtailed their most basic rights. Elahe Massumi, an Iranian filmmaker banned from reentering her country, told me, “If I were in Iran, I would go to the streets and join those women who are dying for freedom. I am proud of these women and proud of being an Iranian.” By brutally targeting women, and carrying out against them the most brutal acts of violence, the Iranian regime may have provoked its own undoing.
César Chelala is an international public health consultant and an award-winning writer on human rights issues.