Young people – particularly young women – are on the rise, leading feminist movements around the world. They are taking a stand and making big strides – they see what’s happening in their communities and around the world, and they’ve had enough. Now more than ever, we need the leadership of young people, to drive forward the kind of transformation we need.
Young women are leading the charge for change. We’re seeing this everywhere – from Afghanistan to Alabama, from India to Iran, from Tonga to Texas.
And these days, there’s more reason to rise up than ever. I’ve said over and over and over – we’re just not doing that well. Equality is farther than ever, and every single one of our basic rights is at risk. Yes, everywhere.
At the same time, young women’s movements are bringing us hope. They’re rising up relentlessly – often in the face of great risk. And they’re just not taking any crap.
Young women are lighting figurative – and literal – fires everywhere. This fight isn’t about other women, over there – it’s all of us. In Iran, the movement ignited following the murder of Mahsa Amini is the fire sparking the feminist revolution in Iran. Following Amini’s death, brave women took to the streets to declare their call to action: Women! Life! Freedom!
On November 10th, the UN General assembly called on Afghanistan’s Taliban to stop restricting women’s human rights. Women and girls are guilty simply for being women and girls – and women’s rights in Afghanistan have been on the decline since the Taliban reclaimed power in August of 2021. Women – especially young women – are taking a stand there, too.
In a recent article on Afghanistan, an Afghan woman asked: “When you have no freedom in your own country, then what does it mean to live here?” The same question can be asked by any woman today, in any country. Yes, even the US. Countries can not deny freedom, equality, rights to half of their population.All women – and particularly young women – are not going to let that happen.
On November 8th, young American women demanded to be heard. The overturning of Roe v. Wade has lit a fire amongst young women voters – they aren’t going back. The US Midterm Elections were supposed to bleed red, however young feminists demonstrated who really has the power. The strong turnout from young voters turned the red wave into light pink.
The message from young feminists is clear: we are young AND feminist AND we will turn the vote. Or take to the streets. Or do whatever it takes.
There’s a lot of conversation about young women’s feminist activism and leadership. I recently came across a guide by the World YWCA on how to consult young women-led feminist movements. This methodology differs from others in that it is meant to ignite transformation. That’s how I feel too – even raising key issues helps plant the seeds for change. The World YWCA Methodology centers girls and women in all their diversity, using a democratic and decolonized approach to place power firmly in the hands of young women as the architects of their own lives and choices.
In fact, the World YWCA built this perspective from what they call Goal 2035, a quest for 100 million young women and girls to transform power structures to create justice, gender equality, and a world without violence and war. Goal 2035 aligns with other global goals including the Sustainable Development Goals to fully realize the potential of women and girls and the urgent need to bring forth change.
All of that stuff is great on paper. But what does it mean in practice?
Let’s get right to the heart of this: the global reality for girls is pretty bleak.
Today, 129 million girls do not have access to education. Lack of access to education doesn’t just limit a girl’s opportunities in life, it is directly linked to her survival. There are approximately 31 million girls around the world not enrolled in primary school. And women and girls are over two-thirds of individuals impacted by illiteracy.
These are some grim statistics, surely. But — there’s more.
Every year, about 12 million young girls become child brides — 28 girls every minute. Globally, 1 in 5 young girls are married. Roughly 40% of child-brides are married before turning 18 and 12% are married before age 15.
Violence against girls is widespread. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 4 girls will experience sexual violence before they turn 18. And this likely underrepresents reality.
In times of emergency or insecurity, girls face disproportionate risk. It comes as no surprise, then, that COVID has made everything so much worse.
And — what’s to celebrate, given these statistics? Well, we also need to use this day to redouble our efforts to support girls, so we don’t have bleak statistics anymore.
The reality is that discrimination, violence, strict gender norms, lack of access to basic rights and opportunities, and exposure to harmful practices mean girls (and women) are society’s most vulnerable. In fact, some experts think that teenage girls are the most vulnerable group on earth. This is exactly why we need International Day of the Girl.
I thought it best to go to the authority on this — my 8-year old niece. I previously interviewed her about everything feminism so who better to go back to and see if anything has changed…
Is there a difference between boys and girls?
Do you like being a girl?
I always wanted to be a girl! I would always definitely be a girl. Boys are annoying. I like everything about being a girl.
What do you think it will mean to be a girl when you’re older?
To be independent, a strong and hard working woman.
Is there something now that’s hard about being a girl?
No. or only when they get into fights. Girls get into fights about really silly stuff. And boys get into arguments about who’s not playing football. But also both genders can do sports, sometimes. Like, it’s perfectly fine for boys to love other colors and pink. And my friend Sienna, she’s a girl and she plays basketball. And she’s better than the boys.
What is gender, anyway?
There’s a lot of genders actually. It’s your personality — it’s boy, girl, they, them. So I read a book about genders. And that book, one girl’s mom thought that one was a boy, so she had to wear boy clothes every day, but her personality was a girl. So she liked to be called a girl. Well, actually, I could even be a boy.
Do you feel like a boy?
No, cuz for gender you gotta feel it from the inside. Many of my teachers are they/them. And I think it’s perfectly fine. And sex is penis, vagina, and stuff.
Do you talk about touching?
At home we did. Like a hug is ok but if you like pushing each other and pulling each other and punching each other then no, it’s not fine. Touching your own parts are fine, that’s your own body.
What about if someone touches you without asking?
If you don’t want that person to touch you, you got to tell him. You got to tell them and they got to listen. If they don’t, just walk away. Or get to any adult in sight. I say “can you please stop.” And they stop. But lots of boys don’t listen. The boys don’t care about any girls.
Why do they not listen?
I really don’t know. Just because they’re very busy in their mind on football or soccer and winning games. They don’t like girls and they don’t like listening. And they don’t like school. And they don’t like teachers. So basically all they like is each other. But they don’t even care about each other really.
My niece is pretty clued in to all this stuff so I spoke to her mom, my sister, to get a sense of how my niece learned it all.
A lot is informed from her own experiences. My sister reflected that she first started to notice the real difference between boys and girls when it came to freedom and privilege. “They had it, we didn’t”, she said. She even wished for an older brother who would allow her some room to breathe because, she said, “he would not have had the restrictions that we did growing up. He would have been free — and he would have taken that freedom for granted”.
She explained that “there’s a moment as girls when we realize that the world doesn’t see us as equal…” but she hoped that “today’s girls don’t have that moment!”
I asked other parents about raising young girls. One father of three daughters had this to say:
After we had our third daughter, I remember people used to ask me if I was disappointed to not have a boy. Absolutely not! That’s such antiquated thinking. That question clearly implies that there’s something inherently bad about having only daughters.
He went on to explain:
I would always reply that “daughters are easier”, which I found to be true. We did our best to raise them to be independent and told them they could be anything they wanted to be. We weren’t overly worried, but we did keep a closer watch over them than if they were boys. We raised them to be vigilant about being safe and saying no.
From those I asked, parents of girls tend to worry more about things that parents of boys don’t seem to have to think about. This is where parents of boys need to step up, said the mother of a young daughter, “so I can do less, worry less.”
She put it like this:
Eradicate the statement of “boys will be boys.” There needs to be more dialogue with boys on what’s okay and what is not.
One mother noted that she felt the global understanding of International Day of the Girl was missing at her child’s school. “I’m not even sure International Day of the Girl is acknowledged — how would an elementary school do that?”, she asked.
Some organizations out there are doing amazing work. There’s a list below to check out, amplify, support. Girls show us time and again just how skillful, resourceful, creative, and determined they are in effecting change. They are the drivers of progress. Girls can change the world. They are the future. And today, they’re just not taking any crap.
But at the same time, we’ve got to support them. We owe it to them to do better.
Read the full article here and how we can help support in our daily lives.
The cold has set in here in New York. I’ve gone from t-shirt to turtleneck in minutes. While I reflect on those balmy t-shirt days, I’m reminded of the freedom I felt in the city all summer — sun on my face, arms exposed, and… no bra. It was blissful.
Everyone was braless, it seemed. Women of all ages and sizes seemed to simply no longer care about this particular garment. How liberating!
I feel like we’ve normalized the idea of boobs — they’re not a perversion, they’re not an anomaly. They are natural, they are beautiful, they are healthy in all their shapes and sizes, and it is OK to go braless.
At the same time, whenever I left the bubble that is New York City, I didn’t feel the same freedom. I found myself uncomfortable. Almost missing my bra.
And so I took the question to TikTok — I wanted to know what fellow TikTokers thought of my sense of freedom. Was it geographic? Was it just a passing summer thing? Was it about our changing norms? Or a (wonderful) post-COVID relic?
And in true TikTok fashion, the comments came in!
Size certainly was a factor, as these women had to say…
Mine are big. I need the support. But everyone should do what makes them happy and comfortable!
The gravitational pull is not working for me. I need to use a seat belt for the girls.
But society played a part as well…
I get bad attention from men.
I don’t care until I’m at work, only because I’ve had comments from male managers before.
Others simply enjoyed the freedom…
If I am wearing a shirt that won’t make it obvious I go without.
Been doing this for about a year and I’m never going back!
I love this! West coast sister here bringing up (or down) the left!
Sure, bras have a function. Forget social expectations for a second. Let’s focus on support. Some of us need a bra to avoid back pain. It turns out that most women are wearing the wrong bra size, leading to discomfort and pain, effectively undoing any work the bra is supposed to do. While there are not many scientific studies looking at this issue (another problem in itself), anecdotal evidence and expert opinion suggest this to be true.
I know some actively prefer a bra for aesthetic reasons, such as my small-boobed sisters who opt to wear bras for added boob. And added confidence. Or my big-boobed sisters who prefer to minimize. I fall into camp #2, having made feeble attempts to minimize the cargo for decades. I’ve since surrendered — we are stuck together, these boobs and I.
Anyway, cup size — actual, perceived, or desired — is a whole separate conversation.
So, decisions whether or not to bra rest on many factors — support, comfort, size, society, setting, occupation, fashion and so on.
There’s also been a major shift since the onset of COVID. Research into women’s present-day underwear preferences and habits has interesting results. We spend too much time in discomfort due to our undergarments, it seems. And more than half of women surveyed “can’t wait” to take their bras off at the end of the day. Almost half have started ditching their bras in the name of comfort.
For those who have preserved the tradition, 60% have made the switch to non-wired because — geez! — no one ever wanted wires poking into their chest! More women have committed to wearing the most comfortable pandemic bra possible — even when we are post-pandemic!
In the words of one woman:
COVID had a big impact where people didn’t leave the house as much and got used to comfort over style and then were like why would I go back to wearing something I find uncomfortable?
These findings really gave me a… lift. I had to keep poking around! And women didn’t… minimize their commentary. OK, enough boob puns. Here’s what they had to say:
I rarely wear bras myself but most people here would. I am often told I get away with it because I have smaller (no) boobs. I definitely feel self conscious sometimes in certain settings but for the most part I’m happy to go bra free regardless. Abroad I would sunbathe topless and don’t even pack bras on holidays but 100% depends on the country.
Many women agreed with this view. Young women, that is. There’s likely a generational gap here too, but that’s the subject of another blog!
“It depends on where you are,” many said. And this even varies from city to city in the same country. There are cities that are more open (or, boob-friendly) than others.
Depends on how big your boobs are. Not in terms of acceptability but in terms of how comfortable you are going about the place and how you feel about your boobs flying about the place.
This meme was brought to mind then:
One woman added:
I do think I have to wear one, apart from the comfort I feel un-put together, lazy and like I can’t achieve anything in my day until I put one on! I think it’s fashionable with the Gen Z not to wear one, but I guess it all depends on your cup size and how confident you are. If you have a medium to generous cup size it’s more obvious and do people do it to grab attention or to shock? Or is that just what society has told us?
Another agreed with the societal expectations saying, “I think it’s acceptable but I think societally, if you don’t have as much boobs it’s kind of less in your face so you can get away with it.” And she added: “But that’s more what society says, not me.”
Definitely in summer I wouldn’t wear a bra but then when the weather gets colder I tend to because I still get the comment (from men) “Are you cold?” and I’ve even gotten “Oh the headlights are on.”
Many still opt to wear bras. “Oh god I can’t not wear a bra!” one woman said. “I only let them free at night,” added another.
“Mine are droopy now… if I run I need to wear my own bra with two sports bras over my original bra to stop them from jiggling!” But for everyone else, she said, “free the titties!”
“I would feel comfortable going bra free,” another said, “but sometimes I like how my boobs look in a bra and the confidence I get with that.”
Wearing a bra for work was pretty standard response. In the office, most of us feel “obliged to wear one to work,” even though “I don’t need the support,” one added.
“I think it probably is the done thing to wear one to work,” another woman added. Even if minimal, like a bralette.
Another woman explained that it isn’t about the boobs but about the nipples. “Certain tops I don’t wear a bra but would put on nipple covers,” she said, recognizing that this has more to do with how society views visible nipples.
Another one echoed this:
If I’m wearing a top that doesn’t work with a bra I go braless no problem but I do kinda try make sure nips are covered I guess? I know like it’s definitely some toxic masculinity shit going on.
For the younger generation, covering nipples is less of a consideration.
Definitely a bra to work but probably depends massively on your uniform/outfit and what your job entails. Outside of that each to their own. The “nips out” is all the rage now sure!
“Yeah nips out and 90s fashion is back!” another agreed.
At the end of the day, in the words of one woman “I’ve got a few things to get off my chest… like this bra!”
Why do we wear bras anyway? Society. Support. A bit of both, perhaps? The truth is that there are many good reasons not to wear a bra, including “you just don’t feel like it.” The expectation (to bra or not to bra?!) has been placed on us since the beginning of time, with the first bras appearing as early as the 14th century.
And then there was the corset. And women literally breaking their ribs to squeeze into them. The corset has an interesting history with varying viewpoints — oppressive or empowering. Impractical and often hazardous, many regard them as a symbol of repression. Others thought they celebrated femininity. Presently corsets are incorporated into fashion trends, thanks in large part to TikTok (and maybe Madonna, for us kids of the 80s out there!).
Despite their ancient origins, bras became normalized in the early 1900s, and by the 1930s they were an essential wardrobe staple. Along with evolution of the garment came evolution of our standards and expectations. In every age and stage, we have been told what our bodies are supposed to look like. And we’ve enlarged or reduced our boobs according to the norms of the day.
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the most common cosmetic procedures are breast augmentation or enlargement, breast implant removals, and breast lift. Globally, too, one of the most common surgical cosmetic procedures is breast augmentation, with over 1.6 million procedures performed in 2020.
The bra is tightly… fastened to the status of women and patriarchal views of the female body. We are expected to “cover it up” — boobs, hair, whatever. To me, any forced form of covering plays a similar role. I’m not saying we should all go topless, but what I would like is for us to have more freedom around our choices. In other words, if I am not wearing a bra under my top, shouldn’t that be up to me to decide?!
I remain opposed to any attempt to forcibly cover, restrain, restrict, deny, or hide parts of our bodies that should otherwise be natural.
There’s an ongoing conversation about this. Popular campaigns like #FreeTheNipple became a rallying cry to point out hypocritical double standards where images of female breasts are censored or removed from social media sites. Meaning, women’s bodies are perceived to be indecent and sexualized, while men’s bodies are natural.
The same argument can be seen in conversations on breastfeeding in public, one of the most natural acts. The argument here is that it makes people “uncomfortable” because breasts are sexual. I don’t have words for how archaic this line of thinking is.
Anyway, there’s much more to say about boob-politics. But back to bras.
In Papua New Guinea, where I lived for many years, the word for bra is kalabas blong susu. And the translation is poetic and perfect: prison for breasts.
That’s how I feel about bras, anyway. But if you choose to wear such a “prison” — with emphasis on the word CHOICE across every single aspect of our lives — then I’d suggest doing what I probably should have done: get a really good fitting, invest in a high quality bra, and don’t pick based on aesthetics. Admittedly, I failed across these fronts, and have since all but abandoned my pretty little prisons.
More importantly, get to know your boobs. Check regularly for lumps or abnormalities. Speaking of, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We need to understand breast cancer — and fully fund its research. And we need to show support and solidarity for those affected by breast cancer — we all know too many people who have been affected. Donate here.
So, do we burn our bras?! Not necessarily. Bras might fuel our fire — or light our fire — but either way the choice is ours.
Mahsa Amini was 22. Her name is now well known. She is the fire that ignited a feminist revolution in Iran. Amini was killed by the so-called Morality Police for improperly wearing her hijab, the head covering mandated by so-called cultural and religious interpretation.
(Not so different from the religious interpretations and legal restrictions that deny an American woman her right to her own body, to use just one example. Let’s be clear: this fight isn’t just about “other women, over there.” It’s all around us. Just because our heads aren’t covered doesn’t mean our eyes aren’t covered…)
This garment has become the symbol of oppression in Iran and a way to ‘justify’ discrimination against women. And yet, shouldn’t all women have the choice whether or not to cover? Ideally yes, but…
The Morality Police arrested Amini on September 13 for wearing her headscarf too loosely. She was severely beaten in police custody and subsequently died from her injuries three days later.
The next day brave women took to the streets, burning their hijabs, openly defining religious clerics, and cutting their hair — a feminist revolution.
Her death sparked widespread protests, and a feminist call to action:
Women! Life! Freedom!
Zan! Zandegi! Azadi!
زن، زندگی ، آزادی
This is a fight for freedom, for rights, for choice, for bodily integrity, for autonomy. That is what feminism stands for. No one, no country, nowhere should ever tell women what to do with their own bodies and their own lives, including how to dress, and whether to cover or not. NO COUNTRY.
Just like the rest of the world, I was watching the news in awe and admiration. But while I cheer, I also fear. Will they succeed? What will be the repercussions if they do — or don’t?
On Friday September 23, an email landed in my inbox:
Hello Dr. AbiRafeh,
Hi, I’m Maryam. I live in Germany but have been in contact with my family and friends in Iran. Do you know what happened to a girl in Iran? I’m sure you know a 22 year old girl was killed for what she was wearing. The government has been killing the people who are in the streets and shouting “women, life, freedom” please be their voice. You have been working for women rights for many years, please be with Iranian women and help the world hear their voices louder.
We exchanged messages to get a sense of the situation — especially given the communications blackout imposed by the government. Maryam confirmed:
After Mahsa’s death millions of people all around Iran are in the streets saying the slogan “women, life, freedom “ and the police are killing and beating them. A lot of women disappeared during these days and nobody knows where they are and a lot of women have been arrested.
She added, urgently:
Please watch this video of what they are doing to women.
We asked how we could help.
We just need the world to hear our voice because the dictator government always says women are free in Iran and the Hijab is their choice and is not mandatory but the world should know they are liars, they are monsters who have been oppressing women for 43 years. We can not do anything without men’s permission, we cannot choose what to wear, where to go, and what to do.
She continued to say:
My mother-in-law is in hospital because of what happened to her during the protests.
Maryam’s mother-in-law is no stranger to the harsh rule of the Islamic Republic. Her son was arrested in 1999 a few days after the student-led protests in Tehran. Three months after his arrest, the family received a phone call from him but have not heard anything since — they still do not know if he is alive or dead.
Such is the fate for many — those who are brave enough to challenge the authoritarian regime and demand basic human dignity and rights.
A little bit of history… because context is important.
The Iranian Revolution in 1979 toppled a monarchy. In that historic moment, people’s hopes for change were high. Unfortunately, the result was the Islamic Republic — an even more oppressive regime. This new Islamic Republic sought to restrict and control the population in the name of sovereignty. In the decades since, corrupt autocratic governance coupled with externally-imposed sanctions have resulted in a precarious economy with high poverty rates, widespread unemployment, turbulent political relations, restricted opportunities, gross human rights abuses, and international isolation.
And rampant violations of women’s rights.
Women have suffered most under this regime, reduced to second class citizens and stripped of all rights. The age of marriage for girls was reduced from 18 to nine, movement was restricted, and women were forced to wear the hijab and adhere to Islamic dress code.
Gender segregation in public places such as schools and public transport was attempted too, but women resisted. So while segregation and female only spaces are observed in many places, institutionalization of segregation has not happened thanks to resistance and criticism from civil society.
In fact, women in Iran have always been actively resisting.
Whatever marginal gains women have achieved in education, politics, and the workplace have all been a result of women’s resistance.
And today again, women have been leading the protests — despite grave risk.
The repressive regime is known to arbitrarily arrest, savagely beat, torture, and disappear dissenters. And this time is no different, with authorities brutally retaliating — especially against women. The death toll is rising, extreme violence is being meted out, and internet restrictions are curbing communication. They are also attempting to hijack the narrative with counter protests in support of the government.
Maryam sent us this:
This is an important video to see what they do with women.And this one.
On Sunday 25 we got another update:
They killed Hadis Najafi with 6 bullets in Karaj city.
Najafi, seen here on her way to a demonstration speaking about hope for a better future, was in her early 20s.
Other young women murdered include Ghazale Chelavi, Hananeh Kia, Minu Majidi, and Mahsa Mogoi — who was only 18.
Men too have been protesting and supporting women. One man, visibly injured and bloodied, said:
My body is full of those pellet bullets. I am here to claim the rights of the next generation… We want justice, we want gender equality.
However, they are not immune to the state’s brutality either. Erfan Rezai, Zakaria Khial, Mohammad Farmani, Abdallah Mahmoudpour, Rouzbeh Khademian, Milan Haghighi, and Javad Heidari, were all murdered.
A video emerged of Heidari’s sister cutting her hair on his coffin, protesting his killing. Everyone is suffering.
And that’s not all. At least 76 people have been killed since unrest broke out, but it is likely much higher — and rising.
And countless have been arrested, held in inhumane conditions, subjected to beatings.
This isn’t stopping anytime soon.
On Monday September 26, Maryam sent this:
Today the police arrested my sister. The situation is awful, they are trying to find everybody.
We reached out to some other contacts in Iran. Those who were able to reply safely, did so. One woman wrote:
I’m still alive. Sad moments remain in Iran.
These people have asked to remain anonymous. They must delete the messages after sending — or they put their lives at risk. The government is tracking down everyone who speaks out.
Usually every time they suppress the demonstrations, they start arresting people from their homes months later, and then the rapes, whippings, and tortures of the prisoners start again. They are the biggest liars in the world because they always try to show that everything is fine inside Iran. Just yesterday, the villa of Iran’s most famous football player Ali Karimi was seized by the government because of his support for the people’s demonstrations.
Another woman wrote:
I am so happy that the world is watching us and hearing our voices now. It means a lot to me to get a message like this from you.
I couldn’t take part in the protests so, I don’t have any fresh information from the field. All I know is from the news which is spread around the world. All I know is that women lead the protests, some people got killed during the protests. People protest in many cities, they’re vast.
While Iranians have always protested, and various incidents throughout the years have sparked mass demonstrations, women are saying that this time feels different.
In the words of one:
People are hopeful that something might change from now on. We are sad and angry. We want to live a normal life just like any other human being. It’s very simple. Wish they could hear us.
I just want to imagine a life in Iran where we are sitting at the beach with our bikinis and drinking beer. Something this simple. A normal life…
Women, life, freedom.
Another women echoed this sentiment:
Iran is in trouble, I hope freedom for all.
We are tired of all the past years of dictatorship…Wish us freedom.
So what can we do?
Listen to — and amplify — Iranian voices. They are not silent — but they are silenced.
Here are a few Iranian journalists, academics, activists to start:
“Women in much of the world lack support for fundamental functions of a human life.”
That’s what Martha Nussbaum said in her 2000 book Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.
Meanwhile, 22 years later… where are those “fundamental functions”?!
Women are still less likely to live a free and full life — and we are more vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. You’ve heard me howl about the gender gap and how it is getting worse.
And here goes yet another reality check.
Women at work still enter at lower levels, stay at lower levels, and are paid less — even if we reach higher levels. Women in politics have even more hurdles to jump through. The law still doesn’t see women as equal in too many countries — including right here in the US. Women are still expected to take on the bulk of domestic and childcare burdens. And, worst of all, women still suffer from violence that deliberately targets us — because we are women.
So, no wonder women are not able to reach their full potential — the world actively keeps us from it! Meaning our freedoms and capabilities are actively, and deliberately, constrained. This is the stuff that dictates human development. What is that, really?
Well, human development can be anything from basic stuff like access to clean water to more strategic stuff like better laws, representing different levels of empowerment. When our freedoms and capabilities are restricted, we lose out on human development. And when that happens, we fuel gender inequality. We know this to be true — and increasing — from just about every single report in recent years.
The 2020 UNDP Human Development Perspectives Report is yet another case in point. Focusing on the concept of social norms, it shows us that progress toward gender equality is slowing. In areas that are considered basic, progress towards equality is present. But not so in the so-called strategic stuff.
What does that mean?!
Basic needs are about subsistence, the stuff we need to make everyday life easier like access to water and health and so on. Strategic stuff is what we need to move towards more equitable gender roles and relations, for instance laws that protect women from violence, ensuring women have access to credit, and those types of critical things.
Strategic stuff alters gender power relations — for the better. These are about agency, power, change. Basic needs do not challenge power relations (although in the long term they may make microscopic changes — but these aren’t good enough or fast enough).
Already disadvantaged groups, like women, catch up in the basic needs and fall behind in the strategic needs. The gap widens where it really matters. The higher the power and responsibility, the wider the gap. Our basic needs are closer to being met, but our strategic needs are a long way off. Meaning progress is uneven, and the trap of the unequal distribution of power continues.
Areas such as politics, the economy, leadership, and decision making all remain vastly unequal. So, yes women can vote, but are they heads of state? Yes women have gainful employment, but are they on the CEOs and billionaires lists?! Although women’s overall employment might be close to parity in some countries, women are underrepresented in more senior positions.
The glass ceiling is more like a concrete roof.
If we want gender equality (ohhellyes FFS it’s about time!), we need the strategic stuff because that’s going to expand women’s agency and empowerment.
Gender inequality is inherently tied up in discriminatory social norms, traditional roles, and unequal power dynamics. Social norms are the values, behaviors, and attitudes held by society which in turn influence and uphold power relations between individuals, communities, and institutions. (In short, CisHet white men have power over women and marginalized folk.)
Social norms heavily influence someone’s identity — things like age, gender, ability, ethnicity, religion, and so on. We are multidimensional beings, and therefore our lives are layered. Meaning that our roles, expectations, obligations are layered too. Meaning also, that the norms and stereotypes that define our layers are, well… layered.
All this stuff determines power relations — who has it, who doesn’t, how they use it, and how they abuse it.
When these social norms and stereotypes are discriminatory, they can reinforce and perpetuate inequality and unequal power dynamics. For example, norms dictating strict expectations for masculine and feminine behavior will impact individual choice, freedom, and capability — and not in good ways. Those who share a common identity are required to abide by these ideals, even if they don’t necessarily agree with them.
If you want to belong, you’ve got to behave… or you’re out. That’s what society says, anyway.
So, norms determine the extent of our autonomy and freedom. And they also determine the price we pay if we transgress. That’s why the Gender Social Norms Index is so important — because it measures the beliefs, biases, and prejudices that are keeping us from equality. They were first introduced in the 2019 Human Development Report, inspired by the World Values Survey, global research examining how our values and beliefs impact societies over time.
The survey found 91% of men and 86% of women show at least one bias against gender equality across politics, the economy, education, intimate partner violence and women’s reproductive rights. Approximately 50% of men and women from 75 countries believe men make better political leaders than women and over 40% of those surveyed felt men made better business executives. Nearly 30% agreed it is justifiable for a man to beat his partner. Nearly 30% of men and women agreed.
Only 14% women and 10% men have NO gender social norms biases — yup, that’s all.
It comes as no surprise that women have less bias against gender equality and empowerment. But… bias is on the rise globally, despite decades of progress in women’s rights. Instances of backlash and regressive attitudes are evident — in both men and women.
But there’s good news! Norms can change! It’s just like that pesky word “culture” — it’s not static. Stop using it as an excuse to oppress.
It starts with the family — they lay the foundation for any unconscious (or entirely conscious) gender bias, meaning there is opportunity to learn and unlearn traditional attitudes. Adolescence is an arena of socialization also, especially for boys. This is where they come to understand how society defines what it means to be male or female — although I’d say that happens even earlier. But during this period, beliefs crystallize into behaviors and more rigid expectations and pressures are placed on them.
It is especially important to intercept the fixed social and cultural expectations related to masculinity that are placed on boys as they will then go on to reproduce and perpetuate the patriarchy.
Challenging these stigmas and stereotypes are difficult, especially by individuals who have the most to gain from complying with norms and the most to lose from defying norms. But it must be done — otherwise women are kept from claiming rights due to the power of social expectations.
We need to change. Universal policies help to provide a basic floor — but they aren’t enough. They specify that we all should get the same things. And yes, we should. But inequalities built from social norms and resulting in social exclusion are harder to tackle. Social exclusion actively keeps people from participating in a full rich life because of the bazillion ways we discriminate against each other.
In these cases, targeted or affirmative action policies can help — when a group has been historically disadvantaged and things won’t “equal out” on their own. When we speak about historic disadvantage, gender is one of the most prevalent. And no, it’s not progressing just fine without our help. We need to do more. And do it better. And faster.
Is there a positive in all of this? A glimmer.
There are new social movements — particularly in the online space — to raise awareness, assert independence, agitate for equality, and ultimately help shift norms. Hashtags and movements like #IWillGoOut in India and #NiUnaMenos in Latin America are good examples. #IWillGoOut is a movement asserting women’s right to public space — to safe public space. To go out at any time, anywhere, without fear. It’s a pretty radical idea considering that fear exists just about everywhere.
#NiUnaMenos — or, Not One Woman Less — advocates for bringing “our bodies, our abortions, and our desires out of hiding” — and not going back. “We will not let ourselves be burned,” they say, “because this time the fire is ours.”
That’s right. Women do not report sexual assault. And we’re flooded with stories explaining why, again and again and again.
#WhyIDidntReport isn’t a new hashtag, but it seems to endure — because the situation doesn’t change. And women are NOT reporting. Because… why would they?
The first time I was harassed and tried to report it, I was 21. I was living in Morocco, working on women’s rights — or trying to. Most of the time I was dodging the special attentions of a colleague who liked to pass by my office several times a day and say “You do know you’re beautiful, yes?”
I remember how he made every effort to touch me, long arms reaching out to grab whatever part of me was closest — caressing my shoulders when I was at my desk with my back to the door, touching my thigh as we sat next to each other in a meeting. His hands, I thought, were like the metal arm of the claw machines at amusement parks. And he was everywhere, there was no avoiding him.
“You are beautiful — even if you do not smile very much,” he would say.
One day I finally decided to report him. I was young, naive, and wasn’t sure of the proper procedures or what might come of it, but I had already endured many months of his tentacle-like behavior and I could not take one more minute.
I went to the director to complain. It might have been 27 years ago, but I’ll never forget the dialogue.
“There’s something making me uncomfortable,” I fumbled, while trying to explain that I was harassed on the streets, near my home, and, on top of it all, in the office.
“Oh Lina!” he responded, “but you’re Arab, you should understand how Moroccan men are!”
My face went blank. He continued.
“You see, this is your first experience in The Field…”
Somehow, The Field is a place where all actions are excusable. And where my plea for a safe workplace was a lost cause.
“Ah, Lina. You’re young yet. This is all part of being a woman working abroad.”
“But surely I don’t have to — ”
“What do you want me to do, Lina?” Before I could answer, he continued. “Shall I confront him?!” He chuckled. Was his response funny?
I wish I could say that I was surprised in that moment. It was a response I could have anticipated. Perhaps I had been naïve in hoping for an ally. And some concrete action.
“OK, Lina. So let’s say I confront him. No man would admit to it!”
“It would be…” he paused for a second, as if searching for the right thing to say. “It would be like nailing Jell-o to the wall.”
Nailing Jell-o to the wall. I had never heard that expression before, but I’ve never forgotten it.
This isn’t just Morocco, isn’t just my office, isn’t just one “bad guy”, but rather everyone, everywhere, all the time, from the obvious to the hidden — even the “nice guy”. Even that guy can have a creep living inside.
And why don’t we report? Well, that would be like nailing Jell-o to the wall.
I took this to the TikTokers, with a short rant about why women don’t report.
And, in true TikTok fashion, the comments came in all over again. Comments like “RIGHT” and “Exactly” and “That’s so much truer today.”
They spoke about having to relive trauma. One person said, “Once that trauma is over, then you have to relive it again and be degraded every time you tell them. That “second crime” haunts me as much as the assaults.” Another added, “I did report my second assault at the age of 21. It was the most humiliating experience I’ve ever gone through.”
A common refrain was the unacceptable and insignificant consequences for the perpetrator. “Totally pointless,” said one comment, “because nothing will happen to the man, only the woman,” said another. Sometimes the perpetrator knows the police, or is able to bribe them. Yes, this actually happens.
One comment expressed the views of many who believe that “this poor young man’s life” will be ruined, while she will “live with the trauma for the rest of her life.” Indeed, perpetrators get very light sentences — if any. And even less if they happen to be white. There’s an undeniable racial element here as well. The lack of justice in the case of the Stanford rapist-who-also-swims is an egregious example.
And even when we do report, what happens? Usually nothing.
“I did report my abuser, my grandfather, when I was 8. He had been a serial rapist and pedophile and had abused almost every woman and child in our family since the mid 50s. No one stood up with me and backed me up. They all lied for him… In the years since, dozens of people… have come forward and confirmed everything I said. So he made it to 66 before he was “caught.” He didn’t have any legal ramifications…”
And the statistics back this up. In the US, for every 1000 rapes, 995 perpetrators will go unpunished. Rape Crisis UK reported that only 1 in 100 rapes recorded by the police resulted in a charge that same year. The organization also highlighted that 5 in 6 women who are raped do not report. And it’s not just women. Four in 5 men do not report either, citing embarrassment, humiliation, and lack of trust in the police.
In short, justice systems are failing us. Because, in the words of one TikToker, “the ‘justice system’ isn’t just, so what’s the point?”
Predictably, the element of shame came up because, shockingly, we still shame and blame the woman.
“A trusted adult told me not to say anything because “my parents will never look at me the same.” Another person said, “I remember not telling anyone until I was 50. I was 8. Teach your kids to trust you.”
Another reason was disbelief and denial, “or because the issue would be shoved under the rug, dismissed or the victim shamed to SHUT HER UP.” Another added, “I asked for help to get a manager to accept rejection and quit trying to woo me. They rallied as if I filed a fake sexual assault claim. I eventually resigned.”
And another: “It took me 8 years to be heard… No one cared.”
Why don’t we report?! One person summed it up: “Because I didn’t want to be told it was my fault.”
Anyway, no matter how many women do report, and how many do experience sexual assault, there will always be one guy who claims it’s fake. False reports are significantly overestimated, yet receive a huge amount of media attention. Studies reveal false reports are “consistently very low” with rates ranging from 2% to 10%.
So yes false reporting of sexual assault does occur, as with any crime, but it is incredibly rare. And anyway, what’s the satisfaction, really? Perpetrators hardly ever face justice, they are seldom given strong sentences, and they continue with their lives — perhaps even gaining notoriety and celebrity status. Meanwhile, women are ostracized and blamed and shamed and shunned. And slammed on social media.
Ultimately, the real rates of sexual assault far outnumber the reported rates. This happens far more frequently than we know. To all of us.
Accurate statistics are incredibly difficult to get — because women don’t report. According to RAINN, an American is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds. Yet, rates of reporting do not reflect this.
A study found 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police. The NSVRC — National Sexual Violence Resource Center — found that 40% of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police in 2017, but only 25% were reported in 2018.
Rape is the most underreported crime. In the US, it is estimated that only 19% of rapes, completed or attempted, are reported annually. Globally, there are vast discrepancies between laws, definitions, implementation, and reporting mechanisms.
Even though reporting services are abysmal, societal responses are poor, and many women feel a certain degree of hopelessness, one commented, “It’s time we take over and change things.”
Another added that “there should be advocates that stand by victims to help fight with them, like taking your big sister with you.”
“Exactly,” one person said. “Never underestimate the power of women.”
The full conversation can be found here. Below are some highlights.
Now you’ve described yourself as born into conflict and always comfortable with chaos. Can you tell us about the early years that enabled you to say that and how they set you on the path for the work you do today?
Being born a woman already means facing a certain amount of conflict, realizing at a certain age that the world views you as less than, as second class. So for me that is already a type of conflict. Also, I am Lebanese and Palestinian so I have two war zones behind me. And I was raised between Saudi Arabia and the United States, so I’m all sorts of hyphens and complications, which means I really had to figure out who I was and what I stood for. For me, being a woman, being a fighter, feeling very strongly about social justice before I could even put a label on it — Feminism was my country. That’s where my loyalty is. And that’s really how it all started.
Now you’ve dedicated your career to ending gender-based violence. How did you first get involved with this work?
It takes a while to understand that this is something ingrained in all of us as women and girls, we’re constantly told to be careful and to watch what we do, where we go, who we interact with, what we’re wearing. From an early age the message is that we’re unsafe, and that safety is our responsibility. And so you feel this burden, the idea that your freedom, your mobility, your voice, your choice are constricted. Your opportunities are limited because the world views you in a certain way, and you are constantly at risk.
That message comes across very clearly to young girls, and certainly came across to me. I was 14 years old, in high school, and I signed up for a class called Comparative Women’s History. The class wasn’t about women’s history as much as the history of violence against women, from the foetus to the funeral, and everything in between. And in every single country, including here in the US, everywhere, all the time, in every place and space.
For me it was overwhelming. I had never heard anything like that. I could not imagine the magnitude of intimate partner violence, or how we used to break our ribs to fit into corsets, body image and mutilations fueled by patriarchy, female genital mutilation, bride burning, acid burning, rape as a weapon of war, all forms of violence.
I was furious. It was that anger that got me going. I realized then that nothing is possible for us, as women, as long as this continues, as long as I feel that restriction on my freedom and my possibilities, as long as I have to constantly worry about my safety and feel like I’m always at risk, how can I ever achieve anything in my life? So that became the starting point for me. Fix that first and then let’s talk about all the other stuff. And we’re still fighting the same thing.
Sounds like you didn’t imagine back then that the pathway was going to be this long, if it was fix that first, that sort of implies you thought we’d get this done?
I was 14 and angry — but also hopeful. This new knowledge was as devastating as it was fueling. And now, I’m old, and I’m still screaming until I lose my voice. But I look at younger women, and I wonder what world we are leaving for them? Every day there are new cases, new incidents at the micro and the macro level. I have a niece who is 8. How do I look her in the eye and say, “I tried to make things better for you. But I’m sorry, I failed.”
What more can women do who are listening to this podcast? Using their social media presence is good, and amplifies the messages, but are there practical things people can do?
There are always organizations to support. I write a blog every week and try to point people towards concrete action.
It’s one thing for us to not be aware, although I think that there’s no longer an excuse for that. We’re hyper aware of what is happening in the world. Then once you are aware, you should be angry — or you’re asleep. It’s impossible to not care about these things as they go on around us — and happen to us. It’s impossible to say, well, that’s just other women, or that’s over there. Not me, not here, not now. No, we all are responsible. It is here and it is now. Every single time I write about any country, I say here’s what’s happening, here’s why you should care, here’s why we should be angry, and here’s what we can do about that anger. I like tangible action and want to promote credible organizations. They need our support.
We know that one in three women worldwide experience gender-based violence. As someone who’s advocated for women’s rights globally, how do you persuade people who think it’s someone else’s problem?
Look at intimate partner violence, the most common form worldwide, affecting so many more women than we know. Women are mostly silent about it because what incentive is there to speak out unless you’re going to be protected, with access to security, with the possibility for justice. Too often, everywhere, women don’t have those things. Intimate partner violence is a silent pandemic.
Look at sexual harassment. Certainly the #MeToo movement made some great strides in exposing the magnitude of the problem. And everybody with connectivity, with certain resources, was paying attention. Everybody was MeToo-ing, everybody has a story. When you stop and listen to that, it was overwhelming. Every woman I know a story. I certainly have a story.
When we have those conversations, we realize the painful ordinariness of this. Look at how we talk to our girls about where and how they move in the world — on the street, with keys in their hands, and so on. Whatever types of restrictions we place on the freedoms and mobilities and choices of women and girls. Even the fear of violence is a form of violence — and we have all internalized it.
Look at young women when they’re out saying “come with me to the bathroom” or “call me when you get home” or “be careful” or “don’t talk to him” or “keep your eye on your drink all the time.” It’s exhausting having to live with all of that fear. For me that is already a crime. Women know this, they know how common it is. And we all have accepted this as part of what it means to be a woman. I say no, that is not the way to live. That is not the way any of us should live.
Our right is to be free, and to have respect, and dignity, and equal share of space and resources and opportunities — but we don’t. We live very small. When people start to see those things and talk to each other, then it becomes a different conversation. We talk about things like the increase in sexual violence and intimate partner violence in the aftermath of an emergency. The emergency is right here! Hurricane Katrina was right here in our backyard. COVID is a great example. The assumption that “stay home” means “stay safe” was naive. Home is not safe for far too many women. I get chills just telling you about it — and I talk about it every day. It is just so unbearably common.
Lina, you’ve got an incredible energy, how do you keep your spirits up? Decades into this work, I can feel the power of that energy, even as we work on Zoom. How do you keep doing it?
Oh, it’s the anger. It’s the feeling that things should have been better by now. This constant shock I have every morning waking up to these stories, as if it’s happening all over again. And the weird thing is, it’s gotten harder for me, not easier, in terms of my level of frustration, and fury, and sorrow. I look at girls and I think we should have done better for you. Not that the onus was all on me or on us to fix everything, but the idea that the world shouldn’t be like this. And it’s that sense of injustice that I can never swallow. And that’s how I keep going.
But now I’ve morphed, I do it in different ways. I used to be in the field in the thick of it, in an emergency. Now, in the last couple of years, I do this from New York. A little bit of distance for self preservation. Still, I will scream until I lose my voice. I do it now, through advising, and blogging, and speaking, and just howling into the void. And if one person listens, that’s already good.
Who are the women who have inspired you along the way?
I was raised by feminists, even though they wouldn’t label themselves that way. My late grandmother on the Palestinian side fought for an education, managed to go to college, and today her 1938 diploma hangs on my wall. She is a reminder of what women who push boundaries can do. I was raised with that story and that legacy of strength. My parents reinforced those messages of financial independence and didn’t let me play with dolls “because I could do much more,” my mother would say.
But there are so many women who inspire me all the time. Young women, women whose names we don’t know, who are out on the streets, or in their classrooms or in their homes, pushing those boundaries. They are more clear about what is not acceptable about the lives that they want and about the rights that they have.
In your fabulous TED talk, you talk about this expression, ‘start where you stand.’ Can you tell us the story of how you came across that phrase and what it means to you?
Oh, that was such a powerful moment. I was deployed to Nepal after the earthquake in 2015 to work on sexual violence prevention and response, trying to provide support and relief and recovery and looking at the systems and services to get women to safety. That was actually my last emergency.
I was walking to the UN office where I was stationed at five o’clock in the morning, and came across this graffiti. And that’s what it said: Start where you stand. And I thought, this is exactly what I’ve been wanting to say my whole life, but could not have put it better than this spray painted piece of wisdom.
Because people ask me all the time what they can do. They say “I want to do something, but I don’t want to go to Afghanistan or Chad or places you went.” I tell them that they don’t have to, because, unfortunate for us, this problem is everywhere, all around us, all the time.
If you look at the space you occupy — your home, or your school, or the street or the market, or your office or public office — whatever space you have, whatever platform you have, you can take that space and make it feminist.
There are opportunities for work and there are violations of rights everywhere. So by Start where you stand, what I thought my graffiti artist was trying to tell me was that we don’t have to go far to do good. The need is so overwhelming that it is all around us. And if we all took responsibility for our little spaces, then maybe that effort is contagious. Maybe we will see some change in our lifetime.
You don’t have to go far to do good. I love it.
Virginia Woolf says, As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country, as a woman, my country is the world. The wonderful Lina says…
For me, being a woman is the most important aspect of my identity. Feminism is my country, and no loyalty supersedes this. This is the most important role I have, the most important space I occupy, it is what I love, what I believe in. It is what I hope by now I am good at. And it is my duty to do it. If I can do one good thing for one young woman or make one tiny dent, then I have done something. And that for me is enough.
Do you remember the first time that you were touched or spoken to in a way that made you uncomfortable? In a way that you didn’t consent to? I do. I was 7. Now I’m 47 and I’m still angry about it.
So why don’t you tell me your stories? I’m gonna put something together because I think that everyone needs to hear it, because it is about all of us. It’s everyone, everywhere, it’s all the time. And I’ve had enough.
And then the floodgates opened.
First time I remember, I was 3 … but it started at birth. I’m 41.
Had this little boy in the neighborhood that would punch me if I didn’t kiss him. It starts young.
I was 5. Now I’m 55 and I’m far more than pissed. Many times it starts at home.
I was 7 and this boy kept bothering me. He was kinda the definition of a nice guy. He would never leave me alone tho…
And so many more. How many stories do we need, I wonder? We often say “even one case is one too many” — I still believe that. But we also need a thousand — or a million — cases to ignite ourselves into action, it seems.
The stories wouldn’t stop coming in.
Around the same age. What I also feel sorry about, is how even when I was a lot older I still ‘let it happen’. Internalized the ‘it’s the victim’s fault’-rhetoric and was more worried about what would happen to me than him if anyone found out.
And so we say again, again, again: there’s only one person to blame here — that’s the perpetrator. No one else. Ever.
And just as I had finished posting on TikTok, a friend sent me this:
Omg perfect timing a guy just stopped while I was waiting to cross the street to make pussy licking gestures at me and i just yelled at him to leave women the fuck alone and stop being a disgusting impotent pervert.
And another one sent this:
I was 14 and working in an Italian restaurant with 3 other friends. The boss would frequently come downstairs from the attic with his trousers undone which made us all terribly uncomfortable. There would be the odd brush of the hand in inappropriate places and always finding excuses to stand pressed against us. One day I had written “maths homework” on my hand in pink pen. He came over, took my hand and slowly licked all over the writing. I was so shocked and terrified I stood rooted to the spot.
There’s something wrong with the world when EverySingleWoman has a story, right?!
I want to be constructive here, to provide ideas on how to teach consent, on talking to kids about safe vs unsafe touching. In a previous blog, I interviewed my now 8-year old niece to get her thoughts on what it means to be a girl or a boy.
My sister — her mother — explained to me that they started teaching her about consent from day one:
We started giving her the right messages from the very beginning. “Nobody can touch you,” we told her. On the first day of preschool… “nobody can touch you.” In kindergarten… “nobody can touch you.” Do mothers of sons say the same? I hope so. And do they also tell them it’s inappropriate to touch girls? No, they probably did not. So you’ve left it to me to have this conversation with her over and over and over for the rest of her life, because it’s always going to be her responsibility to manage her own security, and her fault if she doesn’t.
My niece responded:
[Boys and girls] are exactly the same and equal… we get the same respect and we need to get the same peace.
She gets it.
But still, I worry for young girls. I want to believe that my niece is far smarter than I was at age 8, but she is inheriting a fundamentally unequal world, one where her body and her rights are not her own.
What can we do?
We cannot make any assumptions about the availability and quality of sex education in schools. Actually, it’s probably safe to assume there’s not enough of it. At the same time, we need to teach children about their bodies — and about their agency. Conversations about personal responsibility, boundaries, harmful gender stereotypes, harassment have to start young. And have to start at home. And start young. Develop a vocabulary that is clear and consistent. Explore emotions — and normalize their expressions. Introduce consent in a relatable way — and discuss it often.
There’s research and evidence for this, of course. It’s critical for prevention — if we ever have any hope of prevention, that is.
What’s my point here?! There are more stories than we can manage. And yes it’s everyone, everywhere, all the damn time.
In response to that, someone wrote:
If it’s everyone everywhere all the time why even try to change it… I’m not saying it’s not wrong, I’m saying we can’t fix it.
And before I had a chance to respond, this rebuttal came flying in:
Are u kidding? Yeah u can by teaching people (mainly boys) from a young age about consent and just raising them right. Why should we just accept it?
Now… relax everyone. I’m not saying that this only happens to women and girls. But, damn, it happens to women and girls a whole lot more than it happens to men and boys. And this is a fact. We know it to be true from ample research and anecdotal evidence.
I decided to ask a few men the same question anyway.
Why are you asking me this weird question? One said.
Look, I get your point here, and I’m sure it’s happened to boys, but it hasn’t ever happened to me or to any men or boys that I know, another one explained.
I guess that’s where the church comes in, another man said. And he laughed.
Do you tell your son to be careful, to tell you if anything happens, to learn about consent, to understand the difference between safe and unsafe touching… and all that stuff? I asked a father of an 11-year old boy.
No, we didn’t. We told him to not keep secrets from us but that’s about it. If anything happens, I think he’ll tell me.
One man wrote to me with a vastly different response:
Your question really bothers me. Whenever I’ve seen anything like this, just like your answer, most women give an age younger than 10. The worst part is it’s someone who had regular access to them — uncle, older cousin, brother’s friend, parents’ friend, etc. It’s really sad and disgusting. Being a girl can be difficult.
So my story is about a girlfriend I had in high school. We started dating when she was 15. I later found out that her dad had been molesting her and her sister since she was 8. This was my first exposure to what rape is, and at my age (16), I had no idea what to do or say.
Want more stories?! No. Enough.
Listen, I’m sick of it. I’m sick of the stories. I’m sickened by the stories. And I’m sick of having to share our stories over, over, over and to still not be believed.
Today is World Humanitarian Day, a day we celebrate people who help people. I used to be one of those people, so I’ve got a lot to say about it.
Firstly, the backstory. World Humanitarian Day was born out of tragedy. On 19 August 2003, a bomb attack in Iraq killed 22 humanitarian aid workers. In 2008, the United Nations designated 19 August as World Humanitarian Day.
That’s today. Again.
Today we’re supposed to renew our commitment to advocate for those affected by crisis — while also not compromising our safety and security in the process. And we are at risk — this is undeniable.
In 2021, 460 aid workers were attacked: 140 killed, 203 wounded, and 117 kidnapped.
But there are other risks, too.
Three years ago, a group of female humanitarians — friends, colleagues, women I admire whose work has spanned decades and regions — got together to discuss. The result was an impromptu social media poll with over 600 responses in a matter of days.
What challenges do you face in the field, we asked?
41% of respondents said sexual harassment was their biggest concern.
We couldn’t leave it there. Individually and collectively, we four had been working to promote women’s rights and gender equality in the countries we’d worked in — and within the system itself. And in all our experience, we continuously argued that aid agencies should be — claim to be! — champions for gender equality but that female employees face violence and discrimination from within the system.
This isn’t just us — there’s tons of research to back this up.
We had spent hours, days, years in the field lamenting the “cowboy culture” of our humanitarian work, where women are told that they must “handle” the harsh realities of the work — or find a job elsewhere.
We released an article on 19 August 2019. That year, World Humanitarian Day was dedicated to women — the “unsung heroes”. We argued that praise rings hollow without real change — and even more so when the women they celebrate are victims of the system.
In our article, we noted that respondents — our colleagues — felt that the system rewards sexism and discrimination and hides abuses, while simultaneously paying lip service to “gender equality”.
Violence and discrimination exists within aid agencies — it exists everywhere. But aid agencies lack safe and confidential reporting mechanisms.
More than 400 women shared stories describing a culture of sexual exploitation and discrimination — where they are mocked for arguing in favor of their own safety and forced to tolerate the “boys club” culture that pervades. They shared being denied opportunities like equal pay, benefits, and protections — simply because they are women.
We noted that the discrimination we face is layered. National women and those with intersecting marginalized identities face much greater obstacles than expatriate women.
Some women were told they were “too young and too pretty” to be managing complex emergencies — and perhaps should serve as the admin instead.
Gosh! What do women want?!
Our article outlined solutions. Like equal treatment, greater leadership, and, ultimately, a shift in the humanitarian culture.
We want to dismantle the unequal distribution of power.
One year ago today — on August 15, 2021 — Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Again.
We all know the story of how Afghanistan, after two decades of aid and military support, unfathomable amounts of money, numerous elections, and many feeble attempts at peace, returned in 2021 to where it had been in 2001 — under the suffocating rule of a regime known as the Taliban.
I will, however, tell the story from the perspective of women, the ones who have been — and continue to be — most affected by this story. Here, we will begin with a so-called peace deal that betrayed women, bargaining their rights away. A deal made between men, all with blood on their hands. It is a story that, for Afghan women, came full circle.
Last year, as Afghanistan was falling, I reached out to my friend Aziza, women’s rights leader and partner from my time in Afghanistan. I asked how she was, and how the women’s movement would fare. The full conversation was published in my 2022 book, Freedom on the Frontlines.
On 11 June 2021, Aziza wrote:
Things are not going to get any better. We feel stuck in a vicious cycle and fear from this precarious situation. Aid has ended and NGOs have long been closed. We will not have achieved what we had hoped. What we set out to do. What we started to do. And now we have to adapt to whatever that may come in order to survive.
On 16 June, I published a piece on CNN arguing that the US rhetoric of liberation that animated their invasion nearly 20 years ago had fallen short of its goal. This built on an argument I made in my 2008 doctoral thesis and later in my 2009 book, Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan. There, and again here, I argued that the status of Afghan women was used as the barometer to assess social change, and that the promise of freedom had fallen short.
The $780 million the US spent to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan was about to go to waste, I explained, as the hasty withdrawal of US troops would likely lead to greater human rights violations, more school closures and increased violence against women. The voices I heard from Afghanistan were fearful. Women’s rights were hanging in the balance. Again.
Two decades of investment in women undoubtedly did achieve many goals: schools reopened for girls, giving them access to education, including university. Women had access to employment. They worked, flew planes, joined the military, became government ministers, and more.
But gains were patchy. Progress was perpetually met by major backlashes, a resurgence of a fundamentalist order, and more violence against women. Rural women still lived in Taliban-controlled areas, under severe restrictions. They did not benefit from these improvements. Opportunities for work, health care, or education never reached them.
On 22 June, Aziza told me this:
We could have predicted this. Patriarchy is so embedded in the culture and roots. There is need for gender awareness, education, and prolonged efforts to change what generations of men in power have created. The work that was done during the last two decades was not enough to change the fundamentals. It provided a short-term relief to what women had suffered during Taliban, but it could get worse when there is no more intervention.
On 24 June, I was invited to speak on CNN, building from my article. I was asked how serious things were for Afghan women. Very serious, I explained. At that point we had already heard of greater human rights violations, more school closures, increased violence against women. It was just getting started — things would get worse.
At that time, despite gains made, two-thirds of girls remained out of school, 70 percent of Afghan women and girls still could not read or write, and more than 80 percent of Afghan women and girls experienced abuse. Most of this took place in the home. Women’s security in the home is a reflection of the security in the country. If women cannot be safe at home, they’re not safe at all. And if women are not safe, then no one is safe. This, I have long argued, should be the barometer by which the entire intervention is judged.
Afghan women are incredibly strong. They have always demonstrated that strength, along with incredible courage and resilience. They always had strong voices and the ability to use them. But, are we listening? They have powerful voices, but they have no microphone. Did we do all we could to amplify their voices as they articulated their own needs? Did we even meet those needs?
On 10 August, US intelligence warned that it would take 30–90 days for the Taliban to topple the government and occupy Kabul. The city fell five days later.
Aziza wrote to me, explaining that progress made through international intervention was patchy — and only for the urban elite. Rural women’s lives hardly changed. If anything, Aziza explained, “financial aid may have fed their families, but the patriarchy remained.” And, she added, “today they are under the same abuse — or even worse.”