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International Women’s Day: We can’t wait 300 years for progress

By guest contributor Arghavan Salles

If we take the opportunity, on International Women’s Day, to look at all the progress that has been made toward gender equity, we can reassure ourselves that, with time, we will inhabit a world in which one’s sex and gender won’t limit our career opportunities or place us at additional risk of experiencing violence.

According to the United Nations, it will take nearly 300 years to achieve that goal.

It will take longer if the current glacial pace of progress slows down further or is reversed, as it seems poised to do.

Even in Finland, ranked second globally for gender equality according to the World Economic Forum, the woman leading the country, Prime Minister Sanna Marin, was criticized last year for (gasp!) dancing. She was even forced to take a drug test after doing what many other people do in their time off work. If that is what is happening in one of the most equitable countries on the planet, we can imagine how much worse it might be elsewhere.

Women in many other countries face even more severe discrimination and subjugation that often not only impact their careers and their freedom, but also their very existence. In Iran, for example, men are still entitled to kill women who have disgraced them by, for example, refusing forced marriage or getting a divorce. A woman can also be legally killed by her husband if she cheats on him. These so-called honor killings are obviously anything but honorable.

Beyond the long-standing oppression of women, Iran has been in the western news more in recent months due to their ongoing fight for freedom from tyranny, oppression, theocracy, and gender apartheid. Sparked by the murder of a young woman, Mahsa Zhina Amini, who allegedly wore her hijab improperly, this revolution has been in progress since September 2022. The people of Iran have been pouring into the streets protesting; spray painting slogans such as, “Marg bar Khamenei,” which means “Death to Khamenei,” on buildings; going on strike; withdrawing their money from banks; appealing to other countries for assistance; and doing whatever they can to fight for democracy, not just for women, but for all citizens. The Islamic Republic of Iran (which many now refer to as “the Islamic Republic vs Iran”) has responded with military force in the streets, focusing attacks on majority ethnic minority regions. They have arrested almost 20,000 people and murdered at least 530 protestors and 71 children.

Despite all this, the people of Iran have had some successes, including their campaigns to get Iran removed from the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women and for the UN to launch an investigation into human rights violations in Iran. This woman-led revolution has inspired people around the globe, so much so that TIME magazine selected the women of Iran as their Heroes of the Year for 2022. Shervin Hajipour, who wrote “Baraye,” the anthem of the revolution, won the Grammy for best song for social change.

While we wait for the UN’s investigation, the Islamic Republic of Iran unfortunately continues to taunt the rest of the world, daring them to do anything to stop the torture, sexual assault, kidnapping, and now poisoning of women and girls. In the last week, they have ramped up attacks on schoolgirls, releasing poisonous gas in schools and universities all over the country. Activist group 1500 Tasvir, which many Iranians turn to for the most up-to-date news, received news of poisoning in at least 100 schools on March 6 alone.

Women and girls in neighboring Afghanistan have also seen dramatic restrictions to their rights, including what they are required to wear, in recent months. In early December 2022, the Taliban announced girls could no longer go to school beyond sixth grade. Later in the month, they announced women could no longer work with non-governmental organizations. One likely direct consequence of the restriction on humanitarian work is less delivery of humanitarian aid to the half of the population in Afghanistan facing food insecurity and the over 3 million people who have been displaced. It is not only those working in humanitarian aid who are struggling; the only women who are allowed to continue working at all are in healthcare and education. Even many of them, however, are not being paid due to the financial crisis in the country. In another ominous blow, the Taliban also eliminated the Women’s Affairs Ministry.

Meanwhile, even in the United States, a country with the phrase “liberty and justice for all” in the pledge of allegiance, has been rolling back the rights of women for years. I want to state clearly there is no equivalence between what is happening in the US compared to the Middle East–the degrees of oppression are not on the same scale. However, what is relevant here is the direction in which we are going. Across all three of these countries, women’s rights are being further restricted rather than expanded. How can we possibly reach equity in 300 years (even as far away as that seems!) if we are headed in the opposite direction?

Since the US Supreme Court issued the Dobbs decision in June 2022, which effectively restricted access to abortion in the US, 24 states have banned abortion or are likely to do so. The impact of the Dobbs decision has been devastating. The average travel time for pregnant people needing an abortion has increased, from 28 minutes to 100 minutes. Pharmacists and physicians have denied urgent care both to pregnant people seeking abortions and those experiencing miscarriages. Physicians have been attacked for doing their job–caring for patients who need abortions. As I write this, we await the decision on Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine vs. FDA, the ruling of which could revoke access to the first pill (mifepristone) used in medication abortions (it is used alongside another pill, misoprostol), and legislators in South Carolina are debating whether people who have abortions could be punished with the death penalty.

This is all happening against a backdrop of accumulating data showing how spectacularly successful women can be, when given a chance. Countries led by women had better outcomes during the early parts of the pandemic. Companies led by women have higher profits. Patients cared for by women physicians are less likely to die than those cared for by men. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where the comfort of those with privilege is prioritized over progress and advancement of modern society, and we will all suffer the consequences for hundreds of years to come.

About the author:

Arghavan Salles, MD, PhD is a physician and gender equity scholar. She is a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine and a Senior Research Scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. You can follow her on Twitter (@arghavan_salles), Instagram (@arghavansallesmd), and Tik Tok (@arghavansallesmdphd).

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

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