IT’S been a grim year. Extremism and fundamentalism have taken a tighter grip on the planet; the conflict in Palestine being yet another instance in which the forces of reason and moderation have been sidelined. Next year promises no better. And in a bizarre twist, the ballot box, even in democracies, could exacerbate this depressing situation.

But there have been glimmers of light: such as the resistance of the Ukrainian people to Russian genocidal violence; and of Iranian women to theocratic tyranny. The award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Narges Mohammadi, the Iranian journalist and human rights activist, could not have been timelier. She and her exiled husband Taghi Rahmani are advocates of secular democracy and opponents of despotic religious government.

He served fourteen years imprisonment and since 2010 she has been arrested thirteen times and been in and out of prison for campaigning and communicating. Amnesty International recognises her as a prisoner of conscience; her best-known protest being against the enforcement of the hijab. Mohammadi personifies the incredible resilience and bravery of Iranian women standing up to a patriarchy of religious zealots through mass disobedience and street protest.

In her Nobel prize acceptance speech smuggled out of Evin Prison and read by her two children, mention is made of the physical and sexual abuse of women detained in Iranian prisons as one aspect of the oppression, discrimination and tyranny they suffer in general. Their slogan of liberation is ‘Women, Life, Freedom!’  

The Nobel award implicitly recognises that the world’s primary struggle is that for the complete liberation of women. Their rights are abused in every country and by every religious, political, economic and social system to some degree. Yet even simply highlighting their predicament is often dismissed as a divisive distraction as it was during colonial liberation struggles. Every significant measure of well-being will show women at a disadvantage, whether it be wages, health, education or employment opportunity. Even in societies that supposedly practise near-equality women are subject to subtle, and not so subtle, discrimination. Look, for instance, at Britain where a survey suggested that one in three female surgeons in the National Health Service may have been sexually assaulted in the workplace in the last five years.

One international measure of women’s rights is the annual Women, Peace and Security index, the 2023 version of which has just been published. It assessed 177 countries for women’s inclusion, justice and security. At the top were Denmark and Switzerland, but both well short of true equality. At the other end, predictably, were Afghanistan and Yemen. But the bottom ten included no fewer than five African countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Burundi and, most significant, Eswatini.

South Africa comes in a poor 91st. Every year in late November it goes through a farcical public relations programme known as Sixteen Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women and Girls. Yet their abuse is at epidemic levels and the institutions designed to deal with it are corrupted and broken. The moral vacuum and gross hypocrisy of the ANC in this regard were illustrated early in December in the middle of the campaign when it entertained a delegation from the terrorist organisation Hamas. On 7 October Hamas enacted a war crime in Israel described by journalist Zoe Stimpel as an ‘orgiastic pogrom’ that involved the torture, rape, mutilation and murder of women, which they filmed for good measure and maximum impact.

For Hamas premeditated rape is a weapon of war but the ANC (not thankfully the South African government although the distinction is often hard to discern), far removed from the Middle East conflict, sits down to engage with some of its leaders. At the same time the ANC shows not the slightest interest in the violent fate of women in African conflict zones such as Darfur and the routine deprivation of their rights in many African countries. And when will that fossilised organisation, the ANC Women’s League, speak up in support of the oppressed women of Iran; or is criticism of a fellow BRICS nation out of bounds?

It’s time to resurrect and re-enact that old Black Sash rallying cry – Womandla!