Speak Out: In Praise of Brave Women

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested after protesting near Buckingham Palace in London, May 22, 1914. Courtesy of Wikimedia.org, Wikipedia Commons.

Sometimes it takes a brave woman to make things change – Emmeline Pankhurst, in the battle for suffrage for British women, Rosa Parks for the US Civil Rights Movement, and others like them.

Blog readers will be familiar with my admiration for inspirational role models, female and male. I’ve written about Simone Veil, Michel de Montaigne, the Brontë sisters, Nadia Murad, Joseph Kessel, Anne Lister and Helena Whitbread, David Hockney, Albert Camus, Malala Yousafzai, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and others.    

Today’s post, the last of 2023, gets passionate about two women prepared to risk their lives in order to speak out for human rights.

Masih Alinejad, the beautiful woman who wears a white flower in her hair, has become a well-known media personality. Born in Iran in 1976, she fled the country in 2009 after incurring the wrath of the authorities for her activism. Her story about growing up in a poor working class village before going on to become an internationally-acclaimed, award-winning journalist, is told in The Wind in My Hair, My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran.

Since 2014, she’s lived in exile in New York, where she became a familiar figure in the neighbourhood, handing out flowers from her garden, dedicated to her family in Iran who have suffered harassment and intimidation since she left.  But in 2020 she was forced to leave her home after the FBI informed her that others, more sinister, had been watching, and that she was the target of a kidnapping plot. Four Iranian agents were arrested and charged. But Masih’s ordeal was not over. In January 2023, three other men were charged, this time with attempting to assassinate her.

Masih refuses to be intimidated, and her interviews, a tour de force of eloquence and passion, never fail to move (there’s a selection on YouTube). In 2023 she was named one of Time Magazine’s ‘Women of the Year’ for her courage in continuing to speak out and to fight for ‘a more equal world’.  Her social media campaigns for the rights of women, followed by millions, came to particular prominence in 2014 when she invited women to post pictures of themselves removing their hijab on her Facebook page.

For many, the enforced wearing of the hijab, introduced by the new Islamic Republic in 1979, symbolises a more general form of subjugation in a male-dominated society where discriminatory laws relegate women to second-class citizens, what Aminejad calls ‘gender apartheid’. The response to her Facebook invitation was overwhelming.

But the protests were to gain a new impetus through a tragic event. In September 2022, a young Kurdish-Iranian woman was arrested by the morality police for appearing in public bareheaded. Her death, two days after her arrest , caused an international outcry and sparked unprecedented anti-regime demonstrations. The name ‘Mahsa Amini’ became known all over the world.

The Iranian authorities shut down Internet, but people like Masih Alinejad, British actress Nazanin Boniadi, and others continued to  tweet news filtering through about what was happening. The official verdict, a heart attack followed by a coma, was contradicted by several witnesses reporting that Mahsa had been savagely beaten by the police, with leaked medical scans suggesting that death had been caused by a stroke resulting from head injuries. The hashtag #MahsaAmini was retweeted more than 80 million times, and the slogan #Woman Life Freedom became a rallying cry as women all over the country refused tyranny and tore off their hijabs, supported by their menfolk.   (Mohsen Shekari was the first man to be hanged in the aftermath of the protests, on December 8th 2022. He was 22 years old.)

In spite of the target on her back, and the mental anguish of knowing the consequences to her family, Masih continues to draw attention the plight of Iranian women, and their inspirational fight for the right to live freely which has resulted in arrest and death for hundreds.  In a huge boost for the movement, the 2023 Nobel Peace prize was awarded to another heroic figure, Narges Mohammadi, Vice President of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, who has served repeated terms in prison in Iran. The award was received on her behalf by her 17-year-old twins who live in exile in Paris. Mohammadi, recipient of the 2021 Franco-German Prize for Human Rights, is currently in jail for ‘spreading propaganda’.

Does mankind have ‘an instinct to inhumanity’? This was the question asked by Michel De Montaigne, the great Renaissance humanist, back in the 1580s. For him, cruelty was the vice that surpassed all others and its most skilled practitioners were not wild animals but ‘human monsters…minds so monstrous as to be capable of committing murder just for pleasure … inventing unusual tortures and new ways of killing.’

 Reacting to the Hamas atrocities of October 7th this year, a date of pure infamy, another beautiful woman born in a small village, this one in Africa, Assita Kanko, Belgian member of the European Parliament, gave a magnificently fiery speech on October 28th in which she expressed her shock at the attitude of one of her colleagues.

I really don’t know where you have been staying the past days but maybe you were on the moon or anywhere else but have you seen what happened in Israel? Have you seen that people went into houses to find human beings to bring them outside to kill, kidnap, or kill the babies just because they are Jews? Do you remember history? Do you remember what happened on European soil…did you see that a teacher was killed in France last Friday, that today marks three years (since) the assassination and beheading of Samuel Paty? Why don’t you speak up against the violation of our rights and our values in Europe ?…  Why won’t you speak against that?…Shame on you!’

Montaigne would have approved. Assita, this year’s recipient of the Oriana Fallaci Prize for her work on the protection of European values and the affirmation of women’s rights and equal opportunities, was born in Burkina Faso in 1980. Like many women of her generation, she underwent genital mutilation (for more information on that practice, read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s remarkable, moving book Infidel) . Her epiphany occurred on December 13th, 1998 when her mentor, investigative journalist Norbert Zongo, was killed and burned in his car by the regime.

I was 18, but I could not stay indifferent. We had to fight. For him and for freedom. No democracy can exist or survive without a free press,’ she wrote on her Twitter page @Assita_Kanko. ‘We don’t only need the separation of powers, of which Montesquieu spoke, but also the strength of this fourth power: a critical and independent press…. In my room in a small remote village in Burkina Faso, I read and understood that it was not only necessary to go out on the streets to defend one man, but also to ensure that justice was done and to protect democracy.’  

She is currently fighting to have the crime of rape based on lack of consent included in EU legislation and has spoken out frankly about  what happened to Israeli women during the terrorist attack:

“Shani Louk was young, she wanted to enjoy her life. Instead her life ended in the hands of Hamas. She was thrown onto this lorry, and we saw Hamas men dragging her half-naked with this lorry around and spitting on her, shouting “Allah Akbar”. For me, this image is worth more than 1,000 investigations, this image is stronger than 1,000 words, this image says it all. She and all others were someone’s daughters. How could the world let them down? Anyone who isn’t outraged and doesn’t stand up to what we’ve seen, frankly I don’t know whether that person deserves to be called a feminist or a humanist, but it’s a betrayal. It’s a betrayal of the cause of women and it’s a betrayal of all Jews, it’s a betrayal of humanity

Castigating the silence not simply from their ‘sisters in arms’ ( a form of hypocrisy which has prompted the hashtag #MeTooUnlessYouAreAJew) but also from respected institutions such as top Ivy League Universities (‘a historic moment in which the moral confusion of America’s elite universities was laid bare’), she told the Parliament on November 22nd:

“Today, I have a question, a pressing question for some Western feminists. How can you remain silent, when women and girls are raped, tortured, their bodies carried around naked and spat on by bearded men shouting Allah Akbar?

Then you can never call yourself a feminist again.

Every day including today some western hypocritical feminists should be ashamed of their silence on the horror that Hamas men inflicted to women and girls on 7 October And that includes big names we were once proud of.  Why are their lips sealed, and their heart of stone, when it comes to the excruciating pain of Jewish women? The MeToo movement and so-called intersectional feminists do not care about all women. If they remain silent, it means they have lied to us about their commitment to women’s rights. Their actions support the oppressor, not the victims.’

On December 13th, in a TV interview with Stella Escobado she discusses the behaviour of institutions like UN Women, who took more than fifty days to condemn what had happened on October 8th.  Escabdao congratulates her on her outstanding bravery in speaking out, to which she replies

 ‘It is a moment in history when you have to speak.’


So, as 2023 draws to a close, should we be reaching for the bottle of gin or the hemlock?

Not according to my source of infinite wisdom and humanity, the aforementioned Montaigne. At the end of 107 essays and 200,000  words, many of which detail his considerable personal sufferings and the appallingly violent times in which he lived (the Civil Wars of Religion lasting from 1562 to 1598) he has this to say:

En ce qui me concerne, donc, j’aime la vie… ‘ As for me, I love life…’

It’s the kind of unquenchable life-affirming spirit shown by the young girls deported to Auschwitz, recounted in Simone’s Veil’s biography A Life . As they arrived and were stripped of their possessions, ‘comic figures for a jeering audience’, one of Veil’s friends hung on to a small bottle of perfume. ‘They’re going to take it,’ she said, ‘but I’m not going to give it to them.’ And the young women splashed themselves from head to toe in Lanvin’s most iconic perfume, Arpège, created by a mother for her daughter, a last gesture of defiant femininity before being forced to put on the rags of the dispossessed.

It’s the spirit which prompts us to protect the life of our children, as shown by Yarden Roman-Gat at Kibbutz Be’eri on October 7th, when she, her husband Alon and their three-year-old daughter Geffen, were pursued by Hamas terrorists. As they were running away, Yarden, who was carrying Geffen, made a decision. She passed Geffen to Alon, because he could run faster. ‘I had no choice. It was a no-brainer,’ she said. Her act of sacrifice, succeeded. Although she did not know it, Alon and Geffen managed to escape, while she was caught and dragged to the car half-naked, fearing she would be raped. But the terrorists had another idea. She was their ‘trophy’, to be driven through Gaza, an exhibit for the frenzied, partying crowds. * 

It’s the spirit shown by Israeli hostage Rimon Kirsht. Released after 53 days in captivity, dressed in Hello Kitty pyjamas, another ‘comic figure for a jeering audience’, she stared down her tormentors and walked to the ambulance head held high.

Last week in Iran,  a 70-year-old man, was arrested for singing and dancing. The result? All over the country, others have been joining in, singing and dancing, to Life and to Freedom.

From this pagan, life-loving blogger, a very Joyeux Noël, and a toast to ‘La vie’!

Drink up, sing, dance, and speak out! ❤️

*After hiding under bushes for 12 hours, Alon and Geffen managed to escape.  Yarden was released on November 29 after 54 days in captivity, a solitary prisoner guarded day and night.

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