There are many different criteria that can be used to assess the state of a political regime. One, if not the most important criterion is whether the regime respects and actively protects the fundamental human rights of its subjects. Women’s rights are human rights. Women, like men, have a human right to pursue happiness. Like men, they have the right to physical and mental self-determination, to decide for themselves who and what they want to become and what kind of life they want to lead. The right to self-determination includes the right to make life-defining decisions such as choosing a partner and whether or not to have children. And a woman also exercises her freedom of self-determination when she chooses what job she wants to do or decides what to do with her free time and how to dress when she goes out.
No country has a perfect human rights record. Autocratic systems systematically and blatantly violate human rights. They have a strikingly masculine and misogynist character: they tend to restrict women’s rights far and wide and impose binding regulations on women in society. Of all the autocratic regimes that trample on women’s rights, one of the most brutal ones is that of Iran. Its so-called “morality police” is responsible for the violent death of twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini (known as Jina in Kurdish). In September, the young woman, who was visiting relatives in Tehran from the Kurdish region, was taken into custody by police for improperly wearing a headscarf. According to witnesses, she was then assaulted in a manner that caused her death. This sparked a series of mass protests held under the slogan “Women, Life, Liberty” in well over a hundred municipalities in Iran. The events, inspired by women and led primarily by women, quickly turned into a general wave of protests against social oppression (acute wealth inequality, unequal access to health care, unjust restrictions on freedom, etc.).
Unlike the Iranian government, Putin’s Russian regime did not, in the past, use daily repression. But the introduction of “partial mobilisation” has prompted more than half a million conscripted men to leave the country. Putin’s order has also mobilised women as wives, girlfriends, sisters and mothers who have protested on the streets of Moscow, Novosibirsk and many other cities against the war, the draft and other restrictions on freedom. Protesters exercising their freedom of speech and assembly have been treated by the Russian autocracy in the same way as protesters in Iran: they face arrest, police abuse, coercion, unfair trial, imprisonment, and other reprisals, coupled with escalating censorship and loud propaganda.
There has been a history of failed Russian military aggression, against which women have vigorously protested. In the 1990s, human rights activist Maria Kirbasova was decisive in ending the first Chechen war by founding the Committee of Military Women of Russia. Members and supporters of the commission, which opposed the war from the outset, held vigils in Red Square for the Chechen people who had fallen and spent weeks in the Chechen military zone bargaining with Russian military leaders to save thousands of conscripted soldiers from death. It is worth recalling the march from Moscow to Grozny, where soldiers’ wives, holding in their hands banners reading “The Chechen war is a disgrace” and similar slogans, demanded an end to the war. Earlier still, Soviet military propaganda and morale in Afghanistan was adversely affected by the fact that women had drawn public attention to the habit of bullying (dedovchina) new recruits into the Russian army.
Likewise, in the face of restrictions on the right to abortion by the authoritarian Polish and Hungarian regimes, mass protests have ensued. In Poland, the state intervened openly and radically by introducing a near-total abortion ban. Massive demonstrations were held in several Polish cities after a young woman, Agnieszka T, died of sepsis during her twin pregnancy. One of the foetuses had died in her womb and the doctors refused to intervene because, at that time, the other foetus was still alive.
In Hungary, the government has intervened stealthily, in small steps. The latest step was a decree of the Minister of the Interior requiring the abortion-seeking pregnant woman to listen to the “heartbeat” of the foetus, that is, the 5-9-week-old embryo. The decree sparked a public protest. Thousands of women marched on Kossuth Square and in front of the Ministry of the Interior to protest against the new regulation. The protesters did not just include those who could be personally affected by the new rule; those who took to the streets were stating that it is unacceptable that the government regards women merely as a means to stop the demographic decline and not as autonomous persons. They protested because the government is blatantly interfering in the most private sphere of women by further tightening already strict regulations on abortion and practices that often humiliate women and even impose impossible conditions.
Of course, the Polish and Hungarian systems are far from the violent Iranian and Russian autocratic regimes. However, what these regimes all share is the nationalism that defines their identity, the political practice of distorting and using a religion as “state religion” to privilege some and exclude others, the suppression of political opposition, the silencing of dissent, the denial of women’s equality and the equality of people with various other gender identities. These autocratic regimes blame “Western-funded agents and terrorists” for the minefield of discontent while constantly restricting legal forms of advocacy and protest, which in turn increases regime opponents’ feelings of oppression.
Often, liberty is depicted using images of fire and flames. One can never know in advance what spark will ignite the fires of dissent. In Iran, the retaliation for one woman not covering her forehead and hair sufficiently with a headscarf has triggered a process in which at one point, masses of people have gone on strike and refused to pay taxes. Schoolgirls have rioted and torn out photos of the dictator from their textbooks in protest. It seems that the “partial mobilisation” is also taking place differently from Putin’s vision: it has mobilised hundreds of thousands of women against forced conscription.
The latest Hungarian women’s protest may remain a moral stand with no particular consequences. However, it cannot be ruled out that it is an important part of unfolding, broader anti-regime protests. Note that the currently ongoing Hungarian demonstrations in the public education sector and the previous health care protests also have a gender aspect, as these are sectors where women work predominantly, where they work for lower wages, and they work in precarious jobs.
History teaches us that the struggle for women’s rights is also a struggle for equality and equal freedom for members of the political community everywhere. The question is, where is the limit of tolerance in a political community where the government wants to control even the most personal decisions on a daily basis, where there is no real political representation, and where the main public institutions are acting contrary to their mission, which is to respect and protect the fundamental human rights of all.
An earlier version of this text appeared in Hungarian on szuveren.hu.