2021 has been a hard year. Covid-19 has continued to rage across the world, COP26 shed new light on the reality of climate change and how hard it will be to fix, and the US capitol was stormed by right-wing extremists. And then, there was the year for women, marred by femicides, restrictive abortion laws, upheaval in Afghanistan, and escalating transmisogyny. It has been an awful, frustrating, hard year, that we would be forgiven for wanting to forget. But it is important to recognize how gender equality suffered in 2021, to better understand and address damaging trends. So brace yourself, for Part One of our analysis of some low-lights from the world for women in 2021.
This year, like so many before it, was another year marked by high-profile femicides. These tragic deaths show not only the continuing manifestation of sexism and misogyny in male violence, but also the impact of intersectional violence and discrimination – intersecting harms to women based on their gender and other characteristics such as their ethnicity.
In March this year, Sarah Everard was raped and murdered by a serving police officer as she walked home in London. This kicked off massive protests for women’s safety against the police in the UK, and a year of UK politicians and police trying to ease the public outrage. Sarah’s death reminded everyone of the fear that is normalised in most women’s lives. The fear of walking through a park at night. The fear of police. The fear built by the controlling grip of patriarchy and the natural conclusion to men’s behaviour and attitudes towards women.
Also in March, a young man in Atlanta went on a mass shooting spree of massage parlours, killing eight people, six of whom were Asian women. This prompted a new anti-hate crime act which was signed into law in May, though it failed to recognize that this was a hate crime not just against Asian people, which was on the rise at the time in the US, but also particularly against Asian women. The perpetrator specifically said that he was motivated by a sexual addiction, blaming the women he was killing for their own murder. The crime was spread across two counties and so the perpetrator was charged in two separate cases. He pled guilty to charges from one county and was sentenced to life without parole in July.
In September the remains of Gabby Petito were found in a forest in Wyoming. She had been strangled, allegedly by her fiancé, whose remains were later found after committing suicide. The couple were on a cross-country road trip when red flags began emerging. Police were called to a domestic violence incident between the couple in early August. In late August, Gabby’s mother was suspicious of texts that she had been sent from Gabby’s phone. Then on 1st September, Gabby’s fiancé returned home without her. The case was covered extensively in the media and followed fanatically online like a whodunnit. The media obsession with the case also drew criticism from commentators, including ourselves, as an example of missing white woman syndrome.
Also in September, the body of Sabina Nessa was found in Cator Park, Greenwich, Southeast London, under a pile of leaves. Sabina was a primary school teacher who was allegedly attacked and murdered by a man on her way to meet a friend at the pub. The man pleaded not guilty of murder on 16th December, though he did admit he killed her. His trial is set to begin in June this year. Sabina’s death was a sign that nothing material had been done to make women safer since Sarah Everard’s murder at the start of the year. That for all the talk and rhetoric the UK Home Office had released about “tackling violence against women and girls”, it was no safer for women to walk the 5 minutes from their house to their local pub alone at night.
These were not the only femicides this year. They were not the only high-profile femicides. They were not even the only high-profile femicides in the UK and US where all these cases occurred. They are simply a small sample of beautiful lives taken before their time, ripped violently out of existence by men because they were women. The number of these high-profile femicides in 2021 tells us that the problem is only growing. There is no one thing that will solve the pandemic of femicides across the world. More streetlights, higher police presence, marketing campaigns aren’t going to prevent regular femicides. We need a total change in culture from how we raise children at home, to the earliest education, to dismantling or reshaping our police forces, to how we govern our countries.
This has also been a big year for abortion, though largely not in the way we would hope.
Events started in Poland where the near-total ban on abortion was finalized in law on 27th January. It was met with thousands of protesters taking to the streets for multiple days in outrage at the law’s enactment. Unfortunately, the protests could not sway the conservative, catholic government and eventually fizzled out. But in November, pregnant woman Izabela died of septic shock after she was refused healthcare due to the abortion law. In response, protests and outraged were renewed across the country, with protestors chanting “her heart was beating too”.
In Texas, one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the world was put into place in September. The law makes it legal for any person to sue anyone who provides or assists a person seeking an abortion after just 6 weeks, the only exception being a medical emergency. This is a tighter restriction than even the Polish law which also makes exception for rape and incest. When the governor was asked why there is no exception for rape as there is in almost every other anti-abortion law, the governor arrogantly stated that they were going to “eliminate all rapists”, so it didn’t matter.
This law is unique in that it empowers everyday people, not the state, to sue providers and assistants. In this way it has so far been able to get around settled abortion law from the Supreme Court. However, after initially refusing to include a review of the law on their shadow docket, the court heard challenges to the law in a rare sped-up session at the president’s behest. The Court will issue a ruling some time in the coming months, though possibly not until June this year. In the meantime, it has allowed the law to remain in place rather than issue an injunction, meaning millions of pregnant people in Texas have almost completely lost their access to abortions.
And to add insult to injury, Texas has just enacted a new law which limits the use of abortion-inducing medication. This law bans sending the medication through the mail, which is the most effective way for women to manage their own abortions when the state takes away this form of healthcare. It also bans its prescription after 7 weeks of pregnancy which goes against federal regulations. The only thing this will do is push women into more and more dangerous situations to seek abortions.
While we wait for the ruling of the Texas case, we also await the outcome of the second case that will determine the future of abortion law in the US. Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization is a challenge to a Mississippi law banning all abortion apart from medical emergencies from 15 weeks. This law was likely put in place to try to create an opportunity to overturn Roe v Wade and remove abortion rights in the US. This is more likely than ever, as Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court has led it to be the most conservative in recent history. Oral arguments took place at the end of last year and at this early stage it is looking likely that the court will uphold the law but not completely overturn Roe v Wade. Despite this “restraint”, any ruling which upholds this law will encourage conservative states to enact their own more restrictive laws, leading to access to abortions becoming very scarce across the US.
2021 brought more harm to trans people around the world. Transgender people continued to be vilified in the media and in society, and murdered in record numbers. Over 375 transgender people were reported murdered in 2021. And since many murders of transgender people go unreported, or misreported, we know that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Based on the data we do have, we know that the vast majority of victims were trans women of colour and trans sex workers. Approximately 96% of all murdered transgender people were of trans women or transfeminine people. This violence was backgrounded by an increasing atmosphere of transphobia, seen particularly in big sporting events such as the Olympics. Trans women athletes, especially Laurel Hubbard, were the target of bigoted, vitriolic, hate from many misogynists and transphobes.
The persecution of the progress of women globally was seen no clearer than in Afghanistan this year when allied forces withdrew their support of the Afghani government, and the Taliban retook control of the country. Since the Afghani government had taken control of Afghanistan’s major centres, notably the capital Kabul, women had gained certain freedoms. This degree of progress risked being lost when the Taliban reclaimed control of the city. As women fled their jobs, their studies, and their private lives in response to the regime change; men they lived, worked, and played alongside were seen jeering at them and shouting obscenities.
Since the takeover, women in Afghanistan have largely been confined to their homes, deprived of public work, education, healthcare, and subject to economic deprivation. And while the Taliban have decreed an end to forced marriage recently, they have also rolled back the Elimination of Violence against Women Law which legally banned the practice alongside other abuses. This leaves their words hollow. In a country where child marriage is widely practiced, and any decree otherwise is unenforceable, the situation for young girls is only about to get worse. Thankfully, female activists in Afghanistan are continuing to fight for their freedoms.
2021 is the type of year you want to leave in the past. But there were some bright spots. Our next article will delve into some of the positive moments for women in 2021 that make the gender equality fight worthwhile. In the meantime, it’s important to reflect on the setbacks of 2021, to learn, grow, and move forward together.