2019 is ending as it began: With women and allies of all genders leading the charge for political change.
From the streets of Chile and Iraq to Lebanon and Hong Kong, women have been at the forefront of protest movements against crippling economic inequality, corruption and inept government. They are braving live fire, rubber bullets, arrest and even death to deliver one message to those running the show, namely largely men: It’s time for them to go.
All over the world, 2019 has also been a year of amplifying alliances between feminist and LGBTQ communities: from legal battles over trans rights and same-sex marriage in Kenya and India, to the movements pushing for more inclusive and gender-neutral language in places such as Germany and Argentina.
It has been a year of loss and pain, as well: the countless women killed by their husbands, brothers and acquaintances; the tragedies of gender-based violence that occasionally generate international headlines before all too often fading from public memory.
Here’s a look back at 10 key wins, losses and patriarchy-smashing moments for women’s rights and gender equality in what has been a roller coaster of a year.
1. Women in India made history by entering a men-only temple
The year kicked off with women literally standing hand-in-hand to demand equality.
Millions of devotees each year visit the Sabarimala temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala. That is, except women of menstruating age, who were denied entry as part of a long-standing tradition.
In 2018, India’s Supreme Court ruled this prohibition illegal. Several women and girls attempted to enter after the ruling was issued but were pushed back by men, who subjected them to harassment and threats.
So, on Jan. 1, women in Kerala joined hands and formed a symbolic wall stretching over 300 miles to protest what they decried as discrimination.
Two days later, at 3:45 a.m., two women finally pushed their way into the temple: A university professor and a government employee, both in their 40s, entered the inner sanctum of the Sabarimala temple. Their presence set off clashes between protesters and police in the state capital. One of the women’s family members disowned her.
It was a historic step forward in both the battle for women’s rights and religious freedoms in India, which in recent years has experienced a surge in Hindu nationalism. But there have been steps backward since.
Opponents are appealing the court ruling. And in November, seven women were attacked, including with chili spray, when trying to enter the temple.
2. Canada finally acknowledged its ‘genocide’ of indigenous women
Canada’s 1.6 million indigenous people already knew something was wrong. For decades, their women and girls have gone missing, either vanishing or being killed at alarming rates. Police showed little interest in solving the cases. No one in power was listening.
2019 brought bittersweet clarity. In January, a commission appointed by the government to investigate the phenomenon released its results: The report found what amounts to a “race-based genocide” of Canada’s indigenous women and girls, who remained “under siege.”
“Genocide is the sum of the social practices, assumptions and actions detailed within this report,” the 1,200-page report concluded. It detailed how “appalling apathy” mixed with “colonialist structures” left these women and girls tragically unprotected.
3. Kenya’s Supreme Court upheld ban on same-sex relations
Kenya was at a critical fork in the road this year: Would it join South Africa to become only the second African country to legalize same-sex marriage, or would the Supreme Court uphold a British colonial-era law outlawing sodomy and same-sex relations?
In the end, the court chose the latter: In May, it ruled that Kenya’s law banning gay sex and criminalizing same-sex relations with up to 14 years in jail did not violate the defendants’ constitutional rights.
Activists hope that Kenya’s Court of Appeals, which is higher than the Supreme Court, will hear their appeal. In the meantime, they will keep organizing and living their lives.
Worldwide, same-sex relationships are banned in more than 70 countries, almost half of which are in Africa.
4. When women in the Middle East rallied for equality in inheritance and citizenship laws
The future of the Middle East is quietly being shaped by a female-led struggle over inheritance and citizenship laws.
Inheritance laws in many countries in the region are based on a conservative interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence, or sharia law. Under these laws, female heirs inherit half as much as their male counterparts. It’s a way of restricting women by making them financially dependent on male relatives and keeping social power and wealth concentrated among men.
Under another set of laws common throughout the Middle East, women can’t pass down their citizenship to their children or spouse, while men can. That means the children of a Lebanese woman married to an Egyptian man don’t qualify for Lebanese citizenship. These laws are similarly a way of limiting a woman’s freedoms – in this case, whom she wants to marry – and a means of controlling and restricting a country’s national makeup.
Inheritance isn’t the hottest of topics. But changes to these patriarchal laws would reverberate widely, improving the social and economic status of women in the Middle East. The struggle gained even more visibility this year.
In November, a Coptic Christian woman in Egypt won a court case to receive the same inheritance as her brothers, after arguing that Islamic family law shouldn’t apply to her. During the ongoing protests in Iraq and Lebanon, women have been at the forefront of the push for change – inheritance and citizenship laws included. Last year, Tunisia’s cabinet approved a bill enshrining equal inheritance rights for men and women: The legislation, which is facing some opposition, awaits passage in parliament. All of this is helping to push the issue to the forefront.
5. More men were acquitted of rape because of Spain’s antiquated law
Under Spanish law, a victim must be conscious and forcibly assaulted for the crime to count as rape. Critics of the law have repeatedly pointed out the obvious to anyone familiar with sexual assault: Many victims freeze up or can’t fight back during assaults as a self-defense mechanism, while consent by its very definition can’t be given if the victim is unconscious.
No matter, at least under Spanish law. In October, a court found five men guilty of sexual abuse – but not of rape – after they gang-raped an unconscious 14-year-old girl in Manresa, in the northeastern region of Catalonia, in 2016.
Eleven people said they witnessed the crime. Some also reported being threatened by the assailants, who were ages 19 to 26.
Activists later labeled the men the “Wolf Pack of Manresa,” a reference to another high-profile and controversial rape case in 2018, in which five men charged with gang-raping an 18-year-old were at first acquitted of rape before the Supreme Court overturned the decision.
After the initial 2018 ruling and ensuing protests, the government formed a commission that recommended changing Spain’s legal definition of rape. That hasn’t happened yet.
In the meantime, the Manresa victim is still in counseling, her attorney told the court.
“In another flash, I am crying and someone with glasses is on top of me. There were lots of people” masturbating, the victim had earlier testified. She later added, “It hurt, I don’t remember any more.”
6. Teens in Argentina led the call for gender-neutral language
It was a year of increasing visibility for gender and LGBTQ+ equality struggles around the world. In Argentina, teens led the way: They championed gender-inclusive forms of Spanish, a language traditionally structured along a male-and-female binary.
“In classrooms and daily conversations, young people are changing the way they speak and write – replacing the masculine ‘o’ or the feminine ‘a’ with the gender-neutral ‘e’ in certain words – to change what they see as a deeply gendered culture,” The Washington Post’s Samantha Schmidt reported. “Their efforts are at the center of a global debate over gender, amid the growing visibility of non-binary identities and a wave of feminist movements worldwide. A big part of the battle is being waged over language.”
As Schmidt found, in Argentina, these gender-neutral forms are growing in popularity, with children’s books, university departments, courts, activists and even the new president using this more inclusive Spanish.
7. South Koreans confronted the ‘molka’ epidemic and rape culture among K-pop stars
In November, K-pop star Goo Hara, 28, was found dead in her apartment in Seoul in what investigators say could have been a suicide. Goo reportedly also had attempted to kill herself six months earlier.
Her personal struggles, which K-pop stars are discouraged from sharing, became public in 2018: That’s when she broke another barrier and came forward to accuse her ex-boyfriend of secretly filming them having sex and threatening to distribute the footage.
Goo was not alone. In November, a South Korean court found two male K-pop stars guilty of raping unconscious women, secretly filming the encounters and then distributing the videos – a phenomenon known in South Korea as “molka.” The case, one in a number involving male K-pop celebrities, has rocked the lucrative industry, known for its clean-cut music and predominantly female fan base.
The case coincided with growing public attention on – and anger at – endemic misogyny and the molka epidemic. Last year, tens of thousands of women marched in Seoul against molka under the slogan “My Life is Not Your Porn.” Still, actual change has been slow to materialize.
As Seoul-based journalist Haeryun Kang wrote in November in The Post, “Most spy cam-related bills, including some that aim to fine or imprison service providers who don’t delete such footage from their websites, continue to stall in the National Assembly, leaving the victims of these crimes to continue to try to find justice in a flawed system.”
8. Nigeria’s #MeToo movement erupted
This year, several #MeToo-style movements took off in Nigeria, as well as other parts of West Africa, as women came forward about the sexual abuse, harassment and rape they have long suffered in silence.
In northern Nigeria, a conservative and mainly Muslim part of the country, a young pharmacist tweeted in February about how her boyfriend allegedly almost killed her. Soon #ArewaMeToo – Arewa meaning ‘north’ in the local Hausa language – was taking off.
In June, Busola Dakolo, 34, a well-known Nigerian photographer, publicly accused Biodun Fatoyinbo, her former pastor, of raping her twice years ago. After the explosive interview aired, other women contacted Dakolo to tell her that Fatoyinbo, a prominent pastor in the capital, had sexually assaulted them, as well.
The outrage among women that ensued was fierce. But so also was the backlash. Fatoyinbo took a leave of absence from his church but is back at the pulpit now and has denied all allegations. Nigeria’s most influential Muslim leader, meanwhile, has formally banned #ArewaMeToo.
9. Chile’s feminist battle cry ringing around the world: “The rapist is you!”
Protests broke out in Chile in October against crippling economic inequality and failing government policies – and opened the floodgates for all kinds of dissent with the status quo, gender-based violence included.
In late November, the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis penned a chilling anthem, “Un violator en tu camino,” or “A rapist in your way.” The message of female anger and defiance quickly resonated and spread around the world.
“The patriarchy is a judge that judges us for being born, and our punishment is the violence you don’t see,” the chant begins. It later continues, “It’s femicide. Impunity for the killer. It’s disappearance. It’s rape. And the fault wasn’t mine, not where I was, not how I dressed . . . The rapist is you. It’s the cops, the judges, the state. The president. The oppressive state is a rapist.”
1o. Women symbolized uprisings in Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq
In 2019, uprisings rocked the male-led political establishments in Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq. In Sudan, months of protests culminated in the April ouster of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the African country’s longtime dictator, who has been accused of war crimes. Women in conservative Sudan were at the forefront of the demonstrations. One protester, 22-year-old Alaa Salah, became a symbol of the revolution after a video of her leading chants, while dressed in traditional white garb, went viral. That women, who generally make up half the population, have political grievances and opinions to share is no surprise.
In Iraq, women shouting into megaphones, attending to the wounded, organizing protest camps, feeding protesters and even facing off with security forces have helped to sustain two months of demonstrations, which are challenging the corrupt and sectarian political system set up after the Iraq War.
And in Lebanon, where the public has been protesting for weeks against the sectarianism and corruption plaguing the government, one fearless woman embodied the spirit of the revolution when she expertly kicked an armed man trying to prevent her from protesting. The video went viral.
Now comes the second struggle, say women’s activists: to move beyond the fetishization of female protesters and to actually support and institute real gender-attuned political change.
In short: Bring it on, 2020.