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In a personal blog post, Associate Professor Hashem Koohy (MRC WIMM Group Leader and RDM PI) talks about how a slogan used across the Middle East needs to be more than a slogan.

Person holding a sign saying Woman Life Freedom.

Human beings are members of a whole,

in creation of one essence and soul.

If one member is afflicted with pain,

Other members uneasy will remain.

If you have no sympathy for human pain

The name of human you cannot retain

These are the opening lines of a 13th century poem ‘Bani Adam’ (Human Kind), from the Persian Poet Saadi Shirazi. Outlining as they do our shared humanity, they lend an additional poignancy to the fact that across much of Saadi’s former homeland, women and girls do not have the basic rights that we take for granted.

Currently, women and girls are also especially vulnerable and at risk following the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, as they are are in human-made disasters in many low income countries. The recent women-led uprising in Iran and the ban on girls’ education in Afghanistan have once again brought the issue of women’s rights violations to the forefront. These brutal measures, including killings, arrests, rapes, and the denial of basic human rights, are cause for concern and reminder of a larger and more serious disease plaguing these countries.

As a scientist from Iran, I believe that these violations against women are part of an ideological war against democracy and the free world. As scientists, we have a responsibility to fight back against these violations. I would like to see universities voicing their opposition to the ban on girls’ education and doing what they can to ameliorate the situation. This might include offering distance learning education for girls and women from countries where such education is denied to them, as well as post-graduate scholarships for women from these.

These responsibilities are not ours alone: governments across the world should be cognizant of women and girls access to education, and sanction the leaders of governments who deny theses basic human rights. Sports associations and federations, such as FIFA, also have responsibility to fulfil their code of ethics for diversity and anti-discrimination against women.

The themes of Shirazi’s poem continue to be relevant centuries later – the verses quoted above decorate the walls of the United Nations Building in New York, and the poem was quoted by US President Barack Obama in his Nowrouz (the Persian New Year celebration) message to Iran in more hopeful times. More recently, the British band Coldplay used the title of Saadi’s poem as the title of a song in the album ‘Everyday Life’.

It is therefore up to all of us to play our part in fighting for women’s rights, not just in words but in actions. The rallying slogan ‘Women, Life, Freedom’, has been chanted by women across Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and beyond, as they have demanded their rights, like the famous poem by Saadi, these words are not just a slogan, and they instead underline a fundamental truth..

These recent events in Iran and Afghanistan serve as a reminder to all of us about the ongoing fight for women’s’ rights and importance of standing up for these basic human rights.

Read Professor Koohy’s letter to the editor published in Nature.