Say Her Name: Women Persecuted for Their Religion or Belief | Opinion

Gulmira Imin is a Uyghur Muslim in China, former administrator of the Uyghur-language website Salkin and a participant in a 2009 demonstration protesting Uyghur migrant workers' deaths. She was charged with "splittism, leaking state secrets, and organizing an illegal demonstration," and in 2010, sentenced to life in prison, where she has reportedly been tortured. Her sentence subsequently was reduced to almost 20 years. Her real "crime" is being a young leader of the Uyghur Muslim community, which the Chinese government has targeted in recent years, including by forcibly sterilizing Uyghur women.

The imprisonment and reported torture of Gulmira Imin is one example of the genocide and crimes against humanity being perpetrated by the Chinese government. And she is but one example of how women are being harassed and imprisoned, and subject to violence and abuse by state and non-state actors alike, as they lead the fight globally to protect—and to exercise—the freedom of religion or belief. Women face distinctive and severe forms of religious persecution—including rape, abduction, forced marriages, forced conversions and forced renunciations of faith.

In Iran, government officials raided the house of human rights activist and author Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee. During the raid, they found an unpublished story she wrote criticizing the official policy of stoning women to death for adultery. Since 2014, she has been detained, threatened with execution, imprisoned in Evin and other prisons, released on bail after serving 3 and a half years, rearrested in November 2020, and in April 2021, sentenced to more prison time. The Iranian government has long engaged in the severe repression of the religious freedom of women, whom the government targets, as it did with Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, for simply not conforming to its reading of religious law.

Iranian Christian woman lights candles
An Iranian Christian woman lights candles during Christmas Eve mass at the St. Gregory Armenian Catholic Church. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

At the age of 14, Leah Sharibu was kidnapped in 2018 by the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). She remains captive because she refuses to renounce her Christian faith. Leah Sharibu is among hundreds of girls and women who have been abducted and persecuted for their faith.

Gulmira Imin. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee. Leah Sharibu. These are names we know. Yet there are far too many names that we don't know, including Yazidi women and girls who were abducted by ISIS and then forced to serve as sex slaves and to convert to Islam. In Pakistan, abduction, forced conversion to Islam, rape and forced marriage threaten women, especially Hindu and Christian women and girls. In India, inflammatory campaigns touting Hindu nationalism have targeted interfaith relationships, and coupled with the expansion of anti-conversion laws, have fueled unchecked violence against women and non-Hindus. Saudi Arabia's religiously grounded guardianship system denies women the rights of legal adulthood.

Women and girls also face persecution from family and community in the name of religion—including forced marriages and conversions, sexual and domestic violence and abuse, enforced dress codes and other social control that prohibit women from going out in public, taking public transportation, getting an education and accessing health care. These affronts often take place in the home and out of sight, and usually remain unaddressed.

At the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), we advocate for women who are targeted for their religious beliefs, identity, activity, or religious freedom advocacy and also maintain a database, the FoRB Victims List, of such victims. We call for the immediate and unconditional release of Gulmira Imin, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee and Leah Sharibu—among many other prisoners of conscience. And we urge the U.S. government to use all available tools to work for the release of these three women and other religious prisoners of conscience, including coordinating these efforts with other like-minded governments and civil society groups. We also urge people of faith to pray for these victims and the many others who are targeted for their faith.

On this International Women's Day, we ask that you say the names of women targeted and imprisoned for exercising and advocating for freedom of religion and belief. So we can all know their names and continue the fight for our freedoms together.

Anurima Bhargava is a commissioner and former chair on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. She was appointed to the Commission by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Honorable Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Tony Perkins is a commissioner and former chair on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. He was appointed to the commission by the Senate Minority Leader, the Honorable Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.