by Terry Moon
for the National Editorial Board of News and Letters Committees
“Hijab has nothing to do with morality, religion or ethics” but is “what the political elite wants, and it is how they came to power. Making hijab mandatory for all means that the regime governs your most private realm and is present everywhere. If it had to do with religion, it would have been a private matter between women and their God. But the Iranian government has declared itself as the force of God and their legitimacy depends on it.”
—Elham Gheytanchi, associate professor of sociology, Santa Monica College
“Previous protests consisted mainly of men but this one is very different. Women started it and men are by their side. When the police force women to wear their hijab, men fight against the police. Most protesters are young, but older people support them too.”
—Farah, 37, a mother from Shiraz, southern Iran
The murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, killed by Iranian regime thugs, the morality police, for supposedly not wearing hijab “properly”—a chador or body cloak, or a headscarf and overcoat—was the event that prompted weeks of outrage and revolt that continue as this is being written. Three days after she was taken, she was dead, her face and head bruised and battered.
COVERUPS AND LIES
Since then the regime, from Iran’s president on down, have lied, lied, lied. First that Amini wasn’t beaten but died of a heart attack or a stroke. Ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi—he who decreed that conservative dress laws be implemented “in full” and loosed the morality police on the women of Iran—promised that Amini’s death would be investigated. No one believes his “investigation” is anything more than a coverup. While Iranian TV showed CCTV footage of her arrest, “human rights activists accused state TV of censoring the footage to create a false story.”
Amini’s parents stood up to the lies, maintaining, under enormous pressure, that their daughter did not die from a hidden illness, and that she had been beaten. The regime refused to show her father the autopsy report or her body until after it had been wrapped for burial and only her hands and feet were visible—both showed bruises. Authorities demanded she be buried in the night, hoping to subvert any demonstrations. They failed. In defiance, the epitaph on her gravestone was posted on social media: “You didn’t die. Your name will be a rallying call.”
Shadi Sadr, a prominent human rights lawyer, explained to The New York Times what drove people’s actions: “The anger isn’t over just Mahsa’s death, but that she should have never been arrested in the first place. Because they have nothing to lose they are standing up and saying, ‘Enough of this. I am willing to die to have a life worth living.’”
The uprising’s character is revolutionary, causing Iran’s leaders to panic and shoot down at least 76 unarmed demonstrators as of Sept. 28, some of them Kurdish children. They wounded and jailed hundreds more, as well as at least 20 journalists, including the one who broke the story about Amini’s death. It is a vain attempt to quench the revolt.
THE IRANIAN REGIME IS QUAKING
The regime should be afraid. The cries of: “Women, life and freedom!” “Death to the head scarf!” “Death to the dictator!” “We’ll support our sisters and women, life, liberty!” fill the streets. Demonstrators, often led by women, burn down police stations, chase police cars, torch Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s billboards and pictures. Protests have spread internationally, with Iranians and their allies protesting in Paris, Sweden, Turkey, the U.S., and other countries in Europe—wherever there are Iranians. In solidarity, women cut their hair, and in Athens, in homage to the fight against racist sexism in the U.S., protesters held signs reading “Say her name!”
THE UPRISING’S BREADTH AND DEPTH
Iranian women have taken off their headscarves in front of the police, burned them, waved them in anger, shaved their heads and publicly cut their hair to show that they are the ones to decide what happens to their bodies and what they wear. At Amini’s funeral women threw off their headscarves, waving them in anger, and chanted “Death to the dictator.” Crowds kept the police from rushing the burial and the police fired on them and threw stones and teargas.
The breadth and depth of the uprising mirror the deep anger and discontent of the Iranian population. Thus, poor and rich Iranians are uniting for the first time since the revolution that overthrew the Shah. Amini was Kurdish, but that has not stopped other ethnic minorities as well as those in the Fars majority from coming together in outrage and demanding fundamental changes—so fundamental that they include the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran with the aim to create a country that values human life and freedom.
In an effort to slander the movement and suppress the revolt, the regime is further demonizing the Kurdish minority. On Sept. 22, Iran attacked the Kurdish opposition forces in Iraq. The hated Iranian Revolutionary Guards claimed they were targeting “terrorist and anti-revolutionary groups” who were based there.
None of this has worked. Even the slogan of solidarity, Jin, Jiyan, Azadi (Women, life, freedom) was first a Kurdish slogan.
The revolt has spread to over 80 cities, probably more by the time you read this, and women are leading the way. Iran’s most religiously conservative cities, such as Qom, are also beset by protests and outrage. Teachers unions have announced solidarity strikes and “students in at least 28 universities” are participating in a nationwide boycott of classes.
A LONG HISTORY OF REVOLT
Weeks before Amini’s murder, Iranian women rebelled against President Raisi’s “chastity and hijab week,” by posting selfies of themselves unveiled or walking bareheaded through cities. The regime took to beating forced “confessions” out of women picked up and brutalized by the morality police. (See “Woman as Reason: Fight against forced veiling,” Sept.-Oct. 2022 News & Letters.)
But ever since the 1979 revolution was hijacked, Iranian women have continuously fought enforced veiling. As Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights attorney currently on furlough from an Iranian prison, posted on facebook:
“We will not forget the memory of women who have been the target of state violence for defying the compulsory hijab. From Homa Darabi who was expelled from the university due to compulsory hijab and burned herself [on Feb. 22, 1994] (see “Iranian feminists fight fundamentalist oppression,” N&L, May 1994) to women of Revolution Street who have been subjected to violent assaults and beatings, to Nastaran Darabi whose beautiful hair was stomped upon under the boots of a hateful and violent man from the Morality Police, to Sepideh Rashnoo who was heading to her job, to thousands of young girls and women who are subjected to insults and attacks and arrest on a daily basis, all weigh heavily on our memory of yesterday and today….In the not so distant future, these waves of violence will turn on you.”
THE REVOLUTION THEN AND NOW
Over 40 years ago, the people of Iran—the people, not the mosque—made a revolution that shook the world. Then, the Shah of Iran, propped up by the most powerful country in the world, was overthrown by a revolution of women, men, and youth. From that moment on, those who stole that historic uprising and diverted the people’s goal from freedom to religion have feared revolution above any other reality.
Then, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini blamed women’s objection to mandatory hijab as coming from “Western imperialism.” Today, nobody believes it, though the Iranian regime is again trotting out that dead old shibboleth.
Then, on International Women’s Day 1979, though some leftist men tried to protect the women who marched by the thousands in the streets rejecting mandatory hijab, many more attacked the women. Those women foresaw the future when they chanted: “At the dawn of freedom, we have no freedom.” Today, the men are with their sisters in unity and solidarity.
Then, secular and religious people were on different sides. Today, The New York Times reports: “religiously conservative Iranians have spoken up alongside liberal ones. On social media, women who wear the hijab by choice have started solidarity campaigns questioning the harsh enforcement of the laws….”
SOLIDARITY AND REVOLUTION
There is no question that the people of Iran have, at one and the same time, reached a new level of revolt that could lead to revolution and that they require the deepest solidarity from those who also work for a freedom-filled society based on new human relationships. Women in the U.S. are not being shot in the streets in the hundreds, but we have a similar struggle to be comprehended as human beings and can learn a great deal from the revolutionary activity and Reason of our Iranian sisters. Hoda Katebi, an Iranian-American writer and community organizer, put it this way:
“The 1979 Revolution began as a cry for freedom from a foreign-backed monarchy, but religious slogans and symbols were quickly co-opted to build and maintain another repressive state. The protesters are now demanding that the original promises of the revolution—freedom, independence, social justice—be fulfilled.
“Today’s protests echo the decades of resistance led by women, both veiled and unveiled, against the hijab’s co-optation as a tool of repression since its imposition in the 1980s. This struggle is interlinked with similar struggles for women’s liberation globally.
“Whether fighting for the right to control our reproductive lives in the United States, the right to life without military occupation in Palestine or Kashmir, or the right to free speech in Saudi Arabia, women are left with few options but to rise up….
“Women’s rights are under attack globally, and Iranian women are on the front lines of this battle.”
The truth of Katebi’s call for internationalism and solidarity can be seen by looking again at the quote from Elham Gheytanchi that began this article and changing only a few words to see how much the Christian Right embodies the fanaticism of Ebrahim Raisi:
“Abortion bans have nothing to do with morality, religion or ethics” but are “what the political elite wants, and it is how they came to power. Making abortion illegal for all means that the regime governs your most private realm and is present everywhere. If it had to do with religion, it would have been a private matter between women and their God. But the Republican Party has declared itself as the force of God and their legitimacy depends on it.”
The struggles for “Women, life, liberty” in Iran and in the U.S. are certainly not identical, yet their interconnection is undeniable. Our struggles continue!
—September 28, 2022
One thought on “‘Women, Life, Freedom!’ The transformation of Iran”
Readers: Since this was written, events keep on going. To see some of the recent developments The Guardian has a good article taking up the spread of solidarity demonstrations around the world; the outbreak of protests in the city of Zahedan, in eastern Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province; the police firing and killing scores of protesters, the growing involvement of students, and more.