In a letter to the editor, an Iranian woman reflects on the nationwide protests that have gripped the country in recent months. She paints a picture of the conflict from her insider’s perspective, suggests why these demonstrations have maintained such a foothold across many parts of society, and joins the voices crying out for a new era, built for and by women.
Now, with many weeks of nationwide protests and demonstrations behind us, I, amongst many Iranians, find myself in the eye of a tumultuous hurricane, with not much time to reflect upon the events that grip and shake our cities day by day. Mahsa Amini (also known as Jina Amini), a young 22-year-old girl from the Kurdish ethnic minority group, murdered by the hands of the morality police under custody due to ‘improper hijab’, has sparked mass outrage and has become the symbol for the 2022 movement against the Iranian regime. Though, it is only natural to wonder why after 43 years of the fascist theocratic rule of the government, and countless nation-wide formations of dissidence in its resistance, would this particular wave of protests take on such an overpowering momentum amongst its citizens, and flood in an unwavering spotlight of worldwide condemnation. I hope you can excuse the lack of extensive socio-political research on this piece in exchange for the raw and personal perspective it can offer the readership. After all, as the twelve-week internet blackouts continue to prevail, we have been cut off from most of our access to the outside world.
The current united movement has ignited a call to action for every single person to overthrow the totalitarian apparatus. Women and girls break compulsory dress codes as they walk down patrolled streets by the morality police without donning their headscarves. University students chant slogans in crowds and break enforced gender segregation in cafeterias by sitting near one another with their lunch trays – often risking arrest and academic expulsion for their organized disobedience. Merchants, the working class who steward the functioning of the country’s economy, roll their stores’ steel gates down and close up shop to establish a strike of their own – risking arrest and any possible impunity. Factory workers, oil rig workers, teachers, doctors, and lawyers have stormed the streets with their brows knotted in fury and their clenched fists raised high.
If the sheer magnitude and unification of this outcry has not been unprecedented enough, there has been the most peculiar and surprising group of people rising to heed the fortitude of the times. This line-up of people have picked up their slings to meet their Goliath. The radical hard-lining men who have ruled this country with unyielding fists are now becoming outraged and duped by the young women and schoolgirls who have brimmed the frontlines of this movement. With the loud voices and the brave acts of defiance, they have embodied the protagonists that we have always needed, and the antagonists the state has always feared. School girls have refused to sing propaganda songs, having to be escorted out or beaten up by security forces; countless women have taken off or burnt their hijabs in streets to face arrest; and professional athletes have defied dress codes when performing in competitions on national TV, risking punitive action. Nonetheless, it disheartens me to disclose their undertaking has not been without casualties; beatings, arrests, shootings, and deaths of youth and children by the morality police and other government forces have painted the landscape of our days and have planted grief into our collective consciousness. So far, 15,000 people have been arrested, with the first death sentences already issued.
It is notable that this movement, with its future and outcome unpredictable, encapsulates many desired changes from the Iranian people. We have been shown time and time again that ‘reform’ is not in the cards for negotiating with those in power, and to win liberation would be to pursue the long and arduous path of a revolution. But here, I would like to underline an imperative demand of the protestors that has manifested in the far-sweeping slogan booming out from the voice and heart of the people: “Woman, Life, Freedom”. Earlier, I raised the question of why the demonstrations have taken such a strong foothold amongst Iranians from different socio-economic, religious, ethnic, and vocational backgrounds, and why the international community has also paid so much attention to the current events. Part of the answer may lie in one premise of the slogan – Woman, and the fight for women’s rights.
Hijab, in its many forms of veiling, fabrics, and trends, has been a part of many civilizations, societies, and religions. Amongst all the clothing a woman chooses to dress herself with, the hijab must unexceptionally be worn with a complete and utter freedom of her will. This very elementary freedom of choice has been largely practiced within Iran for centuries but has become a weapon for controlling women’s bodies in the past 43 years. Our hair, our bodies, our skin, have become politicized. Indeed, non-binary, trans, and any other individuals in the LGBTQ+ community have also faced brutality and discrimination in its ugliest forms by not fitting into strict heteronormative, homophobic, and oppressing legal frameworks.
In these times when women are marching the streets with their shawls down, their hair uncovered, participating in sweet and sour acts of blasphemy and rebellion, I wonder: why is it that I, and every woman in this country, have to reach for our long coats (called a “manteau”, or mantle in English) and our shawls every time we head out the door, whether we want to be veiled or not? Why is it that every time we look in the mirror, we must inspect whether we have enough skin covered to prevent the moral police from charging us, arresting us, beating us, and snatching us in vans and taking us to the police station? We may find ourselves resentfully asking, will this outfit require me to call my mom from the station, ask her to bring me more ‘appropriate’ clothing, bribe the officers, and have me sign a morality statement? Why is it that since we were kids, we have had to wear a hijab with our uniforms, only to get in the way of us running and playing tag? Why were we hypersexualized as children in the omnipresent eyes of the politicians? As we become older, why is it that we must wear long pants under our dresses, as we sneak from our cars to house parties, only to finally be able to change into our desired outfits once inside, away from the sight of the morality police? Why is it that we must choose between complicit submission to the forced hijab or risk our physical safety? Perhaps it is this exhausting way of life, these draining acts of everyday resistance, these thousands of little events that have catalyzed an anti-cultural revolution that has cascaded down these last two months. And only maybe is it this long plight for freedom and autonomy for women and for all citizens which has resonated so strongly with the international community and has led them to speak up on our behalf.
As mothers continue to bang on prison gates, yelling for the safety of their children, trapped behind the walls of solitary confinement; as bullets continue to rain down on civilians like hot arid showers in the Kurdistan and Sistan and Baluchestan region; as more college students get expelled for their slogans; heartbreak pushes us to find resilience despite the tragedies that have weighed down our backs. I have yet to find a more maddening yearn for democracy, a bigger joy in breaking moral codes, and a louder hymn from human rights devotees than in our societies that have been deprived of it. It is easy to forget all of the necessary conditions to livelihood, safety, and happiness, perhaps simply because we assumed they were everlasting and unchanging. We forget the plights of women, men, non-binary individuals, and children in attaining the smallest yet foundational rights and freedoms to ensure that we, today, can live in safe and peaceful democracies. I hope that these deep wounds that have marked our history, these scars that have etched our collective memories, will not let us forget how hard we have fought to breathe again. And I hope that a new era will be reined in by women who have shown that we are ever deserving of what has been robbed from us in these past four decades.