‘Women, life, freedom’: A people’s war against oppression

On Iran’s streets, campuses, and rooftops, people are fighting for women’s rights. This open defiance against the authoritarian regime reveals the latent discontent of a society on its knees. It is uncertain whether Ayatollah Khamenei’s rule will survive the nationwide upheaval, but one thing is clear: an inhibitory fear amongst the people has been superseded by anger, dissent, and empowerment.

This popular upsurge follows the brutal murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in custody on 16 September – arrested, beaten, and abused by the ‘morality police’ for exposing mere strands of hair from her hijab. While this aligns with Iran’s dubious human rights record of censorship, torture and discrimination, Amini’s death possesses a powerful yet tragic potence: a symbol of the oppression of women.

The hijab – both a personal totem and a source of control – epitomises the debate about women’s rights. Taking centre stage in the protests, Iranian women are leaving the house without covering their heads, burning their hijabs, and cutting their hair in solidarity. These peaceful acts are not indicative of a rejection of Islam, but rather the promotion of a fundamental right – the right to choose.

The police have struggled to contain the fires of protest which line the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities, yet they have succeeded in adding fuel to them. In line with their history of indiscriminate brutality, forces have arrested journalists, detained women, and open-fired on protesters. The subsequent deaths of people like Nika Shakarami, only 17 years old, have bolstered the cause of the freedom-fighters and fomented further discontent.

Though spearheaded by women, men and schoolchildren support the social movement opposing the gendered restriction of freedom. And as the demonstrations mount, it is clear that their demands are broadening. The defiant calls for gender equality have opened the floodgates of criticism in Iran – whose people are demanding sweeping change. Echoing the rebellious mood of many Iranian citizens, activists have defiantly declared a statement which underscores the regime’s fragility: ‘I am not afraid.’

Unsurprisingly, the international community has not remained silent while observing Iran’s rejection of femicide and subjugation – writ large in the widely-circulated footage of social unrest. In addition to official sanctions against the morality police and diplomatic statements of condemnation, women across the globe have shown solidarity with their Iranian counterparts by publicly cutting or shaving their hair. In a high-profile example on Wednesday, Swedish MEP Abir Al-Sahlani cut away strands of her hair during a speech in the EU Assembly. This visceral sign of protest reinforces the relevance of Iranian women’s plight for the international feminist movement, whose critique of a patriarchal world remains painfully apt.

It takes a mere glance into Iran’s past to see that the country is no stranger to protest. From a revolt against the Shah in 1978 to anti-government demonstrations in January 2020, bursts of upheaval have marked its history. While a comparable women’s war had not previously occurred, it is also critical to recognise that feminist activity is not simply a recent development. Iranian women have always rallied against their status as ‘second-class citizens’, and they continue to do so – this time armed with cross-society support.

Though the current protests are a source of optimism, some commentators doubt their ability to uproot the dictatorial regime (not least because a government-enforced blackout has obscured the truth about the state of Iran). But as the demonstrations rumble into their fourth week, it would be naïve not to recognise their potential. In admiring and supporting the Iranian people’s call for change, we can champion the decades-old triad of ‘Women, life, freedom’ together.


Featured image: Albert Stoynov on Unsplash

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