Pakistan then and Iran now: Women, life, freedom
Zan, Zindagi, Azaadi. Women, life, freedom. This is the slogan defining Iran right now. As I sit to write this piece, Iran enters its 13th day of protests. This slogan is being echoed in various Iranian cities after Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish Iranian woman, was allegedly killed by the country’s morality police, arrested for wearing her mandatory hijab “improperly.” Amini’s death is the underpinning of the recent protests that have spread across Iran and have intensified - both in terms of people’s anger and in the way the regime cracks down on them.
There has, for some time, been growing discontent with the strict theocracy under which Iranians live and the US-led sanctions imposed on the country. There are powerful scenes of women, without their mandatory headscarves, confronting security forces, of women publicly dancing, angry, vocal and leading protestors. But protestors’ demands are not restricted to women’s rights only. There is a chorus of demand for pre-revolution promises of freedom and social justice to be restored. These sorts of images are always powerful to watch but even more when coming from a country that has ensured people are silenced by the rhetoric of religion and crushed by Western sanctions.
I believe an image that has resonated with Pakistani feminists and activists is Iranian women burning their headscarves in public. In Pakistan, during Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship in the 1980’s, Pakistani feminists from the Women’s Action Forum publicly burned their dupattas in defiance of the Islamization project that repressed religious and social freedoms and increased systemic discrimination, particularly in the forms of laws, against women and non-Muslim citizens. Zia’s dictatorship lasted 11 years and Pakistani society is still reeling from its after affects. Iran’s theocracy has been around over 40 years. Its affects will be felt for generations to come. Iran’s women now, and Pakistani women of the 1980s, have many things in common - defying a system of oppression, speaking out against state control and seeking the dismantling of a patriarchal system guised under false religious edifice.
It is insulting and myopic to think that the right to greater freedom, justice and dignity are somehow part only of Western sensibility and cannot be pursued by local people. One can be, and in my case is, critical of American imperialist policy towards Iran and still pro-Iranian people’s demands.
Pakistan is surrounded on the Western border by two theocracies - Afghanistan on its western border and Iran on its southwest border - suppressing people and freedoms in their pursuit for a religious state. In Afghanistan, since the Taliban take-over in 2021, girls have been banned from going to school. But these protests have created hope among Iranian people and regained the attention of feminists and allies in the region, and globally no doubt, that Iranian people’s struggle against a repressive regime is only just beginning. This should give feminists in the region a new reason to strengthen ties, reassess our collective agenda of an anti-imperialist way forward and how to strategize in challenging the patriarchal status quo.
These protestors have inherited the legacy of the 1979 revolution against the last Shah of Iran. 43 years later, the making of another revolution seems to be in the offing, this time led by the brave women of Iran. It is important to point out that being pro-Iranian people’s freedom is not being pro-American foreign policy or in any way pursuing a pro-Western agenda. It is insulting and myopic to think that the right to greater freedom, justice and dignity are somehow part only of Western sensibility and cannot be pursued by local people. One can be, and in my case is, critical of American imperialist policy towards Iran and still pro-Iranian people’s demands.
What begun because of the death of one woman has led to growing and consistent demands for greater freedom, against injustice and arbitrary rule, and against a regime that represses its people into submission. The new protests have become a renewed call for change. And we must show solidarity. So, while the lights go out in Iran, with internet and social media blackouts, live bullets, and a silencing of the people, we must amplify their demands, use our voices to give weight to theirs and question the US and their draconian sanctions that have had devastating effects on the people of Iran. After all, we are not safe nor free, if our region is in political, ideological, and moral turmoil.
- Benazir Jatoi is a barrister, working in Islamabad, whose work focuses on women and minority rights. She is a regular contributor to the op-ed pages in various Pakistani newspapers.