Iran’s women light the path to a radiant future
A year after the killing of Mahsa Amini triggered a nationwide mass uprising, Iran’s leaders are so terrified by the prospect of catching a glimpse of a woman’s hair that they have deployed mass surveillance to identify unveiled women in public spaces, and increased spying on social media activity. The “morality police,” whose immoral, abusive behavior triggered the mass protests in the first place, have meanwhile been unleashed back on the streets.
Former President Mohammad Khatami warned that the reemergence of these widely hated forces was self destructive for the Islamic Republic and would trigger social implosion. However, as the ubiquitous “Woman. Life. Freedom” slogan emphasized, rejection of the hijab was always merely a symbol of a more profound desire among Iranian women for the freedom to live fulfilling, equal and productive lives.
While the authorities obsess over women’s hair, Iranians have plentiful additional reasons to feel frustration: inflation exceeds 50 percent, with an estimated 60 percent of people below the poverty line, a high proportion of whom subsist on less than $2 a day; unemployment in the 15-24 age bracket is estimated at a crippling 77 percent; professionals are unsurprisingly fleeing abroad, with 6,000 doctors thought to have departed in 2023 alone.
Legislation being discussed by Iran’s parliament, imposing additional new punishments on uncovered women, has been described by UN experts as “gender apartheid.” The UN added that the authorities were “governing through systemic discrimination, with the intention of suppressing women and girls into total submission.”
In recent days the authorities arrested numerous female activists and stepped up a campaign of intimidation, seeking to neutralize the momentum toward civil disobedience around the anniversary of Amini’s killing. Businesses have been closed down and staff arrested merely for serving an uncovered female customer. Hospitals are banned from providing aid to unveiled women.
Pro-regime online channels such as Bisimchi Media exist purely to spy on uncovered women and incite their arrest. Activist Leila Ziafar declared on social media: “We have given blood for shedding the hijab, our chains. We will never retreat from the path we have traversed,” and posted a photo of herself without a headscarf. Hours later Bisimchi Media hailed Leila’s arrest, and even posted a video of her home being raided — a strong indication that it is directly connected with the security services.
Women and girls who sacrificed everything in the cause of freedom, such as Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmaeilzadeh, are an inspiring illustration that the costs of the struggle for a brighter future are high, but are infinitely worth paying.
Letters smuggled out of prisons tell a story of systematic rape, torture and daily humiliation of hundreds of women and girls. The confirmed uprising death toll of at least 537 included 68 children, and many protesters were executed. Photos and videos continue to circulate showing dozens of women deliberately shot in the eyes for daring to come out on the streets. The New York Times confirmed that 500 people with similar injuries sought treatment at just three hospitals in Tehran between September and November 2022, illustrating the systematic nature of the crackdown.
In recent days, pop singer Mehdi Yarrahi was arrested for releasing a song calling on women to remove their hijabs. He nevertheless urged people to go ahead with commemorating the anniversary of Amini’s death, and pledged to be a “nightmare” for those prosecuting him. Yarrahi is one of dozens of musicians, sports personalities and public figures who have been persecuted for taking a principled stand, at the risk of their careers, and indeed their lives; celebrity chef Mehrshad Shahidi was beaten to death by Revolutionary Guard thugs the day before his 20th birthday.
Despite all this, courageous women still determinedly walk the streets uncovered. One recounted how she often felt fearful on her daily unveiled commute to work, but fights her fear by “reciting the names of other brave women who have stood tall in the face of oppression: Sepideh Gholian, Nika Shakarami, Sarina Esmaeilzadeh…”
Meanwhile US officials have naively been expressing optimism at moves to dial back tensions with Iran following behind-the-scenes talks. But these supposed achievements are rooted in deeply flawed thinking. They highlight the reduction in attacks by Iraq-based paramilitaries against US targets, while ignoring that these forces have massively increased in size and have become a much more chronic threat to regional security. Iran has slowed down but not stopped enriching uranium to 60 percent, only a step away from the 90 percent required for nuclear weapons. Tehran has released into house arrest a number of detained US citizens in exchange for $6 billion in frozen oil revenues. But such transactions are inevitably followed by an unseemly rush to abduct other poor souls, while unfrozen funds find their way to militants and terrorists.
For schoolgirls too young to have any concept of broader geopolitical developments, the 2022 events created unforgettable formative memories, and ignited a resolute determination to one day play their part in transforming their nation’s future.
The 2022 uprising was also a revolution for patriarchal ways of seeing the world: after everything that occurred, men could no longer regard women as weaker or inferior, and women recall the prominent role male protesters played in protecting women under threat of arrest or attack. This was also an ethnic uprising that often raged most fiercely in Kurdish, Baloch, Azeri and Arab regions. Amini’s family called her by her Kurdish name, Jina, which means “life.” Kurdish names are illegal in Iran, hence the Persian name, Mahsa.
The pressures and challenges facing women and all Iranians have only increased over the past year. When you speak to Iranians, even those previously sympathetic to the regime, everybody knows that change is coming, that the status quo is unsustainable. It is simply a question of when and how.
Over the past year, Iran’s women savored the tiniest taste of freedom, and acquired a glimpse of the immense power they are capable of wielding when they determinedly act together in support of change.
Women and girls who sacrificed everything in the cause of freedom, such as Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmaeilzadeh, are an inspiring illustration that the costs of the struggle for a brighter future are high, but are infinitely worth paying, so that daughters and granddaughters can relish the rights, freedoms and opportunities that were withheld from the post-1979 generations.
The strong minded, highly educated, courageous and forward-looking women of Iran represent this country’s glorious future. Today they are simply waiting for the rest of this proud nation to catch up with them.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.