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A Feminist Revolution Like No Other: Iranian Women’s Fight Against Historical Oppression

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I remember scrolling through Instagram in early September, couched safely in my apartment over 3,000 kilometres away from Iran – and a peculiar occurrence gripped my attention – the comment section of every public figure’s post ranging from Dwanye Johnson to Deepika Padukone to Cristiano Ronaldo was flooded with only one thing: Justice for Mahsa Amini

Soon this name featured on every headline, TV debate, and social justice activists’ page; and as a community, we became aware of the 22-year-old Kurdish student who was killed by the “morality police” in her home country for “improperly” wearing her hijab. Her death marked the beginning of what can now be categorised as a feminist revolution – a watershed female-led uprising against the historically oppressive state machinery of Iran. 

Post the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime demanded women to completely cover their heads with the hijab – a headscarf that Muslim women are required to wear just by virtue of their gender. A spur of protests emerged which were then cracked down on by the clerical rulers of Iran. Two infamous slogans of the time were Wear A Veil, Or We Will Punch Your Head and Death To The Unveiled.  It became the Islamic Republic’s ‘raison d’état’ to dial back on a law largely agreed upon as regressive as an attempt to “separate itself from Euro-American ideals”. 

This mandatory hijab law was somewhat loosened during the 2013–21 tenure of the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani, during which fewer women were arrested or hassled for the hijab. However, as soon as the reigns shifted to the Islamic fundamentalist Ebrahim Raisi, the hijab was made mandatory again, and this time even for non-Muslim and foreign women visiting Iran.

Raisi, who is known to be a staunch believer of “sex-segregation” – a euphemism for spatial and cultural discrimination against women and removal of women from the public sphere – amplified the function of the Gasht-e-Ershad (Guidance Patrol), dubbed as the “morality police”, responsible for incarcerating women who “flout the traditional Iranian principles of modesty” upheld by the hijab. As of January 2023, Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code states: women who appear in public without the Islamic hijab may be sentenced to ten days to two months in prison or fined five hundred thousand Rials.

Amini was arrested by the Guidance Patrol on September 14, 2022 and was declared dead two days later. Witnesses and her family alleged that she was beaten and tortured to death by the police, and the autopsy of her body confirmed that she had in fact sustained head injuries. The Guidance Patrol instantly denied all allegations and claimed that Amini suffered an unprecedented cardiac arrest. 

Iranian Revolution: The Protests That Refuse To Come To A Halt

Amini’s death triggered widespread protests, which began in the Kurdistan province and soon spread to as many as 80 cities in Iran and captured the capital city of Tehran. Unlike the earlier protests for women’s rights in Iran, the current protests are helmed by women from all walks of life – from rural to working class to revered personalities to politicians to even young schoolgirls. Leaderless and untethered, these women chant “Zan, Zendegī, Āzādī” – “Women, Life, Freedom” all across the nation. 

What they demand is much more than an end to the hijab compulsion, they demand a government that recognises women’s rights as human rights. These women are protesting against the orthodox theocratic ‘mullah’ regime that governs Iran’s social fabric today, they are demanding a holistic politico-religious shift in Iran’s law and order.

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Iran Protests

Progressively gaining momentum, these protests have served as a visceral display of women-power. The protestors have taken to not only ripping apart but burning their hijabs, cutting their own hair, and chanting various anti-establishment slogans such as “Death to the oppressor, be it the shah or the supreme leader” and “Death to the Dictator”.

Moreover, the revolution has penetrated the entirety of social media, with the hashtags #WomenLifeFreedom and #HairForFreedom trending on Twitter since the protests began. Viral videos of schoolgirls joyously stomping on and ripping apart photos of the two Supreme Leaders – Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is being shared massively. 

The people of Iran as well as international observers have stated that they have “never witnessed such anger before” from Iranian women. “The protests are a manifestation of generational oppression and frustration. We have been born into this turmoil and we are protesting against our deprivation of human rights. We want the world to not only witness our anger but also participate in it. Iranian women have been deprived of basic civil and political rights under the Islamic State,” a 20-year-old student from Shahid Beheshti University who does not wish to be named told the author.  

“This is a feminist struggle. The government treats women unfairly, this is not just a people’s movement, it is very much a women’s movement,” she adds. 

The government has responded to the protests by 1) installing stooges in various parts of the nation who carried out pro-government protests and shunned the women’s revolution as “American and Israeli propaganda” 2) Shutting down the internet, cracking down on state-media coverage, arresting local journalists, preventing international reporters from entering Iran so that news of the protests doesn’t reach the world 3) launching a disinformation campaign and tricking Western media to publish the news of the morality police being abolished (which the women of Iran soon debunked) to be able to shift the blame on “Western media hogwash” and finally 4) ruthlessly arresting and executing protestors.  According to several Iran Human Rights organisations, as of December 2022, at least 476 people had been killed, including women and at least 64 children.

Despite the danger of being killed, there seems to be no let-up in this staggering feminist revolt as millions of women continue to gather from Tehran to Baghdad to Beirut to even Islamic Republic power bases such as the holy cities of Mashhad and Qom. A New Yorker report defines these protests as the “first counter-revolution led by women” – and as of today, the world agrees. 

A Far And Wide Impact On The Global Feminist Movement

What makes this a revolution like no other, however, is beyond its scale; it is the global outpouring of support. In a historic occurrence of mass solidarity, this movement has empowered women from all across the globe to raise their voices.  

In some striking instances, French personalities Juliette Binoche, Jane Birkin, Marion Cotillard, Isabelle Adjani and many others joined the revolution by chopping off their hair and posting videos on social platforms with the hashtag #HairForFreedom. Abir Al-Sahlani, a Swedish member of the European Parliament, cut off her hair during a speech at the EU assembly. American actor Angelina Jolie came out in support of the protestors by saying: “Respect to the brave, defiant, fearless women of Iran. All those who have survived and resisted for decades, those taking to the streets today, and Masha Amini and all young Iranians like her.” American actor and the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Women, Life, Freedom”. 

Who Is Abir Al-Sahlani

Abir Al-Sahlani | Credit: Twitter

On September 30, over 80 women’s rights organisations from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America issued a statement to Raisi’s government urging the state to repeal Article 638 of the penal code, review and change all laws that discriminate against women, and to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

“We, as women foreign ministers, are gathered in solidarity with the courageous Iranian women engaging in their right of peaceful assembly and advocating for their human rights. We recognize that Iranian women are also fighting for a better future for all Iranians and we have the moral obligation to support them,” read a joint statement put out on October 26 by the Foreign Ministers of Canada, Albania, Andorra, Australia, France, Germany, Iceland, Kosovo, Libya, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, and Norway – all of whom are women. Several other women’s rights groups, NGOs, individual activists, as well as the various arms of the United Nations, have called on the Iranian government to accept the protests’ demands.

“Nearly five months on, international support for Iranian women and the protest movement more broadly remains strong, with a diverse array of women’s organisations issuing statements of solidarity and support. This global support not only encourages Iranian women to continue in their fight for freedom, but also it is undermining the international political and moral legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and making its government even more isolated among the nations of the international community. These protests speak for the oppressed woman, who has been fighting for centuries,” says Iranian civil rights researcher and activist Fariba Parsa. 

“The current scenario in Iran is simply one more illustration of how governments led by men treat the female population. In India, we witness a similar oppression of women under the Hindu extremist government, particularly against Muslim women. In India, young girls have fought to wear the Hijab in Karnataka and battled against the Centre which makes laws on behalf of women. In both cases, women demand the right or either wear or discard the hijab. It is the woman’s choice, not the government’s. Since both countries discriminate against women on various fronts, the Iranian feminist revolution has had a major impact on even India,” says Indian journalist Mehwash Hussain. 

Soheila Golestani's Silent Protest Video

Iranian filmmaker Soheila Golestani and other directors stage silent protest

This movement, far removed from the upper echelons of society, has challenged mainstream feminist theory itself. Contemporary feminist theory (and arguably practice) is often exclusionary by definition – it revolves around the upper-class, educated, “independent” woman. Derived from the Euro-American tropes of “corporate” feminism, it advocates a certain movement that only benefits the privileged woman.

The idea of modern-day feminism is increasingly intertwined with the image of an upper-class woman in a suit, running businesses, and featuring on a Forbes list of game-changers/mavericks. The feminism we witness in Iran today, however, features the everyday woman. 

Iranian human rights researcher Azadeh Pourzand describes the ongoing protests as an “organic grassroots feminist revolution.” She talks about the “ordinary people” taking to the streets or even social media to voice their opinions this time. “Women do not fear being arrested, women are more blunt than ever,” she says. 

“Although these protests are a continuation of hundreds of years of struggle for Iranian women against the discriminatory policies of the Islamic Republic, they have culminated into women spearheading an all-round revolution, wherein women are demanding not only the eradication of the oppressive hijab law but a change in the oppressive government in Iran, against the theocratic regime. These protests are underscored by the fact that freedom is unattainable without women’s rights – which is not attainable under the current regime. Therefore these protests demand a political shift, a socio-economic shift required for the progress of Iran as a nation driven by this grassroots movement” Pourzand says.  

“This is not just an upheaval involving women, it is an upheaval about women and women’s freedom, and that makes it very unique and special,”  says Anne O’Donnell, a Russia historian at New York University.

The Iranian uprising defies these constraining definitions of feminism, it presents to the world the crudest form of organised protest and collective outrage that speaks for each and every woman of Iran, who is relentlessly fighting despite the lack of a consequence. “The revolution lies in the coming together of Iranian women and not the outcome,” says Pourzand. 

Amarabati Bhattacharyya is a journalist and writer with a keen interest in philosophy and gender studies.


Suggested Reading: How Iran Women Protests Shaped Due To Policymaking Of The Khamenei Government

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