Iran’s hijab revolution: “They’re paying for their desire to live a free life with their lives”

“Perhaps one day, when I shout my protest slogans, the morality police will kill me too. But if we do not protest today, the authorities will become even more insolent. We are ready to die for the restoration of women’s rights. All the same, victory is ours”. That’s the view of a 31-year-old ethnic Azeri woman participating in the protests in Iran.

On 13 September of this year, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested in Tehran, where she was visiting relatives with her family. A few hours after she was handed over to the morality police, Amini fell into a coma. Three days later, Mahsa died in the hospital. Witnesses, relatives and hospital staff claim that the girl was murdered. After her death, the socio-political situation in the country worsened. Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan, Shiraz, Kerman and other major cities of Iran were swept by mass protests. According to the Iranian Human Rights Organization (HRA) , during these protests, which have been going on for more than two months, about 500 people have died, and 14,825 arrested. The Iranian government hushed up the losses for weeks.

13-year-long fight

According to a 31-year-old Iranian woman who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, girls in Iran are doomed from birth to death to “live the life of a puppet.”

“I have been wearing the hijab since I was five years old. My brothers were given complete freedom, and I was controlled like a puppet. My father chose my clothes. My grandfather decided how I should speak. They were only willing to let me go to school. But at school, you had to wear clothes that covered you. When I accidentally looked at a boy, I was beaten for several days in a row. At the age of 13, a teacher at school told us about our rights. Of course, it was forbidden to talk about such things in the classroom, but she still managed to do it so that we would grow up free. After these conversations, I began to analyze my life”, she recalls.

The result of is that she has been on in the streets and squares for 13 years now. She says she has lost count of how many times she has been physically beaten and knows that one day she will be killed, but says “it is better to die in a street fight than to bow your head before the authorities. ”

Illustration: Meydan TV

“At the age of 18, for the first time, I opposed the violation of my rights. For the first three years, going out to protests, I did not encounter any violence, but then it became so much that now I’ve lost count. At the age of 22, I was detained by the police twice, at 24 I was put in jail for a year. I demanded all freedoms, starting with freedom from the hijab. From the age of 27 to this day, I periodically went out to protest. And lately I spend every day on the streets and squares. I continue despite all the persecution. The police killed my close friend, and many other friends were arrested. Only a few are left”, she says.

The woman emphasizes that the current protests are the most serious and large-scale that have happened in recent years.

Women’s protests are not new to Iran  

The women’s movement in Iran began at the end of the 19th century during the constitutional reform. As for women’s clothing, the government had been trying to control this issue since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1936, during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi, veils were banned. In 1941, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi became shah and began the modernization of the country. Starting in 1963, he began carrying out a number of political and socio-economic reforms in Iran which went down in history as the “White Revolution”. Women received the right to vote and equal political rights with men.

A law on the protection of the family which regulated marriage and divorce was passed. Under this law, the age of marriage for girls was raised from 13 to 18. Also, this law gave women the opportunity to file for divorce themselves, and the number of official wives that a man could was limited to one. But this “thaw” in the lives of Iranian women was short-lived. In 1979, an Islamic revolution took place in Iran, and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown. A month after the revolution, a law came into force in the country requiring women to wear the hijab. Iranian women responded with mass protests, the first of which took place on March 8, 1979 – International Women’s Day.

True, as the Azerbaijani feminist and gender activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva says, the actions of the late 1970s did not produce any results. However, they laid the foundation for both the 2014 protest campaign and the current actions.

Illustration: Meydan TV

“In 2014, a similar campaign called “My Secret Freedom” already took place in Iran. It was launched by activist Masih Alinejad. She posted photos of herself without a hijab on social networks and encouraged other women to share similar photos taken in parks, on the streets, etc. as well. This was received with great interest and enthusiasm. And in 2017, she re-launched a similar campaign called White Wednesday. The women were supposed to perform some kind of protest act every week on Wednesdays. Even If you didn’t take off the hijab or something like that, then you could at least share your photo in social networks in a white hijab”, says Gulnara Mehdiyeva.

The activist believes that the main similarity between those and current protests is the persecution of their participants. The difference, in her opinion, is that before only women came out to street protests, but now, men have joined them as well.

“In past years, women who took off their hijab in public were severely punished. They were sentenced to 16-18 years in prison. And it was not just a prison term. While in prison, they did not have the right to communicate with their parents and were tortured. They were even forced to appear on government TV channels and say that, they say, ‘all these are tricks of the West.’ Allegedly, they succumbed to European provocation. Some were arrested along with their mothers. And those who were not arrested faced family pressure. The current revolution has been maturing for a long time. The death of Mahsa Amini was just the last straw”, says Gulnara.

Since the protests began on September 22, women have taken off and burned their hijabs and cut their hair. Following this, slogans such as “Death to the dictator!” and “Down with Khomeini!” began to be heard at the protests.

In 2017, the police said that women who do not wear the hijab would no longer be arrested. But in August 2021, after the conservative Ebrahim Raisi was elected president, the situation deteriorated again.

It’s not just about the hijab

Another Azerbaijani gender activist, Narmin Shahmarzadeh, recalls that the protests are not only about the hijab:

“These protests and starting point of the movement are not only against the wearing of the hijab. The hijab is only the most visible and striking example of the oppression and subjugation of women. It is a symbol of hegemony over women. And women, demanding their rights, begin by destroying this symbol. But there are a number of other questions as well. Overthrowing the existing regime, they will not hesitate to openly declare their maternal rights, the right to give birth or not to give birth to a child, their orientation, etc.”

Mehsa Mehdili is a leading contributor to the Awakening magazine and one of the activists who has voiced the Iranian women’s demand. She currently lives in Turkey, but closely follows the developments in Iran. Mehdili, who has experienced arrest, violence, threats and harassment because of her political activities, calls Iran a hell for women.

“16 years ago I was a student in South Azerbaijan (Iranian Azerbaijan, in the northern part of the country which is predominantly populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis – ed.). At university, we were not allowed to wear high boots. It may sound strange, but those who have not experienced it will not understand. In winter, in the snow and cold, we went to classes in shoes that barely covered our calves. I became one of the students who took part in the protests of 2006-2007. I faced numerous police arrests and threats. There is a lot of interference in private life in Iran. Believe it or not, women cannot even get a document confirming their parental rights to their own children. They do not have the right to file for divorce. When traveling abroad, they must obtain written permission from their husband. They cannot work in one place or another without the consent of their husband. In court, the testimony of two women is equal to the testimony of one man. If a father or grandfather kills a girl, he is not executed, but put in jail. If they kill a boy, they are sentenced to death. The right of guardianship over the child belongs first to the father, then to the paternal grandfather, and only then to the mother. There are so many disgusting things that it is impossible to list. And one of the most terrible moments is that there is no minimum age for marriage for girls. On paper it’s 13, but through the court you can get permission to marry even a six-year-old; the law allows this. Statistical reports contain a lot of information about girls who were married at the age of six,” laments Mehsa Mehdili.

Illustration: Meydan TV

Reactions worldwide

World leaders and officials have condemned the Iranian authorities for cracking down on protests in the fall of 2022. On October 1, marches and rallies began in support of Iranian protests. To this end, brave women took to the streets in the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul. Across Europe and Asia, thousands of people took to the streets to protest. French actresses, including Marion Cotillard and Juliette Binoche, cut off locks of their hair in solidarity with Iranian women. Millions of women on social networks shared their posts and videos under the hashtag #MahsaAmini.

Illustration: Meydan TV

In Azerbaijan, on September 27, gender activists held a protest in front of the Iranian embassy in Baku. Participants came to the action in T-shirts with the inscriptions “Hands off women!”, “Down with guardians of morality!”. They also tried to burn the black turban they had brought with them, but the policemen did not allow them to do so. As a result, the activists did what they had planned anyway, but in a different place.

“First, we tried to arrange a symbolic burning of a black turban, like those worn by mullahs, in the same place, in front of the Iranian embassy. But the police stopped us. Therefore, we burned it in front of the monument to the Liberated Woman. This act is symbolic and was intended to express our solidarity and our position as feminists. This turban symbolized precisely reactionism. More support needs to be provided. But since we local feminists are currently low on resources, we cannot make a serious contribution. It’s just that marches and assurances of solidarity are, in a way, formal. Of course, they’re are also important. But you need to know what the effectiveness of this support is. We are waiting for more support from European countries, we still hope that there will be tough actions against Iran. Because recently there was news that 15,000 people arrested at protests in Iran are awaiting execution. The massacre of 15,000 people is primitive barbarism. The possibility that these people could actually be executed is terrible”, says Gulnara Mehdiyeva.

Narmin Shahmarzade believes that support actions should be more creative and believes that it would be effective if state officials also joined them.

“The weather forecaster on Azerbaijan’s Baku TV taking off her headscarf while talking about the weather in Tabriz does not carry a deep meaning. Considering that there are no hijab-related prohibitions in Azerbaijan, and this woman does not live the same life as people in Iran, this does not symbolize the struggle. The attitude of the Azerbaijani authorities to the hijab is not the same as that of the Iranian authorities, and therefore it is inappropriate for us to express solidarity through the hijab here. If this woman, in fact, would wear a hijab, or its wearing would be mandatory in our country, then the reaction would be different. We must express our support in the form of criticism of how the government – whether Iranian or Azerbaijani – manipulates women and persecutes them. And if people with a certain status support the protesters, this means that these protesters are not just a marginal group. Support should also be provided by a few women in Iran who hold high government positions, like teachers and doctors. The support of women from other countries is also important. For example, in Azerbaijan there was no adequate reaction to what was happening on the part of “high-ranking” women. And that’s wrong.”

Officially, Baku has not made any statement about the protests in Iran, yet Iranian-Azerbaijani relations remain tense. In October-November, military exercises were held on both sides of the Iranian-Azerbaijani border. In the Iranian city of Shiraz, citizens of Azerbaijan were detained on charges of terrorism, and the state security bodies of Azerbaijan, in turn, reported that they had arrested two groups engaged in provocative and subversive activities commissioned by the Iranian special services.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev only stated on November 25 that, “we will do our best to protect the Azerbaijanis living in Iran”.

Recall that in the city of Qazvin in Northern Azerbaijan, 22-year-old Sepehr Ismaily was killed during a protest. But the leadership of Azerbaijan did not react to this either.

Azerbaijanis make up the vast majority of the population of Northwestern Iran, and are the second largest ethnic group after Persians and the largest national minority in Iran. Mainly, they live in the cities of Ardabil, Urmia, Tabriz and Zanjan. The total number of Azerbaijanis is about 25-35 million people, which is 35-42% of the population of Iran. Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini assessed the impact of the protests as insignificant and said they were started and fueled by the United States, Israel and other foreign countries. Critics consider these statements far-fetched. There are no recent official statistics regarding the number of people killed and injured during the protests.

Illustration: Meydan TV

Revenge for Mahsa Amini continues

A 28-year-old ethnic Azeri resident of Tabriz says that there are still ongoing acts of retaliation in Iran for every blow inflicted on Mahse Amini:

“Today, without a hijab, we pass by the police, who in the first three days looked with hatred at women with uncovered heads. Although the main driving forces of the protests are ethnic Iranians, there are also many who have Azerbaijani roots. I have been physically assaulted by the police several times, but not so seriously. To date, the intensity of the protests has decreased, but if they resume, the participants will probably be beaten again. But today it is not so easy to beat women living in Iran, we have already partially achieved what we wanted. Women teachers and doctors working in public institutions are also protesting. It has become commonplace in schools and universities to come to class without a hijab. Some girls are boycotting school. We will finally realize our dream when we can walk the streets in whatever we want and fully restore our rights ,” she told Meydan TV.

On December 4, Iran’s Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri announced the abolition of the morality police in the country. And the day before, he said that “both parliament and the judiciary are working on the issue” of the need to change the law requiring women to cover their heads.

The Iranian Azeri who has devoted 13 years of her 31-year life to fighting and protesting believes it is impossible to silence women who speak the truth:

“Today, women are being silenced. But our struggle will overcome their cruelty. You can’t cling to the past in today’s world. And if one day all the protesting women die, you will fight for us”, she says.

And she adds, addressing all women: “Don’t be afraid to fight for truth and right, don’t be afraid to support this fight”.

With the support of the Russian language news exchange.

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