This piece was written together with Rebecca O’Keeffe and Maryam from Iran *last name withheld for her own safety.
Mahsa Amini was 22. Her name is now well known. She is the fire that ignited a feminist revolution in Iran. Amini was killed by the so-called Morality Police for improperly wearing her hijab, the head covering mandated by so-called cultural and religious interpretation.
(Not so different from the religious interpretations and legal restrictions that deny an American woman her right to her own body, to use just one example. Let’s be clear: this fight isn’t just about “other women, over there.” It’s all around us. Just because our heads aren’t covered doesn’t mean our eyes aren’t covered…)
This garment has become the symbol of oppression in Iran and a way to ‘justify’ discrimination against women. And yet, shouldn’t all women have the choice whether or not to cover? Ideally yes, but…
The Morality Police arrested Amini on September 13 for wearing her headscarf too loosely. She was severely beaten in police custody and subsequently died from her injuries three days later.
Her death sparked widespread protests, and a feminist call to action:
Women! Life! Freedom!
Zan! Zandegi! Azadi!
زن، زندگی ، آزادی
This is a fight for freedom, for rights, for choice, for bodily integrity, for autonomy. That is what feminism stands for. No one, no country, nowhere should ever tell women what to do with their own bodies and their own lives, including how to dress, and whether to cover or not. NO COUNTRY.
Just like the rest of the world, I was watching the news in awe and admiration. But while I cheer, I also fear. Will they succeed? What will be the repercussions if they do — or don’t?
On Friday September 23, an email landed in my inbox:
Hello Dr. AbiRafeh,
Hi, I’m Maryam. I live in Germany but have been in contact with my family and friends in Iran. Do you know what happened to a girl in Iran? I’m sure you know a 22 year old girl was killed for what she was wearing. The government has been killing the people who are in the streets and shouting “women, life, freedom” please be their voice. You have been working for women rights for many years, please be with Iranian women and help the world hear their voices louder.
We exchanged messages to get a sense of the situation — especially given the communications blackout imposed by the government. Maryam confirmed:
After Mahsa’s death millions of people all around Iran are in the streets saying the slogan “women, life, freedom “ and the police are killing and beating them. A lot of women disappeared during these days and nobody knows where they are and a lot of women have been arrested.
She added, urgently:
Please watch this video of what they are doing to women.
We asked how we could help.
We just need the world to hear our voice because the dictator government always says women are free in Iran and the Hijab is their choice and is not mandatory but the world should know they are liars, they are monsters who have been oppressing women for 43 years. We can not do anything without men’s permission, we cannot choose what to wear, where to go, and what to do.
She continued to say:
My mother-in-law is in hospital because of what happened to her during the protests.
Maryam’s mother-in-law is no stranger to the harsh rule of the Islamic Republic. Her son was arrested in 1999 a few days after the student-led protests in Tehran. Three months after his arrest, the family received a phone call from him but have not heard anything since — they still do not know if he is alive or dead.
Such is the fate for many — those who are brave enough to challenge the authoritarian regime and demand basic human dignity and rights.
A little bit of history… because context is important.
The Iranian Revolution in 1979 toppled a monarchy. In that historic moment, people’s hopes for change were high. Unfortunately, the result was the Islamic Republic — an even more oppressive regime. This new Islamic Republic sought to restrict and control the population in the name of sovereignty. In the decades since, corrupt autocratic governance coupled with externally-imposed sanctions have resulted in a precarious economy with high poverty rates, widespread unemployment, turbulent political relations, restricted opportunities, gross human rights abuses, and international isolation.
And rampant violations of women’s rights.
Women have suffered most under this regime, reduced to second class citizens and stripped of all rights. The age of marriage for girls was reduced from 18 to nine, movement was restricted, and women were forced to wear the hijab and adhere to Islamic dress code.
Gender segregation in public places such as schools and public transport was attempted too, but women resisted. So while segregation and female only spaces are observed in many places, institutionalization of segregation has not happened thanks to resistance and criticism from civil society.
In fact, women in Iran have always been actively resisting.
Whatever marginal gains women have achieved in education, politics, and the workplace have all been a result of women’s resistance.
And today again, women have been leading the protests — despite grave risk.
The repressive regime is known to arbitrarily arrest, savagely beat, torture, and disappear dissenters. And this time is no different, with authorities brutally retaliating — especially against women. The death toll is rising, extreme violence is being meted out, and internet restrictions are curbing communication. They are also attempting to hijack the narrative with counter protests in support of the government.
Maryam sent us this:
On Sunday 25 we got another update:
They killed Hadis Najafi with 6 bullets in Karaj city.
Najafi, seen here on her way to a demonstration speaking about hope for a better future, was in her early 20s.
Other young women murdered include Ghazale Chelavi, Hananeh Kia, Minu Majidi, and Mahsa Mogoi — who was only 18.
Men too have been protesting and supporting women. One man, visibly injured and bloodied, said:
My body is full of those pellet bullets. I am here to claim the rights of the next generation… We want justice, we want gender equality.
However, they are not immune to the state’s brutality either. Erfan Rezai, Zakaria Khial, Mohammad Farmani, Abdallah Mahmoudpour, Rouzbeh Khademian, Milan Haghighi, and Javad Heidari, were all murdered.
A video emerged of Heidari’s sister cutting her hair on his coffin, protesting his killing. Everyone is suffering.
And that’s not all. At least 76 people have been killed since unrest broke out, but it is likely much higher — and rising.
And countless have been arrested, held in inhumane conditions, subjected to beatings.
This isn’t stopping anytime soon.
On Monday September 26, Maryam sent this:
Today the police arrested my sister. The situation is awful, they are trying to find everybody.
We reached out to some other contacts in Iran. Those who were able to reply safely, did so. One woman wrote:
I’m still alive. Sad moments remain in Iran.
These people have asked to remain anonymous. They must delete the messages after sending — or they put their lives at risk. The government is tracking down everyone who speaks out.
Usually every time they suppress the demonstrations, they start arresting people from their homes months later, and then the rapes, whippings, and tortures of the prisoners start again. They are the biggest liars in the world because they always try to show that everything is fine inside Iran. Just yesterday, the villa of Iran’s most famous football player Ali Karimi was seized by the government because of his support for the people’s demonstrations.
Another woman wrote:
I am so happy that the world is watching us and hearing our voices now. It means a lot to me to get a message like this from you.
I couldn’t take part in the protests so, I don’t have any fresh information from the field. All I know is from the news which is spread around the world. All I know is that women lead the protests, some people got killed during the protests. People protest in many cities, they’re vast.
While Iranians have always protested, and various incidents throughout the years have sparked mass demonstrations, women are saying that this time feels different.
In the words of one:
People are hopeful that something might change from now on. We are sad and angry. We want to live a normal life just like any other human being. It’s very simple. Wish they could hear us.
I just want to imagine a life in Iran where we are sitting at the beach with our bikinis and drinking beer. Something this simple. A normal life…
Women, life, freedom.
Another women echoed this sentiment:
Iran is in trouble, I hope freedom for all.
We are tired of all the past years of dictatorship…Wish us freedom.
So what can we do?
Listen to — and amplify — Iranian voices. They are not silent — but they are silenced.
Here are a few Iranian journalists, academics, activists to start:
Read what they say, and share their voices — especially as Iranian voices are being restricted. Let’s not let their cause fall victim to news cycles and social amnesia.
And check out this list of further readings for those who want to know more.
On Tuesday September 27, Maryam wrote:
Thank you for listening to me these few days because I am far from Iran, these messages helped me a lot to feel that I am the voice of the people.
We stand with everyone everywhere actively resisting patriarchy and fighting for freedom — for women, and for all.
Sisters in Iran, we’re with you. Fight on.