Unveiled and Unbroken, Woman’s Revolution in Iran, Queer Majority, 18 February 2023
When Mahsa Amini was dragged off last year to undergo “re-education” for “improper” veiling, it was business as usual for Iran’s Islamic morality police, which harasses, imprisons, and brutalises thousands of women every year. But Amini wasn’t merely arrested and tortured. She was killed. Her murder became a watershed moment for the country. Mass protests broke out across Iran with shouts of the Kurdish slogan “Jin, Jîyan, Azadî” or “Woman, Life, Freedom”, a chant first heard in Rojava, a Syrian autonomous zone that became known as the centre of a “women’s revolution” in the 2010s. It is a slogan that has now been propelled to global awareness.
Iran has seen many protest movements in the past, but this one has been palpably different. Demonstrations have taken place across the country, including in poverty-stricken regions and religious centres such as Qom. Women and girls have been at the forefront, removing and burning their hijabs, with men by their side, demanding an end to an “Islamic Republic”, and an end to “a misogynist state.” These protests are being called another women’s revolution. They want a better life, one where women, religious minorities, nonbelievers, and LGBT people have rights and protections — and they know they will never have it under a theocracy.
The protests are strikingly secular, modern, anti-clerical, and even anti-Islamic. One example is the “turban-flying phenomenon”, where a young person runs up behind a mullah and knocks off his turban. Another are the last words of Mohsen Shekari as he was marched blindfolded to his execution on the charge of “enmity against God”: “Don’t mourn at my grave. Don’t read the Quran or pray. Celebrate.” At the funeral of nine-year-old Kian Pirfalak, a nine year old victim of the state suppression of the Mahsa Amini protests, his mother boomed to an applauding crowd, “Don’t read the Quran for my son. My son hated the Quran.” Funerals, in general, have become a way to express dissent by singing and dancing instead of observing the usual Shi’a religious ceremonies. This backlash is also reflected in popular slogans like “Mullah, get lost”, and in the lyrics of new revolutionary songs: “I am fed up with your religion. I hate your tenets.”
Given the focus on women’s rights and “Woman, Life, Freedom”, it’s natural that the revolution targets both Islamic as well as patriarchal violence against women. Of course, there is abject poverty, inflation, unemployment, corruption, and rampant inequality — but women often face the brunt of it. This inequality includes different textbooks for girls and boys; segregation based on sex (women have to sit at the back of the bus or enter separate government office entrances, for example); women’s testimony being worth half that of a man’s; certain fields of work and study being closed to women; women needing the permission of a male guardian to travel, study or work; and women’s limited rights to divorce or child custody. Unemployment rates for university-educated women are twice as high as that for men. Employment rates for women are some of the worst in the world. In the eyes of the regime, a woman’s “place” is in the home, reproducing like dutiful broodmares. Poverty has become feminised as women are more likely to be unemployed and living in squalor, toiling at invisible labour.
Other forms of violence, such as honour killings, child marriages, and domestic violence, are seen as the prerogative of the male guardian. The discrimination and violence against women in Sharia law, the education system, the media, institutions, and policies extend into the most private social and interpersonal relations and are legitimised by the state.
In all of this, the veil is central. It is not merely a piece of clothing but a symbol of women’s second-class citizenship and the regime’s most visible manifestation of control. The regime came to power by veiling women. Compulsory veiling was one of its first acts, and women who refused were attacked with acid or had veils pinned into their heads along with the Islamist slogan: “Ya rusary, ya tusary”, which means “Either veil or get punched.”
The regime is obsessed with veiling women and girls from the age of seven. Girls cannot go to school unless they wear a compulsory hijab. The state uses everything in its power, from the morality police to the Islamic militia, to imprisonment, fines, violence, and even murder to get its way. Many women and girls, however, now refuse to comply. The level of courage in challenging veiling laws, sex segregation, and sexist subjugation is awe-inspiring. And it is this fight against the veil that will be instrumental in ending this regime.
The powers that be understand this well. An Islamic state that cannot veil women can no longer call itself Islamic. It is an existential matter for the regime, which is why the suppression of protesters has been so brutal. The authorities are using weapons of war against demonstrators, targeting women’s eyes, breasts, and genitals. Over 500 protestors have been killed; nearly 70 of them 18 and under. 18,000 have been arrested with reports of widespread torture, including rape and sexual assault. A majority of the Islamic Assembly (the legislative body) has called on the Islamic judiciary to execute protestors, and four working-class men already have been: Mohsen Shekari, Majid Reza Rahnavard, Mohammad Hosseini, and Mohammad Mehdi Karami. They were tried in kangaroo courts, given no due process of any kind, and executed based on forced confessions made under torture. Many others face this same fate.
The regime has been sweeping up activists and campaigners in dragnet arrests, including well-known atheist ex-Muslim Soheil Arabi who had been on death row for blasphemy for many years and was living in internal exile. He was beaten so severely during his arrest that he suffered a heart attack. Even the two female journalists who first broke the Mahsa Amini story, Niloufar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, have been imprisoned and charged with propaganda and acting against national security.
Despite the false reports that the morality police have been suspended, the regime has pledged to step up hijab enforcement. Businesses that have served unveiled women or unveiled staff have been shut down (Yes, many women are walking around without their veils even though it is against the law). A member of the Islamic Consultative Assembly has said that hijab enforcement will never be abolished and that “Veils will be back on women’s heads within two weeks.” There are also discussions about further penalties like freezing the bank accounts of women who violate hijab rules or using facial recognition technology to identify and arrest them. But it will be to no avail. The Islamic regime of Iran cannot stop the change that is coming, nor their own demise. It is only a matter of time.
This women’s revolution will help free everyone, including men, from an ideology and state that sees men as rapists unable to control their urges if they see a few strands of hair. It will also free ex-Muslims, nonbelievers, religious and ethnic minorities, and LGBT people. What the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” clearly recognises is that women’s freedom is a precondition to the freedom of society. But the freedom of women, apostates, blasphemers, and queer people must take centre stage in order to bring about change. These rights are not marginal or trivial. In the words of Shadi Amin, Coordinator of the Iranian Lesbian and Transgender Network (6Rang): “Having experienced four decades of suppression and discrimination against the LGBT community, this community’s demands must be placed in the centre of the struggle for the future of Iran. You cannot speak of democracy and disregard this community and their rights.”
Certainly, there are still many dangers, including regime change from above. Western governments have a history of interventions in Iran, including paving the way for an Islamic regime that suppressed the Iranian revolution after deciding in Guadeloupe that they would no longer support the Shah’s dictatorship. There are ways in which the public can help the revolution in Iran, however. Many more will be killed if the public do not pressure their governments to stop business as usual with the regime, for example. Western powers must stop supporting the Iranian government, shut down its embassies and expel its ambassadors. One protest banner says it all: “Western leaders, we don’t need you to save Iranian women; just stop saving our murderers.” The Woman, Life, Freedom Charter is one attempt to ensure that basic rights and principles are recognised, including the right of the Iranian people to determine their own fate.
The rise of the Islamic regime in Iran saw a corresponding rise of fundamentalism across many parts of the world, including Islamic but also Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist extremism. Imagine if a women’s revolution ends this anti-woman theocracy. It can herald a new dawn if we dare to stand with the women and people of Iran. It is within our grasp. A regime that came to power by imposing the veil with acid attacks and violence may come to an end with free women tearing off their veils and lighting them ablaze. The question each of us must answer is, as Florence Reece once sang, which side are you on? There is only one right answer: on the side of the women’s revolution in Iran.