Why are Americans ignoring the protests in Iran? | Francine Prose

The protesters’ cry of ‘woman, life, freedom’ is inspiring, but many people in the US quit listening after the first word

It’s been more than two months since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, arrested by Iran’s so-called guidance patrol for incorrectly wearing her hijab, died in police custody. The official report blamed her death on heart failure, but eyewitnesses and her family insist that she was so severely beaten that she suffered a fatal brain injury. Since then, protests have raged across Iran despite the brutality of the government’s response. Over 400 people have been killed; an unknown number of journalists and demonstrators have been imprisoned or disappeared. Hundreds have been blinded by rubber bullets and metal pellets fired into crowds of protesters. Popular athletes – soccer star Voria Ghafouri and champion climber Elnaz Rekabi – have been detained for criticizing, or appearing to criticize, the government.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have begun targeting children. At least 58 young Iranians have been murdered, five of them within one recent week. The government seems to believe that terror for one’s children is the most effective way to keep dissidents at home and off the streets.

Yet much of this may come as a surprise to the average American without a particular interest in, or curiosity about, Iran. Coverage of the uprising has been notably sporadic; we search our screens and front pages, mostly in vain. Watching the evening news, we wait for the brief clip from Tehran that follows celebrity gossip or the record-breaking snowstorm. It takes perseverance to seek out the latest updates on websites such as Human Rights Watch.

A 24 November New York Times article headlined “United States Enters New Era of Direct Confrontation With Iran” made it clear that these confrontations will have more to do Iran’s nuclear program than with the current protest. Demonstrations of sympathy here have been organized by Iranian artists and activists in exile, while US politicians have largely remained silent.

In his 21 September address to the United Nations general assembly, Joe Biden expressed US solidarity with “the brave citizens and the brave women who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights” in a very brief coda to a very long address about Ukraine, Putin, world hunger and “our bold climate agenda”. In fact so much of the speech was devoted to Ukraine that it made one speculate about how different things would be if we diverted a minuscule fraction of the economic, military and political support we are sending Ukraine to aid those fighting for “their basic rights” in Iran.

Of course, that’s unlikely to happen. The Iranian narrative is far less simple than that of Ukraine: David v Goliath, a small, brave country repelling foreign aggression. We hesitate to openly intervene in a nation’s internal affairs, and Iran is not being invaded by a foreign power, though its military’s onslaught against the Kurdish provinces is a hostile incursion. It may seem strange to distance ourselves from efforts to topple a regime that we have been demonizing for decades, but perhaps the US is uncertain of what a new Iran might look like and is playing it safe, sticking with the “enemy we know”.

Another aspect of our reluctance and silence may be our faltering hope of negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. And then there is our unfortunate history. Barack Obama is said to have refused to support the 2009 protests in Iran – a decision he later called a mistake – for fear that the revolt would be seen as having been incited by the CIA. But as few Americans and (I’d suspect) more Iranians know, that already happened. In 1953, the CIA masterminded a plot to overthrow the Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh – whose party had nationalized the Iranian oil industry – and replaced him with the Shah of Iran and his repressive regime. One can track the consequences of that miscalculation through the Islamic Revolution and up to the present.

Mostly, I can’t help thinking that our lukewarm response to the Iranians’ struggle against a repressive theocracy is partly because the current unrest has been spearheaded by women. Early video clips showed brave women burning their hijabs and cutting their hair in protest against a lifetime of being told how to cover themselves and being punished for minor infractions. Borrowed from the Kurdish independence movement, the protesters’ rallying cry – “Woman, life, freedom” – is inspiring, but its followers may have failed to imagine how many people stop listening at that first word, woman. There are many (including, apparently, several US supreme court justices) who secretly or openly believe that women’s rights are a negligible subset of human rights.

How else to explain the peculiar locution of President Biden’s shoutout to “the brave citizens and the brave women”, or the essay, in the 27 September Washington Post, by the Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad asking: “When will Western feminists help?” Why should feminists be the first to respond to a struggle that involves every Iranian, every human being, regardless of gender, and that should concern supporters of human rights worldwide. The hijab was only a symbol, not the sole cause, of the unrest.

Even the language we use to describe the Iranian conflict is telling. Were it not being led by women, we might be less inclined to call the current situation an uprising or a mass protest, but rather, a revolution. The Iranians know what can be done to help better than we do, but the very least we can do is stay aware of what is happening and of why the resistance needs and deserves our attention.


Francine Prose

The GuardianTramp

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