It was in the strange days between the Queen’s death and her funeral that the bad news from Iran broke through the blanket coverage of the state mourning rituals. The news that pierced this was the report that a young woman had died in the custody of Iran’s morality police.
Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, had been taken into custody because of “bad hijab”. She was visiting relatives in Tehran with her brother when the morality police challenged her about a few strands of hair that were showing from her standard hijab. According to her brother, she was in custody for just two hours before collapsing and being taken to hospital, where she lay in a coma before dying on 16 September. The authorities claimed that she had a heart attack from a pre-existing condition. Her family deny this, and state that her head and body were covered in bruises and signs of being beaten.
As an Iranian who has grown up and lived in Britain since the age of nine, I am long accustomed to the horror stories that come out of my birth country. So when protests started in Mahsa’s homeland of Kurdistan – a western province in Iran – I shuddered at the possible arrests and violence that may be meted out on those taking part, but didn’t think more of it. Protests at the abusive treatment of women, minorities and students have become commonplace in the past years and I have become reluctantly accustomed to observing passively while the Iranian authorities suppress people’s peaceful demonstrations with increasingly violent force.
Ethnic Kurds have long experienced discrimination in Kurdistan. Mahsa’s real name – Jhina – is Kurdish and as such could not be registered on her birth certificate as only Persian and some Islamic names are lawful. There are also laws against the teaching of the Kurdish language in schools. It so happens that my paternal homeland is the very town that Jhina Amini came from and so when I heard about the protests in Kurdistan, I prayed that my family would be safe.
However, in spite of 250 people reportedly being arrested and five killed during two days of protests in Kurdistan, the demonstrations didn’t stop. In fact, they spread to the rest of the country, and the Kurdish freedom cry of “Woman Life Freedom” became the dominant chant in what have become the biggest nationwide protests that Iran has seen since the revolution of 1979. As I write this, BBC Monitoring has recorded protests in at least 350 locations in the country over the past 20 days.
In images that diasporic Iranians like me have been sharing on social media, we see the protests are led by women, predominantly very young women (Gen Z), who are tearing off their headscarves to wave them triumphantly in the air, to burn them, to joyfully dance as they consign them to bonfires.
What started as a protest against the mandatory hijab soon became a demand for freedom. “Woman Life Freedom” is the first time in Iranian history that a chant demands something positive rather than the end to, or the death of, someone or something. The brutal treatment of Mahsa Jhina Amini over “bad hijab” – and now many other young women, including 16-year-old Nika Shakarami, killed in these weeks – was the spark that lit this conflagration of rage. But the real heat of this movement comes from decades of repression and oppression of any viable opposition to the hardline clerical regime, a freefalling economy and the mass corruption and hypocrisy of the ruling elite, which refuses to allow Iranian women some loosening of the mandatory hijab even as their own children stalk the streets of LA clad in revealing outfits and post pictures of parties they hold in luxurious mansions bought with the pilfered riches of our country.
The headscarf that is being waved, banshee-like, by Iranian women is, for the people of Iran, no longer anything to do with Islam but a symbol of the oppression that the regime has visited on its own people in the name of religion. This is not a call for the end of Islam, it is a call for the end of the symbols of state power and abuse, a call that even religious Iranians have joined. As my quietly devout Iranian aunties tell me, this regime has taken the symbols of their faith and turned them into a tool for the suppression of half the population. They and women like them are joining the protests alongside the girls who have so courageously whipped off their hijab to face the regime’s forces with their hair flowing.
The women of Iran have been demanding freedom ever since Ayatollah Khomeini took power in 1979 – the first demonstration against mandatory hijab was three weeks after Khomeini’s arrival. Before the revolution, Iranian women had some of the most liberal laws in the Middle East: they could wear what they liked, they could work and even rise to be judges, they had equal rights to divorce and the custody of children, and they had been voting since 1963.
The very first thing that Ayatollah Khomeini did after taking power in 1979, implementing what he called “God’s own government”, was to repeal the Family Protection Act of 1975 – the most progressive in the region. Given all the urgent problems that revolutionary Iran faced in 1979, it is telling that this was the focus of Khomeini’s first legislature – to take the marriage age for girls down from 18 to 9 and take away so many of the rights of women.
It was not until 1983 that mandatory hijab was finally made law for all women in Iran – and arguably it was only because of the devastating war with Iraq that started in 1980 that the regime was able to impose this. The fact that Iranian women enjoy the right to work and vote and appear in public spaces is testament to their relentless fight for their rights in the Islamic Republic.
Of Iran’s population of 84 million people with a literacy rate of 97%, women make up 65% of university graduates. And all this for a gender whose word in court is worth half that of a man (you need two female witnesses to attest where one man will do), who cannot sing, dance or show its hair or body in public, and can be married aged 13.
Significant uprisings in Iran led by women have taken place in 1999, in 2005, in 2009, 2017 and again in 2019. From 2009 onwards, men have joined women in these protests, often adopting the hijab themselves to express their equality with women.
In reality, Iranian people’s struggle for freedom and democracy goes back more than 100 years. The Constitutional Revolution of 1906 was quashed by imperial Russia and Britain. In 1953, democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who nationalised Iranian oil, was removed in a coup engineered by the CIA and MI6 – until that point Britain had received 87% of the revenue from Iran’s oil and after the coup, America occupied the main place as the foreign power stealthily colonising Iran.
These demonstrations feel different in significant ways. In spite of a bloody crackdown, which has seen live and rubber bullets shot into protesters, the mass rounding up of university students, dystopian scenes of schoolchildren being beaten by security forces on the streets and a massacre in another ethnic minority province, Sistan and Baluchistan, the people of Iran are not giving up. Protests which took place mainly at night have now spread to broad daylight.
Many shopkeepers are not opening, university students are on nationwide strike and there are increasing instances of quiet civil disobedience – women going about their daily lives dressed as you and I are, without the mandatory hijab. Now that high schools are back, schoolgirls are joining the protests in their droves, baring their hair in the school yard and chasing out the representatives of the regime.
There is a power and energy to these protests. The sight of young girls with flowing locks taking down pictures of the two elderly ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, the current supreme leader, that brings tears to my eyes and makes even my cynical heart burn with hope. It is as if the Furies have been unleashed in Iran and these extraordinarily brave young women, who are prepared to walk into bullets for the sake of the right to choose how to live, have lost all the fear that has kept previous generations repressed.
I say cynical heart because, as a member of Iran’s huge diaspora, as a proud British-Iranian, I have spent a large part of my adult and working life trying to introduce my countries to each other, and it has seemed to no avail.
So much of my work has been about humanising the people of Iran in my adopted country in the hope that if the British people realised that the people of Iran are not the regime, that they are peace-loving, educated and cultured just like in the west, then perhaps the chances of war being waged on my country would lessen.
Since George W Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, some of us diasporic Iranians have been walking a particularly tricky tightrope: not daring to speak out too passionately about the atrocities of the regime against our people for fear of repercussions for our family in Iran, for losing our own ability to travel there safely, and also for feeding the toxic narrative of Iran in the west.
Yet 20 years after some of my biggest articles were published – some even nominated for awards from Amnesty and the American Society of Magazine Editors – I see that the western narrative on Iran has hardly changed. And now that our women and children are dying in the demand for basic human rights, the indifference of much of the mass media and even social media on this topic is palpable.
It seems that the death of Mahsa Jhina Amini has not captured the world’s imagination in the same way as the death of George Floyd did, and the subsequent global protests in solidarity with the Iranian uprising have had few column inches, in spite of mobilising some 500,000 people around the world in one day alone (1 October).
But now, as I watch the unity in Iran and the cry of this generation which carries within it the stifled cries of all the generations gone before, for the first time in many years I am allowing myself to dream that one day I too can enter Iran without fear gripping my heart and accompanying every step I take there.
I am quietly resurrecting the long-buried wish to one day walk down Vali Asr Boulevard in Tehran (the longest street in the Middle East) with my hair loose under the Iranian sun and to lean in to kiss my man without fear of being arrested or shouted at or slapped on the street, or taken to be beaten to death in the back of a morality police van. This is a fragile hope that I keep tucked in my back pocket.
Meanwhile, I hope that the world wakes up to understand that what is happening in Iran is the frontline of feminism right now: the simple expression of desire for equality, for dignity, for life without fear. And as such, it touches us all. Say it with me: Woman Life Freedom.
Kamin Mohammadi is the author of The Cypress Tree (Bloomsbury)