The key role of Iran’s women in taking on the regime
If Iran’s recent uprising and continuous protests lead to a revolution, this would be remarkable for the fact that it was sparked by a woman and led by women. As Fereshteh, an Iranian student from Tehran, said: “While some people might call what is happening in Iran as protests against the government, we are calling it a revolution.”
The nationwide demonstrations were precipitated by the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the so-called morality police. Her death led to a near-national mobilization against the Iranian regime. The world has witnessed scenes of women defiantly removing their hijabs and cutting their hair in public, as well as crowds chanting “women, life, freedom,” “death to the dictator,” and “death to (Supreme Leader Ali) Khamenei.” Social media has helped circulate images of the defiance of Iranian women toward the regime’s forces.
Amini’s case resonated with many women in Iran because they have been regularly harassed by the regime’s morality police over the government’s compulsory dress code. As Amnesty International has pointed out: “Discriminatory compulsory veiling laws led to daily harassment, arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, and denial of access to education, employment and public spaces.”
One woman who previously resisted the regime in public was Vida Movahed, who stood on a box in one of the most crowded streets in Tehran in December 2017, taking off her headscarf and waving it on a stick. Video and pictures of the incident went viral.
Other women joined Movahed and dozens were arrested, but a new movement called the “Daughters of the Revolution” was born. Other well-known Iranian women’s rights movements include “One Million Signatures,” which sought to gain that many backers for the repeal of discriminatory laws, and “My Stealthy Freedom,” an online campaign that saw women from around Iran oppose the Islamic Republic by posting photos of themselves not wearing a headscarf.
One critical mode of resistance against the regime has been to cross the boundaries of the theocracy’s dress code. At the beginning, when some women showed strands of their hair as a sign of resistance, the regime imprisoned and violently suppressed them. But when millions of women and girls across the country resist simultaneously, the regime finds it impossible to arrest and imprison all of them. This is the power of large numbers that the regime fears.
When millions of women and girls across the country resist simultaneously, the regime finds it impossible to arrest and imprison all of them
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
It is worth noting that Iranian women have, for almost 90 years, protested against their subjugation, dehumanization and suppression. Since 1979, they have played a crucial role in changing the social, political and religious dynamics of the Islamic Republic. Ever since the ruling mullahs came to power more than four decades ago, one of the biggest threats to the survival of their theocratic establishment has been resistance by women.
Iranian women were also at the forefront of the 1979 revolution. They were fighting for gender equality, social justice, the rule of law and a representative and democratic system of governance. Realizing that women were significant to the revolution, the ruling clerics made false promises pledging to improve their rights. After the shah was ousted, tens of thousands of women across the country took to the streets to celebrate. But the celebrations turned into protests — including demonstrations in front of the new prime minister’s office in Tehran — after the women realized that the ruling clerics had hijacked the revolution and turned against them.
After obtaining power, the ruling clerics significantly restricted women’s rights. But women did not surrender, they continued their movement to take back the revolution. In response, the regime’s thugs and forces used brute force and violent tactics, such as attacking women with knives, bricks and stones.
Despite the fact that the regime attempted to force women into accepting a traditional role in the new social order of the theocracy, they have continued to defy and resist the regime in order to close the gender gap throughout the last 40 years. Education has been an important tool that women have utilized as a mode of resistance. In spite of the legal and political impediments they face — and in spite of the fact that the Iranian leaders banned women from pursuing some fields of study — greater numbers of women attended universities. They now constitute more than half of the university students in Iran.
In a nutshell, what makes this latest uprising in Iran so groundbreaking is the exceptional role played by women.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh