Perspectives October 2, 2022
“Loudly and Clearly”: How the Ongoing Protests in Iran Are a Part of a Historic Women’s Rights Movement and Quest for Freedom
As we continue to closely follow the remarkable bravery of protesters in Iran demanding their human rights following the suspicious death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, we spoke with Tala, one of our Iran experts. Please note for security reasons we do not disclose the names of our regional and programmatic experts.
What is the significance of the protests we’re seeing in Iran?
First, I am fascinated by the inclusivity and diversity in national identity. Let’s start by saying that I am amazed and have been touched by what I am witnessing. See the paradox: the Islamic Republic (IR) has tarnished, suppressed, and marginalized ethnic,1 religious,2 gender, and sexual minorities to maintain its exclusive and homogenous Shia Islam–establishment in power. For years, the IR spread propaganda against these minorities to promote them as separationist and anarchist groups that threaten Iran’s territorial integrity and has ignited negative and divisive sentiments towards them among other Iranian people. The same scenario has happened to religious minorities as well. Baha’is3 are the best example of how the IR denies non-Islamic faiths by continuous persecution and arrests with charges such as espionage and conspiracy to disrupt internal security. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, called for a ban on Baha’i community development, including admission to universities, in Iran’s 2012 policy-making document. Finally, LGBT+ people’s existence has been always denied by IR, and many LGBT+ people have been jailed on charges of corruption on earth.
However, we now see an Iran raised in unity and, regardless of ethnic or religious differences, in support of Kurdistan and Kurdish people, after a young Kurdish woman was killed by the Guidance Patrol (also known as the morality police) in September 2022. People have been chanting “Kurdistan, Kurdistan, I die for Iran” and “if we don’t unite, we will die one by one.” I find this unity and inclusive approach in Iranians’ protests fascinating. The IR has tirelessly worked for three-and-a-half decades to divide people, and yet the nation inclusively recognizes its many identities and stands for them.
Second, I am impressed and encouraged by a brave and aware young generation of social media users. I believe we are seeing the power of social media and global connection in what is happening in the streets of Iran. The protests show many student activists and other ordinary young people in their 20s taking off their mandatory head scarves, burning them, and chanting in support of women rights and fundamental freedoms. This is a generation that grew up simultaneously with the rise of social media in Iran. What happened in my opinion is that this generation has heard and seen the sad stories about how their parents’ lives had been adversely affected under an authoritarian regime in their childhood. Now they are grown up and want to live their hopes and dreams. Dreams that are not shaped in a closed society defined only by IR-imposed norms and standards. This young generation has hopes and ideals that have been informed and shaped by what they have known in the world outside of the bubble that the IR has defined. I believe that social media has exposed this young generation to free and liberal values that are fundamentally in contrast with the values of the IR. I don’t think any power, any level of violence, and any ideology could control such fresh, energized, and liberal ideals and aspirations forever.
Third, I see the power of the suppressed. Women. This one word carries such power in Iranian life today. Iranian women have been active in civil life for the past century. They formed and ran associations, traveled abroad, obtained higher education, and participated in society before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. I believe this deeply seated participation is in our collective memory. Iranian women have found themselves constrained for the past 44 years, but they know that this is not who they are. That is why Iranian women always resisted the mandatory hijab. It took years for them to build a strong foundation for the women’s movement we are seeing today, yet they did it. Now we are seeing women who are aware and courageous enough to say no to a rule—an action that may cost them their lives. I find this very impressive that Iranian women of different ages and backgrounds are standing against one of the most important IR red lines.
Lastly, the protests reveal a free mindset and approach. One of the things that is very important in these protests is peoples’ chanting. If you listen to what they sing, you see a people that have had enough of intolerance for differences and are asking for tolerance for diverse opinions. Look at this chanting: “equality, freedom, voluntary hijab.” This means that the public has recognized that the key to a free society is acknowledgement and acceptance of other opinions. The IR has tried so hard to show no tolerance for diversity and freedom of opinion. Yet, here is a nation is demanding those freedoms now.
It’s hard for many people around the world to understand the idea of morality police. What are they?
The morality police are a control tool. To be honest with you, it is an absurd concept for me, as well. I believe the morality police are a control tool for the IR. Even though there have been different governmental patrols to mandate the hijab since the 1979 revolution, the morality police emerged at the end of the administration of Iran’s reformist president Khatami in early 2005. This was a time when concepts of civil society and freedoms emerged in the Iranian public and political sphere, and political movements, such as the women’s rights movement, were resurfacing. In response to this new wave of requests for freedom and in the beginning of conservative Mahmood Ahmadinejad’s presidency in mid-2005, we see that the IR created the morality police to neutralize voices of freedom, especially women.
In your view, what is the state of womens rights in Iran?
Women’s rights in Iran comprise a movement in progress. I believe that for the past 44 years, the Iranian women’s movement was building and shaping itself. This movement is still in progress and needs local and international support, but it has claimed its existence loudly and clearly. The women’s movement in Iran is now a recognizable fact. However, I believe the movement still needs time, education, and experience to solidify its basis and move forward more effectively.
What is your hope for Iran moving forward?
I wish to see Iranian people united and trusting each other moving forward from this moment. I hope that what I am hearing in chants on the streets continues to live and manifest itself as a new inclusive government that represents each Iranian, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, gender identity, and language. I hope that just like the way the Iranian people found a common problem in their country, they also find common solutions to create their ideal society. I hope we remember these 44 years, and let it remain in history books from now on.
What would you like the world to know about Iran?
The IR has shown animosity for any non-Shia or free nations in the world. I would like the world to know that this is the agenda of the Iranian government, but not its people. Iran has a longstanding culture and tradition of compassion, hospitality, reciprocity, and celebration of life. This is who Iranians are as a nation. We are brave, compassionate, and lovers of freedom. Even though we have been repressed for the past 44 years, we still carry peaceful values, respect, and acceptance of all other nations.
What can the rest of world do to support the people of Iran in their fight for human rights?
Acknowledge the Iranian people’s quest for freedom. I think there is sufficient evidence that the IR is not a legitimate government in the sense that it does not represent diverse groups in Iran and does not hold fair and free elections. I would like the international community to pay attention to such violations of democratic values (fair and free elections) and also hear Iranian people’s loud and brave message that this establishment does not represent them.
- 1Iranian people belong to many ethnic groups including Persians, Kurds, Lurs, Arabs, Baluchs, Turkmen, Azeris, and Mazandaranis.
- 2Iran has historically and for centuries been a home to religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Baha’ism, Sunni Islam, and Shia Islam.
- 3Iran’s largest non-Muslim religion.