Written by Naza Alakija
The death of Zhina ‘Mahsa’ Amini has been the catalyst for a global uprising, writes Naza Alakija. But amid the devastating losses, there are rumblings of hope.
The art of protest is nothing new to Iranians. To women, they signify a long history of feminist resistance in the fight for liberation. For decades we have taken to the streets – both peacefully and with force – to defend our rights, to demand an end to chapters of injustice forced upon us, and to fight for the freedoms that we so desperately deserve. But in September, protests in Tehran signalled a new era of resistance and desperation among Iranian women, who are no longer willing to face a terror-fuelled fate at the hands of the Islamic Republic. And for the first time in history, the world has begun to march alongside them.
The devastating death of Zhina ‘Mahsa’ Amini in police custody may have been the catalyst for this global uprising, but to understand the determination of Iranian women today, we must understand the extremity of the oppression they’ve been experiencing daily.
For women living in Iran today, rights to self-determination and expression are severely restricted. They are not allowed to apply for a passport without male approval, or to travel outside of the country without seeking permission. They are not even permitted to sing or dance in public – values that are not only symbols of joy and expression, but intrinsic to our culture and heritage. When it comes to marriage, a girl can be forced to wed at the tender age of 13, and once married, seeking a divorce is incredibly challenging for a woman. Men, on the other hand, can officially be divorced by verbal affirmation. Once separated, women do not have rights to custody of their children, or benefits. These deeply unbalanced laws are woven into the fabric of society and have created an inherently uneven patriarchal and misogynistic society. Gender-based violence is rife, and “honour killings” are prevalent because of the beliefs that have bled into our society.
The severity of life in Iran today only makes the display of bravery even more astounding. Men and women are uniting under the common cause – some men shielding them from bullets, and many losing their lives in the streets. This is a unified and intergenerational fight for all our freedoms, with the aim of overthrowing an oppressive authoritarian regime that has failed its people economically, through bad governance and corruption and a military dictatorship that brutally silences and kills its people for demanding their basic rights. Young schoolgirls caught protesting have been taken to psychiatric centres for psychological evaluation. Massacres have taken place in Zahedan and Sanandaj, which are home to religious and ethnic minority groups who have historically been persecuted under the regime.
Amid the devastating losses experienced throughout the past seven weeks, we have started to feel rumblings of hope, that just maybe we are watching a new chapter unfold for Iran. That the power of the collective – led by a new generation of fearless Iranian women and accompanied by the crucial support of Iranian men – may just propel us closer to freedom.
Over the past month, it has felt like a seismic shift is starting to take place. This is thanks to the unrelenting bravery and fury of Iranian women and their allies, and the willingness of the international community to continue sharing their stories, and to march with them. In Berlin, we witnessed the largest-ever demonstration against the Islamic Republic by Iranians abroad, with a crowd of 80,000, whose collective emotion was broadcast around the world. In New York City, an artist collective staged a protest at the Guggenheim Museum, sending a dozen red banners snaking down from the top floor of the building’s rotunda, created to call attention to the courageous Iranian women risking their lives to stand up against oppression, and to overthrow a totalitarian system.
In Iran, the protests which began in Zhina ‘Mahsa’ Amini’s hometown before spreading like wildfire across the country are still raging on. The most striking displays of resistance that reach us in the West are often the starkest and simplest: women riding the metro defiantly with their hair uncovered, schoolgirls in their classrooms chanting with their hair falling down their backs.
The bravery and courage of my compatriots is something I could only ever have dreamed of. Today, shop owners are on strike and have closed businesses in solidarity with the protestors. They are joined by one of the most powerful acts of allyship that we’ve witnessed, in last month’s strikes from the oil and petrochemicals industry in Iran, in places such as Abadan, Bushehr and Assaluyeh. This is a sector traditionally infiltrated by far-right-wing patriarchal influences. Steel and sugar factory workers have now followed suit, and their actions are reminiscent of the conditions that led to the revolution in 1979.
Against the backdrop of this increasing momentum, we are faced with the question of what next? For the international community who feel united by Iran’s fight for women’s rights, the geographical distance has not been a deterrent in their show of unwavering support. And for the people of Iran, this colossal outpouring of love and allyship is powering their hope. To continue this fight, we must not abandon our efforts. For those of us who are privileged enough to use our voices, the time to speak loudly – to give your presence to protests in your cities – is now.
What began as a fight for women’s rightsin Iran, is fast becoming a battle for human rights for the entire country – and it will only be won with the weight of the world behind them.
Naza Alakija is a humanitarian and founder & cEO of NGO Sage Foundation
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