In the name of Woman, Life, and Freedom
by Naeimeh Doustdar — 27March2023
Similar to previous years, the Iranian year 1401 (March 21, 2022-March 21, 2023) started with news of violence and femicide through the tales of women who were killed by their husbands, fathers or brothers. Women, whose killers were spared punishment under the pretext of honor and the protection of that honor. Simultaneously, the regime’s attempts at the furtherance of violence against women continued: the gendered stratification of the public space, the execution of new policies against abortion, and the increased enforcement of compulsory veiling by official and unofficial actors.
The public sphere was a battlefield, marked by the struggle against these signs of violence. Celebrities and more specifically actresses, raised their voices about sexual harassment in private spaces, and as people aligned against compulsory veiling, the struggle between the people and the regime over the politics of the veil reached its peak. Regime-affiliated news outlets such as Fars News initiated campaigns against women whose veiling did not align with the state’s rules and issued criminal charges against women who refused to cover their hair.
At the beginning of the year, a widespread governmental campaign called “hijab and chastity” was created and launched. The aim of the campaign was to “control bad veiling” through 11 measures by “combating” poor veiling through the enforcement of laws and other efforts in the cultural realm. Public spaces and public service centers became battlefields: morality police officers told a number of pharmacies in Tehran that they were not allowed to offer any services to women who refused to wear the compulsory veil. These pharmacies were threatened that if they do not obey, they will not only receive a fine but also lose their license.
In hospitals, images of public announcements published by the governmental bodies responsible for the surveilling of compulsory veiling, such as the morality police, announced that women who do not wear their veil according to the regime’s standards are not allowed to make use of medical services. Moreover, several reports of confrontations between surveilling forces and café and restaurant owners and staff, cab drivers working for online taxi services, and others employed in the private sector were published. Clothing shops and fashion designers, for example, were pressured to only produce and sell “modest” clothes which created several restrictions such as those on women’s “manteaus” or overall coats, pressuring them to stop selling buttonless manteaus or those with openings in the front.
In public spaces, the number of morality police officers increased. Consequently, women’s resistance against self-proclaimed agents surveilling women’s bodies increased. A morality police officer fired a bullet at a well-known athlete whose wife had been called out for not wearing her hijab properly, and a number of regime-affiliated believers carried out a special prayer, the “namaz-e-vahshat” (fear prayer), in a gathering space in Shiraz where teenagers had come together to skate and take off their compulsory veils.
Campaigns against forced veiling also arose on social media. On Instagram, a campaign against compulsory veiling called “join us in this union” was supported by thousands, and another campaign “hijab bi hijab” (no to hijab) was launched on July 12, the same day the Islamic Republic picked as the “day of hijab and chastity.” On this day, women across the country appeared in public spaces without wearing the hijab and published images of their appearances online.
Women directly employed by the government, in governmental organizations and institutions, were threatened with getting fired from their jobs if they did not veil “properly.” In the heat of it all, one woman became an icon of the resistance, Sepideh Rashno.
28 year old artist and writer Sepideh Rashno was arrested on July 16 after she had refused and protested against a woman on the bus who had told her to “veil properly.” A video of the altercation showing the woman’s aggressive behavior against Sepideh went viral. Shortly after Sepideh’s disappearance and arrest, videos of a battered and tortured Sepideh aired on Iran’s state television. A frightened Sepideh sat down in front of a group of women veiled in black chadors and forcefully confessed against herself and others. They had forced her to say that everything that had been said about her encounter on the bus was nothing more than a lie.
These confrontations, however, continued. A woman and self-proclaimed morality officer from Yazd who caused the suspension of a train operator was introduced and praised by the regime as the national jihad officer of the hijab and chastity campaign. In Shiraz, two other women meddled in the personal affairs of two sisters on a similar “moral policing” mission which resulted in a fight between the four women and the subsequent arrest of the two sisters.
Shortly after these instances, Shelir Rasouli, the victim of rape and attempted murder died in the city of Marivan. A group of women’s activists in Sanandaj protested against her murder in front of the court of justice. The women in Sanandaj announced that the violence against women is systematic and that no legal infrastructure is put in place to protect women. Violence against women has been normalized and violators are not faced with any consequences or charges.
When the news of Zhina (Mahsa) Amini spread, everybody said: this is a state murder. Protests emerged from all over Iran and turned into a revolutionary uprising. An uprising that continued until the end of the Iranian year 1401 (March 2023), exactly six months after the murder of Zhina.
Zhina: A Spark That Ignited the Fire
Zhina (Mahsa) Amini was a 22-year-old girl from Saqqez who, together with her family, had traveled to Tehran to visit her relatives. On September 16, she lost her life in the hospital. The reason for her death shook the whole county: the morality police had arrested Zhina, inflicted physical violence onto her, had taken her to the hospital with delay, and denied the reason for her death being the officers’ violence.
The people, however, received the message clearly: this is a state murder. Since then, protests emerged all over Iran, marking the beginning of a revolutionary uprising. The people’s response was not only to protest but to protest for a revolution. Women came to the streets with all their power and capacity and removed their veils and set them on fire. Protesters were faced with the unprovoked violence of the regime: beatings of protesters to the verge of death, the direct firing of bullets to the heads, eyes, and other vital organs of protestors, and widespread arrests.
In the very first weeks, a number of young women were killed: Nika Shakarami, Sarina Esmailzadeh, Ghazaleh Chalabi, Hananeh Kia, Hadis Najafi, and tens of men who had risen in support of the women’s revolution lost their lives, but the uprising, under the slogan “woman, life, freedom” spread throughout the whole country. It was not only the protest against the compulsory veiling through which the uprising emerged. Society’s anger was now directed towards the highest rank of the regime’s hierarchy, slogans were chanted against Khamenei’s dictatorship and pictures of him were torn out of school books and burned in the city.
University students and school students joined the protests, with schoolgirls at the forefront. Tens of revolutionary anthems were sung, hundreds of artworks were created, famous cinema actresses took off their compulsory veils, and some known faces took their hijabs off and radicalized their stance against the compulsory veiling. Protests on the streets were followed by strikes in a variety of economical centers and in some cities, protesters came face to face with the government’s oppressive forces. Later on, reports of rape and sexual torture of protesters by regime forces in detention centers were published.
While hundreds were killed and thousands were arrested, the 7th and 40th day anniversaries of the killed protestors were transformed into fields of resistance. Extraordinary scenes of the mourning of the mothers and fathers of victims circulated, as speeches and slogans echoed online. Simultaneously in the international arena, Iranians in diaspora continued to organize gatherings and solidarity protests, amplifying the revolutionary voices of people inside Iran, approaching political entities and human rights organizations, and spreading the voice of Iranians to the world. The most prominent figures in the organization of these gatherings, the most prominent activists, and the initiators of these mobilizations, were women.
Six Months of Struggle
In the second half of the year, the struggle continued. National and cultural celebrations, commemorations, and anniversaries all functioned as fields of resistance ensuring the continuation of the “Zhina Revolution.”
Amidst the revolutionary atmosphere marked by protest and resistance, the regime has not backed off for even one step. Insisting on the execution of compulsory hijab laws and going as far as legislating new laws and campaigns, prohibiting women from receiving social services in places such as banks and governmental organizations, the forced closing of public places such as restaurants and cafés because of the presence of women not wearing their hijab, prohibiting private businesses to provide these women with services, threatening speeches against women by the Friday prayer clerics about hijab and initiating punishments for unveiled women, threats from police forces, arresting celebrities for nor wearing a veil in public, supporting self-proclaimed morality officers telling off women on the streets, and the gendered sexual harassment of detained protesters, continued without any improvement.
The government did not settle with these forms of oppression. In schools around the country, violence against women took the form of chemical attacks against school girls. In the span of 4 months, over a hundred school students, of which the vast majority were girls, were attacked with unknown chemical gasses and taken to hospital.
The Zhina Revolution, marked by the slogan Woman, Life, Freedom, foregrounded the understanding that freedom and the abolishment of discrimination can not succeed without dismantling gender discrimination and society’s patriarchal oppressive structure. By pushing for their own rights and highlighting these red lines, women have emphasized the importance of this uprising.
The experience of women’s presence in advocating for substantial revolutionary change in contemporary Iranian history, which has historically been faced with exclusion from the field of political participation and the erasure of their demands from the tables at which policies are created, has this time around, pushed women towards organization and unionization. The essence of the revolution challenges the patriarchal order and conveys this message to politically active groups and individual activists: change, without the presence of women and the foregrounding of their rights and demands, is not possible. This time, all women’s organizations agreed on one matter: they did not want the bitter experiences of the past to be repeated. They do not want the history of their exclusion from politics and society to repeat and they do not want women’s cause to be pushed to the margins. As such, various women’s groups inside Iran as well as in the diaspora have understood the urgency of targeted, consistent political organizations for reaching the political demands of women and the need to insert these demands into the core of Iran’s future politics, taking a step in the realization of these goals.
The Women’s Revolution is Alive Until Woman, Life, Freedom
The year 1401 ended (March 2023), but the struggle has not. For women, the future of this revolution is bright: they struggle for the success of the revolution’s slogan on the highest level of politics. Women’s resistance is an everyday struggle against figures who were granted power by the patriarchal state: the man, the father, the brother, and the husband. In the public spaces of the streets and with their revolutionary presence, through the creation of resilient social networks, occupying more space, taking control over the body, and breaking society’s patriarchal customs, women have demanded political power in the highest political ranks in order to democratize the political sphere and to take the political sphere from the exclusive domination of men, and in the end, push forward women’s rights and the abolishment of discrimination.
The experience of this one year of struggle that has been added to the previous 43 years of resistance has added to the confidence of women and their insistence to fight for their rights. The experience of the past year has taught Iranian women to scream louder, be pioneers of resistance, and quit this movement on the political, social, and personal front and that there is a historical prophecy on their shoulders from which they cannot withdraw.