A rebellion long in the making

by Maryam Amiri

Geht ohne (Ausgabe I/2023)


Symbol of the “Girls of Enghelab Street”, a protest movement in Iran against the headscarf requirement. Image: Hosseinronaghi

In Evin, the notorious prison in northern Teheran where many political prisoners are held, a former inmate remembered the handwritten sign attached to Shirin Alam Hooli’s bed: “Jin, Jian, Azadi” (“Woman, Life, Freedom”).

Shirin, a 28-year-old Iranian Kurd, could never have imagined that this motto would one day become the slogan of one of the most far-reaching revolutionary movements of the 21st century. She was accused of collaborating with Kurdish opposition groups and executed by the Islamic Republic in 2010.

The slogan “Jin, Jian, Azadi” originated in the Kurdish resistance movements in Turkey and Syria. It was invented in the 1990s by Abdullah Ocalan, a political prisoner and founding member of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and decades later Syrian Kurdish women used the same words as a battle cry in their fight against IS.

Since the assassination of Mahsā Jîna Amīnī, “Woman, Life, Freedom” can now be heard by millions, not only in Iran, but all over the world. Mahsā Jîna, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman visiting her relatives in Tehran, was arrested by the so-called morality police because she did not fully comply with the government’s dress code.

“All these actions were spontaneous, led by women and supported by men”

It is still unclear what happened to her in the police van and in custody, but two hours later she fell into a coma and was taken to Tehran’s Kasra hospital. Shortly after her admission was announced, the first spontaneous protest took place.

Three days later, on 16 September, Mahsā Jîna died. The security forces tried to silence her family, as the Iranian government often does in similar situations. But this time it did not work.

At the Yakhchi cemetery in Saqqez in Iran’s Kurdistan province, people gathered and started chanting. The call “Woman, Life, Freedom” was heard here for the first time. Protests soon followed in other Kurdish cities and in other parts of Iran. All these actions were spontaneous, led by women and supported by men.

In several cities, there were scenes of women chanting “woman, life, freedom”, throwing away their headscarves, burning them, dancing around the fire and cutting off their hair in mourning and protest. In the long history of Iranian women’s struggle against the hijab, this was new.

“Behind this courage lies an extended struggle against the violent forces of the Islamic Republic”

For observers abroad, the courage of the Iranian women was at first surprising and then confusing. How can these women risk their lives like that? Where do they get the courage to confront armed police and soldiers? How can they risk being arrested and imprisoned in notorious Iranian prisons where torture is commonplace?

But the fact is, behind this courage lies an extended struggle against the violent forces of the Islamic Republic and daily resistance against those who try to enforce the headscarf and other discriminatory laws.

Iran’s legal system, which has been in force since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, is so profoundly anti-women that the Islamic Republic is sometimes referred to as “gender apartheid”. No wonder, then, that discontent with this system has been smouldering for decades.

In the case of the compulsory hijab, resistance began only one month after the Islamic revolution, on International Women’s Day, 8 March 1979. Back then, the demonstration was brutally suppressed and did not find broad support even among the non-Islamist political parties.

“In the past ten years, this initially quiet struggle against the hijab compulsion has assumed an increasingly visible form in public spaces”

Violence was used against women who opposed the new order. From the 1980s onwards, the struggle against the hijab slowly turned into what the Iranian-American scholar Asef Bayat calls “quiet encroachment”: a slow but continuous and daily struggle to push the boundaries of the hijab.

To control this slow advance, the morality police was established in 2005. A unit that uses extreme violence against women, especially when they resist arrests on the open street.

In the past ten years, this initially quiet struggle against the hijab compulsion has assumed an increasingly visible form in public spaces. Women began to take off their headscarves wherever they could.

In 2014, exiled journalist Masih Alinejad launched a Facebook campaign called “My Stealthy Freedom”, where women could post photos of themselves without the hijab and demand an end to the hijab requirement.

“The more active the struggle against the hijab became, the more brutally the state responded”

The campaign grew quickly and made clear how great the dissatisfaction and anger of women with the hijab obligation really was, a requirement that until then had been accepted as the “norm” by the majority of the population. In December 2017, a young woman named Vida Movahed stood on an electricity distribution box in the capital Tehran and tied her headscarf to a stick.

This action, for which Movahed chose the central and symbolic Enghelab Street, or “Revolution Street”, inspired a wave of similar protests and marked a turning point in the struggle against the headscarf requirement. The continued demonstrators became known in Iran as the “girls of Enghelab Street”.

The more active and public the struggle against the hijab became, the more brutally the state responded. Many women ended up in prison, some were sentenced to years in prison.

Yasaman Ariani and Saba Kord-Afshari, for example, were sent to prison for five and 24 years respectively. However, as the regime suppressed the struggle against the hijab, women became louder and more insistent in their demands.

“The movement spans from left to right, from radical feminists to monarchists”

The list of women who have fought against the hijab and for women’s rights in Iran is endless and their efforts inspire many. But the current revolutionary movement is leaderless.

It is in-between rather a kind of extended movement incorporating all social groups from women to ethnic minorities to organised workers. The leaders of all these groups call for protests and strikes.

Moreover, the movement represents a broad spectrum of social classes. The political views of the supporters also range from left to right, from radical feminists to monarchists. “Woman, Life, Freedom” has, however, established itself as the central slogan of the current movement despite this diversity.

Going against the state-mandated dress code in public has become one of the most common ways to publicly show solidarity with the movement. When the security forces brutally cracked down on the demonstrators, the young journalist Donya Rad posted a picture of herself on Twitter in the midst of the chaos.

“The action of Iranian actresses and celebrities, who publicly took off their hijab, had a similar inspiring effect”

It showed her with another woman having breakfast in a southern Tehran cafe - without a headscarf or the usual coat that covers the upper part of the body. The iconic photo spread like wildfire on the internet. Shortly afterwards, Donya was arrested and a few weeks later she was locked up in prison.

The action of Iranian actresses and celebrities like Katayoun Riahi, Maryam Palizban and Maryam Bobani, who publicly took off their hijab, had a similar inspiring effect. With this step, the women gave up their careers from one day to the next.

And even Gohar Eshghi, the now eighty-year-old and strictly religious mother of the dissident blogger Sattar Beheshti, who was arrested in 2012 and later killed in prison under torture, spoke out. In a video, she took off her hijab and called on people to join the protests.

Currently, the movement hs seen rapid growth and also includes many girls and children. This is also revealed by the horrendous statistics surrounding the ongoing protests.

“Riot police and militias attack protesters, girls are beaten up in schools”

Although the regime has not shied away from killing minors in the past, the number of children presumed killed by the regime is much higher this time than in previous demonstrations. According to human rights organisations, at least 33 teenagers have been killed during the protests.

In high schools all over the country and even in remote villages, girls have raised their voices. Taking off the hijab, chanting and tearing up and burning pictures of the supreme leaders Khomeini and Khamenei are now commonplace occurrences in schools, for example, says a high school teacher from a poorer neighbourhood of Tehran: “Although many of the girls here are poor and sometimes even malnourished, they go to the protests after school and hand out leaflets with handwritten revolutionary slogans.”

The regime’s response to this is once again shockingly brutal. Riot police and militias attack protesters, girls are beaten up in schools and taken into custody.

“Even horrific acts of violence like this have not stopped the girls from protesting”

Most recently, for example, 15-year-old Asra Panahi was beaten to death by state riot police in a horrific attack on a high school in Ardabil in the region of Azerbaijan. The reason, according to the authorities: Along with her fellow students, she had refused to sing a pro-government anthem.

Even horrific acts of violence like this have not stopped the girls from protesting. It seems that nothing can intimidate them. A video clip that went viral on Twitter perhaps best illustrates the determination of the opponents of the regime in Iran.

In the footage, Iranian security forces stop three schoolgirls who were chanting. “What school are you from? What is your name?” the officers ask aggressively. “We are from the Freedom School”, the girls reply. Then one of them continues, “My name is Mahsā”, the second says, “And my name is Nika”; the third girl says, “And my name is Sarina.” These are the names of the women and girls who have been killed by the regime in recent months.

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