Maeve Higgins: Brave Iranian protestors must feel they have nothing to lose

Maeve Higgins: Brave Iranian protestors must feel they have nothing to lose

Members of the Iranian community and their supporters rally in solidarity with protesters in Iran, after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody for allegedly improperly wearing a hijab.

At Tehran University in 1979, students hung a banner in Farsi that translates as "the measure of a free society is the measure of women's freedom in that society." 

If that is true, and I think it is, then 43 years later, no Iranians are free. 

1979 saw the nation become an Islamic Republic, where women's equality was seen as a threat to that power structure. Today, in law and practise, women in Iran are discriminated against. Their rights are infringed in almost every aspect of life, including marriage, divorce, employment, inheritance, and political office.

 Then there are the compulsory veiling laws that Amnesty International reports lead to "daily harassment, arbitrary detention, torture, and other ill-treatment, and denial of access to education, employment, and public spaces."

Demonstrators hold placards outside the Iranian Embassy in London  to  protest against the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in Iran while in police custody, who was arrested by Iran's morality police for allegedly violating its strictly-enforced dress code.
Demonstrators hold placards outside the Iranian Embassy in London  to  protest against the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in Iran while in police custody, who was arrested by Iran's morality police for allegedly violating its strictly-enforced dress code.

 There are women in prison today for merely campaigning against compulsory veiling. These laws dictating how women must dress, in loose clothing with their hair covered, and the manner the 'guidance patrol' enforces these laws — they are a kind of morality police — have horrifying consequences.

Government forces killed Mahsa Jina Amini on September 16 after they arrested and detained her for not wearing her headscarf following government standards. "During the journey to the police station, she was tortured and insulted," Amini's cousin Erfan Mortezaei told Sky News. "She suffered a concussion from a blow to the head. There is a report from Kasra hospital that says effectively by the time she reached the hospital, she was already dead from a medical point of view." 

A photo of the young Kurdish woman lying on a hospital bed galvanised much of the population this month.

In the days following her death, protestors marched on the streets of Tehran, Esfahan, Mashhad, and dozens of other cities. 

In stunning acts of courage and defiance, some women burned their headscarves and cut their hair.  The government's retaliation was just as fierce

 In Amini's hometown, the Kurdish city of Saquez, security forces fired on protestors, killing two people there and others in nearby towns, too, according to Hengaw, an Iranian human rights organization based in Norway.

It is vital for those who are not Iranian and not living in Iran to listen to and understand what Iranian women want and need. From years of myopic war on terror, the American impulse is wired to conflate the struggle of Iranian women with their own need to dominate narratives about the Middle East and Iran. 

This specific fight, catalysed by the murder of Mahsan Amini, is not about the hijab. It is about being forced to wear it. That is wrong, just as banning wearing the hijab is wrong, as the Hindu nationalist government did recently in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Writing in The Los Angeles Times, Hoda Katebi said: "As an Iranian American Muslim woman who chooses to wear the hijab, I am outraged at the way that my identity is being exploited by the Iranian state to maintain power and impose repressive regulations on Iranian women who choose not to wear the hijab."

Iran visit

I spent three weeks in Iran in 2016 on holiday, and that allowed me the privilege of glimpsing the lived realities of the Iranian people. I always wanted to visit this beautiful country full of history, famous for its poetry and culture, with a natural landscape encompassing deserts, mountains, and forests. 

Women tourists are not exempt from the clothing requirements, so obviously I wore a headscarf and loose clothes that covered me up. Women tourists are, however, able to walk away from the crushing forces of what the clothing laws hint at. Last year, the Iranian parliament adopted a bill entitled "Youthful population and protection of the family," which bans state-funded facilities from providing birth control free of charge; requires pharmacies to sell contraception only with a prescription; prohibits vasectomies with some exceptions for health-related reasons, and suppresses access to prenatal screening tests. 

Girls can legally be married at 13, although fathers can obtain judicial permission for their daughters to be married at an even younger age. 

According to official figures, between March 2020 and March 2021, 31,379 girls aged between 10 and 14 were married — a 10.5% increase over the previous year

The fury of the people's protests today echoes that of past protests. In 2009 there was an uprising that started because of a corrupt election but was fanned by the flames of women dissenters against the hijab law. That movement ultimately ended with a vicious crackdown and the shooting dead of a young protestor, a woman named Neda Agha Soltan, whose death was captured on video and made global headlines. 

This recent history makes today’s protestors all the more heroic, it also shows that perhaps they have nothing left to lose.

The kindness and care shown to me by the people I came across in my short time there, from taxi drivers to waitresses to families sitting in parks who noticed me there alone, is something I will never forget. I have some friends there from that time, and before the Internet was thoroughly decimated by the regime this week, one of them messaged me to say: "Be our voice."

That is not just a request from him to me; it is the refrain of this latest battle for freedom, and it applies to all of us. This request — to be their voice — is devastating, but it is urgent and necessary.

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