As we watch the women and girls of our motherland lead what we can only hope will be a revolution in Iran, many of us abroad have been plagued by a sense of guilt and helplessness in light of our inability to fight with our fellow Iranians against a regime that has inflicted so much pain in the last 42 years. Glued to our phones, we have been following their every move, chant, and effort in this struggle against oppression from afar. But there is something we can do: ‘be the voice of Iran’ by supporting their efforts and amplifying their voices from our corners of the world. However, it appears not everyone understand this simple task. Instead, different groups, from German and Indian political parties to factions within the Iranian diaspora itself, are trying to co-opt the movement in Iran for their own agendas. Inspired by the chants of the revolution, this personal account aims to amplify the courageous struggle of Iranians and denounce the attempted co-optations of this united movement.
Origins and Background: ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’
‘ژن، ژیان، ئازادی’ (Kurdish)
‘زن، زندگی، آزادی’ (Farsi)
The protests in Iran started with the murder of 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian Jhina Mahsa Amini, who was violently detained, brutalised, and killed by the morality police ‘Gasht-e Ershad’ for not sufficiently covering her hair under the compulsory hijab. With that, the compulsory hijab became not only the trigger but also the symbol at the heart of this uprising. This is not the first time Iranian women have protested against the veiling laws and the abusive powers of the morality police. The veil comes with its own complex history in the country, one that is marked by men in power trying to control women.
During the reign of the Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-1941), the practice of veiling was banned in Iran (knows as ‘kashf-e hijab’) with the Shah instead encouraging women to dress in ‘Western’ clothing. While his son and successor, Mohammad Reza Shah, lifted the ban in 1941 to appease his growing dissidents, he shared his father’s affinity for a Western vision of modernity which clashed with more traditional values and ways of life, including the practice of veiling. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the regime imposed the veil on women alongside several other legal reforms that limited women’s rights and contributed to their segregation and oppression for the last 42 years. Within both their agendas, the veil constituted a crucial symbol for liberation from the constraints of the other side. While the monarchy portrayed unveiling as a step towards (Western) modernity and progressiveness away from religion and tradition, for the Islamic regime the imposition of the veil served as opposition to the dominance of the West. Despite their contrary ideologies, both the Pahlavi monarchy and the Islamic regime instrumentalised the body of Iranian women for their own political agendas. Compulsory veiling laws as well as veiling bans are thus another way of controlling women as part of patriarchal state violence, a strategy which is not confined to the Iranian state.
The struggle in Iran has at its heart the bodily autonomy of women, as evidenced in the now well-known chant of the revolution ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’, which crucially derives from the Kurdish ‘ژن، ژیان، ئازادی’ and has its roots in the Kurdish feminist liberation movement. But the movement goes beyond women’s rights. Protesters are fighting for the freedom of all Iranians. Their vision of a free Iran surpasses divisions and focuses on unity, which not only surpasses the question of veiling or showing your hair but encompasses people from across society. Men and women, the elderly and teenagers, members of the LGBTQ+ community, Muslims and non-Muslims, Kurds, Baloch, Turks, Pars, and others are united in the face of their oppressor: the regime.
Opportunistic disturbances and divisions: ‘Death to the oppressor – whether they are a king or a religious leader!’
“!مرگ بر ستمگر! چه شاه باشه چه رهبر”
While Iranians in the country are risking their lives to free Iran from the shackles of the Islamic regime, political groups from around the world have jumped at the opportunity to co-opt this feminist, inclusive revolution for their own agendas. Ranging from far-right political parties in India and Germany to political factions within the Iranian diaspora, these groups can be seen to abuse the movement in Iran for political gain.
In India, Hindu nationalists have used the protests in Iran in aid of their attacks against Muslims in the country, as reflected by the recent Supreme Court case regarding the veil ban at schools in the state of Karnataka. During the proceedings, the Attorney General of Karnataka submitted to the Court that the protests against the hijab in Iran should be seen as supporting the veil ban in Karnataka. Importantly, the Attorney General left out the fact that Iranian women were fighting against the compulsory hijab bans as part of a broader movement that aims to free women from the control of patriarchal state violence. The veil ban for school girls is part of a broader crackdown against Muslims in India rooted in state violence. The only commonality between the two is once again the attempt at controlling women.
In Germany, Jürgen Braun, member of parliament of the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), referred to Jhina Mahsa Amini’s death and the ongoing protests in Iran as support for the Islamophobic claims of his party. Accusing the German government of not taking sufficient action against the Islamic regime, he proclaimed ‘that the people in Iran are dying on the streets is very much related to the misogynistic and inhuman Islam’ (original: ‘Dass die Menschen im Iran auf der Straße sterben, hat sehr wohl mit frauen- und menschenverachtendem Islam zu tun’). For a political party that thinks women need to return to their traditional roles as mothers and housewives, that regards feminism as a hindrance to societal development, and violence against women as only present within migrant families (and with that not a problem within wider society), it is interesting to see their sudden concern for women’s rights in Iran.
It is a common strategy of Islamophobic politics to deliberately conflate extremist Islamist political regimes, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, with the religion of Islam in their attempt to victimise Muslim women and vilify Muslim men. Women’s rights and ‘saving’ Muslim women from their own religions have featured as a central tool as part of these strategies. In this case, the deliberate co-optation of the movement in Iran, a movement that is based on unity of the people against state violence, in support of Islamophobic agendas is beyond opportunistic.
The opportunism is unfortunately not limited to politicians. Riddled with divisive political agendas, sub-sections of the Iranian diaspora are making the same mistakes they have been for the last 40 years. With the most dominant groups being the monarchists and mujahedeen, the diasporic divisions have long served as a serious impediment to the support of Iranians within the country. My own experiences of attending protests in Hamburg, Germany, during the 2009 Green Movement and the Mashahr Massacre of November 2019, as well as in London in the past weeks have been a testament to this division and its continuing damage to the solidarity and support from the diaspora.
While in Hamburg, the mujahedeen repeatedly disrupted protests with their politically oriented chants and speeches, the recent protests in London have been disrupted by male-dominated monarchist groups. They arrive equipped with their enormous photos of the former Shah’s son, whom they regard as the rightful leader of the country, and parade these around not only within the crowd but also right in front of the organisers leading the protests. They use their own megaphones and shout out their political chants over the rest of the protestors. Repeatedly, the organisers have to remind them that we have come together to stand united against the mutual oppressor, the regime. That this is not a protest to further a specific political agenda, but that we are here to stand in solidarity with Iranians in the country. During an almost satirical incident, one of the organisers (a woman) had to reprimand one of the monarchists (an old man) for trying to take away her microphone. Understandably frustrated she exclaimed: ‘I cannot believe we are at a protest for women’s rights, while this man is trying to snatch the microphone right out of the hands of a woman.’ Other places, where solidarity protests were held, have seen disruptions in the form of heckling and even outbreaks of violence. As the past has shown, these divisions and disturbances only serve to divert the much-needed attention from the movement within the country.
The Way Forward: ‘Don’t call it a protest, it is now a revolution’
‘بهش نگین اعتراض، اسمش شده انقلاب’
The movement in Iran represents an intersectional feminist movement. It addresses layers of marginalisation the population has endured throughout decades and under various regimes. It is not limited to an essentialised notion of freedom or gender equality but reflects the diversity of the Iranian population in its breadth and demands. While it started with women’s fight for freedom, and women and girls continue to play a central role, it now encompasses a diverse array of members of society as well as demands. It is not limited to the capital of Tehran but includes the regions of the historically marginalised Kurdish and Baloch people, which have formed epicentres of the protests. A unity that is once again demonstrated in the chants:
‘Zahedan [with a majority Baloch population], Kurdistan, the light of Iran!’
“زاهدان، کردستان، چشم و چراغ ایران”
It is not limited to civil and political rights, but includes trade unions and important economic sectors in the country (oil and petrochemical workers as well as bazaar merchants have been striking). It is not just the young asking for a better future, but also older generations who have endured a lifetime of injustice under this regime. From athletes and artists to journalists and lawyers, Iranians are standing together in the face of decades of oppression and violence. Like all movements it is not perfect and there are and will be divisions. Particularly once opposition to oppression turns into propositions for future political agendas. But that merely is a testament to the diversity of Iranians. For now, Iranian protesters are a united front deeply aware of the intersectional and multifaceted nature of their society and demands.
From outside the country, we owe it to Iranians sacrificing their lives within the country to portray their efforts adequately and denounce politically oriented opportunistic co-optations. As the global days of actions of the last weeks have demonstrated, most of the diaspora understands our task: to support Iranians in the country by amplifying their struggle. With the regime restricting Internet access in the country and Western media and leaders mostly silent, our aim is to ‘be the voice of Iran’ and carry this movement around the rest of the world. The diaspora’s responsibility of keeping the protests alive from abroad is becoming even more crucial as the regime increasingly cracks down against protesters.
As I am writing this, young schoolgirls in Iran are chanting ‘get out’ and ‘down with the Islamic regime’ at leaders of the Basij (a paramilitary force of the regime) and stomping on photos of Khamenei’s face that normally would hang on their classroom walls. These teenage girls are the definition of courage. They are fighting with their lives for an Iran where they can be themselves and live freely, irrespective of what that looks like. The faces of those of them who were murdered by the regime will forever be etched into my memory. The rest of us need to take inspiration from these girls and all the other Iranians who are fighting with everything they have to turn this protest into a revolution. As one of the chants exclaims:
‘Don’t call it a protest, it is now a revolution’
‘بهش نگین اعتراض، اسمش شده انقلاب’
Let us be their voices in this long-awaited revolution.