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Women Life Freedom: The Fight For Liberty in Iran

Written and graphics by Niki Dashtban | @nik1da on Instagram

Zan Zendegi Azadi: Mahsa Amini

Iran is experiencing a wave of anti-government protests: a revolutionary process. The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is facing the consequences of its actions--a fierce opposition from the Iranian people with young women leading the movement. The motto of the revolution, Zan Zendegi Azadi or Women Life Freedom, originated from the Kurdish movement. Hundreds of protestors have been killed and thousands have been arrested as political prisoners. The Revolution was sparked by Jina Mahsa Amini’s brutal murder by the Iranian “morality police” on September 16th, 2022. An Iranian Kurd, Mahsa was visiting Tehran and arrested by the “morality police” because her headscarf was not properly worn. She was taken to Evin prison for an “educational measure” and was in a coma until she died in a hospital three days later. False statements were released by the authorities, attempting to state that she died of a seizure that was followed by a heart attack.

However, journalists Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi revealed the true story to Iranians by spreading photographed proof of Mahsa in a coma state. Photos of Mahsa’s bruised and battered face circulated around social media, fueling outrage and demands for justice.

The Islamic Republic: A History of Violence and Oppression

The Islamic Republic of Iran has a long withstanding history of gender-based discrimination within its societal norms, policies and legislation. Formed from a revolution in 1979 against the Shah, the IRI has been committing human rights abuses since its creation. Though there were no restrictions on what women could wear under the Shah, the Iranian people wanted to establish a democratic system instead of the monarchy that existed. Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution, promised the Iranian people to bring democracy when he came to power. After a struggle for power, the Shah was overthrown on February 11th, 1979, establishing the Islamic Republic as the new power of Iran for the next 44 years.

Khomeini completely disregarded his promises once he came to power and began to restrict Iranian lives, especially the lives of women, in harsh ways. The IRI targeted dissidents with brutal violence, silencing any acts of opposition. A month after Khomeini came to power, on March 8, International Women’s Day, he enacted a compulsory hijab policy. Women were not allowed to go to work without a headscarf, establishing the beginning of the compulsory hijab laws that would dominate Iranian society for the next few decades. Under Khomeini, a gender apartheid was formed. Iran’s Islamic Penal Code severely limits women’s rights, subjecting them to be unequal in matters of marriage, custody, divorce, inheritance, and many other aspects of life.

When Khomeini died, a new Supreme Leader, Ali Khameni, rose to power. Despite having an election process, the IRI is not a democracy. The Supreme Leader has full control over the candidates who run for presidency and which candidates would be elected, rendering the election process completely meaningless.

Rallies and Protests: From Kurdistan to the Rest of the World:

Mahsa Amini’s death has become a symbol of the fight for freedom in Iran and serves as a reminder of the sacrifices that many Iranians have made in the struggle for human rights. Her pictures and the hashtags #MahsaAmini and #IranRevolution2022 spread like wildfire globally. Several protests quickly transformed to a large-scale revolution that took place in regions all around the world. Demonstrations—peaceful or otherwise—in Iran are forbidden, so for individuals to participate in a protest would mean risking their lives. Using civil disobedience as a method of fighting against the regime, Iranians have been risking their lives to protest. The anti-government protests in Iran have been met with a brutal crackdown by the Islamic Republic. Many protesters have been killed, wounded and imprisoned as political dissidents, among them women, children, and elderly. The protesters who have been detained have experienced many psychological and physical horrors in imprisonment; many of them have been taken to court and unfairly tried to be sentenced to death and hung for advocating for basic fundamental rights.

The IRI has also been suspected of deliberately chemically poisoning Iranian schoolgirls. Since November 2022, more than 1,000 Iranian students, mostly school girls, have been experiencing unexplained illness. Many students have reported experiencing symptoms of nausea, dizziness, fatigue, respiratory issues and other neurological effects. School girls have been head front in anti-government protests since September 2022, tearing up pictures of the Supreme Leader Khamenei, removing headscarves in classrooms, and repeating chants of the government’s downfall. Many Iranians believe that IRI is behind this act of biological terrorism, targeting school girls for their leading role in the women-led revolution and in hopes of attempting to close schools for girls in the country.

Beyond using violence, the IRI has been disrupting internet communications, attempting to prevent Iranians from sharing information about the revolution through social media. When the movement first erupted in September of 2022, the IRI’s initial reaction was to invoke a crippling internet blackout in attempts to prevent word of the protests from spreading outside of Iran. Iranian authorities blocked Instagram and WhatsApp, both the last of the social media platforms that were available for Iranians to use before the protests. This internet blockage made it more difficult for protesters to mobilize and come together in organizing large scale protests.

Despite this, protesters from Iran have been utilizing tools like VPNs to spread footage and images of their protests. Videos of countless Iranian women taking off their headscarves in public, some going even further and burning them in public, have circulated through social media. Multiple slogans “No Justice, No Peace, No Silence,” “Freedom for Iran,” and of course, “Women Life Freedom” are shouted by people at night in Iranian neighborhoods.

This revolution is not the first time women in Iran have attempted to dismantle the discriminatory laws that are the foundation of the Islamic regime. Calls for action have been largely unheard and suppressed by the IRI—until now. Having sparked in Kurdistan and moved to Iran, the revolution has spread across nations with protests erupting all around the world and still continuing strong months after Mahsa Amini’s murder. All around the world, Iranians and non-Iranians alike have been protesting to demand accountability for Amini’s death and the deaths of other innocent Iranians—protesting against the oppressive regime and fighting for women’s rights.

A Push For Change:

After months of coming together and protesting, Iranians are proposing a new political system to replace the current regime. On February 14th, several labor unions, civil society groups and organizations inside Iran published a combined charter on their vision for a modern society. The charter included demands for gender equality, release of political prisoners, the abolition of the death penalty, the right to free speech and protection of ethnic and religious minorities.

A group of Iranian opposition figures, including rights activist Masih Alinejad, the exiled former crown prince of Iran Reza Pahlavi, the spokesman for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims Hamed Esmaeilion, rights activist Nazanin Boniadi, Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, leader of the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan Abdullah Mohtadi, Nobel laureate lawyer Shirin Ebadi, and former captain of Iran’s national football team Ali Karimi, met on February 10th to discuss the future of the country’s democracy movement. Their meeting showed unity in defying the regime that has a history of trying to divide the opposition to maintain power and sent a strong message to the IRI that they are not backing down. Farahani maintained that they are “united to reach freedom” and that they “will stand together and will not be silent,” emphasizing that the 8 opposition figures will continue staying a united front.

On February 19th, three of the representatives, Pahlavi, Alinejad, and Boniadi attended the Munich Security Conference. The conference refused to invite officials from the IRI, sending a message that they stand with the Iranian people and their fight for freedom. Many Iranians living nearby gathered outside of the event venue in support of the activist figures. This event was a huge historical victory for Iranians, illustrating the international support for the women’s rights movement.

Unfortunately, this coalition fell apart on April 26th after the group failed to reach a consensus regarding several decisions. This coalition that had given many Iranians, including myself, hope ended after two months of its beginning. Many of the members of this former coalition, however, are continuing to advocate for the Women Life Freedom movement individually.

Despite this, Iranians have remained diligent in protesting and demanding for change. On September 16th, 2023, a year after the murder of Mahsa Amini, individuals all around the world participated in a Global Action demonstration, protesting in their cities and showing solidarity with Iranians. The consistent efforts of Iranians and non-Iranians throughout the past year has pushed government officials to take notice and implement change. On September 12th, 2023, the United States Congress passed the MAHSA Act: an act imposing sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran for human rights abuses and holding the President accountable for developing a list of perpetrators every year to Congress. This act serves as a recognition of the issues in Iran and a first step into the right direction towards Iranian freedom, revealing that the consistent efforts of protestors have been impactful and acknowledged.

Although the Women Life Freedom movement pertains to Iranian women fighting against a brutal regime that discriminates against women, the revolution is much larger than just Iran. Women all around the world are experiencing similar struggles and limits of their freedoms. The feminist movement in Iran goes beyond just fighting for freedom for Iranians—it is a global call for action, a revolution fighting for women within Iran and women in countries experiencing similar oppression. The fight for women's rights in Iran is not just a fight for Iranian women, but a fight for women's rights around the world. The slogan Women Life Freedom might have originated from Iran but it is a message that the entire world should understand and a cause to fight for.


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