Women’s resistance in Iran, and why it matters for women’s rights everywhere
“We should all be feminists” is a slogan Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made famous in 2014.
Over the past five years, we have seen these words acquire undeniable political relevance as women have become both symbols and catalysts for change in the face of repressive governments. There were the 2018-2019 women’s safety protests in Chile, Sudan’s 2019 “Nubian Queen” anti-government protests, Pussy Riot’s relentless anti-Putin provocations in Russia, and most recently, a women-led anti-government uprising in Iran, sparked by the police killing of a young Kurdish woman.
What unifies these acts of female resistance is the courageous dissent against the state-sanctioned subjugation of women and the femicide perpetuated by ultra-patriarchal regimes.
It’s easy to see these feminist issues as feminist issues “over there,” but they further demonstrate the insidious nature of patriarchy. The longer we allow such atrocities to slide, the more dangerous the world becomes for all of us, wherever we live. How can I know? Because I myself am a Kurdish woman, born in the UK, raised in New Zealand. I myself have experienced gender-based violence and I know the trauma it causes. My grandmother, who had her children stolen by the Baathist regime in Iraq and who was tortured in prison, is one of the many women who have been crushed by these oppressive regimes. So when women resist, risking their lives, the world had better listen.
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On September 13, 2022, Jîna (Mahsa) Amînî was arrested while she was in Tehran. She is visiting from her hometown of Seqiz in Iranian Kurdistan. Under the Compulsory Hijab Act 1981, she was detained on the pretext of wearing an inappropriate hair covering – despite her mother claiming she was wearing a full, loose-fitting hijab. Witnesses reported that her brother defied the police as they brutally arrested him. They beat him and took Jîna away to be tortured, which led to her murder. Murder is the right word to use, because death is a neutral term. Her life was violently taken following a physical trauma that left her in a coma for three days before her death, by a police force that serially perpetuates violence against women, especially Kurdish women.
Since then, women have taken to the streets of Tehran to condemn the government for its appalling inaction and denial of the violence suffered by Jîna. They sang the words “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi!”in Kurdish – which translates to “Women, Life, Freedom”.
In Geneva in 2010, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a group of 18 independent rights experts, reported “the limited enjoyment of political, economic, social and cultural rights by…Arab communities, Azerbaijani, Baloch, Kurdish and certain non-citizen communities” in Iran, and urged the government to comply with the 1969 international treaty banning racism. Anti-Kurdish discrimination in Iran includes banning Kurds from schools and exempting Kurdish people from standing in parliamentary elections. Iran’s Kurdish regions are also littered with landmines, remnants of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, which the Raisi administration refuses to remove. Every day Kurds die of arbitrary discrimination; every day, Kurdish women are beaten by the Iranian “morality police”. We must support Jina and demand Iran’s adherence to international human rights law.
“What we are seeing happening in Iran right now is historic,” says Golriz Ghahraman, New Zealand Greens MP and human rights lawyer. “A revolution led by women, starting in Kurdistan, spreading across the country in the face of torture and death. They defend their equality and their human rights.
Iranian women from all walks of life took to the streets of Tehran to protest, and renowned women from around the world, such as Bella Hadid and Golshifteh Farahani, rallied to the cause. Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi has taken steps to shut down the internet in many parts of Tehran and Iranian Kurdistan, although he said Jina’s death “definitely needs to be investigated”.
It is time for the Iranian government to be held accountable for its repeated atrocities against women. “I still remember being a child in Iran and the terror that every woman felt…my mother, my aunts, having to check their dress again and again,” Ghahraman says. But “now Iranian women are fighting back and we must be on their side.” Yes, we must, with every fiber of our moral being. Solidarity demands nothing less, lest we become spectators of the horrific slide from patriarchy to misogyny – which, as we have seen, can happen anywhere.
Leila Lois is a dancer and writer of Kurdish and Celtic origin.
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