The Leaderless, Woman-led Iranian Revolution: A Response to Centuries of Oppression

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The ongoing, full-fledged revolution in Iran – that’s right, we need to stop referring to the revolution as mere “protests” – is one where women are at the forefront. The people of Iran and especially its womenfolk, have had enough of the theocratic regime that has put not just figurative but also literal shackles on them (and worse) every time they have dared to venture out into the path that all humans aspire to lead – the one that provides a safe space for freedom of expression. That path is a risky one in Iran, one where you can get arrested, fined, lashed, abused, and even killed.

What sparked the revolution was the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman of Kurdish ethnicity, who was arrested by the notorious Morality Police because she was wearing her hijab too loosely, showing a few strands of her hair. Perhaps the Morality Police did not intend to kill her, but the regime gives them the agency to use corporeal punishment in severe forms (e.g. hijab-less women can receive 74 lashes by law), and someone must have derived some kind of sadistic pleasure in beating a helpless young girl to a pulp. One cannot deny the bitter fact that Mahsa’s murder was needed to begin this uprising, making her untimely death a catalyst that gave rise to extraordinary bravado among a people who, until this unfortunate event, lived in a state of perpetual fear and trepidation under the current regime.

Since Mahsa’s death, at least a couple of hundred others have been killed across many cities and states, among whom are minors between the ages of 11 and 17 – either beaten or shot to death. Hundreds of others have been injured, while thousands have been arrested. Imagine a nation that’s so “done” with the ruling regime that the children take to the streets, risking their short-lived lives, with the hope that their spilled blood will help in freeing their “vatan” (homeland) so that others may finally be able to live a better, freer tomorrow. Also, imagine a regime that is willing to have blood on its hands – the blood of its people and the blood of its children, in order to uphold the power structure or status quo that benefits the regime officials, starting from the top – the Supreme Leader, down to the bottom – the Morality Police and the Basij Militia.

How ironic that the world’s first human rights charter came from the heart of this same land where people are now being brutalized for claiming access to basic human rights! The Cyrus Cylinder, the first written record issued by the Persian king – Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Dynasty in 539 BC, advocated justice and liberty by abolishing slavery, establishing racial equality, giving people the right to choose their own religion, fighting tyranny, defending the oppressed, valuing human dignity, and recognizing human rights. The timelessness of the content of this charter has been felt by historians, leaders, politicians, statespersons, policy-makers, philosophers, academics, and human beings in general across the globe, and yet, some 2700 years later, it has been completely discarded today.

Putting aside the four decades of pent-up frustrations over poverty, persecution against non-Shia and non-Muslim groups such as the Baha’is, criminalization of the members of the LGBTQA+ community, marginalization of ethnic groups such as the Kurds and the Baluch, uncountable human rights violations, and persistent repression, if one is to focus only on the sufferings of the women in that gender-apartheid state, one must understand that women are not just making such a ruckus for being forced to wear the compulsory hijab; in fact, they are barred from rights that I, as an Iranian woman living in Bangladesh, take for granted. These include the simple pleasures of going abroad without my partner’s written permission, watching men’s sports in stadiums, hanging out with male friends or colleagues in public places, showing off my curls, or dancing on the streets during the monsoon rains. Women in Iran are treated as second-class citizens who do not enjoy the same rights as their male counterparts when it comes to matters pertaining to marriage, divorce, child custody, or inheritance. The implementation of draconian laws and misogynistic attitudes that seek to repress women are perhaps a consequence of fear – a fear that women will go places if given equal rights and opportunities and therefore take the limelight away from the men and equilibrate the gender power imbalance.

The unprecedented bravery on the part of Iranian women today is not simply a result of 43 years of suppression though. It is, in fact, a response to centuries of women’s repression in Iran. The Safavid Dynasty (1501-1736) established Twelver Shi’ism as the official state religion of Iran. Under the Safavid Order, mass proselytization was enforced through brutal methods, which went against the Iranian standard of freedom of religion established by Cyrus the Great. But when the Safavid king Shah Sultan Husayn was enthroned in 1694, under the “spell” of Muhammad Baqir Majlisi – a top-ranking cleric of Isfahan, women faced severe restrictions. For the first time in Iran’s history, veiling was mandatory, and women were secluded from social and political spheres. The influence of Majlisi’s oppressive and dogmatic ideologies strengthened patriarchal values and gender disparity in a land where, in the past, women enjoyed many forms of freedom and rights, as evidenced in earlier Safavid art. 16th and 17th-century European travelers’ accounts provide an insight into the liberties of the early Safavid women who enjoyed bodily autonomy (including the choice of clothing) and the freedom of movement. Gender segregation became institutionalized in the late 17th century and stricter with time, and the co-existence of the genders in the public space became a thing of the past. Even when women did go out, they were unrecognizable, given that they were covered from head to toe, with nothing but holes in their face coverings for unobstructed vision. As far as attire and conduct were concerned, the suffocating strictures resulted from the increased influence of the Shiite clerics and the rise of religious conservatism during the latter stages of the Safavid Dynasty.

And just as repression of women is not unique to the Khomeinist regime, any form of feminist rebellion against it, as evidenced by the lion-hearted Iranian women and teenagers on the streets today, is also not new. Perhaps the first Iranian woman to have been slayed as a result of her reformist and feminist beliefs was Fatimih Baraghani Tahirih – poet, intellectual, women’s rights activist, and Babi theologian – born in 1817, in Qazvin, Iran. This was during the Qajar Dynasty, an era plagued by dogma, patriarchy and tyranny. In 1848, Tahirih dared to present herself unveiled in the presence of 80 men who had never borne witness to such an extraordinary sight in their lives. Her audacious act of unveiling in the presence of a large number of non-mahram men was used to make a statement that women are free to make their own choices. Tahirih was resolute in her beliefs, and fear did not exist in her dictionary. She was eventually strangled to death by order of the-then king Naser al-Din Shah, who had proposed to her for her beauty and eloquence, promising to make her the Queen of Iran on the condition that she give up her revolutionary beliefs. Tahirih’s rejection came without a second thought; she chose to die as the first woman suffrage martyr instead, her prophetic last words being: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you can never stop the emancipation of women.”

Iran has witnessed many brave Iranian women ignited by Tahirih’s fiery spirit, and even now, in the 21st century, they are being arrested, put behind bars, abused, and killed for any unIslamic behavior. It was during the Pahlavi Dynasty that Iran saw a complete reversal of the state of its women, and perhaps those years (1925-1979) were the few decades in a very long time that Iranian women received rights and liberties. For example, women made great strides in education; they entered the diplomatic corps, the judiciary and the police force; they were elected as members of parliament and held cabinet positions, etc. Then came the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which was a result of the lack of democratization under a monarchist regime, but the dire consequence of an Islamic regime was a clear regression with regard to women’s rights and opportunities, among other things. In 1979, the first/previous Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran – Ayatollah Khomenei – told Oriana Fallaci, a celebrated Italian journalist, that the hijab-less women “do not know how to be useful, neither to society nor politically or vocationally. And the reason is that they distract and anger people by exposing themselves.” The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei’s comment on the question of sexual equality is: “Why should women be entrusted with carrying out male tasks? What kind of honor is to have women carry out male tasks?” (2014) He also believes that the compulsory hijab is “to preserve women’s honor” (2010). Sayyid Mahmoud Nabavian, an MP of Iran, has labeled the female protestors of the ongoing revolution as “rioters” who are “out to prostitute themselves” (2022).

The protesters in the streets of Iran today are leaderless and weaponless. Perhaps the only “weapon” used by the demonstrators are scissors used to cut their hair as a symbol of resistance or maybe a lighter or matchstick used to burn their hijabs. That being said, one must understand that this revolution is neither an anti-hijab movement nor a war on Islam. Burning/taking off the hijab is merely a symbol of resistance. During the Islamic Revolution in Iran (7th January 1978 – 11th February 1979), women wore the hijab of their own volition as a symbol against the monarchy because, in 1936, the then-ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi had banned the hijab. This “kashf-e-hijab” (unveiling) was an attempt to secularize and modernize Iran, albeit through imposition. One cannot deny that this move was just as bad as mandating the hijab because both are patriarchal encroachments of women’s bodily autonomies and sartorial choices. Those hijab-clad women who took to the streets between 1978 and 1979 did it because wearing the head cover symbolized opposition against the Pahlavi Dynasty. In fact, when Ruhollah Khomeini became the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran and mandated a strict Islamic dress code, many women who had worn the hijab during the Islamic Revolution protested again – this time unveiled – because they had not expected mandatory veiling and did not support it. The first demonstration against the mandatory hijab after the Islamic Revolution took place on International Women’s Day – 8th March 1979, less than a month after Khomeini’s arrival and one day after he mandated the hijab to be worn to government offices. Tens of thousands of women took to the streets and chanted powerful slogans for 6 days straight. In a documentary film titled “Mouvement de libération des femmes iraniennes année zero” (Iranian Women’s Liberation Movement Year Zero) that acts as evidence of the Iranian women’s anti-forced-hijab protests in 1979, one hijab-clad woman’s prophetic words were: “If Khomeini continues as he does, I – as a religious Muslim woman – will turn away from my religion.” Another protestor – a young nurse – talks about the feeling of being deceived because no one told them that men and women would not be treated as equals. Kate Millet, an American feminist who was a part of these women’s protests in Iran, claimed that Western feminists cannot organize themselves so quickly and so numerously as the courageous women of Iran did. After these women delivered their claims to the Ministry of Justice on 9th March 1979, Khomeini revoked the decree forcing women to wear the hijab to government offices. Despite their short-termed victory, the protests continued, demanding equal wages, employment opportunities, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. The hijab was eventually made compulsory for all Iranian women above the age of 9, including non-Muslims and tourists.

Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (women, life, freedom) has become the motto of the present revolution, and it should be the slogan taken up by every man and woman in every part of the world in order to voice solidarity with the undaunted women of Iran. One can come to the conclusion that no matter what, you cannot impede change as change is the only constant, and that come what may, you cannot take away the liberties of any people without facing rebellion at some point or the other. This leaderless and women-led revolution that has lasted for over a month already, the fire of which has not fizzled out, will undoubtedly continue, and unless the ruling regime steps down, things are bound to get bloody. One cannot deny that besides human rights violations, political corruption and economic disparity are the other main reasons that led to the downfall of the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1979 and the revolution against the Islamic regime in 2022. Still, such discussions are perhaps best explored in articles that deconstruct politics.




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