Human language

‘Woman, life, freedom’: Iran’s protests are a rebellion for bodily autonomy

#MahsaAmini was the call to action. The senseless violence and senselessness of her death – a 22-year-old woman who died in a coma after being arrested for allegedly wearing her headscarf improperly in Tehran – was both ordinary and extraordinary. While Iranian authorities say Amini died due to a pre-existing medical condition, it is the banality of violence by Iran’s so-called “morality police” and security forces that has so affected people. women and young people. It was also the banality of Amini’s veil and its modesty by the standards of the veil in Iranian urban centers. And yet it was the extraordinary death of a young woman with a whole future ahead of her, apparently for a piece of cloth that the state has forced Iranian women to wear for almost 40 years, that enraged the people, dragging them into the streets.

When Mahsa Amini (her real name, chosen by her ethnic Kurdish family – Jina – could not be officially registered under Iranian law) died on September 16, 2022, Iranians from all walks of life – regardless of gender, of socio-economic origin, geographical location, social status position – overturned in protest. As of this writing, the state has killed more than 70 protesters, according to a human rights group, and imprisoned an as yet unknown number of Iranians. It is almost certain that the government, led by President Ebrahim Raisi, will continue to kill and repress to “restore order”. Nevertheless, more and more women are openly displaying the compulsory hijab on the streets of cities and towns across the country as the days go by. According to Amnesty International, young men are in the streets fighting alongside young women who boldly confront the security forces by firing live ammunition and metal pellets.

Iran’s misogynistic laws and the structural violence at the heart of the country’s political state were first challenged by Iranian feminists in 1979, in the throes of a successful popular revolution led by the cleric elderly Ruhollah Khomeini. Women’s groups bravely chanted “Down with Khomeini” just three weeks after he returned from Paris to Iran and declared a desire to institute compulsory veiling for the new revolutionary state. Since then, Iran’s myriad women’s movements and enormous demographic shifts have been a constant thorn in the side of the political establishment. Although the Islamic Republic is riddled with laws that restrict and criminalize the rights of women and gay men, the state allocates vast resources to enforce the daily compulsory veil in streets, schools and government buildings.

In 2017, Vida Movahed, a young Iranian woman, organized a silent and solitary demonstration in the midst of a crowd on Revolution Street in Tehran. Climbing onto a utility box, she removed her veil, tied it to a stick and waved it like a flag, instantly going viral on Iranian social media. Uncoordinated copycat protests were held by several young women. These women became known as the “Girls of Revolution Street”. The current protests have been heightened by women removing their headscarves and dancing in public (which is also illegal for women in Iran) while throwing the cloth into bonfires. They continually promulgated joy, a radical act for a society marred by increased repression.

Today’s protests mark yet another turning point in Iranian history – where previously mass movements mainly rallied around calls for the downfall or death of political leaders, cries in honor of Amini go beyond destruction, calling for a future based on life. At Amini’s funeral and subsequent protests in her home province of Kurdistan in northwestern Iran, mourners shouted a Kurdish slogan for women’s liberation: “Woman, life, freedom “. Its recording and broadcast on social media quickly spread to the streets and became a national demand. This movement calls for the advent of a feminist imagination that builds towards freedom with women at the helm. The bottom line is a fight for the autonomy to make choices over one’s body – a point that resonates with feminists around the world today.

This link between the Iranian women’s uprising and the rise of laws restricting women’s choices in places like the United States, India and Afghanistan is no accident. Activists, artists and young people around the world have easily articulated these connections with each other as they urge each other to share posts about the uprising and keep the #MahsaAmini trend going. Supporters around the world are linking the uprisings in Iran to their own struggles, including restrictions on reproductive rights, restriction of trans rights, banning of books in schools on gender and sexuality studies, and the forced unveiling of women who choose to veil themselves. For millions of women and young people around the world, the threat or reality of living under increasingly strict ‘gender laws’ has created the urgency of a global struggle against patriarchal control over bodies. .

As important as this uprising is for Iran – and it is unprecedented in Iranian history – it is proving to be a crucial articulation for Millennials and Gen Zs who are bursting into global consciousness against power and domination. While the mainstream global media is most concerned about the war in Ukraine, the impending economic crisis in Europe and the myriad other disasters facing the world, it’s mostly young people on Instagram and TikTok, as well as Twitter and even Reddit. , more traditionally associated. with male users, who helped this movement go viral and capture the world’s attention. The Iranian uprising has struck a chord with women and young people around the world who face the encroachment of conservative movements, cultures and laws based on repression of women and gay people.

Millennials were at the helm of the first era of movements broadcast and co-created on social media, including the Iranian Green Movement, the Arab Spring revolutions, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Over the past five years, Gen Zers have joined and added new energy to build grassroots uprisings against the fundamental structures that support those in power and endanger the planet. Each of these movements has given Millennials and Gen Z a new language and art for identifying power structures: #OWS ushered in a language for a critique of corporate capitalism and vast economic inequality; #BLM has globalized the understanding that anti-Black violence is at the heart of the Western project; #SaveSheikhJarrah exposed the violence Palestinians live with on a daily basis and embraced the notion of Israel as an apartheid colonial state; #MeToo and #NiUnaMás unmasked the fear and silence that patriarchy demands for its continuation.

#MahsaAmini spreads the language, visual art and tactics of a feminist revolution that centers life and creation instead of despair; freedom instead of control; and, hope for new futures instead of resignation and passive acceptance of the status quo. “Woman, life, freedom” poses a radical alternative in its essence to global patriarchal power. Today’s street rebellions may or may not “succeed” in overthrowing the regime or changing the laws, but that is hardly the point. Challenging the structures of domination that have existed for millennia requires imagining that it can be otherwise and having the audacity to refuse to conform to them. The uprisings against #MahsaAmini have already set an example of the suspension of fear (even momentary or in fits and starts) to confront patriarchal power.

It is fitting that it is Iran’s feminist revolution and the country’s younger generations who are at the forefront of the battles for bodily autonomy and sovereignty. For four decades, Iranian women and gays have borne the brunt of a political system based on their enslavement through day-to-day policing and criminalization. They are now showing the world – despite the harsh repression and potential death they face – how to fight back, like feminists.