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In resistance both poignant and enraged, tens of thousands of people — largely women but also many men – have thronged the streets in capital cities around the world for the last two weeks to protest the murder in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman reportedly beaten to death after being arrested by Iran’s brutal “morality police” for… improperly wearing the hijab. From the northwestern city of Saqez, Amini was visiting Tehran with her family Sept. 13 when she was arrested by the officially named Guidance Patrol, who enforce the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code, for “unsuitable attire.” Her family were told she would be released from the police station after a “re-education session.” Instead, eyewitnesses said police beat her in the police van, and again at the station. Amini collapsed a few hours later, was taken to Kasra Hospital, fell into a coma, and died three days later. Police say she suffered sudden heart failure; her family say she had no heart problems, a leaked medical report showed severe head injuries and skull fractures, and seemingly everyone in Iran except those in power believe Amini was murdered by the state agents of “a monster which came out from the deepest and darkest cave of religious fanaticism.”
The first protest erupted Friday Sept 16, when several dozen people gathered outside the hospital after word spread of Amini’s death. As officials closed roads to the hospital, the crowd swelled and moved to the city’s Arjantin Square, where fiery chants of “Death to the Dictator,” “Iran Will Be Free,” “Khamenei Is A Murderer” and “Say Her Name” began echoing around the city. Amini’s murder was a match thrown into a long-simmering tinderbox, and she quickly become a symbol of Iran’s gender-based, state-sanctioned oppression and violence by what one protester called “psycopath predators…who make living hell for women.” “It could’ve been me, it could’ve been you,” she said. “It could’ve been any of us.” Over the past two weeks, protests have spread to over 80 cities and towns across Iran, and to multiple countries – Canada, Germany, South Korea – where Iranian women have settled after fleeing the barbarity they’re now protesting. In Iran, following the lead of their deadly crackdown during 2019 protests, the government has shut down the Internet, and police have resorted to beatings, teargas, water cannons, firing live ammunition and savagely arresting anyone in sight, even women drivers who honk their horns in support.
Still, the protests grow, and electrifying evidence of them streams out, often under #StandWithIranianWomen. Iran’s national soccer team donned black jackets over their uniforms for the national anthem; in Tehran, male and female students staged rallies at seven universities; in Kurdish provinces, shops were closed and civil society organisations called for a general strike; in Saqqez, protesters tore down posters of authoritarian leader Ayatollah Khamenei; in Vanak, families sheltered protesters fleeing from police, then climbed to roofs to shout what has become a mantra: “Woman, life, freedom.” Across the country, moving videos show crowds of women gathering to pull off their hated headscarves, defiantly waving them in the air while shouting, “Death To the Dictator,” with some then burning them. Ex-pat Iranian women sent messages of solidarity to Amini from their respective countries; unveiled women still in Iran confronted clerics on the street, in the subway, from their cars; when the old, turbaned men snarl, “Wear your hijab!”, they angrily retort, “You’re not God,” “It’s none of your business,” and “I want to live free in my own country.” Says one, “We no longer fear the regime.” One observer, “This is courage.”
In one of their most stunning actions, women across Iran have also gathered to defiantly hack off their hair, an ancient symbol of grief and protest forbidden or restricted by most modern Islamic authorities. The 1,000-year-old tradition stems from the Persian epic Shahnameh, a 60,000-verse poem about the kings of Persia in which characters often cut or pluck out their hair in mourning. Thus, online and at protests, hundreds of women have been filmed, scissors in hand, shearing their hair “to show we don’t care about their standards (or) what they think we should look like,” said a chemical engineer living in Italy who shaved her head. “To show that we are angry.” “Cutting hair is itself a ceremony of mourning to expose the depth of suffering at the loss of a loved one…a sign of protest against the killing of our people.” Among those who cut their hair in soldarity and filmed herself doing it was Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian arrested in Tehran in 2016 for running a charity that officials falsely deemed “spying”; she spent six years in prison in Iran before being freed. She ended her video by declaring, “For my mother, for my daughter, for the fear of solitary confinement, for the women of my country, for freedom.”
With protests and brutal police actions ongoing and, says one activist, “our people fighting (with) only their bare hands,” casualties mount. Numbers are hard to confirm, but the Norway-based Iran Human Rights says at least 76 protesters have been killed, hundreds have been arrested, and over 85 have been wounded just in Kurdistan, including a 10-year-old girl shot and seriously injured. Iran President Ebrahim Raisi, meanwhile, has said Amini’s death “saddened” everyone in the Islamic Republic; he blamed the protests on “rioters” and “thugs” linked to “foreign enemies,” and warned that “chaos” would not be accepted. Still, Masih Alinejad, a U.S.-based Iranian journalist and activist, calls the murder of Amini and its backlash – “For us, Mahsa was our sister” – a “tipping point” for Iran, the inevitable result of “40 years of women fighting back.” In 2014, Alinejad launched an online campaign against hijab, encouraging women in Iran to share self-portraits without the veil; she posted them on Facebook with the title, “My Stealthy Freedom.” Today, she sees the current, massive unrest as unprecedented. “Compulsory hijab is not just a small piece of cloth,” she says. “It’s like the Berlin Wall. And if Iranian women manage to tear down this wall, the Islamic Republic won’t exist.”
For now, it still does, and Iranian artists are joining in to fight “you who are only suppressed by force.” Wales-based writer Shara Atashi describes a “moment we have been waiting for…when the fury is stronger than the power of the oppressor.” The result: “Politics fueled by poetry.” Artists have done powerful portraits of Amini and the abstract, bloody bodies of other women, posted fiery images of resistance, committed blood-and-hair-smeared acts of civil disobedience. On Sept. 16, the day Amini died and the day before protests were to begin, Iranian sisters and singers Samin and Behin Bolouri released a searing Farsi version of the Italian anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao” on Instagram; its caption: “We will not be awake until tomorrow.” Originally a 19th-century folk song among female Italian rice field workers to protest harsh conditions, it became the voice of World War ll resistance against German Nazis and Italian fascists; now it’s also become a declaration of Ukrainian defiance. Today, its fiery call to “the flower of the partisan/who died for freedom,” with its layers of history and irony – see Italy’s new fascist leader – sends chills. In a stark, black-and-white video, Samin and Behin – without hijabs – sing fiercely of freedom, grit, hope over despair: “In the end, the chain, the worldwide oppression, breaks with our hands.” Let it be.
First published in Common Dreams.
Abby Zimet has written Common Dreams’s Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women’s, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues.