Two Iranian girls, not wearing the mandatory hijab, look out over Tehran on Sept. 9. (Hossein Beris/Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images)
By Atena Daemi, human rights defender and former political prisoner
The Washington Post
It has been one year since the killing by police of a young Kurdish Iranian woman named Jina Mahsa Amini inspired the largest anti-government outcry the Islamic Republic of Iran has seen in ages. Spontaneous street protests in scores of cities across the country, marked by scenes of jubilation and daring, made the slogan “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” — Woman, Life, Freedom — a cause around the world. And though it is true that the movement has since moved into a less pyrotechnic phase, no longer showcased daily by international news outlets, it would be a mistake to assume it has run out of steam. On the contrary, it is only beginning.
A brutal crackdown followed the first wave of demonstrations last fall. Countless women and men were arrested for civil disobedience, many of them tortured, their families threatened. Some were trotted out before television cameras to make coerced confessions. Others were executed.
But the resistance was never broken. In the past year, sacred taboos have been smashed. The Islamist regime built its dictatorship on mandatory hijab and the denial of social freedoms, but the Woman, Life, Freedom movement has pushed back against the religious patriarchy, broken the fear barrier and made civil disobedience a daily reality. Women are walking the streets without the hijab; they ride motorcycles or dance and sing in public spaces. In even the most religious cities, women are standing up against an Islamic Republic that has long deemed them second-class citizens.
Protesters, trade unionists, public figures and others continue to raise their voices — often far from the reach of international journalists who have scant access to the country. Marginalized communities, including members of the Baloch minority in Sistan and Baluchistan province, one of the most impoverished corners of Iran, have piled into the streets, demanding their rights and denouncing Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the blood on his hands. Even amid waves of violent crackdowns, these brave people have continued to protest, week after week, knowing there is always a price to pay.
I, too, have paid a price, spending seven of the past 10 years in prison. In 2014, I was jailed for campaigning against capital punishment and held in solitary confinement for 3½ months, my interrogations lasting up to 10 hours at a time.
In prison, I saw firsthand the courageous resistance of ordinary Iranians. In the public wards, I met women who’d challenged the government’s discriminatory legal regime — patriarchal laws that promote child marriage and unequal inheritance rights, ban abortion and fail to protect victims of sexual assault. In prison, we held sit-ins and went on hunger strikes.
This is nothing new, of course. Iranian women’s campaigns for equal rights are almost two centuries old, and have included demands for equal access to education and political participation, as well as freedom of choice as regards the hijab. As a student coming of age in the early 2000s, I was inspired by the activities of the Voice of Iranian Women, the Center for Iranian Women and the One Million Signatures for Gender Equality campaign. Despite the Islamic Republic’s efforts to throttle them, these initiatives have battled discriminatory laws, defended human rights and raised public awareness. Our movement today stands on the shoulders of these intrepid women and the generations that preceded them.
We keep fighting in part because we have nothing to lose. Over the past decade, skyrocketing housing and food costs have pulled vast swaths of Iranian society into poverty. People have dared to take to the streets despite a massive imbalance of power. During a protest in Tehran’s Haft-e-Tir Square last fall, an 18-year-old was shot by police and collapsed before my feet. We ferried him to a hospital, where I noticed that his pockets were filled with tiny rocks. The Islamist regime has tear gas and fully automatic guns, while we come bearing pebbles. But we will not stop.
This past year, in an effort to silence me, the regime detained my sister and her husband. I was forced to go underground, leaving my family behind, moving from city to city by night. Along with other activists, I continued to gather troubling news from across the country to communicate to the outside world: Over the course of several months, more than 500 protesters were killed in cold blood, including dozens of children; hundreds were intentionally blinded; and more than 20,000 were detained. Protesters have been executed, sentenced to long prison terms or exiled. There are reports of sexual assault, death by torture and death caused by unknown medications forced upon prisoners.
Life after prison: Iranian women who stood up for Mahsa Amini
Yet there is hope. The expulsion of the Islamic Republic from the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women and the establishment of a U.N. Fact-Finding Mission come as a relief to Iranians; any sign that international institutions are keeping watch feels meaningful.
As I write, a group of Iranian political prisoners is on hunger strike to mark the anniversary of Amini’s death. In the women’s ward at Evin Prison, where I once was an inmate, nine women, including prominent human rights defender Narges Mohammadi, have taken part in a sit-in in the prison yard. In the past week, a diverse assortment of groups including the Writers’ Association of Iran, students from Shahid Beheshti University and the Iran University of Science and Technology, and oil workers have publicly called for people to return to the streets.
While the resistance might seem more quiet today, the greatest hope remains in the streets — in the knowing glances exchanged among people who have tasted rebellion, in the expressions of solidarity on the bread line, in the spontaneous compliments extended to women who dare to appear on subways, buses and city streets without a hijab. This is what Amini died for, and to those who would silence our voices, we say: There is no going back.