I’ve Protested for Women’s Rights in Iran Since 1979: This Movement Is Different

The violence continues in Iran against unarmed demonstrators, inspired by young women who have challenged the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Among them and on our screens around the world, a new banner in the struggle for democracy in Iran has been raised along with the rallying cry: “Women, Life, Freedom.” These words signify all that the Islamic Republic denies and fears: respect for women, the sanctity of life over martyrdom, and the right to personal and civil freedoms. We would do well to pay attention and to support the movement that is beginning to create a groundswell of hope.

From my home here in the U.S., social media has provided a lifeline to family and friends in Iran these past few weeks. Ironically, there have been times when we have more information here about what is happening there than they do, because of the government’s sweeping internet blackouts. The internet has been flooded with hundreds of thousands of postings about the uprising in Iran after Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish Iranian woman, died in custody at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s morality police. Posts on #MahsaAmini (one of dozens of hashtags) chronicled the steady stream of young women following suit and burning their scarves in protest, men and more women joining them and together confronting security forces face to face for weeks now.

Free internet access and open lines of communication have been essential to the movement’s success, and remain so especially for the safety of the protesters. It’s unclear whether the Biden administration’s easing of sanctions to allow Elon Musk’s Starlink service — a satellite internet network operated by SpaceX — to operate in Iran will make a real difference. (Regardless, the international community must demand that the Iranian government stop interfering with internet access.)

Watching events unfold over social media, I recognized right away that these new women-led protests are different. In the past, we saw individual women defying the authorities by going out in public without their scarves and often being beaten, arrested or ending up in prison. I also thought back to 1979, when I joined thousands of women in Tehran on a chilly day in March celebrating International Women’s Day and protesting new mandatory veiling requirements. Remembering how terrified we were of club-wielding, black-shirted men supporting the government that came after us, I was in awe of these young women today — demanding justice for Mahsa and continuing the struggle that began 43 years ago. Most of them were not even born in 1979! I am elated by their growing numbers and by the many men who are also coming to their support.

On September 21 of this year, hundreds gathered in front of the UN to protest Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s address to the General Assembly. It was a reunion of sorts with old-timers from the anti-imperialist, anti-Shah student movement of the 1970s and protests against the Islamic Republic in the dark post-revolution years. I met an old friend there who told me that she had just run into the Iranian delegation shopping at Costco, loading up on everything from TVs to diapers. The next day, a video appeared with their purchases being loaded onto a large truck in front of the Millennium Hilton Hotel headed to the airport. This is another small example of official privileges that government personnel have at a time when people in Iran cannot afford fruit and meat, let alone televisions. Stories like this reminded me of the extravagances of the Shah’s family.

Today, the protest has a very different energy than in previous demonstrations: defiant, colorful, hopeful and loud — much like protests going on in Iran. In New York, one sees the old right and left groups, and some like the monarchists and mujahedin with close ties to the U.S. government. The current women’s movement inside Iran, however, has yet to align itself with any party or political alternative. While outside forces may hope to influence the movement, there is no evidence that they have been successful, despite claims by the Iranian government to the contrary. What the new movement lacks — a single charismatic leader, central organization and a set ideology — may also work to insure its continued independence.

Once again, I find myself glued to social media, anxious about the future. Iran’s “supreme leader” Ali Khamenei and President Raisi threatened early on to put a “decisive” end to the uprising, but protests have continued. (Keep in mind that President Raisi was one of the “hanging judges” that sent political prisoners to their deaths in 1988.) The government disputes its responsibility for many of the deaths, including that of Nika Shakarami, a 17-year-old who disappeared during the protests after telling a friend that she was being chased by security forces.

As the Iranian leadership pushes back, trying to empty the streets and force women to cover their hair once again in public, it is also detaining journalists and human rights activists, and openly threatening artists and public figures who speak out. Confirmations of arrests and detentions are difficult especially given the government’s efforts to close off communications to the outside world. There are reports of at least 1,200 arrested, but that number seems far too low given the breadth and length of the protests. Most worrisome, security forces are mobilizing the Iranian leadership’s hardline supporters to come to the streets.

We know this is only the beginning; that is why, to prevent further bloodshed, we must keep the spotlight on the uprising, especially on the attempts to crush it. What more can be done?

U.S. policy makers, both Democratic and Republican, support new sanctions against Iran. However, time and again, history shows sanctions are anything but nonviolent to the most vulnerable people in the countries targeted by them. Moreover, the Iranian government has used the sanctions as an excuse to cover up widespread corruption and mismanagement and an unprecedented looting of the country’s riches by clerics and the Revolutionary Guards. It is ordinary people who have paid the price of the sanctions, especially during the pandemic. Opposing sanctions goes hand in hand with defending the recent democracy movement.

The uprising is happening now, and the Iranian government has shown no restraint in trying to stop it. To counter this, there must be no excuse for inaction by those who stand for women’s rights and human rights in the U.S. and around the world. Feminists should not abandon young women who bravely refuse to be told what to wear and demand control over their lives in Iran or anywhere else in the world. That is what solidarity — feminist solidarity — is all about. Keep the news of the struggle in Iran alive. Make it a priority. Raise your voice in support of women’s rights and against U.S. sanctions.