As a feminist friend from Iran tweeted recently, the women’s movement in Iran has already secured a major victory. Women in Iran will never again be ignored or underestimated. They have undeniably staked their claim to equal rights, inspiring many others to rise despite years of crushing repression and oppression. This is no small feat and an essential condition for any truly revolutionary movement. Through their struggle, they have also sparked a feminist transnational awareness that promises a new solidarity that crosses class, racial and religious boundaries.
Iranians around the world are sharing an unprecedented moment of national pride in solidarity with the uprising for freedom and justice in Iran. Entering its sixth week of sustained confrontation with the security forces of the Islamic Republic, the protests continue unabated while the death toll rises. This spontaneous grassroots uprising was set in motion by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who died after her arrest by the “morality police” for not observing a government-mandated Islamic dress code. Since late September, the uprising has grown from militant street protests led by young women to widespread national demonstrations.
Large student demonstrations in Tehran and many other cities have been met with arrests and bloody reprisals. University students have a long history of anti-dictatorship, anti-imperialist struggle in Iran going back to the months following the 1953 coup d’etat against the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadegh. December 7 marks “Student Day” commemorating the killing of three Tehran University students during protests against then-Vice President Richard Nixon’s visit to Iran in that year. Students have remained at the forefront of opposition to the Islamic Republic as witnessed during the militant and widespread 1999 student protests and again in 2009 during the Green movement. The current uprising includes elementary and high school students as well. The violent response by the authorities to their participation has alarmed the international community.
News of worker strikes in different industries including oil and petrochemicals has also brought the uprising to a new level, one that poses a deeper threat to the stability of the government. While reliance on oil has decreased in recent years, it remains a major source of government income. As in the 1979 revolution, the mobilization of workers in the oil industry is seen to be crucial to the success of the current uprising, both because of the economic impact it will have, and the influence it will have on workers in other sectors to strike as well.
Why are people risking their lives on the streets of Tehran and dozens of other cities across the country despite a relentless crackdown by Iran’s brutal security forces (police, plainclothes “Basiji” paramilitary, the army, and the powerful “Sepah” or Revolutionary Guards)? “Woman, Life, Freedom” (Jin, Jiyan, Azadi), a slogan that originated in the Kurdish national movement and has been the movement’s rallying cry from day one, was first raised in protests in Saqqez, in Iranian Kurdistan (Mahsa Amini’s hometown). It is attributed to Abdullah Ocalan, one of the leaders of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), who placed women at the center of the Kurdish liberation movement. During the recent uprising, it has united women and men, old and young, across class, religious and geographic boundaries around three major shared hardships: increasing violence against women, deteriorating living conditions, and an oppressive lack of personal and civil freedoms. Other chants like “Death to the Dictator” and “Down with the Islamic Republic” focus on the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the regime itself, and clearly signify a call for a political revolution, reminiscent of the sentiment toward the shah in 1979.
The Iranian protest song “Baraye” (“For”) by Shervin Hajipour captures the country’s nascent revolutionary movement in its fullness. Hajipour, who was arrested soon after his song became the anthem for the movement (he has since been released), collected the hopes and sorrows of Iranians expressed on hundreds of different social media posts. From these he composed and set to music a simple but emotional inventory of the many motivations behind the freedom movement in Iran. It is not surprising that a campaign on TikTok urging users to submit the song for one of the Grammys’ new special merit awards resulted in the song receiving over 83 percent of the 115,000 nominations.
The song Baraye suggests the breadth and depth of the movement as well as common concerns shared by many people inside and outside of Iran: for women’s rights, personal freedoms of choice and expression, the shame of poverty and social injustice, the destruction of the environment, endangered species, animal rights, students’ rights, children’s rights, corruption, political prisoners, gender rights, and for a peaceful, ordinary life free from anxiety and sleeplessness!
Like so many Iranian emigres, I do not wander far from my cellphone these days, making sure to be available if friends or family from Iran should call. And I am incessantly summoned by notices to check my email and other messaging and social media accounts. There are times when it is overwhelming, and I want to stop, try to go back to normal life, but then the urgency of it all hits. After nearly 44 years of living under one of the most repressive regimes in history, the people of Iran have once again risen in anger, against all odds, this time led by young women and men who are armed with the barest means of self-defense but filled with unbound courage and hope. And all they ask of us is to keep their voice alive, to garner support from the world community, to hold the Islamic Republic regime accountable for its past and current abuses of human and civil rights.
Time is of the essence and questions keep me up at night. Will there be greater bloodshed tomorrow? Will the government succeed in cutting off the country completely? Will foreign powers, overtly or covertly, intervene and try to install a friendly alternative rather than respecting the aspirations of those struggling on the ground? How long can this popular-grown movement survive without a cohesive leadership?
The hope is that the movement will be able to quickly mature — organize, educate, mobilize — before the government or outside forces can defeat it. There is no single individual or party that is leading the movement today. Instead, we are learning through social media of new student-, worker- and neighborhood-based “coordinating” committees and councils. Hoping to prevent any potential leadership from emerging, scores of activists, many of who come from existing grassroots organizations, were “preventatively” detained in early October, joining other labor leaders, women’s rights activists and others already in prison before the uprisings.
Despite the very real possibility that it may have to retreat due to increased repression by the government’s security forces, as others have in the past (most recently in 2019), this movement, led by women, is more inclusive than those that came before it. Most importantly, different nationalities (from Kurdish, Turkish, Arab and Baluchi areas) have joined the movement in solidarity. We can also take heart in the incredible resourcefulness of the movement, the creativity of young people who use social media and the internet as important organizing tools, and the growing participation of workers and professionals.
Time is of the essence. Raise your voice, “baraye” women and the freedom movement in Iran.