Grief to action: The Woman Life Freedom movement one year on

Voices and art: The Women Life Freedom movement a year on
10 min read
16 September, 2023

When 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian Jina “Mahsa” Amini died a year ago while under custody after having been arrested by Iran’s Guidance Patrol for “improper hijab” it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Against the background of totalitarian rule with stringent laws that forced all women to wear the hijab, along with a collapsing economy and a government failing to tackle climate change and mismanaging natural resources, the Iranian people rose up in protests that spread across 21 provinces.

The initial protest began in Amini’s home province of Saqqez. Women attending her funeral removed their headscarves in protest and chanted “Jin Jîyan Azadî” meaning “Woman, Life, Freedom.”

These three words had long been part of Kurdish-Iranian history as part of the feminist women’s resistance movement in the Kurdish Workers’ Party (KPK), inspired by the words of imprisoned PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan who said a country could not be free unless all women were free. These three words spread like quickfire and were chanted by women and men alike across Iran, becoming the slogan of a female-led mass movement.

"Over 20,000 people have been arrested since the protests began in September 2022, over 500 have been killed by the IRGC and scores executed to “make an example” of them"

The past year’s major act of defiance has been the public removal of hijab by girls and women as young as twelve years old. Schoolgirls waving their hijabs in the air, writing “death to the dictator” on classroom blackboards and stamping on pictures of Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei.

One cannot ignore the symbolism: girls and women of all ages taking back their agency, refusing to have their bodies policed and removing a garment that in many ways is an emblem of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The response from the Islamic Republic of Iran, primarily through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was expected. Just like other authoritarian regimes in the SWANA region such as Egypt, mass protests were responded to with military violence, the use of live ammunition, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, trials in kangaroo courts and executions.

Over 20,000 people have been arrested since the protests began in September 2022, over 500 have been killed by the IRGC and scores executed to “make an example” of them. They were charged with working for foreign bodies against Iran or for “enmity against God” (moharebeh). Even the schoolgirls were not safe. Female students from 91 schools across Iran suffered from poisoning which the United Nations described in March 2023 as targeted chemical attacks.

A year ago, The New Arab spoke to Iranian activist Elnaz Sarbar. Despite the violent crackdown by the Iranian state, she says that poll figures prove that opposition against the Islamic Republic is increasing.

“In January 2023, there was a poll that was done [by the Netherlands-based Gamaan Institute] that was over 200,000 people; 150 thousand were inside Iran. The poll asked how many people support the Islamic Republic. The results were that 15% of people support it and 81% oppose it. I think what the Mahsa or Jina Revolution did for the Iranian people was bring this opposition to the forefront of the society. You know, hearing people chant “Bring down the dictator,” now it's a chant that is heard across the country. It was a chant that people even months later still repeat. People go to their rooftops at night when you can't see anybody and they shout ‘Bring down the dictator.’”

One of the effects of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement has been the reawakening, mobilisation and activism of Iranians in the diaspora. This month London-based publishers Saqi release Woman, Life, Freedom: Voices and Art from the Women’s Protests in Iran, edited by Malu Halasa. The anthology captures first-hand accounts and artwork by Iranian and Kurdish-Iranian women and the LGBTQ+ community who were part of the movement, and it exhibits different forms of creative resistance.

UK-based sound artist Fari Bradley is one of the contributors to the anthology. She is at the forefront of protests in London, supporting major actions such as a now-renowned performance on International Women’s Day in March 2023.

British-Iranian women marched silently across London dressed in the red cloaks and white bonnets of The Handmaid’s Tale, holding posters of female protestors' faces who were killed by the IRGC since the movement began. It was a powerful form of protest that made the news internationally. What it symbolised was that while The Handmaid’s Tale is fiction for most, it is a lived reality for women in Iran.

Women's freedom is a key theme of Margaret Attwood's best-seller "The Handmaiden's Tale"
Women's freedom is a key theme of Margaret Attwood's bestseller "The Handmaiden's Tale" [Getty Images]

“So, it was young people, mostly on social media, just crying out for support and for people to notice, because even though injustice has always been happening in Iran, they've never said anything like that before. They've never asked us specifically to get political. We'd never seen the stories covered with such tenacity, and you know, you'd hear one bad story and then it would sort of die down because this now has become a wave of continual attacks from the regime, and then resistance against the regime. It was as if a veil was lifted from our eyes as if we had been just toeing the line for injustice for so long and trying not to rock the boat, and suddenly everyone was like ‘rock the boat!’” Bradley tells The New Arab.

In the past year, one of the things many people across the world have failed to recognise is the Kurdish heart of this movement. It was the death of a Kurdish-Iranian woman that sparked it and the protests began in a Kurdish province.

Many believe that the IRGC crackdown was harder in Kurdish-Iranian provinces. Award-winning Kurdish-Iranian journalist and author of The Cypress Tree, Kamin Mohammadi, wrote an essay included in Saqi’s Woman, Life, Freedom anthology that was nominated for two journalism awards.

In it, she delves into the Kurdish origins of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement and the disproportionate use of violence used on Kurdish-Iranians and other ethnic minorities over the past year.

“I think there's something to be said as to why the regime responds like that,” says Mohammadi. “The vast number of people who've been taken and imprisoned are Kurdish, not just Kurdish, but also Baluchi. So, these are ethnic minorities. They’re also not Shia Muslims, they are Sunni. And I think a lot of the discrimination from this regime comes from that. More than their actual ethnicity. Sadly, I'm looking right now and rounding up the amount of people who've been imprisoned, killed, and sentenced to death. They've executed I think five people to do with the protest. But they've executed many more people who've been in prison from before the protest and they are vast majority Kurdish and Baluchi minorities. There's a real socioeconomic class issue here as well, because, you know, these are not the upper or middle wealthier classes that are on the streets, right?”

"There is serious talk of the regime installing AI surveillance systems to catch women in public who aren’t wearing a hijab... Many activists are saying this is a form of gender apartheid"

Over the past twelve months, people of all genders and ages in Iran have risked their lives in protest against the mandatory hijab. A year on, there seems no end in sight for the Islamic Republic’s compulsory hijab rules, in fact, things are about to become harder.

In July the BBC reported the reinstatement of Iran’s morality police’s hijab patrols. In the past, Article 638 of Iran’s Penal Code criminalised those who violate any religious taboo in public, without explicit mention of the word “hijab.”

The new Hijab and Chastity Bill is very explicit, criminalising the wearing of no hijab or improper hijab; the punishments are larger fines of up to 360 million Iranian rials (over 8 thousand dollars) and prison sentences between five and ten years. The government is trying to pass this bill through the use of Article 85 of the Iranian constitution, which allows them to pass laws without public debate.

There is serious talk of the regime installing AI surveillance systems to catch women in public who aren’t wearing a hijab or a hijab according to their guidelines. Many activists are saying this is a form of gender apartheid.

The Woman Life Freedom movement demands freedom for Iran, regime change, and justice for Mahsa Amini and other Iranians killed for not wearing the hijab [Getty Images]
The Woman Life Freedom movement demands freedom for Iran, regime change, and justice for Mahsa Amini and other Iranians killed for not wearing the hijab [Getty Images]

“They have introduced a new legislation with 70 items to push back against hijab and it includes punishing businesses who provide services to women without a headscarf, including taxis and coffee shops and shops, so they are not going after only women but also business owners,” says Elnaz Sarbar.

Things may have not changed legislatively – in fact, they may have gotten worse. Yet, if there is one positive change that has come about over the past year as a result of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, it has been a societal shift.

Fari Bradley and other Iranian women noticed that the uprisings in Iran had brought men out, marching shoulder to shoulder with women, a growing allyship that was being outwardly exhibited. Men and women, boys and girls were marching for the same thing – liberty from authoritarian rule, an end to regime violence and better economic conditions, particularly for workers.

“We're receiving videos of men, of elderly strangers, supporting them against the Revolutionary Guard, who are also sometimes women as well, you know, they go around and harass people and oppress people. They try to film them and you can just see everybody retaliating and saying, no, leave these people alone,” explains Bradley.

“Sometimes it's a tacit support, but the main thing is just men not blocking women. You know, this is a country where women can't travel without permission, so, it's been amazing. Older generations might not be coming out as much as the youth, but they are the ones who taught their kids to be curious and to think freely, they are supporting those who go out, with their hearts in their mouths, waiting for their loved ones protesting to come home safely. A lot of the workers have been amazing, striking and organising.”

“The biggest thing I heard from friends in Iran was that it used to be quite common for women to be cat-called in the streets. But that’s almost completely gone. Respect for women has increased and people talk about respect more. Another thing that's happened is many mental health charities have popped up which support people online and, you know, mental health was stigmatised and you can see society has changed in that regard. And that's really positive. It's a feminist revolution, but men of all ages are feminists too now.”


Kamin Mohammadi believes that another thing to come out of the movement has been the erosion of ethnic, social and class divides and greater unity.

“For ordinary women in Iran, particularly Kurdish women, I don't think that this has moved the dial. It's definitely not made them any safer. So probably for everyone, it's kind of made things worse.

In terms of the bravery of the people of Iran, particularly the Kurdish people, what we saw during these protests that hastened me, and I hope they go on, was that they kept chanting at the heart ‘unity.’ And it was about unity. It was about the Kurds, the Baluchis, the Aphasias, the Persians, the men, the women, and the LGBTQ community. Everyone together united and that has been one of the more beautiful things that we've seen emerge from this.”

The Islamic Republic has tried its best to quash the movement, end the protests and make examples of people, but what it has failed to do is quash the fearless and resilient spirit of its women, who continue to carry out acts of defiance, and who are still hopeful that one-day things will change.

“There's something one of my friends told me when all this started and I wrote it down,” says Elnaz. “She told me ‘I see confidence in women and I think this is confidence you can't take back’. We did it, we came to the streets with the dress we wanted to wear and so we're going to keep doing this - especially the younger generation, they're like, ‘we don't care about the price.’ There was a political activist, who was sentenced to four years in prison. She came out on her first day out of prison, took her headscarf off and chanted in front of the prison. She was arrested again and sentenced to another two years. The women really are fearless.”

Woman, Life, Freedom: Voices and Art from the Women’s Protests in Iran, edited by Malu Halasa, is published by Saqi and is out now

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, being published by Hashtag Press in the UK in October 2020

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA