'For me, it is a fight against darkness': How Iranian men are standing up for women, life, and freedom
Women burning their headscarves may have seemed a protest narrowly targeting Iran’s morality police and their enforcement of the mandatory hijab law to those on the outside.
But in Iran, to advocate for a woman’s right to choose the clothes she wears is to stand up against the oppression that is woven into the fabric of everyone’s life.
The uprisings sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody, have been rocking the country for more than three weeks. But even as the authorities aggressively cracked down on the protests, people have continued risking their lives to stand up against the rule of the regime.
"Iranians have understood that discrimination and violence are inherent to the regime’s ideology and their freedom will not materialize as long as clerics monopolize power"
Niloofar, a medical student, joined others striking from universities and hospitals and has been attending protests in Tehran.
Her family fear for her safety and worry that her participation may lead to her being expelled from university. But as a woman who grew up under the rule of the regime, not going to the protests was never an option. “I feel useless if I don’t go,” she said. “It’s my right to live like a normal human, to wear something that I want.”
And it was evidently not just women who took to the streets: men have stood right there beside them, chanting Jin, Jiyan, Azadi (women, life, freedom).
“The death of Mahsa ignited broad rage because of its shocking arbitrariness,” a spokesperson from the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for human rights in Iran (ABC) told The New Arab.
The fact that Mahsa Amini could have been anyone’s mother, sister, daughter, or wife tipped an already precarious balance.
“We’re seeing the [young] women of Iran taking charge,” said Firuzeh Mahmoudi, Executive Director of the non-profit United for Iran – an organisation dedicated to improving civil liberties in the country. “They are galvanizing the entire country, and the men are with them.”
Like Niloofar, computer science master’s student Ahmad joined protests in Tehran. “At first, we were just peacefully protesting […] to give women the freedom to choose what they should wear or what they should choose for their lives,” he said. But when the authorities started using force on the protesters, taking to the streets became a highly dangerous undertaking.
One of Niloofar’s male friends was beaten with a baton while trying to protect another protester and sustained multiple injuries. Her other friends urged her to perform sutures on his wounds as they did not want to take him to the hospital, fearing the doctors would identify him as a protester and alert the authorities.
But the injuries were too severe to take the risk. “I couldn’t do that, he needed CT scans, it was so dangerous,” she said. They told the doctors that he was on drugs and had been in a brawl – this seemed safer than admitting how he had really been injured.
Niloofar told them she was a medical student, pleading with them not to arrest him. “We had to lie to save him,” she said, “I think saying junkie is better than saying he was a protester.”
But according to Firuzeh, it is the fearlessness that young people have shown in the face of this violence that has proven to be the real threat. “I think the riot police, the government, and the mullahs are in fear,” she said. “These young people are taking their scarves down, walking up to them – even though they know they might die and get beat up: without fear, and standing and looking and saying, ‘don’t you dare touch me’.”
This fight is personal for young Iranians, who have only known life under the rule of the Islamic Republic. “For me, it is a fight against darkness,” Ahmad said. “In this country, we live all our lives without any type of freedom,” he explained, adding that it is even worse for women. And for the older generations, the protests offer a glimpse of hope that they might still get the chance to experience the country that the young people are fighting for.
When Niloofar asked her grandmother why she does not dye her hair and paint her nails, she answered that she hopes to see the day when she will have the freedom to do these things. “It’s more than just [the] hijab: the problem is [the] Islamic Republic of Iran,” Niloofar said.
On Twitter, Iranians gave thousands of reasons for how the regime cast a shadow over their own lives, starting each sentence with “baraye” (for).
Social media has been a powerful protest tool for Iranians. “People used the hashtag #mahsaamini to keep the protests in Iran at the top of global trends on Twitter,” said Sara Tafakori, a lecturer in media and gender at the University of Leeds. “What we are seeing is how mourning has been ‘democratised’ by social media platforms,” she explained.
And while social media united and propelled young people to protest the injustices perpetrated against them, the authorities restricted access and imposed internet shutdowns, causing further outrage.
From experiencing censorship and having limited rights, to being forced to deal with the economic situation of the country, the anger of Iranians is cumulative and widely felt. “In geographical and social terms, these protests may be the most widespread in the history of the Islamic Republic, having reached all 31 provinces by September 28,” the ABC spokesperson said.
“The key to understanding the widespread nature of this movement is fundamental dissatisfaction with the power of which the mandatory hijab and Guidance Patrols are obvious symbols: the regime of religious dictatorship that is the Islamic Republic.”
The issue of women’s bodily autonomy is not separate from the overall oppression of the regime that men and women were protesting against. “Iranians have understood that discrimination and violence are inherent to the Islamic Republic’s ideology and their freedom will not materialize as long as clerics monopolize power,” the ABC spokesperson said.
Although the outcome of these protests is yet to be seen, many have said that a turning point has been reached. “These people would not be in the streets risking their lives if they didn’t want absolute change,” Firuzeh argued. “They want secular democracy, they want equality, they want an end to discrimination, they want body autonomy,” she explained. “So, if you want to have all of those things, you cannot have the Islamic Republic.”
Melina Spanoudi is a journalist based in London. She writes about society, culture and the environment. Her work has appeared in VICE World News, HuffPost UK and The Sunday Times.
Follow her on Twitter: @MSpanoudi