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Iran – Woman. Life. Freedom.


11-3-22 | Leila Milani, JD, MA, Program Director, Global Policy and Advocacy

Iran – Women. Life. Freedom

Women and girls in Iran are fighting for a free future. This is not the first time women’s rights were on the line.

When the Taliban and the former U.S.-supported Afghan government entered peace negotiations last year, there were no women on the Taliban delegation, only nine of the 46 Afghan government representatives were women, and the agreement signed by the U.S. with the Taliban did not include any assurances regarding women’s rights.  

Then, in August, 2021, the Taliban came into power and almost overnight, decades of advancement by women in Afghanistan were erased. Doors to schools, places of employment, and even public spaces closed to women and girls. In response, many civil society organizations, including Futures Without Violence, advanced key policy recommendations to address the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and stepped in to help secure safe passages for women and girls at risk. Many of the women we helped bring out of Afghanistan expressed their anxiety and fears that the U.S. Government’s departure meant a veiled future for them, hidden away from school, work and life.

Women and girls in Iran experienced a comparable sudden shift and loss of rights as a result of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Iran’s new rulers instituted a theocratic framework similar to the Taliban, and one of Ayatollah Khomeini’s first acts as Iran’s new leader was the physical and symbolic shrouding of women and girls. Khomeini imposed compulsory hijab (headscarves), a strict code of conduct, exclusion from certain public activities and spaces, and severe marginalization of women and girls.

Now, close to a half a century later, Iran’s women and girls are leading a revolution of their own with the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom,” supported by the men in their nation. 

Every day thousands of women and girls are taking off their hijab and marching in the streets, a protest sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died at the hands of Iran’s morality police for improperly wearing her hijab. Iranian men are following the women protestors, lighting bonfires so women can burn their hijabs.

Tasked with crushing dissent, the hardline militia group, Basij, has done just about everything to quell this women-led revolution, including killing protestors. The death toll is mounting every day; the latest figure is 277 people, including 40 children and 24 women.  Popular artists like Rapper Salehi, physicians treating the wounded, and university professors have been abducted or put behind prison bars. 

But the army of women and girls have too much to lose to give up; they are relentless in their pursuit of freedom even as they face batons, beatings, and bullets.

They are using the cover of the night to paint graffiti on street corners, distribute leaflets in neighborhoods, and hang banners from bridges and landmarks. During the light of day, they sing songs of freedom, release colorful balloons into the air, and stand by street corners to offer their open arms to lift up the spirits of a heart-broken nation. Words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”  have come to life in Iran through Twitter messages, far from a time and a place where they once originated.

The setbacks faced by the women and girls in Afghanistan may not have been a driver of Iranian women’s urgency to mobilize, but no doubt serve as a reminder that women’s rights are often not part of negotiations and are the first to go.

The opportunities for women’s and girls’ education in Afghanistan were definitely one of the success stories of the time. The idea was that improving their access to education during the post-Taliban regime would increase their involvement at key consultations and allow for their voice to contribute to the decision making and negotiating tables. In Iran, adult female literacy is over 80% and female youth literacy is at 98%. Women make up over half of university students in Iran. The women of Iran have long been well versed in the sciences, arts and politics but the discriminatory laws around divorce, inheritance, travel and attire continue to create a gender-segregated nation where women’s voices are neither included nor valued. Their nation has now taken notice.

Seven weeks into the Iran protests, the battle cry is women, life, freedom and the battleground is women’s rights.  But women are not alone.

Women, men, urban, rural, rich, poor, students, laborers, Kurds and Balochi are united in a singular cause for freedom. It is a universal call, similar to the American quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but its centerpiece is women. The people of Iran call on the world to take notice and to amplify their voice. 

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