Women Life Freedom: We stand with Iranian Women
On this International Women’s Day, we are struck that protesters in various Iranian cities and towns are still pushing for women’s rights. The Women Life Freedom (WLF) movement was sparked after the killing of Mahsa Amini in state custody after her arrest by morality police on September 16, 2022. We had set out to write about the political prisoners taken hostage by the Islamic Republic regime since the beginning of the protests nearly six months ago; however, the problem with this endeavour is the difficulty in obtaining reliable lists. The same problem arises when honouring those killed: how do you ensure you don’t miss anyone? One thing was true, regardless: when you look at the numbers and names of the dead, the number of children killed by the regime during these protests is particularly heartbreaking. As of January 1st, the Centre for Human Rights in Iran reported that Revolutionary Guard forces had killed at least 573 people, including over 70 children. How about the wounded? For example, dozens have been blinded by security forces aiming and firing guns at protestors’ eyes. As if that wouldn’t have been enough to write about on this International Women’s Day, attacks on schoolgirls nationwide are speculated to have been inspired by the state and perpetrated by regime supporters and religious extremists as retribution against the schoolgirls who “enthusiastically participated in major anti-state protests.” At least one schoolgirl has died as a result of this deliberate poisoning. Sure, the Supreme Leader recently condemned the attacks against these innocent girls, but for Ali Hosseini Khamenei, talk is cheap now that up to 2000 girls have been poisoned. To honour these brave women, girls, and their allies, let’s examine the state of women’s rights in Iran and what the members of the decentralized WLF movement are pushing for.
Women, Life, Freedom: Origins
The slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” comes from the Kurdish emancipatory movement toward the end of the twentieth century. Mahsa Amini was a young, 22-year-old Kurdish woman visiting her brother at school in the Iranian capital. The current uprising can accurately be seen as a continuation of the push from the Green Movement of 2009. As generations have grown up under the totalitarian regime of the Islamic State, they have craved freedom and security. The younger generations demand human rights and equity for women: and why not? In fact, there have been anti-regime movements and protests going all the way back to the 1979 revolution, especially regarding women’s rights, which had improved during the reigns of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his predecessor, Reza Shah Pahlavi. The latter banned all Islamic veils, including the hijab and the chador, on January 8, 1936. Hard to believe, but until his abdication in 1941, “police were ordered to physically remove the veil from any woman who wore it in public. Women who refused were beaten, their headscarves and chadors torn off, and their homes forcibly searched.” (Iran has a long and dark history of telling women what they can and cannot wear, especially on their heads.) Women’s rights had been moderately progressing, in terms of rights and freedoms, in the years leading up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Despite women’s participation in the 1979 revolution and the expectations that it would increase their rights and opportunities, it did not. Instead, the revolutionary government began to “rewrite laws in an attempt to force women to leave the workplace by promoting the early retirement of female government employees, the closing of childcare centers, enforcing full Islamic cover in offices and public places, as well as preventing women from studying in 140 fields in higher education.” Women’s resistance movement actions included remaining in the workforce in large numbers and challenging Islamic dress by showing hair under their headscarves (whereas the regime demands that women’s hair be fully covered since the March 7, 1979 decree from Ayatollah Khomeini).
The 2009 Green Movement called for reforms, following what many viewed as a corrupt election. The slogan of the Green Movement was “where is my vote?” a nod to the perceived fraud committed by incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the backlash was unleashed mainly by supporters of his opponent, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi. A notable martyr of the 2009 movement was Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot by Abbas Kargar Javid, a Basij government militiaman, on behalf of Islamic Republic forces. Agha-Soltan was a 26-year-old philosophy student who was participating in the 2009 election protests with her music teacher, and was walking back to her car when she was fatally shot in the upper chest. The Green Revolution had at least three recognized leaders, two political (Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi) and one spiritual (Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri). In contrast, the 2022-23 Women-Life-Freedom movement is leaderless and decentralized.
The movement’s decentralization has made it difficult for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Basij branch to quell the protests. This, despite many violent attempts that have left hundreds of protesters dead since the killing of Mahsa Amini, while in the custody of the country’s morality police for not properly wearing her mandatory hijab (headscarf). The killing of Amini sparked the fumes of anger and unrest that have never really dissipated since the 2009 movement.
Since the WLF movement sparked in September 2022, the youth of Iran are continuing the fight against the regime. The contemporary youth of Iran is highly educated and has long had access to modern information technologies afforded by the advent of internet communications and social media networks, despite government attempts to limit connectivity by blocking resources and severely restricting the bandwidth rate for civilian internet use. Many Iranians, especially young Iranians, use VPNs to connect to restricted resources and others are beginning to get set up on uncensored internet service providers such as Starlink (which beams internet connectivity down from low-orbit satellites). The ingenuity and determination of those participating in the current uprising have meant that every government crackdown attempt has been met with a subsequent new wave of protests and demonstrations.
Women’s rights are human rights: the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees believes in women’s rights and gender equality. On this International Women’s Day, we take the opportunity to honour the brave women (and yes, men) fighting for women’s rights worldwide, especially in Iran.