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The courage of Iranian women

Demonstrators at the Iran solidarity rally in London, last February. REUTERS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

There’s a deep hush in the streets of London as I write this. It has been a year since Russia invaded Ukraine and all around me are marking the anniversary with a moment’s silence. The news this morning has been about nothing else. The outpouring of sympathy to Ukraine in the past year, accompanied by billions in aid and arms, Volodymr Zelensky’s appearances in Western centres of power, and safe corridors for Ukrainian refugees, is humane and right. It is heartening to see the efforts of every television news announcer to pronounce Kyiv correctly, the continual headlines about the plight of those who flee or the courage of those who defiantly stay, and the flinging open of British homes to take in Ukrainian refugees.

Here we are, finally, on the side of right – in a conflict where any sort of ambiguity is erased and Zelensky represents such moral high ground that the voices of usually-reserved British MPs were heard to shake with emotion when he addressed Parliament recently. It feels as if the West and its mainstream media are relieved to have a cause they can embrace so absolutely as The Right Thing To Do.

Security forces target women protestors’ faces, genitals and breasts when shooting

Meanwhile, in my country of Iran, ordinary people are in the sixth month of the most extraordinary protests since the revolution of 1979. Led overwhelmingly by young women – the average age of those arrested is fifteen – the protests are being met with a brutally violent crackdown by the Islamic Republic’s security forces. According to Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), over 500 people have been killed (including 70 children) and some 20,000 detained (all figures are low estimates as the regime is not releasing their numbers).

Whichever way you look at what’s happening in Iran, you can’t escape the simple binary of this situation: the people of Iran are risking their bodies and their lives to demand the most basic rights and freedoms. And yet, in a world where the slogans of female empowerment are readily on most people’s lips, where ideas of decolonisation, sovereignty (including bodily sovereignty) and ethnic diversity are so compelling that even giant fashion brands invoke them to sell their goods, the women – and people – of Iran are given little international support, or airtime. No one bothers to pronounce our names correctly.

Surely the moral certainty of our support for Ukraine should extend to other places and people who are suffering in their fight for human rights? From Palestine to Afghanistan to Syria to Iran, there is plenty of plainly illegal violence we should be condemning. But our lack of attention makes me wonder if only white Europeans are worthy of being supported in their fight for justice. Without meaning to take anything away from the suffering of the Ukrainian people, I wish we could have the same reserves of sympathy for people who have different faiths and skin colours to ourselves.

“If the international community were a person, how would it look these children and their parents in the eye?” asks Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s MENA Regional Director, echoing the frustration that Iranians and activists have felt since the early days of the protests failed to garner the kind of social media support given to BLM and Ukraine.

The protests erupted spontaneously after the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, who was taken into custody by the Morality Police when visiting Tehran last September for “bad hejab”. Demonstrations broke out in Jina’s homeland of Iranian Kurdistan and the Kurdish freedom cry of “Woman Life Freedom” has become the dominant chant for protests in Iran and across the globe. In the West, Iranians continue to demonstrate regularly in solidarity with the people inside Iran and even these mass mobilisations of people – which have seen hundreds of thousands march across the globe – have barely been covered by our media.

The Iranian women’s movement has always been intersectional. For the first march in Tehran against proposed mandatory hejab in March 1979, American feminist Kate Millett accepted Iranian women’s invitation to join them. The marches involved hundreds of thousands of women, who called out to men to join them – which they did, linking arms to form a chain of protection around the women demonstrators. Now, jailed human rights activist Narges Mohammadi (no relation) has been nominated for the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize, having won the Reporters Without Borders 2022 Press Freedom Award. And yet, there is little international coverage and support of Narges and Iranian women like her in the mainstream media. International trans and LGBTQ+ communities have been too quiet in their support for their Iranian counterparts, some of whom are also in jail facing execution.

In spite of the lack of real international support, the people of Iran are not giving up. The regime continues its war against women’s bodies; doctors and nurses report that security forces target women protestors’ faces, genitals and breasts when shooting at them, while male protestors are shot in the legs and arms. And yet Iranian women are not cowed; there are increasing instances of civil disobedience and women going about their daily lives without the mandatory hejab. In spite of four executions, and many more condemned to death, the courage and bravery of ordinary people in Iran continues to drive this movement forward.

News has just emerged from Iran that Ebrahim Rigi, a doctor jailed for treating protestors but not reporting them to the authorities in the ethnic minority province of Baluchistan, has died under torture. Dissident rapper Toomaj Salehi, who has been in jail since the end of October for supporting the protests, has been charged with “enmity against God” (moharebeh) and “corruption on earth” (efsad-e fel arz) and faces execution. He is said to be in urgent need of medical treatment from torture.

Kurdish rapper Saman Yasin has been sentenced to death and tried to commit suicide in prison in December. On the same day recently that heartbreaking images emerged of an Iranian schoolgirl crying with blood splattered down her front after being physically attacked for “bad hejab”, the Swiss Ambassador Nadine Olivieri Lozano showed up in the Iranian city of Qom in full black head-to-toe hejab, an ultra-conservative interpretation of the veil that won her plaudits from the Islamic Regime.

Many of the young people who have been detained commit suicide within days of release, the girls asking their parents for abortion pills. None of these activists, artists, musicians, filmmakers, doctors, lawyers, intellectuals are anything other than innocents caught in the violence of an inhuman regime. And yet if they manage to escape Iran, there are no safe corridors for the innocent people of Iran, they face more danger and inhumanity in their search for shelter: just this weekend when a boat carrying refugees sank off the coast of Italy, Iranians were among the 62 people who died. I believe they too have a right to our support.

Kamin Mohammadi is author of “The Cypress Tree: A Love Letter to Iran” (Bloomsbury)

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Columns, March 2023, Viewpoint

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