International

When Women Said Enough Is Enough To A Repressive Regime In Iran

Many important events including the war in Ukraine took place in 2022. But for me the top stories were those of women's resistance in Iran and Afghanistan. Women were the talking point in international forums across the world this past year.

Nationwide anti-government protests erupted across Iran in September after Mahsa Amini's death
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"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, …..”  The opening lines (paraphrased) from Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, kind of summed up the situation for women in two hotspots of the world -- Iran and Afghanistan this past year. Women were the talking point in international forums across the world.

Many important events including the war in Ukraine took place in 2022. But for me the story was Iran. I feel strongly about Iran because that was one of the last countries I visited before the 2020 lockdown. I was there in October 2019 with a group of women journalists from India. Iran turned out to be different from the image I carried from news reports. I expected to find a country in shambles with people struggling to somehow cope with over four decades of American sanctions. We had read about high inflation and how the country’s economy was ruined after the Iran-Iraq war and the sanctions that followed. Images of angry Iranians stomping and shouting 'death to America!' were in my mind, from pictures at the time of the US embassy siege. Every anti-American demonstration in the country had similar photos of protesters shouting anti-American slogans.

We were told before leaving that we should be careful to cover our arms and legs and to make sure our hair was covered. I knew that since the 1979 Iranian revolution, women were in hijab and expected to be shrouded in black chadors, seen but not heard. I presumed shop shelves to be empty much like towards the end of the Soviet-era in Russia. I stepped off the flight with these preconceived ideas.

But Iran was totally different. Far from being a jaded metropolis, Tehran was a bustling city. The women wore scarves, but the younger generation did not wear the hijab tightly bound so that not a single strand was seen. Instead, blonde, brown, silver and purple strands peeped out from loosely thrown scarves. Jeans and stilettoes were common and bright coloured lipstick, skinny jeans and long smart flowing jackets was the common attire of stylish women. A perfect nose is obviously at a premium. Many women were seen walking around with bandages on their noses. We were told that these young women has gotten nose jobs done. Plastic surgeons were in high demand to give Iranian women the perfect nose.

Everyone was on the mobile either chatting, listening to songs or playing games. The older generation wore black chadors and followed. Women were everywhere in the workforce. Doctors, judges, professors, engineers and plenty of them work in government offices. In research and scientific institutions and laboratories, women were working side by side with men. And there were plenty of women drivers across all major cities like Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan. Tourist sites like Persepolis have women tour guides. The media has plenty of women and many of the newscasters in Iranian television are women.

Instead of a sullen angry people, there were smiling teenagers all around, singing, laughing and generally filling restaurants and pavement cafés. Young lovers held hands openly. There was no sign then of the moral police. At a café near the mosque in Isfahan, two large groups of young ladies around 30 to 35 of them were listening with rapt attention to a band. When the vocalist belted out some obviously popular numbers, the young girls went wild. Clapping, singing and whistling loudly. Most of them wore scarves again with hair clearly visible. Some got up to dance but there were no boys around. Perhaps Isfahan is a little more conservative than Tehran.

In another traditional tea house in Isfahan, a stunningly beautiful woman sat alone while enjoying a sheesha. She was dressed in silk, and not a hair peeped out of her scarf which was tightly bound; her bright red lipstick completed the picture. She seemed perfectly at ease being photographed by us. Unfortunately, she spoke not a word of English. 

The year 2019 was one of optimism for women in Iran. In September, a month before we landed, the government allowed women to watch a football match at a stadium in Tehran. This was the first time since the revolution that women were admitted inside a soccer stadium to watch a World Cup qualifier between Iran and Cambodia. More than 3,000 women packed the stadium to cheer for the home team. Many believed this was a tentative first step and but felt much more had to be done.

The hijab debate was still on, and most of the young felt that the authorities should give them the right of choice. The older women in their families regarded the hijab as a part of the traditional attire and wanted the young to to cover their hair. Others wore the hijab to show their support for the revolution and was basically an anti-Shah act. The Shah of Iran during his term was for westernization and encouraged women to discard the head scarf. But the young women we met, were against the hijab. They were keen to be like teenagers in other parts of the world and were mostly non-political.  

The President then was Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric keen on enhancing women’s representation in public life. He wanted 30 percent major decision-making posts in his administration going to women. The number of female vice ministers had recently increased from 10 to more than 60, there were 73 deputy ministers, 10 deputy governors and three women ambassadors. However, Rouhani’s inability to get sanctions lifted, or get any concession from the US, made Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the hardline clerics turn against the moderates. The elections of 2021 brought in Ebrahim Raisi, a former chief justice and prosecutor, known for his harsh judgements and his uncompromising attitude towards any deviation from the Islamic path. Since then, all the trappings of a religious state were back with a bang. The morality police were on the streets now to enforce discipline. The 7000 strong guidance patrols do pretty much what they please and are protected by the state.

Masha Amini was waiting to happen. The 22-year old young women was arrested for not following the strict protocol approved by the moral police, she was beaten and tortured and eventually died. That was the flashpoint. Women had had enough of the strictures. The welled up anger burst like a dam, people were on the streets across Iran, not just in the Kurdish areas where she lived, defying the authorities. Many threw off the hijab, others publicly cut off their long stresses surrounded by cheering crowds. "Woman, Life, Freedom" is the new slogan that is chanted in every protest. "Death to the dictator" is another.

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The protests are led by young women, but men have also joined. The Islamic regime is facing its toughest challenge since the 1979 revolution. The crackdown has been brutal, yet the protests continue. But at a heavy cost. Nearly 500 protesters including 69 children have been killed. Prisons are overcrowded with protesters. Two young men were executed, and nearly twenty-six others are on death row, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency. Iranian celebrities have not kept quiet. Well known actress Taraneh Alidoosti was arrested and jailed after she condemned the execution of a young protester. She had published a photo of herself without a mandatory headscarf, holding a sign with the protesters' slogan. The courage and resilience shown by Iranian women gives me goose bumps. I wonder if the women we met during our stay in Iran are safe. No way of knowing.

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In Afghanistan, women are being steadily stripped off their rights by the new Taliban regime. They are out of public spaces. It began with a ban on girls going to school, being accompanied by a male relative while out of the home, not being allowed to take flights on their own, being permitted only in certain professions. Parks and gyms are closed to them and now they have been stopped from attending universities. Afghan women put up a resistance, but the ultra-orthodox Taliban would have none of it. Afghan women who enjoyed two decades of freedom when the US and NATO forces were in the country have now been literally thrown to the wolves.

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Despite verbal assurances by the Taliban negotiating team in Doha while signing a deal with the Americans, they have done nothing to honour their commitment. International community may issue statement after statement condemning the Taliban’s regressive ways but can do little to influence the leadership. Afghanistan is now back to the time of the first Taliban rule and would have to device new ways to defy the system.

Journalist Christina Lamb’s book The Sewing Circles of Herat is a vivid account of Afghan women and how they coped during the first Taliban rule. She wrote about women’s passion for learning and how they hoodwinked the authorities in Herat. Groups of women gathered to learn sewing at individual homes. Once inside, pupils threw off the sewing needles and got out their books as teachers conducted classes and kept alive the schooling for girls. Women are innovative and will have to come out with such plans to keep learning alive in Afghanistan.

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