By Rachael Wong
Three weeks ago, the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini sparked nationwide protests across Iran. The Kurdish-Iranian woman was visiting Tehran with her brother when she was arrested by the country’s morality police for wearing her hijab too loosely and revealing too much of her hair. Police maintained she had a heart attack at the station, collapsed and fell into a coma. However, witnesses say she was severely beaten.
Since her death on 16 September 2022, protests involving thousands of people have taken place across the country, and have included extraordinary scenes of women burning their hijabs and cutting their hair in defiance of Iran’s mandatory hijab law and associated violent and degrading treatment of women. The Kurdish protest cry "women, life, freedom" has become the slogan of the movement, and in recent days, powerful images of Iranian school girls waving their headscarves in the air and chanting against clerical authorities have also surfaced. Some are calling it Iran’s “Feminist Revolution”.
In an attempt to shut down the demonstrations, the Iranian government has imposed a widespread internet blackout and nationwide restrictions on social media. So far, over 150 protestors have been killed as a result of violence from authorities attempting to quell the protests and hundreds more have been arrested. One of those killed was 16-year-old teenage girl Nika Shakarami.
The bravery of the women who are fighting back, and of the men who are supporting them, is almost incomprehensible for those of us living in Australia. By defying the status quo, these courageous women and men risk not ‘cancellation’ – an awful phenomenon experienced by too many who swim against the cultural tide in the West – but their very lives.
Protestors in Australian cities over the weekend said the uprising goes beyond the hijab and is about people uniting against the oppressive system itself.
Australian Journalist Rita Panahi (whose parents are Iranian and who lived in Iran for several years as a child), describes the issue as one that is really close to her heart. However, she notes regretfully that the plight of Iranian women “isn’t receiving the sort of support one would hope from Western feminists”.
“Too often the Left turn a blind eye to the plight of genuinely oppressed women for fear of creating “Islamophobia”. They celebrate Muslim veils as symbols of diversity, even as women in Iran are beaten, locked up and killed for fighting against compulsory hijab laws.
“For millions of women living under Islam these garments are symbols of subjugation.
“There’s good reason why the majority of Muslim women in the West do not wear the hijab and why women’s rights campaigners living under Islam fight against compulsory veiling. These brave warriors are not risking their lives to protest against a piece of cloth.
“It represents much more than that.
“And we betray these brave women when we embrace it as a positive symbol of diversity and harmony. We betray them every time a female politician visits a country like Iran and wears the veil.”
Others have also lamented that “Iranian feminist struggles are invisible unless they are linked to Western issues”.
Panahi notes that Iranian women weren’t always subjected to sharia law, forced to cover up, beaten and arrested by the morality police. That before the Islamic Revolution and the current regime, women of her mother’s generation were relatively free, and that many of those marching in Iran right now, are sons and daughters of women who were once free.
American-Iranian journalist and women’s rights campaigner Masih Alinejad - who has herself been targeted by the Iranian government - has voiced similar concerns about the lack of solidarity from Western feminists. Writing in The Washington Post, she notes the female politicians from democratic countries, including Ségolène Royal from France, Catherine Ashton from the United Kingdom, and Federica Mogherini from Italy, who have worn the hijab on their visits to Iran. She could have also added Australia’s Julie Bishop to that list who wore the hijab on a visit to Iran in 2015, as well as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after the Christchurch mosque massacres in 2019.
“All these female politicians are quick to assert their feminist credentials in their own societies — but when it comes to Iran they go out of their way to show deference to the men who have elevated misogyny to a state principle. A regime that abuses and harasses millions of women each year does not deserve our respect. To do so makes a mockery of all our talk of universal human rights,” says Alinejad.
“Some women might well choose to veil their faces and bodies in accordance with their religious or cultural beliefs — but that should be a matter of their own choice, not a rule imposed by the whips and clubs of men. Yet Western women seem only too happy to succumb to the standards dictated by the male tyrants in countries such as Afghanistan and Iran.
“I don’t consider such feminists to be true advocates of women’s rights. The true feminists and women’s rights activists are those in Afghanistan and Iran who are stepping forward, at great cost, to resist the Taliban and Islamic republic. They are the true feminist leaders of the 21st century, risking their lives by facing guns and bullets. They will go on fighting against the regimes, and we who have the privilege to live in free countries should actively amplify their voices. This is the moment for women in the West to stand with Iran’s mothers, daughters and sisters.”
This week, several French actresses, including Juliette Binoche and Marion Cotillard, were seen cutting their hair in a viral video in solidarity with Mahsa Amini. Alinejad, tweeted the video and demanded that western female politicians who wore hijab in front of Islamic Republic officials do the same and make an apology. However, she has noted that real action is what's needed most: "We the women of Iran don’t need Western politicians to just cut their hair, we want them to cut their ties with our murderers. This is what real solidarity looks like."
Indeed, it is not enough for Western democratic countries to simply condemn what's happening in Iran. As Alinejad says, it is action that is needed, not empty words. In this regard, Australia's Tasmanian Senator Claire Chandler has been consistent in calling on the Australian Government and the international community to take action, specifically calling for Iran to be removed from the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Speaking on Bari Weiss' podcast Honestly, Alinejad said the claim that western female politicians who wear the hijab do so to 'respect culture' is a lie:
"Before the revolution, the women of Iran were allowed to choose what they wanted to wear. This is not Iranian culture, this is the culture of misogynists. Forcing a 7-year-old girl to cover her hair is a culture? It's not. It's the culture of Taliban, it's the culture of Islamic Republic, it's the culture of ISIS. But forget about that. Culture is flexible. For many years women sacrificed their lives to change bad cultures. Racism was part of American culture, they sacrificed their lives to change this, no? But why when it comes to Islamic Republic, suddenly they say that we have to respect bad culture, which is not part of our culture?"
Alinejad has also hit back at feminists who have equated her denunciation of the hijab to Islamophobia, saying that one can criticize the hijab while also being against France’s Burkini ban. “I’m not against the hijab. I am against compulsion,” she has said.
There is certainly some truth to the notion that Western feminists – indeed Westerners in general – have been reluctant to criticise compulsory hijab laws in countries like Iran for fear of being seen to be Islamophobic. A similar attitude has been prevalent when it comes to the reluctance to criticise trans-identified males in women’s sports and spaces or the medical transitioning of children, for fear of being seen to be transphobic.
Such an approach is self-serving, because it is not about defending women’s rights and equality, but ultimately guarding oneself against criticism. The reality is however, that women’s rights have never been won without backlash and resistance.
It is not ‘Islamophobic’ to condemn compulsory hijab laws. But it is anti-woman to ignore the plight of women oppressed by them. Similarly, it is not ‘transphobic’ to condemn transgender policies and practices that are harmful to women and children. It is however, cruel and reckless to ignore their devastating impact in the name of political correctness.
I sincerely hope the current protests help to bring about real, lasting change in Iran. However, women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali (born into a devout Somali Muslim family and now an ardent critic of Islam) says that regardless of what happens, one thing is certain – “the current protests are a unique, and uniquely inspiring, phenomenon.”
“Nowhere else in the Muslim world — and I mean, literally, nowhere else — would we see what we are seeing right now in Iran: men and women, together, standing up for each other, the men demanding justice for the regime’s murder of a woman who dared to let her hair show. It bears repeating: the men of Iran are standing alongside women as they burn their hijabs.
“This is the most dramatic evidence of something I have long suspected: Iran is different. I have many Iranian women friends who are highly accomplished. They are doctors and scientists and writers and artists. When I ask them how they do it, they tell me that they owe much of their success to their male relatives’ support of their ambitions. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the fire behind the protests was lit by Mahsa Amini’s family — in particular, her father, whose remarkable courage in accusing the Iranian authorities of a cover-up serves as an emblem of the solidarity many Iranian men have with their women.
“Now, there are caveats to this. This phenomenon isn’t universal across Iran, and many Iranian women suffer terribly at the hands of their families (and some women are even vicious policers of “morality”). But the fact that even some men behave like this is distinctive in the Muslim world, and their appearance alongside women in these protests is not a sight that will soon be forgotten. In other Muslim countries, women suffer as much, if not more, at the hands of their male relatives as at the hands of the authorities. Men jealously guard women’s honour, beating, imprisoning, and even killing their female family members for bringing shame upon the family.
“This is part of the reason why Iran is so unique: not only are men standing publicly with women, but women must also be aware that they are under no threat from their husbands and male relatives, otherwise they would not dare put themselves on the front lines like this. Consider, for example, the beautiful, inspiring videos of women tossing their headscarves into bonfires before dancing joyously away, for all the world to see. If they thought their fathers or brothers were waiting back home to punish them, I doubt we would see such sights on this scale.
“Meanwhile, in the West, where feminism has proved more successful than anywhere else, anti-male grievance dominates the mainstream, with solidarity between men and women replaced by a desire for polarising identity politics. As America’s feminist movement collapses under the weight of it its own divisiveness, I can’t help but find its Iranian counterpart far more inspiring: men and women standing together, speaking up for each other’s rights.”
It is safe to say there is a lot to be learnt from this Iranian “Feminist Revolution” – just how horrendous the treatment of women is in Iran under the current regime, the harms of silence and politically correct niceties, the meaning of genuine courage, and the critical importance of solidarity between men and women as we work to tackle some of our world’s darkest challenges. I hope that our own leaders take these lessons on board as they respond to the atrocities in Iran.
Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women's Forum Australia.