The protests in Iran reached new heights after the death of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, and have garnered recent international media attention. What the media may see as a dedicated but new wave of protests is actually the culmination of hundreds of years worth of struggle in Iran. Mahtab, an Iranian Masters student studying in Leiden spoke to me about the protests and women’s status in Iran, her relationship with her country and its future for all genders.
Mahtab views her home country with love and affection. However, she disapproves of calling Iran ‘The Islamic Republic of Iran’, its official name since the 1979 revolution. She says, “As an Iranian this is wrong, the country is called Iran and all Iranians know their country as Iran. For me, Iran is everything, it’s my hometown, my roots are there. My family, everybody, lives there. When this situation started, people asked me if I have any family there. My answer after two months of this chaos in my country is that I have 80 million family and friends and loved ones back in Iran. Even with the current situation, I would go back. It is my country. Whether or not I would feel safe, I don’t know.”
On and off
The protests, being a culmination of a long fight for freedom, have a history to it that extends beyond the current protests over the hijab. The mandatory wearing of the hijab, Mahtab tells me, is an unforeseen and corrupt byproduct of the revolution. “The story does not start two months ago. It has been forty years of on and off protests. Before the Islamic revolution, we had the monarchy. I am not saying everything was fine, there were problems, just like every other society and country, but women and men had their own rights, religious and not religious, and they were living fine with one another. Of course, there were financial problems. Ayatollah Khomeini [a religious figure that led the 1979 revolution against the monarchy] promised people that they would bring the money from oil into our houses, that they would be better than the king. It was initially said we would live in the same way, we would not be forced to wear anything. The former king simply left Iran. He let the people choose. So that started the Islamic Republic. Many things happened; the government forced women to wear hijabs, and there were protests that were shut down.”
However, Mahtab makes it clear that the oppression of women is not a doctrine of Islam itself, but of despotic governments and leaders that use the name of Islam to control their people. “They have built an Islamic monarchy based on the belief that women have to cover their bodies and heads, but this is not Islam. This is not what you read in the books and what you see in other Islamic countries. There exists this freedom of speech, of action and what you wear. So, time went on in Iran, and there have been many protests... Two months ago, I was still in the Netherlands, but I heard that there was this girl who was not even living in Tehran, but visited Tehran, and the morality police captured her and she died.”
This girl, Mahsa Amini, died when she was taken by the morality police for the way she was wearing her hijab. The morality police formed about forty years ago, but Mahtab tells me the specific branch of the police that enforces the hijab only started about twelve years ago and they have a very frightening presence in people’s lives. “Every day we are afraid of them,” she says, “Imagine you leave your home and the police kidnap you because you have not covered your hair, or your hips or chest. Two years ago, I couldn’t go out showing my wrists. Now when I see girls protesting, I am so proud of them. This generation is so fearless! People born in the eighties and nineties still have this fear inside of them. My husband is still afraid here in the Netherlands. When we go out, we feel we have to be careful, or someone will come to punish us.”
Mahtab protests the inherent sexualization of women’s bodies. For instance, the mandatory wearing of the hijab in Iran begins at the age of seven if as a girl you want to go to school. “I think it is nonsense to consider a person firstly by their gender. I am a human, why should I have to cover myself? Why do people need to look at others sexually? Why don’t people work on the contents of their brains? I really liked moving here [to the Netherlands] and seeing that there are unisex toilets. I really loved it. At first I thought: is that possible? I’m so proud that people here have understood that someone can look into another’s eyes seeing them as a person first. I only wish that in a new Iran, people will be given the opportunity to choose.”
The lasting impact of the morality police is felt in many areas of life. Mahtab describes her personal experience as a woman in Iran, and the constant presence of vigilance and fear of punishment that affected how she dressed, behaved, and existed. “As a woman, we do not exist. When you are born as a girl in Iran you are told to be quiet. A good girl is quiet, she doesn’t talk, she doesn’t laugh loudly, she doesn’t exist. When you grow up in this society you think that’s all there is. You don’t see how big life is, how beautiful it is and the choices you can make. A girl in Iran is meant to stay at home, get married and have children.”
“When you get married it’s like you are chained to your husband. He is the boss; you have to do everything he says. By signing the marriage certificate, you are signing away your personhood to your husband. You cannot travel without his consent, you cannot have a passport, or choose where to live, there is an immense list of things you cannot do. There are some things nowadays that your husband can sign which allows you, as a wife, to do certain things. When I first got married, I was so proud that I had this signed document from my husband stating that I can travel without his consent and have a passport without his consent. It’s not right, in the 21st century.
I have seen here [in the Netherlands, and abroad] that women are powerful, and if they don’t want to have a sexual relationship they can say no, even in marriage. But in Iran, there is no objection in the law to a husband assaulting his wife.”
However, the enforcement of ideological law has created unrest and dissent, causing the protests to evolve into a wider revolutionary movement against the government of the Islamic Republic, and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Mahtab cites the financial and economic problems faced by Iran and explains that these wider reasons have unified all genders in this fight. “I have never been prouder of our men,” she explains, “They are protecting women, I have seen videos of boys who say, “Girls have come out, and we have their backs”. Young men are protecting us. It is about both of us. For the first time I see young boys and girls taking one another’s hands and declaring that they are together. There are so many people, both men and women in jail. It is much more than the hijab. It is the dignity, freedom of thought, humanity, that Iranian people are looking for. It represents a wider movement that is going on. Freedom, in any way that can be represented: thought, clothes, speech, life.”
Mahtab urges us, those outside of Iran, to keep up with the recent news. The government has released a list of twenty-five people facing the death sentence as a result of the protests. The latest execution that has been reported is of 23-year-old Majidreza Rahnavard, who was publicly hanged from a crane, and before this Mohsen Shekari, another 23-year-old protester who was executed in the name of the regime. If these executions are not met with international attention, then they will continue in even greater numbers. "Other countries have a certain perception of Iran. They say, ‘Okay, it’s the Middle East, there has always been war there, one or two people died...’ But we are not numbers! We are human beings, just like everyone else. And we need your help to stop this war inside of Iran.”
Mahtab envisions a bright post-revolution Iran. “This time,” she says, “it is a revolution. All of Iran is unified. It is not only about the hijab or covering your head. There is no way of negotiating between people and the government. We, Iranians, do not want the Islamic Republic.’’
No more darkness
On the 21st of December, Mahtab celebrated Yalda night, a traditional ceremony for the end of autumn and the beginning of winter. “People in Iran gather together with their families. They celebrate this night warmly and eat fruits, nuts, drink tea, and read Hafiz poems. It has been a very difficult Autumn for all of us. We are mourning now for each city in Iran. Many people have been killed, especially young people. But we are more hopeful than ever. Yalda night is our tradition to pass the longest night in the year warmly and this year we celebrate it more than ever because darkness will not tolerated any longer by our beautiful people.”
By Manon Sintes