“Women, life and freedom! Women, life, and freedom!”
For the last month, these three words have rung out from crowds of human rights protesters, first in Iran, and now in cities all across the globe. On Sept. 13, 22–year–old Mahsa Amini was arrested in Tehran by Iran’s morality police, who alleged that she was wearing her headscarf improperly. In Iran, the Islamic Republic has created and enforced a strict dress code that mandates all women of Iran to wear hijabs, a traditional headscarf. By Sept. 16, Amini was reported dead. The Iranian authorities maintain that her death was accidental, the result of a sudden heart attack at the detention center where she was taken; however, Amini’s family, as well as multiple witnesses, have raised their voices in contrast to this account, sparking a long–awaited national reckoning with the Islamic Republic’s harsh regime in Iran.
This tragedy is at once singularly impactful, and frustratingly unsurprising: since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, in which Iran transitioned from a monarchy to a theocracy, the Islamic Republic has steadily upped the heat on women with harsh laws justified in the name of defending Iran’s honor.
Across the globe, Iranians and supporters of the movement have chanted those three fateful words, “Women, life and freedom!” to express their opposition to the Islamic Republic. They began by removing their headscarves, marching in the streets, and crying out for political and humanitarian leaders to exercise their power to bolster the people’s calls for justice with tangible political change. For Sarah Eskandari, a Ph.D. candidate in Penn’s History department from Iran, studying “pilgrimage, gender and frontiers in modern Iran in the 19th century and early 20th century,” the protests in her home country and their promise for the future of Iran called her to organize similar events in Philadelphia. In late September, over 100 people gathered at the Love statue in front of Claudia Cohen Hall, where scholars, musicians, and Iranian members of the Penn community spoke, informational posters were passed around, and organizers led protesters in song to express solidarity with Iranians.
Growing up under the regime of the Islamic Republic, Eskandari saw multiple waves of social opposition to the Republic; however, this time feels different. “This is really a revolution, going beyond solely women’s issues [and] extending to human rights issues. Unlike the past, where many organizations and influential figures were silent, today many people are reacting very differently. Personally speaking, I think that this movement is a turning point in the Islamic Republic’s collapse from a global perspective.”
For Eskandari, this iteration of the women’s movement offers the chance to right long–standing wrongs in Iran’s history. Before the Revolution of 1979, women had enrolled in college in Tehran, gained the right to vote, and seen their compatriots elevated to senior positions in the government. Their presence in Iran’s intellectual conversation was well–established, and impossible to ignore. Since the Revolution, their bodies have fallen under the government’s strict sovereignty, but the spirit and fervor of Iranian women activists never flagged. Women were at the forefront of Iran’s Green Movement, a push in 2009 for a more democratic Iran, and have come together for significant protests and petitions such as the “One Million Signatures Campaign” of the early 2000s, a campaign for gender equality.
Now, however, this activism is taking on an entirely new form. Social media has catalyzed the dissemination of information globally, and has given Iranian citizens an uncensored outlet to air their grievances with the Republic, a rarity in a regime that strongly restricts media consumption. In such an environment, Iranians have been expressing their frustration with the Islamic Republic through works of art such as music, painting, and posters, something Eskandari considers particularly impactful for this wave of the movement.
“The Islamic Republic, over the past four decades, has been trying to brainwash children, forcing them to read Qaran, to admire the Islamic Republic and their politics in many different ways, and censoring any focus in their schoolbooks on the pre–Islamic era,” Eskandari says. “They’re trying to emphasize the post–Islamic era, specifically Shia Islam, and not to talk about Iran’s national traditions and rituals.” However, with the newfound accessibility of information online, the determination of the young generation of Iranians is unprecedented, propelling the movement forward. “Women’s bodies, specifically regarding mandatory veiling, have long been one of the main pillars of the Islamic Republic’s identity. What we’re seeing in this new generation of schoolchildren, middle– and primary–school children,” explains Eskandari, “is them chanting, and saying, ‘We don’t want this piece of cloth [referring to the hijab].’ Before this moment, we didn’t see such a thing, or at least history didn’t record it.”
In Philadelphia, Eskandari has noticed an incredible response to the cause in the younger generation as well. During the Penn rally at the Love sign, “I received a lot of positive feedback from people from different backgrounds, and especially students. We saw a surprising number of non–Iranian people who joined us. For any kind of opposition, social or political, you need financial, cultural, and political resources, and we found that Penn was really receptive; a number of people have been willing to support us and [help us] speak up.” As an Ivy League university positioned in one of the largest, most diverse cities in the country, she explains, to see such solidarity and engagement is “really promising to me, especially with the historical background of Philadelphia as a freedom city in the U.S. The very first event was organized at Penn, and right after that, the Philadelphia organizer team for ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ has organized two more events for the greater Philadelphia community.”
Of course, as one of the first organizers for the cause in Philadelphia, Eskandari is on the forefront of its next steps. She’s hoping to join the marches that have been taking place in Washington, D.C., and continue organizing educational events. Another critical element for the furthering of the movement is education: not only introducing people to the cause, but also correcting misconceptions and misinformation regarding the nature of the movement. Important distinctions and nuances regarding the “Islamic trauma” inflicted upon Iranian citizens have all too often been glossed over in the Western discourse regarding the subject. “Something that, in the West, would be considered a human right, such as freedom of speech or choice, is considered a ‘culture’ or ‘rule’ when it comes to countries like Iran. This is an intentional misrepresentation of our revolution, connecting a human rights issue to Islamophobia in order to diminish its influence; thus, it is critical to understand that we are not talking against any religion,” Eskandari says. “There are many Muslims against the Islamic Republic also protesting with the veils, saying their compatriots who don't want to wear a veil should have the right not to wear it. This is a nation's revolution, borne of frustration of a totalitarian government. We are against the Islamic Republic, rather than the religious doctrine of Islam itself.”
The Western conception of Iran and Islam as a whole is unquestionably flawed and certainly charged, something Eskandari and her fellow organizers hope to counteract through their educational efforts. She implores those unfamiliar with the contours of the issue to familiarize themselves with important distinctions of the tumult in Iran: The Islamic Republic does not represent the religion of Islam, for example, nor does it speak for the people of the nation of Iran. Gaps in the Western understanding of the social and political forces that shape Middle Eastern politics contribute to an attitude epidemic. A sense of distance and “otherness” which has pervaded Western academic, social, and political discourse on issues affecting the region, and has had a significant negative impact on the cause of Iranian liberation.
However, Eskandari sees this wave of the movement as a promising opportunity to change the conversation, and hopefully synthesize social energy into tangible political change through tireless global organizing: “We are responsible to be the voice of those who the Islamic Republic has violently tried to silence. This is not only a women's issue; it's a human rights issue which crosses age, geographic, and class boundaries. We see this multi–ethnic and multi–religious unity, which I think is really unprecedented. It is a human rights issue in the world, and we should acknowledge that.”