By Masih Alinejad
January 23, 2020
One photograph from among the dozens showing young Iranians protesting the shooting down of Ukrainian aircraft, has stayed with me over the past few days and weeks.
I find myself returning to the image, which captures a single moment in time: a young woman is bravely confronting, even admonishing, a policeman in full riot gear, energetically wagging her finger as he stares blankly. She is bursting with anger, while he looks out of ideas.
In picture after picture, it is the Iranian women who have been at the forefront of the protests and candlelit vigils, after the government finally admitted, on January 11, that it had “unintentionally” destroyed the airliner shortly after its takeoff from Tehran.
The plane was shot down as a result of “human error” just hours after Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq housing US troops. The attacks against the bases were Tehran’s response to the assassination of its top military commander Qassim Soleimani in Baghdad by the United States.
The majority of the 176 passengers on board were Iranian, many of whom held dual nationalities, mostly with Canada. Ever since, mourners have poured into the streets and universities of Tehran and several other cities, including Isfahan, Mashhad, Yazd, and Rasht.
What has been particularly striking, has been the presence and energy of women. They are at the forefront of protests against the regime (in pro-regime demonstrations, they are often invisible) and more confrontational than ever. Social media is full of videos of them wearing hoodies and face-coverings, tearing down posters of Soleimani.
This prominence has led to severe crackdowns in recent months – particularly in response to the ‘White Wednesdays’ social media campaign against the wearing of the compulsory hijab – which encourages women to wear white and discard their head covering – that I started in 2017, from my exile in New York.
In June last year, 2,000 new “morality police” – teams of up of six women who have the power to arrest and detain other women – were introduced to help control those flouting the strict veiling laws.
Then, in August, six women were given a combined 109 years prison sentence for protesting against the compulsory hijab. Such harsh punishment for peacefully protesting an unjust law was unheard of.
Saba Kordafshari, is only 21-years-old, but she has been sentenced to 24 years in prison. The Intelligence Ministry even arrested her mother, Raheleh Ahmadi, forcing her make false confessions. According to a report by the Amnesty International, the authorities wanted Kordafshari to denounce ‘White Wednesdays’.
Three other women, Yassman Aryani 24, and her mother, Monireh Arabshahi, as well as Mojgan Keshavarz received similar long sentences following a trial during which they were denied legal representation.
Their harsh sentences came shortly after the head of Iran’s revolutionary court had branded me the equivalent of a “hostile government” – crazy, but true – and warned that anyone caught sending me messages, or videos, could face up to 10 years in prison.
But what has been really surprising, has been the response of some of those women working for the state media, who have quit – announcing it in social media posts.
Take news anchors Zahra Khatami and Saba Rad, who quit their roles at channel IRIB in protest, they said, against lying in public. The resignations have highlighted the anger and frustration that resonates among the political elite, as well as ordinary people.
Zeinab Aboutalebi, another anchor on IRIB, responded to the resignations by announcing during a live programme that anyone who didn’t want to live a “revolutionary” lifestyle, “should pack their bags and leave the country.”
While state TV anchor, Gelare Jabbari, resigned and apologised in an Instagram post, writing: “It was very hard for me to believe that our people have been killed. Forgive me that I got to know this late. And forgive me for the 13 years I told you lies.”
And lie the state TV channels have. In 2009, just weeks after I had launched my first campaign against the compulsory hijab, a TV news presenter read out an item that I had been raped by three men in the streets of London after disrobing in public. Needless to say, no such thing had happened.
But despite Iran’s arrest of women – especially anti-compulsory hijab protesters – the flow of protest videos from women inside the country has continued. During the November anti-regime protests that spread across the country, women were right on the front line. In video after video sent to me, their presence was prominent – until the government interrupted the mobile networks, then cut the country’s digital ties almost entirely, that is.
The crackdown was brutal. According to Reuters, as many as 1,500 protesters were killed by the security forces including 400 women. State TV aired a special documentary calling attention to the “suspicious” role of women in leadership positions among the rebels.
But the regime apparatchik missed the point.
For four decades, it is Iran’s women who have suffered the most under clerical rule. They have forfeited many of the rights they used to enjoy before the revolution. But they have not lost one iota of their sense of resistance, or their quest for dignity.
That is why Iranian women will continue to be the biggest challengers of the regime – I can’t wait to see how they stand up to it next.