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Iran's women vow resistance against 'misogynistic' regime

On International Women's Day, DW spoke with Iranian rights activists who shared stories about women who face daily threats and harassment, but continue demanding the right to expression and self-determination. By Kersten Knipp | Shora Azarnoush

In central Tehran, a woman and her friends are harassed by a group of armed men on motorcycles. Their first thought: "Put on your hijab."

"Since that day, every time I hear the sound of a motorcycle behind me, my body freezes," one of the women recalls. The incident from last year has been burned into her memory.

"That's why I don't go for walks anymore. When I do, I have my headphones on the whole time."

Scenes like this are everyday life in Tehran. This story was shared with Ghoncheh Ghavami, an Iranian feminist activistand editor in chief of "Harasswatch," a Farsi-language website about oppression and sexual violence faced by women in Iran and around the world.

Women from Iran have sent many stories like this about the oppression they face every day under the Islamic Republic's regime, which are published anonymously on Harasswatch website.

Ghawami, who herself has more than once been in the clutches of the Iranian justice system, stays in touch with many Iranian women, despite all the difficulties and dangers.

'Women, life, freedom'

Nationwide protests following the death of Jina Mahsa Amini in autumn 2022 have not improved the situation for women in Iran.

Amini, a Kurdish woman, was arrested during a trip to Tehran and taken to a police station, allegedly because she was not wearing her headscarf appropriately.

A few hours later, she was taken unconscious from police custody to the hospital. Three days later, on September 16, she was officially declared dead.

The ensuing protests under the slogan "Women, Life, Freedom" became the longest lasting demonstration movement since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The government responded to this with massive repression and violence.

Exact figures are difficult to obtain, but according to independent human rights organizations, security forces in Iran killed at least 550 demonstrators during protests in the 12 months after September 16, 2022.

Seven men were executed in connection with the protests. Amnesty International reported more than 22,000 arrests.

Activist and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh told DW that the repression by Iranian authorities continues. In February, Sotoudeh received several reports form girls and women about harassment.

All of them were not wearing a headscarf, and said they were attacked and treated humiliatingly by civilians and Basij militia, a volunteer department that is organizationally assigned to the Revolutionary Guards.

The following day, over 60 women were brought to court. Some were sentenced to fines. "It's a misogynistic regime," said Sotoudeh.

'This damn headscarf'

Women in Iran, especially those who refuse to wear a headscarf, or hijab, face threats, lawsuits, punishment, physical attacks, and harassment such as having their car confiscated.

"Wearing or not wearing this damn headscarf is associated with many thoughts and emotions for us, with fear, shame, helplessness, anger, humiliation," an Iranian woman recounted on Ghavami's Harasswatch website.

The woman reported that her feelings fluctuate between courage and hesitance.

"Many of us go through these feelings every day. We are in a constant inner dialogue with ourselves and with our fellow sufferers," the woman said.

"How can we, who witnessed the revolution over the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, passively bear this humiliation? How can we ignore the turmoil in our bodies? If the Islamic Republic sees hijab as significant, for us, unveiling means so much more," she added.

The decision to wear a headscarf or not is not just a question of clothing, it shakes a person's self-image, she underlined.

"For me, not wearing a headscarf is the basis of my identity," another woman reported to Ghavami. Wearing a headscarf is a dilemma for her. "I feel like I'm denying myself when I'm forced to," she said.

"I either have to fear the hijab police on the metro or suffer because my body is covered. I don't want to go back to that disgusting look they created for us," she said.

Activist Sotoudeh said the decision to either wear a headscarf or have to expect harassment, if not a lawsuit, limits women enormously.

"The cases of Mahsa Amini and Armita Geravand remind us how limited public mobility is for women. When in doubt, they prefer to stay at home - and that's exactly what the rulers want," said Sotoudeh.

Sixteen-year-old Gerawand was not wearing a headscarf when she collapsed on the subway in early October 2023. According to Iranian state media, she fell due to low blood pressure. But human rights activists are certain that she was a victim of Iran's "morality police." Gerawand died after weeks in a coma.

Iranian authorities "continue to treat women as second-class citizens," said a 2023 Amnesty International report on the human rights situation in Iran.

This also applies to marriage, divorce, child custody, employment, inheritance and holding political office. Amnesty also points out the marriageable age of girls under Iranian law is currently 13 years.

'A struggle over women's sexuality'

The US political scientist Hamideh Sedghi writes in her 2007 book "Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling and Reveiling" that the regime's gender order focuses so much on clothing regulations.

For those in power, the headscarf is the strongest symbol of the Iranian Revolution. "The Islamic Revolution also developed into a sexual counter-revolution, a struggle over women's sexuality," Sedghi writes.

From then on, this sexuality was strongly political, specifically with anti-Western connotations. "Wear a headscarf or we will hit you on the head" was one slogan in the revolutionary year of 1979. "Death to the Unveiled" was another.

But Iranian women are resisting this paternalism that continues to this day, said activist Sotoudeh. Their protest is directed, for example, against the continued attempt to force women to be immobile.

"But we Iranian women cannot allow that to happen," she said.

'United by the idea of human rights'

That's why resistance to the regime's regulations continues, said Sotoudeh. This often happens together with Iranian men.

"Because regardless of power struggles, men and women in this country are united by the idea of human rights," she said.  This concept directly affects their everyday lives.

"They long to normalize their lives, to live like everyone else in the world, and to wake up every morning without hearing that another young girl is being killed because of her clothing choice."

Sotoudeh told DW that the resistance movement has had some successes, even if the regime has not changed its ways.

To measure success, we have to ask the question differently, she said.

"What would our situation look like if there was no Mahsa movement? I dare say it would be much worse."

Second publication by courtesy of DW


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