Anne Boleyn was the victim of morality police: she was executed on trumped-up adultery charges. That morality police was the brainchild of Thomas Cromwell, an idealist of obscure origins who loved children and animals and whose zealotry created a regime of state terror in 16th-century Britain. Its networks of spies and central control was the template of modern totalitarianism.
Hilary Mantel, who died last week, was against drawing “shallow comparisons with the past”. Yet, in her work, that intersection where art, politics and history meet, she left us two character studies which are instructive for all who worry about how easily great democracies can slip into perilous dictatorships.
Undoubtedly, Mantel’s years of living under Islamic fundamentalism coloured the Tudor court of her imagination. In both, as she wrote of Saudi Arabia, “Events are forming up in the shadows.”
Mahsa Amini was a victim of morality police. As the world now knows, the 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman died in custody having been arrested for “improper” wearing of the hijab. A CT scan revealed a fractured skull and haemorrhage. The Iranian authorities simultaneously denied the facts but reportedly suspended the head of the morality police.
Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi went to the United Nations General Assembly last Wednesday and got away with saying that the death would be “investigated.” He went home and said protesters “would be dealt with decisively”. They were. The dozens dead and thousands arrested render the supportive words of western leaders at the assembly as hollow and pious.
Amini was doubly brave. As a Kurdish Iranian woman, she was from a minority within a minority. Kurds have no country and a tragic history. Even though they are the third-largest ethnic group in Iran they have, according to Amnesty reports, “Suffered deep-rooted discrimination. Their social, political and cultural rights have been repressed, as have their economic aspirations.”
Their language can be suppressed but their poetry cannot. When contemporary Iraqi Kurdish poet Kajal Ahmed wrote “In the country of terror I love the streets more than men,” she was prophetic. In Iran, they take to the streets burning police stations and vehicles along with their hijabs.
Is it possible this conflagration will prove to be more than the fire of martyrdom? Every now and then an iconic death pushes the boundary of fearful quiescence and something stirs in the underbelly of oppressed people.
George Floyd’s murder exposed the racial discrimination systemic in American criminal justice and cried out a common history of violence against black people through slavery or colonialism. Savita Halappanavar’s death, the result of Ireland’s reproductive tyranny, helped lead to the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
Amini’s is such a death; her name now a clarion call to victims of Islamist fundamentalism. And the brute fact is burning the hijab in Iran today requires far more courage than burning the bra 50 years ago (if indeed that ever happened) in the West. Today, women — men too — show their faces knowing there are spies everywhere and a stray word or deed could mean death.
Burning the hijab is not as simple for Iranian women as westerners assume. For those who practice their beloved and peaceful Islamist religions, it is not a symbol of male oppression but a commandment. Iranian women have a further paradox in their relationship with it. In the 1979 revolution, which overthrew the shah’s democracy, the hijab was donned by women in solidarity with the revolutionaries, who promised dignity, respect for human rights and women’s rights: Ayatollah Khomeini — supreme leader until his death in 1989 — even said a woman could be president.
As in so many revolutions, including the French, once power was assumed women were among the first to be betrayed. Burning the hijab is burning boats on a huge scale. But Islamic fundamentalism, like Christendom under the Inquisition, is an ideology of barbarism and terror. Iranian women want change. And they are getting little in the line of solidarity from their western sisters.
Western feminism has always been strangely complacent about the position of women living under Islamic fundamentalist regimes, which Iran, with its increasingly restrictive penal code, undoubtedly is: in cases (crimes) of adultery, the testimony of a woman is legally worth half that of a man and is punishable by flogging and imprisonment.
Only a year ago, Nancy Pelosi trusted the Taliban to protect women’s rights in Afghanistan. The Taliban didn’t even pretend. In her 1984 book Sex and Destiny, Germaine Greer writes approvingly of the “many stern Islamic Marxists” she has met “who would say we (in the West) have been debauched by the supernormal stimuli which are our daily fodder”. Perhaps. But supernormal stimuli are hardly comparable to sharia law, which gives a man an automatic right to beat his wife and morality police the right to imprison a woman who offends against correct wearing of the hijab.
On Sunday, Amini’s family asked the international community to hold the regime to account for her death. They shouldn’t have had to ask. The UN human rights office, catalysed by western feminists, should have done so immediately. Do Iranian Women’s Lives Matter?
If, in 100 years’ time, some Mantel of the future was to write a Wolf Hall about the death of Amini in the court of the Iranian ayatollahs, would the foreign ambassadors and palace spies warn of cathartic change? Or would it be, as Mantel wrote of Saudi Arabia, that it “as if the whole world is veiled”?