I was walking through central Dublin, before the Irish Tatler Women of the Year Awards three weeks ago, when I saw the protest. There were more than 100 people, largely female, standing with posters, in front of the GPO. Some were singing. I stopped to watch for a while, before asking for the organiser’s contact details, and then went on my way.
Ahead of a night in the Shelbourne Hotel which would see awards given to women such as campaigner and sexual abuse survivor Aimee Foley; writer and Booker Prize nominee Claire Keegan; and musician Sorcha Richardson, the protest was a reminder of other battles that women are fighting around the world.
Iran in particular should not be forgotten. When the history of 2022 is written, its women will have played a leading role.
Last week on the phone, I spoke to Maryam Malekpour, one of the Dublin protest’s organisers. It is usually a weekly event, she said. “Women, life, freedom… That’s the slogan that Iranians have been chanting… in response to the Iranian regime’s violation of human rights. This situation requires immediate action and attention from all who have freedom of speech.”
Malekpour left Iran when she was 22, the same age as Mahsa Amini, the young woman who died on September 16th this year. Amini was arrested by Iran’s “morality” police for failing to cover her hair fully with a hijab. While Amini’s family say she was beaten, Iran’s police and government claim she died due to underlying medical conditions.
‘In Iran, women, they don’t have any freedom… The hijab is mandatory; they don’t have custody of their own kids; they are not allowed to dance in public; they are not allowed to sing in public’
Her death sent shockwaves across Iran, and the country’s streets have filled with demonstrators who want change. Women have been at the forefront of the protests, Videos posted online showed schoolgirls and university students pulling off their hijabs and waving their headscarves in the air, while calling for the fall of the Islamic regime.
Their bravery has been met with violence. More than 450 people have been killed, according to activist groups, and more than 15,000 arrested.
Malekpour has lived in Ireland since 2009. She says she wants Irish people to be aware of the seismic shift that is happening in Iran. The protests are not about the hijab specifically, or about Islam as a religion, she explained. Instead, they are about freedom.
“It is a woman’s revolution. In Iran, women, they don’t have any freedom… The hijab is mandatory; they don’t have custody of their own kids; they are not allowed to dance in public; they are not allowed to sing in public… It’s about freedom… it’s not about my hair, it’s about my voice. It’s not about my body, it’s about my choice,” she said.
“Girls and ladies in Iran are not allowed to ride a bicycle. These are very, very, very basic rights that they are fighting for… If a woman wants to leave Iran, to get a passport, she needs the husband’s permission. It’s mostly girls [now] on the street because the new generation know what’s going on around the world. They know what freedom is. That’s why they are fighting for it.”
Back in 2015, I interviewed Masih Alinejad, the founder of “My Stealthy Freedom”, a Facebook page where Iranian women shared photos or videos of their uncovered hair. Social media had suddenly given them a chance to express their discontent at the strict controls they were living under, and a way to rebel. Alinejad’s page garnered more than half a million likes from inside Iran in less than one year.
“It’s not about a headscarf. It’s about human dignity, it’s about freedom of expression,” Alinejad told me then. “They’re scared of our hair; they’re scared of our singing; they’re scared of our voice.”
‘We check the news every day and every day many kids are getting killed. There is nothing on the news here and that makes us sad’
Alinejad continues to campaign today, even recently meeting French president Emmanuel Macron. “Western leaders have been slow to acknowledge the full significance and depth of what has been happening inside Iran,” she wrote this week in the Washington Post. “That the unrest continues is itself a remarkable tribute to those overwhelmingly young Iranians who refuse to back down in the face of brutal violence from the regime.”
One of the most immediate needs, according to Malekpour, is to find some way around internet shutdowns and make sure the roughly 84 million Iranians inside the country can get online, so they can continue to expose the reality on the ground. “When they shut down the internet, no one can hear,” worried Malekpour, who has struggled to stay in touch with her family in Iran over the past few weeks. She would also personally like to see the immediate expulsion of Iranian ambassadors and diplomats from Western countries, and more news coverage alongside that.
“We really ask all news to cover our protests. We really need that coverage,” she said. “We check the news every day and every day many kids are getting killed. There is nothing on the news here and that makes us sad… The situation in Iran needs immediate attention and action.”