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Source: DW

Mar 7, 2023

BY Shabnam von Hein

Despite 44 years of propaganda and systematic attempts at brainwashing in all educational institutions, the Iranian regime has failed to prevent women from rising up against the clerical establishment.

People across the world are celebrating International Women's Day this Wednesday, March 8, but in Iran, Women's Day this year fell on January 13.    

In the Islamic republic, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad's daughter, Fatima, is marked as Women's Day.

The fact that it is also celebrated as Mother's Day fits in with the official image of women. 

Fatima's birthday in the Islamic lunar calendar has no fixed place in the Persian solar Hijri calendar. 

Therefore, the official Women's Day must be determined newly every year and adapted to the Persian calendar, which regulates all public life in Iran. 

But the ideology behind it hasn't changed for decades. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the nation's clerical rulers have been trying to control the image and role of women in the public sphere. 

In their view, the role model for women must be Fatima, who was married off at the age of nine and became a mother of five children. They want today's Iranian women to be like her — a pious wife who was compliant, subordinate and hardly visible in public.

'Security forces surprised by courage'

Despite 44 years of propaganda in state media and systematic attempts at brainwashing in all educational institutions — from kindergarten to university — the Iranian regime has failed to prevent women from rising up against the clerical establishment. 

Last year, Iran witnessed the biggest and longest protests since 1979, triggered by the death of a young Iranian-Kurdish woman — the 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini — under suspicious circumstances after being arrested by Iran's "morality police" for allegedly failing to properly wear the hijab. 

"The protests were unprecedented in our city. In the first seven days, three-quarters of the protesters were women," Leila, from a city in the country's Kurdish region, told DW. 

Leila said she and her friends also organized demonstrations in her city. 

The first rallies took place at Jina Mahsa Amini's funeral in her Kurdish hometown. 

But the protests quickly spread, even to cities better known for their conservatism where protesters would be easily recognized.

The lack of anonymity meant those breaking the rules — like not wearing the Islamic headscarf in public — faced a greater danger of being identified and caught by authorities.

"The security services were surprised by our courage. I even had the feeling that they were afraid," said Leila. 

She was arrested on the seventh day of the protests. 

"Not for the first time. In the last few years, I have been arrested several times. But this time it was different. The people who interrogated me had less self-confidence and were visibly nervous," she noted.

"But that didn't mean they were at all lenient. They were violent, not only on the streets, but also in the prisons. We know that many women were raped — to break them and intimidate them."

Brutal clampdown

Two weeks after her arrest, Leila was released on bail. She was later sentenced to two years probation. "If I make one wrong move, they will lock me up," she said. 

"We will not give up. Our uprising has drawn people from all generations, ethnicities and classes. We are looking for other forms of resistance and will soon mobilize ourselves."

Anti-government protests have subsided in recent months following the regime's harsh clampdown. According to rights groups, at least 525 demonstrators have been killed by security forces, including 71 minors, during more than 100 days of protests. 

While around 20,000 were arrested by early January, some of them were released from overcrowded prisons by the end of February.

The pressure on women's activists and civil society organizations, however, has not abated, with authorities summoning and trying to intimidate them one by one. "They want to silence us," said a well-known lawyer, who does not want to be named due to security concerns. 

"I will continue to stand up for the people who are fighting for their rights. That's what bothers the security authorities: the courage of women who think independently and stand up for what they believe is right. And there are many of them in Iran."

Appeal to the international community 

"The world should stand by these women," said Masih Alinejad, a US-based Iranian women's rights activist and prominent critic of the Islamic regime. 

Alinejad, who has nearly nine million followers on social media, was invited to the Munich Security Conference this year as a representative of Iranian civil society. 

For the first time, no representative of the Islamic Republic was invited to the forum. 

"The world's leading democratic countries must isolate the Islamic Republic, just as they have isolated [Russian President Vladimir] Putin," she said. 

"We see that the tone toward the Islamic Republic of Iran has changed. We now demand that they announce a new Iran policy and, for example, classify the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization," she added.  

"Iranian women need strong decisions from politicians and a global sisterhood."

Many female politicians from Western countries have expressed their solidarity with the protest movement in Iran. 

Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib, for instance, chopped locks of her hair in solidarity. 

But the minister came under sharp criticism from activists after she met Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian in late February, with many casting doubts over her support for Iranian women. 

Observers think that the meeting between both foreign ministers may have been focused on the case of a Belgian aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, imprisoned in Iran. 

Vandecasteele was sentenced to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes in January 2023. 

There is reason to believe that Iranian authorities are holding him in order to persuade Belgian authorities to agree to a prisoner exchange, which could pave the way for an Iranian diplomat convicted of terrorism by a Belgian court to be sent back to Tehran.

"The support and solidarity of female Western politicians meant a lot to us in the beginning," said Leila. "But we know that in the end, they think of their political and economic interests. We won't make our struggle dependent on them."

This article was originally written in German. 

Edited by: Alex Berry

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