By Alborz Koosha, originally published on Workersvoiceus.org
In March 1979, tens of thousands of people, predominantly women, protested in Tehran against the then new law of compulsory hijab (head coverings and loose clothing for women) instituted by the new Islamic Republic, as well as other laws that curtailed women’s rights, particularly in family law. They chanted, “We did not carry out the revolution in order to go backwards.” Their message was clear. Women were part of the 1979 Iranian Revolution for social and economic justice, against the U.S.-backed dictatorship of the Shah. Yet its replacement with a new dictatorship, that of the Islamic Republic, meant that their dreams of freedom were betrayed.
Today, thousands of people have once again taken Iran’s streets, as they have done so essentially perennially for the last decade, (and even longer depending on your scale of the history of Iranian popular resistance). They follow in the footsteps of the women of March 1979. They have one message for the world: “woman, life, freedom.”
The brutal killing of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini by the state’s Guidance Patrol (gasht-e ershad) on Sept. 13, 2022, for wearing a so-called improper hijab sparked their outrage. Yet it did not scare them into submission, but rather emboldened them to resist again. Zhina, a Kurdish woman whose community has experienced ethnic discrimination in Iran, died in police custody under suspicious circumstances. The state has refused to offer a transparent account of her death.
At least nine protesters have been killed so far, and the death toll is rising. On Monday, a general strike was launched across Iranian Kurdistan. Street protests rapidly spread to at least 50 cities throughout Iran. Protesters have called for an end to dictatorship, the disbanding of the Guidance Patrol, that hijab be optional according to each individual’s personal choice, and many other demands.
The policing of women’s bodies must stop. Yet these protests extend beyond the issue of dress and are part of a much larger struggle for gender, social, and economic justice. To understand how, let us look at the recent strikes by teachers across Iran since December 2021. At least 60% of Iranian teachers are women. In addition to resisting their administrations who often harass them for improper hijab, many women leaders in the teachers’ movement have raised a number of other interrelated demands. They have demanded the building of more schools in rural areas, noting that girls are less likely than boys to be sent to schools outside their locality. They have demanded equal pay for men and women, and a dignified wage in general as all teachers’ current wages do not even meet the country’s official poverty line.
Many teachers have also called for the transformation of educational content and textbooks to foreground gender equality. For already doing that themselves, many teachers are forced to submit their lesson plans to administrations. They have demanded sex education around issues of sexual health, contraception, and sexual harassment. They have also demanded expanded maternity leave and day-care centers at the workplace.
Many have also expressed solidarity with other workers in Iran who engaged in their own strikes for dignity. As the majority of Iran’s public education system has been monetized and privatized with administrations collecting fees from students (in contravention of the Iranian constitution itself), they have demanded free education as every student’s right. These demands for free education resonate around the world in other countries where education has become a commodity under capitalism. They have demanded an end to the continuous hiring of teachers on exploitative temporary contracts, a practice that affects most working-class people in Iran as well as around the world in our neoliberal era. All of this together is the meaning of “Woman, life, and freedom.”
Today around the world, women, trans and non-binary people, and their supporters are in a renewed fight for gender equality. As people in Iran protest against compulsory hijab, people in the United States protest the overturning of Roe v. Wade and women’s right to abortion. If we think deeply about this fight, we see the incredible hypocrisy of U.S. politicians who take away women’s right to choose in the U.S. and then say they support women’s rights in Iran.
We see this hypocrisy further when the United States, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, imposes sanctions that exacerbate the economic conditions women face in Iran, already under economic strain from their own self-interested leaders and domestic economic elite. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than when these sanctions strain women’s access to reproductive health care. Further, U.S. leaders cannot save the Iranian people, as their history of meddling in the affairs of this country and many others shows that they only answer to their own corporate and political interests.
Today it is incumbent on people of conscience around the world to amplify the Iranian people’s call for “Women, life, freedom.” It is incumbent upon us to amplify the demands of the current protests against the compulsory hijab and for women’s rights broadly. To amplify the demands of the Iranian working class and oppressed people’s struggles and an end to the dictatorship of the Islamic Republic.
It is further incumbent on people of conscience to resist the co-optation and exploitation of the Iranian people’s struggle for freedom by the U.S. empire and outside opportunists and to amplify their homegrown struggle for democratic self-determination. As long as the powers that be, locally and internationally, oppress them from all sides, people in Iran will continue to resist. They are strong, and they will get their freedom one day.
Cover photo: Protest in Tehran on Sept. 21. (Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)