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Women’s Day in Iran: No day and every day

Women without headscarves on the streets of Tehran

The official women’s day has no fixed place in the calendar in Iran. One thing is certain: more than 44 years of state propaganda for the re-education of women have failed.

In Iran, the official Women’s Day is not on March 8th, but on January 13th this year. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the birthday of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima is set as Women’s Day. The fact that this day is also 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 calendar. Therefore, the official women’s day has to be recalculated every year and adapted to the Persian calendar, according to which all public life in Iran is based. 

The ideology behind it has remained unconventional to this day: since the 1979 revolution, those in power in Iran have been trying to determine the image of women in public. The role model for women must be Fatima, who was married at the age of nine and had five children. A pious wife who submitted, submissive, and hardly visible in public. 

“Security forces surprised by courage”

After 44 years of propaganda in the state media and systematic brainwashing attempts in all educational institutions from kindergarten to university as well as in the authorities, this ideology has achieved one thing: The first feminist revolutionary uprising in history. Last year, Iran was the scene of the longest protests since 1979. The trigger was the violent death of 22-year-old Kurd Jina Mahsa Amini in police custody. She had been arrested by the vice squad for allegedly not wearing her hijab “appropriately”.

“The protests in our city were unprecedented. In the first seven days, three-quarters of the protesters were women,” Leila from a city in the Iranian Kurdish regions told DW. Leila organized demonstrations in her city with her friends. The first demonstrations took place at Jina Mahsa Amini’s funeral in her Kurdish hometown. However, the protests quickly spread, including in particularly conservative cities, where everyone knows everyone. The anonymity that offers a certain freedom to break rules, for example, to show oneself in public without a headscarf for the first time, is missing there.

A back view of a woman with loose hair stands on the roof of a car and stretches her arms in the air.  The car is part of a protest convoy of hundreds of other cars in a steppe-like landscape.

Protest march to mark the 40th anniversary of Jina Mahsa Amini’s death in her hometown of Saqqez

“The security authorities were surprised by our courage. I even had the feeling that they were afraid,” says Leila. She was arrested on the seventh day of the protests. “Not for the first time. I’ve been arrested several times in recent years. But this time it was different. The people who questioned me were less confident and visibly nervous. But that didn’t mean they were any milder. They were violent, not only on the streets but also in prisons. We know that many women were raped to break them and to intimidate them.”

Great pressure also after the demonstrations 

Leila was punished differently. She was released after two weeks on bail, which her family struggled to raise. She was later sentenced to two years probation. “If I take a wrong step, they will lock me up.” She does not know if and when her family will get the deposit back. “We will not give up. Our uprising has affected all generations, ethnic groups, and classes. We are looking for other forms of resistance and will sort ourselves out again soon.”

Protest gatherings in the streets have subsided because of the brutal crackdown. According to human rights organizations, at least 525 demonstrators, including 71 minors, were killed by the security forces during the more than 100 days of protests. 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 activists has not eased. They are summoned and intimidated in turn, even those who only took part in protests. “They want to silence us,” a well-known lawyer, who asked not to be named because of ongoing proceedings, told DW. “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 think is right. And there are many of those in Iran.”

Female students, shot from behind in the classroom, show obscene gestures in front of portraits of the religious leaders Khomeini and Khamenei

Despite decades of state propaganda, many Iranian women are resisting religiously-based oppression

Appeal to the democratic countries abroad 

“The world should stand by these women,” said Iranian activists outside of Iran, such as Masih Alinejad. With almost nine million followers on social networks, the US-based Iranian women’s rights activist is one of the most prominent critics of the Iranian state. 

As a representative of Iranian civil society, Masih Alinejad was invited to this year’s Munich Security Conference. For the first time, no representative of the Islamic Republic was invited to this forum. “The world’s leading democratic countries must isolate the Islamic Republic, just as they isolated Putin,” she told DW. “We see that the tone has changed towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. We are now demanding that they announce a policy towards Tehran and, for example, designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Iranian women need strong decisions from politicians and a global sisterhood.”

A woman in Vancouver cuts her hair, in the background a poster with the portrait of the Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody

Abroad, many women have cut their hair in solidarity with Iranian women

Many politicians from Western countries have expressed their solidarity with the protest movement in Iran. For example, the Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib cut off her hair to the media’s attention. But at the end of February, she met with the Iranian Foreign Minister Abdollahian. Pictures from this meeting were sharply criticized by Iranian women on social networks. They felt betrayed and questioned the Foreign Minister’s solidarity. Possible background of the meeting: A Belgian development worker is in prison in Iran. Olivier Vandecasteele was sentenced to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes in January 2023. There is reason to believe that the Iranian authorities are holding him

“The support and solidarity of Western politicians meant a lot to us at the beginning,” says Leila from Kurdistan. “But we know that in the end, they think about their political and economic interests. We don’t make our fight dependent on them.”

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