50.50: News

How I’m fighting for Iranian women from the outside

Iranian women outside Iran have an important role in the protests against the regime, explains one activist

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Lucy Martirosyan Carla Abreu
5 October 2022, 12.45pm

Activists, mainly women, protest during a solidarity rally in Berlin, Germany, on the occasion of Iran riots, 28.09.2022, | Olaf Schuelke / Alamy Stock Photo

Women’s rights activist Zara Forouq Kanaani hadn’t cut her hair in five years. But one week after the death of Mahsa Amini, she slashed her curls with a pair of scissors at a protest in Germany against the Iranian regime.

“According to our ancestors, when women lost their loved ones or when they were suppressed, they cut their hair,” said Kanaani, an Iranian-German. “It’s to show, ‘Now, I’m a warrior. Now, I’m going to war.’”

Iranian women worldwide have been cutting or shaving their hair as an act of resistance against the Islamic Republic, following the death of Amini on 16 September. The 22-year-old Kurdish woman, also known as Jina, had travelled with her family to Tehran to visit relatives. She died three days after the capital’s ‘morality police’ arrested her for wearing her hijab “improperly”.

Witnesses say she was beaten by police in a van. The police say Amini died of a “sudden heart failure” and deny mistreating her. Iranian officials say an investigation is underway.

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Anger over Amini’s death has triggered the largest protests seen in Iran in almost three years. The demonstrations have spread across most of the country’s 31 provinces, led predominately by young women and university students. They’re now entering their third week, despite violent suppression and internet shutdown by officials.

Outside Iran, people have also taken to the streets in solidarity with the protesters inside the Islamic Republic. Last Saturday, demonstrations under the slogan ‘Women, life, liberty’ were held in Auckland, London, Melbourne, New York, Seoul, Stolkholm and other cities.

On TikTok there are more than 920 million views under the hashtag #MahsaAmini. Dozens of videos show mostly Iranian women – not only from Tehran, but also Berlin, London, New York and Vancouver – burning their hijabs and chopping their hair.

To date, 133 people across Iran have been killed by authorities since the protests began, according to Norwegian NGO Iran Human Rights. The NGO reported that security forces shot and killed more than 40 ethnic Baluch activists in the city of Zahedan in eastern Iran on 30 September, in what’s described as one of the bloodiest events since the nationwide protests began.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has accused the Islamic Republic’s long-time adversaries, the US and Israel, of stoking civil unrest in the country. “These riots and the insecurity were engineered by America and the occupying, false Zionist regime, as well as their paid agents, with the help of some traitorous Iranians abroad,” he said on Monday.

Foreigners in Iran have been detained, too. Iran’s intelligence ministry claimed that “nine foreign nationals from Germany, Poland, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, etc. were arrested at or behind the scene of riots”, along with 256 members of outlawed opposition groups.

‘Can you be our voices?’

Forouq Kanaani hasn’t been back home to Iran since 2015, fearing imprisonment or even death – as other women activists have faced. Instead, she condemns the Islamic Republic at a distance by appearing on independent Iranian news channels such as Iran International in the UK or BBC Persia.

The Iranian diaspora is important because “women like me get no voice inside Iran”, said Kanaani, who also works as a commissioner for women and equal opportunities in a German city (which she requested we do not name for security reasons).

Iranian media is almost entirely state-owned, and Reporters without Borders (RSF) ranks the country as one of the world’s ten worst for press freedom. The journalist who broke the story about Amini’s death, Niloufar Hamedi of the Shargh daily, was arrested and placed in solitary confinement in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison for her work. Eighteen other journalists covering the latest protests have since been arrested in Tehran and in other cities in Iran, RSF reported.

The Islamic Republic, in power since 1979, has a history of repressing civilians, human rights lawyers and activists who speak out against the regime, by means of arbitrary arrests, long-term prison sentences and the death penalty. Iran scored 14/100 in Freedom House’s 2022 ‘Freedom in the World’ report, due to a lack of freedom of assembly and expression and political rights.

Kanaani recognises the perceived privilege she has as an Iranian woman living in Europe. She wouldn’t be organising on behalf of activists in Iran if they didn’t ask her to first, she says.

“It’s not that we’re encouraging people to be in the mouth of the dragon and we’re just sitting here in safety,” Kanaani said. “We get the initiatives from inside Iran.”

A nationwide civil disobdedience campaign against the compulsory hijab — #No2Hijab — was launched on 12 July (known as National Hijab day in Iran) by Iranian women with the outside help from political activist Tahreh Abdoli and Kanaani.

“[The Iranian activists] said, ‘We want to do this, can you be our voices?’ They said, ‘Go to the TV. Go to Twitter. Put a hashtag’,” Kanaani said.

She added: “We just did our duty to spread the word because they didn’t want to be seen on the front row, because they’re still living in Iran.”

Internet blackouts and surveillance

The Iranian regime has blocked internet and mobile networks since 19 September, according to internet watchdog Netblocks – and will continue to do so, as long as the protests are still taking place. Instagram and WhatsApp, the last two remaining Western social media sites in the country, have been censored. Google Play and Apple’s App store have both been blocked, preventing many Iranians from accessing VPNs — virtual private networks — to circumvent the online restrictions.

For most Iranian diaspora, talking to family in Iran about the protests or the Iranian government is completely off-limits. Sam (not his real name), an 18-year-old Iranian student now living in Azerbaijan, believes the regime is listening in on his phone conversations with his relatives.

“Sometimes two lines overlap [and] we can hear someone else's conversation. That's when we know they are recording. Or our previous conversations will play back,” he said.

For the first time in [Iran’s] history, a revolution was initiated by a woman for freedom

A different kind of protest

For Kanaani, the current protests in Iran are unlike any other since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

“For the first time in [Iran’s] history, a revolution was initiated by a woman for freedom,” said Kanaani, who also serves as a board member of Women for Women, an organisation in Germany.

She became an activist almost by accident in 2009, when she was a 25-year-old student working in landscaping. Widespread protests, nicknamed the Green Movement, erupted in Iran over a disputed presidential election result.

Kanaani had never voted before or particularly cared about politics – she didn’t want to legitimise the regime, she says. But she was fed up with corruption, so she ran into the streets of Tehran to join the demonstrations.

“I saw Christiane Amanpour [veteran British-Iranian CNN anchor], and I jumped in front of her and I said, ‘you know what, maybe now we’re changing things.’ And she filmed it,” Kanaani said. (Two weeks ago, Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi cancelled an interview with Amanpour in New York after she refused his demand to wear a headscarf.)

Kanaani was expelled from her job and her studies. “Almost everyone who was active in any political phase after the Islamic revolution in Iran had some problem. And I was no exception,” Kanaani, now 38, said. She is currently finishing a PhD in Germany in addition to advocating for women’s rights worldwide.

While she worries about putting her family at risk whenever she speaks out about the Iranian government, she says: “Should I go silent to protect my family in Iran? But they are like any other Iranians. So I go on talking.”

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