“Women, Life, Liberty!”
The chanting voices of women and girls, smothered and silenced for too long, echo through the streets of Iran. These words have become the rallying cry of the brave, powerful and growing protests rocking the country, with thousands of peaceful demonstrators calling for fundamental human rights for the women of Iran.
This current wave of protests was sparked by the brutal murder in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on 16 September, arrested by Iran’s notorious “morality police” for allegedly wearing her head scarf too loosely.
In the weeks that followed Amini’s cruel death, thousands of Iranian women and their supporters have taken to the streets to demand fair and equal treatment in the country.
While these protests began over the issue of women’s freedom of dress and protection from violence and discrimination, it has quickly spread to more than 80 cities as Iranians from across age, gender, ethnicity and class lines have united to express their anger and frustration with the autocratic Iranian regime.
Young women, symbolically burning their head scarves and cutting their uncovered hair in public in defiance of the country’s strict hijab laws, have been met by a ruthless crackdown and horrific violence by Iranian authorities.
Indeed, they are being subjected to what UN Secretary-General António Guterres called “unnecessary or disproportionate force”.
The rising death toll of these young women and girls has been widely condemned by governments and international organisations around the world, including UN Women and the UN Human Rights Council.
However, the South African government has remained silent.
The values of Iran, a theocratic and highly oppressive state without freedom of the press, expression or assembly, and deeply entrenched discrimination against women and girls, are diametrically opposed to the democratic principles of South Africa.
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In Iran, “control of the female body and oppression of women is not just a matter of policy of the current government; it is existential to the Islamic Republic and fundamental to its founding ideology”, says researcher Azadeh Akbari from the University of Twente in the Netherlands.
He goes on to say that the protests against the compulsory hijab and control of women in Iran have support even among religious women and those who choose to wear the hijab, but don’t agree with it being made mandatory and violently enforced.
Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, laws restricting women’s participation in public life became a hallmark of the Ayatollah’s regime. Human Rights Watch states that women in Iran today face discrimination in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance, and that no laws against domestic violence exist in the country.
Under the civil code of Iran, husbands choose where the family lives and can even prevent their wives from taking up certain occupations deemed to be “against family values”.
By contrast, South Africa has a long history of women leaders at the forefront of the Struggle against apartheid, and building a free and equal society. Like in Iran today, it was the women of our country who bravely marched against the racist apartheid laws in 1956 with their rallying cry, “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo” – “You strike a woman, you strike a rock.”
In a speech commemorating this event, Nelson Mandela said “as long as women are bound by poverty and as long as they are looked down upon, human rights will lack substance.
“As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow.
“As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure.”
South Africa betrays Madiba’s words and the values of the Freedom Charter and our Constitution, as well as the memory of our female leaders, when we do not stand up for women’s rights around the world.
As a country, we still have a long way to go to achieve true equality, dignity and respect for women and girls in our own society, and South Africa’s epidemic of gender-based violence must be urgently addressed.
Despite this, our government has a moral responsibility to add our voice to the chorus of those condemning the Iranian government’s actions and declaring our solidarity with Mahsa Amini and the plight of the women of Iran.
The Iranian regime would have us believe that Amini died in custody due to a heart attack, which caused her to fall. For South Africans, this questionable explanation is eerily similar to the excuses used by apartheid police for the deaths of Struggle leaders like Steve Biko and countless others detained in police cells.
For all that these generations of South Africans sacrificed for a better future for all, we simply cannot be silent in the face of subjugation.
Women’s rights are human rights.
No society can be truly free when half the population does not have access to protection and equality before the law, and the ability to meaningfully participate in the public sphere.
May the echoes of women, life and liberty ring out across Iran and the world. DM