I’m an accidental feminist, and I’m a bad one at that. I don’t own any paraphernalia, I rarely bring it up in conversation, and I’ve never actually taken to the streets for anything more than a hometown parade. I suppose that is the sum of my privilege: if it doesn’t do more than blip across my morning news feed, then I don’t have to make it my problem.
Life is busy. There are only so many battles we can fight in a day. But, these days, I’m having trouble ignoring a lot of things that didn’t bother me before. Especially when a population of women I don’t know, and will likely never meet, are offering themselves up as my new heroes, and calling me out in the process.
The women I’m talking about are the young, brilliant females of Iran who have been struggling for generations for their right to dress, believe and speak how they like. Freedoms that western countries enjoy freely. And while we have our own version of discrimination, nothing cuts to the bone quite like the reality that you can be arrested, beaten and killed for not so much as a curl out place.
Which is exactly what happened about seven weeks ago, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested in Tehran for an exposed lock of hair that had slipped out from her hijab as she exited the subway station with her brother. She was arrested, and later collapsed in the police station, and died in the hospital from a brain injury that her family is certain she suffered off camera during her arrest.
I wish I could tell you that this story is a new one, but since 1979, Iran has been run by an increasingly extreme Islamic Republic under the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. For decades, his henchmen called the Morality Police have been arresting, beating and disappearing Iranian women for any number of unlawful apparel choices. While Iranian women have been fearlessly pushing back decade by decade, it’s largely gone nowhere of significance. That’s because under extremist law, the most prominent pillars of their religion boil down to three objectives: defeating America, defeating Israel and requiring women to properly wear a head covering when in public.
Under the laws, men are most definitely oppressed as well, but not anywhere near the way women realize a constant fear and threat to their safety in daily life. The required hijab has been seen less and less in recent times as a sign of religious modesty and more as a mandate meant to control and manipulate women through fear and religious oppression.
Which brings us to Mahsa Amini’s death, when the slow festering frustration of Iranian women exploded back into our collective consciousness. Her funeral in September was a flashpoint that brought people far and wide out of hiding to gather in the streets of Tehran and light huge bonfires into which they threw their mandated head coverings. As a result, in the weeks following, nearly 14,000 protestors have been arrested and 200 killed, 20 of which were teenagers. That’s just the ones that were reported, and where the arrested ones have been carted off to, no one is sure.
This latest uprising can hardly be discussed without the mention of the American journalist and exiled Iranian, Masih Alinejad, who has been the face and voice of Iran’s mostly quiet fight for women’s rights. For nearly two decades, Alinejad has been a thorn in the side of the Islamic Republic. She is an activist and feminist in the truest sense of the words. She went into U.S. exile in 2009, and ever since has been leading a simple and pervasive campaign to rally her country-women around abandoning the hijab and the symbolism of gender-apartheid it represents.
With more than 10 million followers on social media still inside Iran, Alinejad calls for women to film their defiance of Islamic Law anyway they choose to do so. She is inundated with videos of women walking in public bareheaded, or wearing denim, or in a t-shirt. She posts these acts of bravery to her social, they are leaked back into her country and in this way the revolution has been quietly emboldened to the point of tipping.
Alinejad is a powerful woman, leading a powerful fight from a social media platform on her cell phone. But even with all of that influence, most of her followers are still living in silent oppression and every day more and more at risk of real consequence from their rebellion. Oppression, with no real foothold from which to fight, is a common theme the world over, and a deeply seeded struggle in our own country’s history. Silencing powerless people is not just an American pastime, it’s everywhere. And people everywhere else have it pretty bad, especially the women of the Middle East.
Silencing through threats of jail, death or exile has been the preferred mode of control, but once again the Iranian regime is struggling against a population of men and women who simply don’t care about consequence anymore. To her credit, Alinejad is keeping the fight at the forefront of everyone’s mind. From her F.B.I. safehouse in Brooklyn, she’s been slowly moving the needle on behalf of millions of her Iranian sisters for almost two decades, fearlessly challenging her sisterhood to resist any way they can manage.
BUT THAT'S ONLY HALF HER MESSAGE.
The other half she delivers is loud and clear: this is your fight, too.
She’s not talking to her fellow countrywomen; she’s talking to me and you.
Our plight as American women is real, but my new heroes are the tens of thousands of women who are right now removing their head scarves and defiantly challenging a regime that will stop at nothing to maintain their power. To say these women are brave doesn’t do them justice. In a land with unshakeable societal norms and unquestionable religious laws around female oppression, Iranian women are claiming a voice no one gave them and taking a world stage that they are building themselves.
American ladies, with all the love in my heart, they need us. As we’ve done in recent years on our own soil, we simply stop asking permission. We stop waiting for the line to form. We stop signing up for what keeps us down instead of what lifts us up. You know the slogan well: be the change. Well, here’s yet another invitation to be the mother-f***ing change.
Iranian women are currently delivering us a fresh version of this fight that asks us to turn our eyes away from ourselves and shift them outward, to a movement that crosses borders and oceans. If women all over the world can stand up and say enough, and then brace like warriors to have their throats slit as a result, then we can most certainly do the same knowing that we’ll likely make it home just fine tonight.
And I’ll tell you why. Because this is not just a fight for women in high heels or hijabs. This fight is much more insidious because the narrow-minded thinking around what we believe we deserve and what is possible, is also one we fight with ourselves. It’s an affliction for most woman on the planet, and it’s the great equalizer, above religion or status, because we wage it with ourselves. What do we deserve? What do we demand? What do we take without asking because it’s our birthright?
I’ll tell you, the answer is not another promotion, a better title, another award. Those are all fantastic measures of effort and heart, but they fall under the category of more of the same. Where our freedom (and our fight) begins is in our own hearts and our own minds. We cannot be set free by others until we set ourselves free first. Ask Nelson Mandela, ask Rosa Parks, or any of the tens upon thousands of women in Iran right now taking their lives in their hands and saying, if you must kill me, it will be on my terms, not yours. It will be with my hair flowing and my voice on the wind. It will be because I said so, not you.
The girls and women they’ve killed over the past months were not even fully grown into their lives and yet they were more woman than I will ever be. And the women rising up behind them are braver than what will ever be asked of me as an American woman.
Here in America our fight has grown quiet, but it is still very much here, against a pervasive Trump-style misogyny that still thrives even when he’s not shining the spotlight on it. And now we’re asked to fight for others, too, because we can. Do you hear them crying out across oceans to have us join them? The invitation is that this is our collective fight. Through their bravery they are finding a voice, and it’s got their regime uneasy and sweating around the collar. Uneasy because this is the way evil like this gets toppled and trampled underfoot - and this time everyone knows it.
So often we watch these incredible moments in history unfold from across the ocean but don’t know what to do about it. So, here’s our answer: use your voice. Take a page out of Masih Alinejad’s book. All these women are asking is that we validate their effort by using our voice and standing in solidarity, thereby making it our collective effort.
To have the US officially claim solidarity with the women of Iran and women across the Middle East, would bring voice and power to a population who are willing to lose it all. They are at the breaking point and we should be, too. And the luxury we own here is that we can pick up a pen and write a letter or make a call to our representatives and government officials. Start with the women in power - you know who they are. The ones who claim to be a feminist while campaigning but stay silent when it matters most.
In this country the people in charge work for us, so let’s stand up once again and be a boss. Demand a declaration of solidarity with the women of Iran. When we do it for them, we do it for ourselves and together we rise, for real.
I never intended to be called a feminist, but if that’s what this is, then call me whatever you like. But call me, and I’ll be there for you. And for the future of our collective freedom.