Bold, brave and barely started Iranian teenage girls take raucous lead in openly challenging regime’s morality police

They’re beautiful, the girls, though we can’t always really see them. In most of the videos, their faces are digitally blurred, so as to deny police the ability to track them down by computer-aided facial recognition. But we hear their voices. We see their anger, their courage, and their conviction. That’s enough to see that they are beautiful, almost beyond description.

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Opinion

They’re beautiful, the girls, though we can’t always really see them. In most of the videos, their faces are digitally blurred, so as to deny police the ability to track them down by computer-aided facial recognition. But we hear their voices. We see their anger, their courage, and their conviction. That’s enough to see that they are beautiful, almost beyond description.

And as the mass protests in Iran following the death of Jîna Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who died after her arrest by the country’s morality police, passed their third week, it is those girls that have led them. Some Iranian-American journalists dubbed it the “schoolgirl’s revolution,” and the images flooding social media now show clearly its power.

Across the country, teen girls have taken a leading voice in the protests. They’ve marched in the streets. They’ve chanted and danced and confronted police. They’ve cheered in joyful abandon as passing cars honked in solidarity. They’ve walked out of school and organized civil disruptions — and by all appearances, they’re just getting started.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Women running away from anti-riot police during a protest in downtown Tehran, Iran.

They are incandescent, these girls. In one school, administration brought a member of the Basiji paramilitary to speak to the students, ostensibly to bring them under control; in response the girls surrounded his podium, tore off their headscarves and waved them in fist-pumping fury while chanting in deafening unison: “Basiji, get lost.”

Nor was that the only such image of a man in a suit looking cowed when faced with a sea of unruly teen girls. In a school near Tehran, students united to remove their scarves, then chased their pleading principal clear off the school premises, hounding him with thrown bottles of water and ferocious chants of “bisharaf,” a Persian insult meaning “honourless.”

There are few forces in the world so unstopptable, or so fearsome, as teen girls that no longer consent to being governed.

For weeks, I’ve spent hours trying to find words that can hold the awe and admiration I have for the women and girls of the protests. What I’ve found is that no English words are sufficient. (Perhaps Persian, one of the world’s great literary tongues, has better options, but if so I don’t know them.) This is all I can come up with: I love them, I love them, I love them.

I love their spirit, their courage, their refusal to be silenced. I love how they embody the joy that, as many before have noted, thrives at the heart of all successful protest movements; while protest is born through righteous rage, the joy is what holds it together. The joy of declaring what you want your world to become; the joy of fighting for that common cause together.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Mass protests are taking place in Iran following the death of Jîna Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who died after her arrest by the country’s morality police.

Some will give their lives for it. Some already have. On Sept. 20, 17-year-old Nika Shakarami joined the protest; 10 days later, her family found her body at a morgue. She had suffered catastrophic trauma across her whole body. Her aunt and uncle were arrested for speaking about her death and later paraded on television, stating she’d fallen from a building.

In the video of her uncle’s statement, a human shadow can be seen looming by his right shoulder. As he begins to speak, a voice can be heard whispering “say it, you piece of dirt.” This video was reportedly pre-recorded, meaning the voice could have been noticed and the video redone. But the goal was not plausibility; it was to show the reach of state power.

After Shakarami’s death, a video of her circulated online, taken before the protests. The setting isn’t clear, but it shows her singing into a microphone, periodically breaking into fits of giggles. Her friends laugh and cheer. Just a normal girl, with a normal life, imbued with all of teenhood’s normal dreams and delights. For this alone, it was stolen from her.

So we grieve for her, and others who have fallen or will fall, even as we note that this juncture was, in some ways, inevitable. State-mandated hijab is a global aberration, including in Muslim-majority nations; since Saudi Arabia relaxed its once-strict dress code laws in 2019, Iran and Afghanistan stand alone in the world as states that require it.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Protesters chant slogans during a protest over the death of a woman who was detained by the morality police, in downtown Tehran last month.

Meanwhile, surveys have consistently shown that a strong majority of Iranians, especially youth and urban residents, do not support compulsory hijab. And Iran is a youthful country; roughly 40 per cent of the population is under age 24. Its kids are educated, brimming with hopes, and curious about the world. So a reckoning of this scale was always going to come.

The key now, perhaps, is that it must be allowed to unfold the way it has begun: led by Iranian girls and women, responding to their voices and theirs alone. Because something uncomfortable happens in North American discourse, whenever peoples of nations across geopolitical divides rise up in service to their own convictions: there’s a tendency to make it about us.

In the last three weeks, I’ve read multiple experts strategizing about how the Iran protests could serve U.S. interests. At least two major Canadian media outlets have run content in which writers veered from discussing the protests, to expressing their own personal discomfort at simply seeing women in Canada going about their lives wearing some form of hijab.

Iranian women have not asked for this. They have not asked the world to wring its hands about hijab. They are putting their own bodies on the line for their freedom; they haven’t asked us to wonder how that could benefit the West. They have asked us to see them, to hear them, and to let them lead. Anything else is a co-optation, an exploitation of their bravery.

Iranian women have not asked for this. They have not asked the world to wring its hands about hijab. They are putting their own bodies on the line for their freedom.

An outside interrogation of women’s lives and choices without their involvement is not liberation. History has shown, loudly, that when women have collectively negotiated their position and found it lacking; when they want something else, something different, something more; they will name it, and then they will ask, and if the ask is not met, then they will demand.

What those demands are can and will differ. The priorities of women in Iran need not match those of non-Iranian journalists or experts in foreign affairs or random Canadians watching on television. Everywhere in the world that women have risen up to seize the freedoms they rightfully claim as theirs, they are the authors and agents of their own liberation.

So, to women in girls in Iran, and everywhere these struggles unfold: we see you, we hear you. May you be safe, and if this part of your struggle means you cannot be safe, then may you know you are loved. May your anger and courage light a flame so bright that nothing can extinguish it, and may you find moments of joy to carry you through the night.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

MAYA ALLERUZZO / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

A photo depicting Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by Iran’s notorious “morality police”.

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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