Courage and anger in Iran – Why the revolution can succeed

Dusseldorf “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi!” – “Woman, life, freedom!” People shouted these Kurdish words at the funeral of Jina Mahsa Amin in the Iranian city of Saqqez in September 2022. Women tore off their headscarves and swung them through their heads air, hundreds of people came to the funeral service. It was the beginning of a revolt that continues to this day.

Amini was picked up by the vice police in the capital, Tehran, because of an improperly fitted headscarf. The young Kurd died a little later from injuries sustained in custody. With her death, a new chapter in Iranian history has begun.

The Iranians are fighting back against the decades-long oppression of women, against a dictatorial regime that invokes Islam but makes its own rules arbitrarily and only feels obliged to maintain its power.

The Iranians are demonstrating, women are taking to the streets without headscarves, and workers and shopkeepers are on strike. The Iranian regime is hitting back hard: The Revolutionary Guards, the parallel army of Iranian ruler Ali Khamenei, shoots at the demonstrators, they are arrested, tortured and sentenced to death and executed in summary proceedings.

According to the human rights organization Amnesty International, there were 94 executions in January and February of this year alone. Four books that have just been published show that the path taken by the people of Iran is still the right one.

The fate of a man sentenced to death

The fate of Reyhaneh Jabbari shows what it means to live under such rule. In more than 260 pages, her mother Shole Pakravan tells how Jabbari lived a modern life in Tehran that conformed to religious rules. Until a man lured her into his apartment with a job offer and tried to rape her. Jabbari stabbed him in self-defense. But instead of an acquittal, they expected a murder charge.

What followed shows the arbitrariness with which the regime acts against its citizens. Torture was used to force a false confession, Jabbari’s lawyer was obstructed in his work in violation of Iranian law, and the neutral judge was replaced with a religious hardliner.

Legal proceedings based on the principles of the rule of law are hardly possible for women in Iran. A woman’s testimony is worth only half as much as a man’s, and women who are sexually assaulted are often accused of wanting to seduce men.

For seven years, the family fought against the execution of the sentence. Pakravan describes insistently how they are following the instructions of the authorities, but how the lies and deception are gradually destroying trust in the Iranian legal system.

The reader feels the hope and desperation of the mother who wants to save her child. It is particularly impressive that Jabbari himself has his say. The reader gets an insight into their prison life and their thoughts and feelings. In logged phone calls, she reports overcrowded cells, poor hygienic conditions, undrinkable water and violent guards.

Shole Pakravan with Steffi Niederzoll: How to become a butterfly
Berlin publisher
Berlin 2023
272 pages
24 euros

An initially angry young woman becomes a strong personality who campaigns for fellow prisoners and women’s rights. “As long as I’m alive, even if my actions may seem as ridiculous as a well trying to reach heaven, I will not stop fighting this injustice,” she said. In the end, Reyhaneh Jabbari was executed after a long struggle. She was 26 years old.

After losing her daughter, her mother realized that she was not alone in this fate. Countless mothers have lost their daughters and sons through wrongful convictions, many remain silent out of shame. Pakravan begins to get involved with imprisoned women, even after she had to flee to Germany in 2017.

15 role models demanding their rights

Women in Iran and Iranians from abroad draw attention to the actions of the regime and thus lend power to the revolt. They fight for a free, democratic and equal Iran. In their book “We are not afraid! The Courageous Women of Iran” introduces 15 of them.

One of them is the Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. She was the first female judge in Iran and has been working as a human rights lawyer since her professional ban. The Iranian regime monitored, harassed and detained her until she fled to London in 2009. With the “One Million Signatures Campaign”, Ebadi laid one of the many small cornerstones for the current revolt.

In 2007, she and several organizations called for equality between men and women. Although they failed, the result can be seen today: women are in the front row because they know what rights have been taken away from them, writes Ebadi: “Now they are demanding these rights.”

The Iranian-American women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad writes about her childhood and youth: “A woman lives in hell in Iran. It doesn’t even exist.” Women are not allowed to ride bicycles, apply for a passport or file for divorce.

All of these injustices made Alinejad an activist early on – and thus a target for the Islamic regime. In 2021, US authorities foiled her kidnapping from the US by Iranian intelligence. Nevertheless, Alinejad continues to support the people of Iran with online campaigns. “Iranians are fed up with being told what to do and how to think,” she writes.

Natalie Amiri, Düzen Tekkal: The Courageous Women of Iran
Elizabeth Sandman Publishers
Munich 2023
144 pages
25 euros

What is striking about Alinejads and the other portraits: For these women, the current protest movement is a revolution. The mere fact that those in power have not been able to end the uprising, despite the Revolutionary Guards, mass arrests, torture and executions, is a success. All these women believe in the fall of the regime, even if it takes time.

At the same time, they are appealing to the EU and other Western countries to take a more determined stand against those in power and no longer look the other way. This is another reason why it is so important that Amiri and Tekkal give Iranian women a voice. So that the struggle of the Iranians is not forgotten.

Insights into the background of the revolt

Leily makes it clear how important support from abroad is for the people of Iran. “External pressure on Iran could improve the situation for us at least a little,” she writes. The 26-year-old, whose name has been anonymized for her protection, is demonstrating against the regime for the first time.

But she doesn’t want to stop – even if she is aware of the dangers. “We know that if things continue like this, we have no future,” Leily writes. Unlike previous generations, her generation has nothing left to lose.

“These young people know exactly what freedom is. And they know who is blocking their way,” writes journalist Gilda Sahebi in her book Our Sword is Love. The Feminist Revolt in Iran”. The state had failed with its indoctrination.

Hardly anyone summarizes the events in Iran as well as Sahebi. This is remarkable as it is difficult to get any information about what is going on there. There is no official information, the regime is throttling the Internet. Sahebi describes in detail the stages of the revolt, from the first daily demonstrations to the general strike and ongoing protests.

Gilda Sahebi: Our sword is love
S. Fischer Verlag
Frankfurt 2023
256 pages
24 euros

The author succeeds in telling the events with closeness. It is important to her to make the names of the victims visible, especially those who are in custody. “Awareness is the only thing that can save lives,” writes Sahebi, especially from abroad.

Elahe Mohammadi and Niloufar Hamedi, for example, also need attention. These women made Amini’s death known around the world. Mohammadi reported from the funeral in Saqqez, Hamedi from the hospital in Tehran where Amini died. Both are in prison, and Mohammedi faces the death penalty.

The death list that closes the book is oppressive. Even if the information is difficult to check and there is no claim to completeness, the almost 500 names are too many.

Context: how the revolution came about

In order to place this revolt and understand if it has a chance of succeeding, context is needed. This is offered by the Islamic scholar Katajun Amirpur. In “Iran without Islam. The uprising against the theocracy” embeds the current events in the more than 40-year history of the Islamic Republic – and shows that Iran has gradually moved towards where it is today in history.

More about Iran:

The first attempts at reform were made as early as the 1990s. At that time, they still assumed Iran’s intellectual elite. Under President Mohammad Khatami, a reformer, a politically interested public developed from 1997 onwards. However, he was hardly able to implement reforms, since the Guardian Council, which was made up of clerics, rejected most of them.

In the years that followed, strictly religious and moderate presidents alternated. Khatami, for example, was followed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose rhetoric against the West caused sanctions to be tightened. The supposedly falsified re-election of Ahmadinejad triggered the “Green Revolution” in 2009.

Katajun Amirpur: Iran without Islam
CH Beck Verlag
Munich 2023
240 pages
25 euros

The Iranians took to the streets in frustration, and the regime hit back bloodily. But since then, Amirpur states, the regime has been in a legitimacy crisis. Reports of torture by the victims spread through the Internet for the first time.

The more liberal Hassan Rouhani managed to relax the sanctions from 2013, but the Iranian economy was already too weak. The upswing was too brief to really resonate with the Iranians. The result: in 2017/18 they took to the streets again.

Now people are demonstrating again. Amirpur rightly warns that the Revolutionary Guards will defend the regime to the last: “These henchmen have a lot to lose and to fear – above all, the revenge of a population they have terrorized for decades.”

But never before has there been such unity and cohesion in Iran. Women fight for their rights, men show solidarity, ethnic groups and all classes of society come together.

The Iranians are thus giving themselves the chance of a power overthrow. And abroad, including Germany, can no longer look the other way – and no longer remain silent.

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