To understand the nature of the women’s rights movement in Iran, one need not look further than the movement’s slogan, “Women, Life, Liberty,” according to Roya Hakakian.
“I hope in this, you can hear the echo of the familiar ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ … They understood that no society could possibly pursue happiness without first ensuring the rights of 50 percent of their population.”
Hakakian, an Iranian-American writer, journalist, and founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, visited Boston College on Wednesday to give a talk titled “The Plight of Women in Israel and Iran, and the Silence of Feminists.”
Hakakian began by telling the stories of two people whom she called “exemplary victims”— Emmett Till and Mahsa Amini. Till was a young Black boy from Chicago who was visiting family in Mississippi in 1955 when he allegedly whistled or made a remark toward a white woman.
“Whatever it was, in the eyes of the town’s segregationists, it was improper conduct,” Hakakian said. “Nearly four days later, in the dark of night, two men kidnapped him from his uncle’s home, beat him brutally, shot him in the head, tied his body to barbed wire, and threw him in the river. He was a deeply tragic gift because it was his death that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.”
Hakakian then parallelled Till’s story with that of Mahsa Amini. In September 2022, Amini was visiting family in Tehran, the capital of Iran. While there, the “morality police,” which enforce religious customs, believed she was breaking the mandatory headscarf law.
“They arrested her, beat her brutally, fracturing her skull until she slipped into a coma,” Hakakian said. “Three days later, in a fluorescent lit hospital room, hooked to many tubes and lines, she died. It was her death that sparked the largest peaceful protests against Iran’s autocratic regime since its inception in 1970.”
According to Hakakian, Amini’s death sparked a major nationwide movement protesting dress code laws in Iran. Unlike in previous movements, more than just women were protesting.
“Many were [at the protests] besides women,” Hakakian said. “As women boldly took off their headscarves, defying the hijab laws, young men were lighting and setting up bonfires for [the hijabs] on the streets.”
Hakakian clarified that Till and Amini were “exemplary victims” because they were young and innocent and “neither [were] intentionally confronting or challenging that system when they became a victim of it.”
“Their innocence manifests in the idea that they were in fact, the most ordinary among their people,” Hakakian said. “And in their ordinariness, they were exemplary.”
Hakakian also discussed the 1979 rebellion where rebel groups dethroned the ruler Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took over. While Khomeini originally supported women’s freedom to choose how to present themselves—which had been established in recent years by the monarchy—he changed his mind and instituted the mandatory Islamic dress codes for women.
“On International Women’s Day on March 8, 1979, women fearlessly took to the streets to protest against him,” said Hakakian. “Most men—even the many writers and intellectuals—thought that women had to suck it up and, for the sake of national unity, put on the hijab.”
Hakakian said that after these demonstrations, many women were reportedly arrested.
“Then came a report by CNN that the women who had been arrested were being raped in prisons,” Hakakian said. “The women who had been arrested for breaking the dress code laws and offending the morality protocol were raped by the law enforcement in prisons of those who were the guardians of morality.”
Hakakian believes it is vital to continue supporting Iranian women who are fighting for their rights.
“We must fight Islamophobia in our country and stand up for the rights of our fellow Muslims here,” Hakakian said. “We must insist on the rights of women in Iran to rise against Islamist tyranny that has stripped them of choice.”