Spectators ran in all directions. I should have shredded my class notes, run from the desk into the next street. But the sight of a dozen bearded men in dark green uniforms ground me to the ground. Two of the hoodlums climbed the steps to the stage; one of them raised his hand above my head, then everything went black.
When I came to, in the back seat of a car, their voices echoed in my aching skull. “You are a ruined woman who is here to ruin our country,” one of them growled at me. I was accused of trying to foment a revolution.
Fifteen years later, the streets of Iran have erupted in protest. Chants for “woman, life, freedom” resonate throughout a country that has brutally repressed them for more than 40 years.
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On February 11, 1979, the Shah of Iran was officially overthrown, ending centuries of monarchical rule. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a group of Islamic clerics arrived soon after and immediately began remaking Iran the antidote to “the West” and its immoral way of life. At the top of the list of Islamist targets: women in miniskirts or heavily made up and any display of sexuality. Women’s bodies have always been their obsession. An attack on women’s individual freedoms has always been their goal.
The revolution was perhaps best illustrated by Khomeini’s quote that was painted on buildings and billboards in Tehran: The Islamic Republic is not a question of pleasure, it is a question of morality. There is no fun in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The morality police have formed to ensure that this is so.
The Komiteh walking the streets day and night, sometimes in pairs, often in groups of four. They can be seen dressed in green uniforms or, in the case of women, black capes from head to toe, patrolling the streets for immorality: locks of hair falling from loose veils, couples holding hands , young people playing loud music in their car while talking , laughing or texting in traffic jams. They bully young people for engaging in behaviors they deem immoral – an ever-changing list that can range from nail polish to kissing in the park.
Disguised as civilians, they loot parties, raves, warehouses to round up dozens – even hundreds – of “immoral” Iranians. Sometimes those arrested are taken to detention centers; women will be questioned about their virginity. Other times they face public floggings. Young people, regardless of family ties or socio-economic background, face the same penalty, and usually one or two nights in jail, simply because they are young.
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When they came to pick me up, I was placed under house arrest for 33 days. I was confined to my apartment—only it wasn’t my apartment anymore. Everything had been removed except for a bed, a plastic card table and two folding chairs. I spent my days in what seemed like endless interrogation sessions. Why was I writing about a sexual revolution? Was I a feminist? Who sent me to Iran? In the end, I was lucky: stripped of my Iranian citizenship and sent back to the “immoral West,” I just wasn’t worth their time.
Normally, dissidents resist the regime as they have for decades, dragging their headscarves, wearing tighter and brighter clothes. But when Mahsa Amini was killed while in the custody of vice police, Iranians took to the streets in more than 40 cities, as they did during the Green Revolution in 2009. Protests escalated. continued for nearly two weeks.
It may seem easy to imagine that this series of protests will end like the last: with Iranians killed and spirits crushed. But the reality is not so simple. With each subsequent protest, more and more Iranians from more diverse backgrounds join them. The 2018 protests against compulsory veiling, for example, brought together young feminists with women from older generations. While in the early years of the revolution authorities were able to quell street protests by bringing in staunch supporters from rural areas, from 2018 protests erupted far from Tehran and featured more men. and rural women disenchanted with a regime that makes them live under the crushing effects of sanctions and unemployment.
The courageous resistance in Iran will rely on itself. With each chapter, the Iranians take more and more risks for their freedom. The Komiteh now form the right arm of the regime, perhaps keeping an unhappy population in their place. But it is also the root of the ultimate death of the Islamists. No country, no matter how hard it tries, can suppress its citizens forever.