Her name was Mahsa. September 23 would have been her 23rd birthday. She was supposed to start her freshman year as a microbiology major this fall.
She reminded me of myself as a student, full of aspirations before I relocated from Iran to New York State, and then to Paris for studies. Mahsa Amini was like any other girl her age. On social media posts, we see her dancing in her native Kurdish tradition, blowing dandelions, and all made up and dressed up.
Shortly before her first college semester, she went on a family trip to Tehran, Iran’s capital city. There, upon exiting a metro station, she was stopped by the so-called morality police and detained for allegedly not properly covering her hair. While in custody, she sustained injuries after being beaten brutally and fell into a coma. She died on September 16th.
The incident sparked nationwide protests that continue to this day. Defying a heightened militia presence, women are taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers, burning their veils, and cutting their hair in rebellion against compulsory hijab laws.
French actress Juliette Binoche and a number of other well known French women cut part of their hair in solidarity with Iranian women protesting the regime in Tehran. #MahsaAmini #مهسا_امینی pic.twitter.com/e2EqQZOhNl
— Bahman Kalbasi (@BahmanKalbasi) October 5, 2022
Women around the globe are showing their solidarity in rallies and by cutting their hair in public. Paris has also joined in the gestures of solidarity. Last week’s edition of Libération bore the headline “Femme, Vie, Liberté,” echoing the main rallying cry of the uprisings: Woman, Life, Freedom! On Sunday, Parisians rallied at Place de la République in unity with protestors in Iran. The Iranian community in Paris also marched on Iran’s Embassy last week, denouncing the crackdowns in their homeland.
The outcry evokes memories of witnessing the Women’s March in Paris in January 2017. I remember walking alongside the masses amidst placards denouncing the patriarchy in English and French. I was taking pictures as part of a reporting assignment for the American University of Paris. As a student journalist, I had already covered fashion events, the anniversary of the 2015 attacks, and organizations aiding Syrian refugees. This was the first time I found myself surrounded almost entirely by women – from France and beyond – coming together to protest gender inequality around the world and to show solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. The atmosphere was electrifying.
The words of exiled Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani resonate with me.
“Paris is a city that liberates you as a woman from all your sins that you think you are guilty of, it washes away all of that and you are free.”
For me, it seemed that Paris was working its cleansing effect, enabling me to grow into my identity and become increasingly aware of a calling to voice the issues facing women in my region. My graduate studies culminated in writing a thesis about the representation of Middle Eastern women in media.
My passion for traveling, crossing borders, learning languages, and making friends of different nationalities enticed me to major in Global Communications in Paris. Yet any woman of Iranian nationality inevitably faces hindrances in pursuing such ideals: until she reaches the age of 18, she needs a father’s legal permission to travel abroad, and once she is married, a husband’s legal permission.
My married female friends from Iran who traveled or immigrated to other countries were all subject to this law. High-profile Iranian female athletes have been unable to participate in international competitions because their husbands refuse to allow them to travel. It was only when my mother renounced her mehr (dowry) after her divorce when I was little that she succeeded in obtaining unlimited permission for me to travel until I turned 18. Marrying an Iranian citizen, even one living outside the country and bearing a second nationality, would bind me to this law.
To this day, I remain unbound. Much of it has to do with receiving a liberal education that created what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls a “critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions,” rather than bowing to authority or prejudice; and the ability to see oneself “as a member of a heterogeneous nation and world.”
Yet Mahsa was never allowed to pursue higher education. It pains me to realize that I could have been her – my chance to grow into an identity and calling forever halted, my life cut off abruptly and unjustly.
I also know she could have been me, having the freedom to travel or study abroad. Having the freedom to overcome inhibiting traditions. Having the freedom of bodily autonomy. Having the freedom to resist patriarchal control.
Resistance against longstanding gender inequality is the driving force behind the current protests. While Iran has had its share of uprisings in recent decades, this is the first in which women are taking center stage. Some commentators are hailing the phenomenon as Iran’s first Women’s Revolution.
As crackdowns intensify, the death toll has risen to over 100, among them 33-year-old Ghazaleh Chelavi, a popular mountain climber from my mother’s hometown of Amol. People I know have been wounded in the protests. My mother tells me guards are manning street corners at all hours, creating an atmosphere of fear and dread.
World leaders and public figures have expressed their solidarity with Iranian women, including Angelina Jolie and many leading French actresses such as Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard and Isabelle Adjani.
Through it all, I stand in solidarity with the women of Iran. We are all Mahsa. Her life mattered. Share her story. Be her voice.