Since the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, in police custody in Tehran on Sept. 13, a movement has swelled and roared, with women at its helm.
These women have been joined by schoolgirls in the streets and in university campuses, bazaar merchants, and even workers from the oil and petrochemical sector, the heart of the Iranian economy.
In all corners of the world, from Paris to Toronto, women have taken to the streets to burn their hijabs, dance in defiance, and cut their hair.
As well as a poignant form of protest against the Islamic Republic’s edict that women must cover their hair, women cutting their hair has roots in an ancient cultural practice. As cited in a 1,000-year-old Persian work of literature, hair-cutting is an act of mourning.
Women cutting their hair is an ancient Persian tradition also found in the Shahnameh, when the fury is stronger than the power of the oppressor. The moment we have been waiting for has come. Politics fueled by poetry.#Persianpoetry#Gordafarid— Shara Atashi (@AtashiShara) September 21, 2022
But as the locks of hair have fallen to the ground, so has the blood spilled. The backlash against the protests in Iran has been fierce.
The regime has responded to the protests by stepping up its repression to the point of attacking protesters with artillery and drones.
Nika Sakarami is suspected to have been killed by security forces while attending a protest in Tehran. She is one of at least 201 people to have been killed, including 28 children, since the unrest began, according to Iran’s Children’s Rights Protection Society, a human rights group.
Naza Alakija, the founder of NGO Sage Foundation and senior adviser to UNICEF, is asking the world not to let the regime’s increased repression stomp out the movement. Rather, it must move even more people to stand in solidarity, and, most importantly, to act. It might seem liberating half a country is an impossible hope, but there are many ways you can help women in Iran.
We spoke to Alakija about what it was like growing up in Iran, what the protests mean for women globally, and what needs to happen now.
You lived in Iran until the age of 9, when you moved to the UK with your family. Can you tell us about what your childhood was like in Iran, what it was like growing up?
Naza Alakija: Iran is such a beautiful country, and there was a huge sense of community growing up. I would play outdoors with my friends, and that’s where my relationship with nature was built. We used to make bracelets out of flowers and vines in spring, and I would play football with the boys.
However, I also remember the other side of Iran. On the day I was leaving the country, when I was 9 years old, my mother fought with the morality police because I was not covered up. Around that age you are supposed to hit puberty, and that was the age when you could be considered ready to bear children — which is disturbing when I look back at it now, considering I was still only a child. Even though I was very young, I never forgot that argument, and the tension I could feel amongst society.
For years, you’ve advocated for change in the world, working as a senior adviser for UNICEF, and even founding your own NGO, the Sage Foundation. What’s your personal mission behind this work and what inspires you to do it?
From a young age I was extremely privileged to have access to basic amenities, such as quality education and public health services. My family was also very diligent in telling me that I could do whatever I want, as long as I did not forgo education. I did not understand how important that was as a child, but now I understand what it allowed me to accomplish.
Not everybody has the kind of opportunities and access that I had, and I am at a point in my life now where I can give back, especially to women and girls. For me, it feels like a moral obligation. Sage Foundation was born from this mindset.
When you see children and their hopeful faces, you realize: They are you, they are me, they are all of us. You see a younger version of yourself. Everybody deserves the right to quality education. It is a fundamental human right. When we do not give young girls and women access to learning and opportunities, we are intellectually depriving them, and they are cut off from understanding their true potential. It is one of the cruelest forms of patriarchal oppression and abuse.
I truly believe that empowering girls is the most powerful way to uplift entire societies and change the course of our future. Seeing firsthand what girls are capable of when given the support they need is what inspires me the most.
Mahsa Jina Amini’s murder has sparked a movement that not only impacts women in Iran, but all over the world. Can you tell us what this movement for women’s rights means for you, and what you think it means for women?
Honestly, I feel both overwhelmed and surprised.
The Iranian protests for women’s rights are not new; they have been simmering for decades. Protests happen regularly, but now we have reached a tipping point. Looking across the world, the rights of women are at risk, be it through the reversal of Roe v. Wade in the USA and the loss of bodily autonomy, or the lack of access to education in Afghanistan. Women everywhere can suddenly empathise with the women of Iran, and have listened to their voices and stories for the first time. It has not only given them the strength to fight and to take to the streets; it has given us hope that (Iranian) women matter. Hope is the most valuable and important feeling.
This public outcry has brought women together. It’s a tragedy that a woman had to die for this to get attention, but this moment can transcend space and time, and this unity has the capacity to move us forward.
#MahsaAminipic.twitter.com/CS09thSev5— Mahdieh Farhadkiaei (@mahdieh_farhad) September 23, 2022
What, in your opinion, needs to happen now to protect and empower women, both in Iran and around the world?
What my compatriots are feeling more than anything right now is an overwhelming sense of unity, support and solidarity. I feel that we can keep fighting; be it in London, Paris, all over the world. If we truly continue supporting Iranian women and we stand in solidarity, there can be change. I just hope it doesn’t come at the cost of thousands of lives, which may already be the case. And I am also not advocating for chaos, but I am asking for women, men, individuals, to come out and share the message wide and far.
In the long term, we must ensure that girls have access to education, and can safely go to school. We need to show societies, governments, policy makers and even families the return of investment that keeping them in school can bring, and we need to support female entrepreneurs and leaders.
A great deal comes down to public policy and ensuring that women’s rights are upheld. We need to keep the Iranian government accountable. Right now, it is a dictatorship that upholds patriarchal laws, not Islamic ones. I cannot stress this enough: This is not an Islamic issue, this is a patriarchal one.
You have worked extensively in the Middle East and Africa. What do women in these regions need in order to become empowered, both for themselves and in order to strengthen their communities?
In the long term, women in these regions need education and opportunity. If you provide people with opportunities, access and resources, we have no idea what remarkable potential lies there. Why would we keep on intellectually depriving Middle Eastern and African women? Does anyone really want to have an uneducated society?
We need to ensure girls are allowed to stay in education. And then, we need to support them by developing infrastructure, to provide the acceleration and opportunities that allow them to fulfill their potential when they leave school, so they can become decision-makers and leaders.
I have seen some remarkable examples across the world, but the one that stands out for me is our partner Legacy of War Foundation, and their Land for Women Project in Rwanda. Founded by Giles Duley, it gives women cooperatives full ownership of the land, which empowers them and lifts them and their community out of poverty. The five-year program supports women with the resources, tools, education, and support systems that mean they can maximise their land and become the owners of a profitable business. These empowered women are uplifting their whole societies, and preserving and promoting the sustainable farming methods that the world needs.
What an incredible day….— Giles Duley (@gilesduley) August 29, 2022
Was invited to celebrate the harvest with the women on our newest @Legacy_of_War Land For Women farm!
You can read more about the project herehttps://t.co/OzjSn7AhT8@GISH@RandomActsOrgpic.twitter.com/STcTetUam9
Do you have any last words for our Global Citizens?
Stand with us! Thank you for hearing us. Thank you for supporting us. Please don’t stop! So many people have lost their children, their sisters, their wives. If we can now keep this public support around the world, then something will hopefully change for the better.