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  • Antara Basu

How is the Western World Failing the Revolution in Iran?

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinions of its author(s). They do not represent the views of UCL’s Diplomacy Society or Diplomacy Review.

The murder of Mahsa Amini by the Islamic Republic of Iran catalysed the 2022 ‘feminist revolution.’ Thousands have taken to the streets in defiance of the government. But the movement is greeted with silence and symbolic gestures from western states. A proponent of individualism and choice, western liberal feminism is quick to defend a woman’s right to veil, especially considering the ban on face coverings in France and similar controversies worldwide. Why then, is there no outward show of solidarity for Iranian women? It can be argued that the privilege of western feminists allows them to dismiss the politicisation of the hijab by the state as a tool to control its female populace. Or maybe the western world is busy balancing its interests in the region to care about the very fundamental freedoms for Iranian women that their citizens enjoy.

This is not the first time that the curtailment of women’s rights has sparked anti-government protests in Iran. Their women’s movement began years ago, with the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Led by former Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, it overturned all ‘modernisation’ measures under the Shah’s regime which activists had fought long and hard for. The revolution introduced mandatory veiling and restricted women’s rights through tight regulation of their participation in public spheres, and the repealing of Family Protection Laws. Even then women were at the forefront of public demonstrations.

In 1994, Homa Darabi died following self-immolation in protest against the treatment of women. More recently, in 2017 Vida Movahed widely came to be known as the ‘Girl of Enghelab Street’ after removing her white hijab atop a utility box and waving it on a wooden stick. Her act of defiance swept together in the wave of anti-government protests, was in fact aligned with the White Wednesday Movement, started in response to the imposition of mandatory hijab in Iran, as a part of the My Stealthy Freedom campaign. Vida was arrested on the same day. Inspired, protestors followed suit and came to be known as the ‘Girls of Enghelab Street. 'Iranian police arrested 29 more women for removing their headscarves. In 2019, Sahar Khodayari died after self-immolating in front of a courthouse following sentencing for trying to enter a football stadium and flouting hijab rules. Iranian law criminalised women’s presence in sporting events.

Iranian women have been fighting with their lives against a government that wants nothing more than to subjugate and lock them away as second-class citizens sans autonomy. Amini was killed in police custody (although the state denies this) after being detained by the morality police for non-compliance with the strict Islamic dress code. But the international outcry is calculated, and diplomacy is focused on negotiations for the nuclear program. President Biden’s very long address to the United Nations General Assembly on 21 September very briefly referred to “brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.”

The overturning of Roe v Wade in the States attracted massive hues and cries from western feminists, UN dignitaries, and political leaders alike. Feminism is said to have flourished in western states with governments committed to equal rights for men and women. Yet, their silence and performative actions about Iran are a reflection of the west trying to balance its interests over supporting the fundamental rights of women. The revolution in Iran is unique. It is different from the ones in the past because of the unity between the Iranian people. Iranian men are standing alongside women to protest the regime-sanctioned death of a woman. It is something phenomenal, and quite never seen before, especially in the Muslim world.

It begs the question of why a national movement led by women is not being embraced globally. Rose in her column raises thought-provoking questions; is it because it is a movement led by women? Or is it because women’s rights are viewed as a trivial subset, left to the discretion of misogynistic men? Whatever the reason, the women and men of Iran are fighting fiercely against a despotic regime, with or without our support. But it is up to states to decide whether for once they want to be on the right side of history.


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