Editor’s note: We welcome this commentary by Dr. Asal Johnson, a Stetson University professor who was born and raised in Iran.
BY DR. ASAL JOHNSON
In 1999, the first large student protests after the Islamic Revolution took place in Tehran in response to the unlawful shutdown of a newspaper. To crack down on demonstrations, Iranian police brutally attacked a Tehran University student dorm.
During one of those days when Tehran was in unrest, I was walking back home from my college. I was unable to take a bus because all public transportation had been shut down and the streets of Tehran were heavily controlled by armed police and plainclothed pro-government militia.
While I was walking home, a plainclothed man approached me and asked me to correct my headscarf, which revealed my bangs. I refused to obey. He repeated while shouting “your Hijab is inappropriate, correct your headscarf or I will hit you.”
“I do not want to do anything with my headscarf. Who do you think you are?” I shouted back.
By this time, several people had gathered around us. The young man was armed with a club and at this point raised it to hit me in the head for refusing his command.
Suddenly, right before he hit, I heard the voice of an elderly woman shouting at the man, “Why are you trying to harm this girl?” Then she started cursing the man for harassing young women. The man moved toward this woman to beat her as well.
At this point, the large crowd around us stopped the man and told him that he should be ashamed for being about to beat a woman who could be his mother. In the meantime, a man from the crowd approached me and the woman, asking us to leave before we were arrested.
I managed to escape unharmed. I reflected on this event when I read about 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death in September. Mahsa was arrested by Iran’s morality police for allegedly wearing her headscarf improperly, and died shortly thereafter in a hospital.
What happened to Mahsa could have happened to me about two decades ago. These types of harassments, threats, and attacks on women are not isolated events. Unfortunately, they are commonplace in the daily lives of Iranian women. Iranian women are angry because many of us have experienced dangerous encounters with these guardians of “morality” throughout our lives.
During the past four decades of the Islamic regime’s rule, Iran has seen several major protests. However, this is the first time that a movement is primarily led by women where men, especially younger men, are following the lead of women. What we see today are a generation of young women who refuse to be victims and are determined to take back what has been stolen from them — their freedom. This is not true only for Iran, but around the world.
The central slogan of the Iranian movement is “women, life, freedom.” Iranian protesters know through their lived experiences that these three — women, life, freedom — are interconnected. No society is truly free unless the women of that society have freedom.
A free society starts with the recognition that women are born free and are entitled to make decisions about their own lives — including their own bodies. Every government and state that has tried to restrict women’s agency by limiting their choices over their hair, dress, sexuality or reproductive rights is no different from the ayatollah of Iran or the Taliban in Afghanistan who abuse a religion to suppress half of the population.
I hope the people of DeLand, and many other towns and cities around the United States, who care about women’s rights here, and everywhere in the world, will join in solidarity with the extremely courageous Iranian women who are literally risking everything.
The Iranian regime has shut down the internet and has opened fire on its own citizens and will continue to brutally kill if people won’t leave the streets.
Even as I write this piece, there is an unprecedented attack on university students by Iranian state security forces. The very least we can do during these difficult times is to share their stories and become their voice.
— Johnson was born in Tehran. She was raised in post-revolutionary Iran, and attended public schools in Tehran, where education has been controlled by religious fundamentalists. She received her master’s degree in urban planning from the School of Fine Arts at Tehran University. Johnson moved to the United States when she was 27 to study at Florida State University, where she received her Ph.D. She moved to DeLand with her family in 2014, and is now an associate professor and director of the public health program at Stetson University.