The United Nations has put November 25 on the calendar as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. To commemorate this holiday, we bring you an interview with Iranian Moujan Mirdamadi about the ongoing protests and discrimination against women in her home country.
Moujan Mirdamadi, 30, is from Tehran. She has lived in Prague since 2008, when her dad, a journalist, got a job at Radio Free Europe. She studied philosophy in Britain and now works in cultural research and writes philosophical texts. In Prague, she became involved in the Woman Life Freedom CZ movement, which supports Iranians revolting against the Islamist regime led by Ali Khamenei and the government of President Ebrahim Raisi. The organisation takes its name from the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom”, which has become a symbol of the Iranian struggle against the government.
Ema Polívková: You left Iran at the age of 16, how do you currently experience events in your country?
Moujan Mirdamadi: Although I left Iran quite a long time ago and only returned once as a tourist three years ago due to security reasons, I still keep in touch with my Iranian friends and relatives. So now it’s a bit more difficult with the internet, but we try to keep in touch. I follow the protests very closely and I consider them to be extremely important for the whole development of Iran, not only politically but also socially. I see the events as a feminist movement, but one that is also fighting for the rights of national minorities (such as the Kurdish), the LGBT+ community or for environmental demands. I hear from my friends in Iran that they don’t want to stop until there are really some changes. This is the first time that I have seen this determination among Iranians; the protests are now in their third month and so far they have not stopped.
Is there any way you, as an Iranian living abroad, can help your fellow countrymen?
This time I see a difference in the resistance against the Iranian regime, because expatriates are massively involved. They are organising various demonstrations abroad, most of them in Britain, Germany and Canada. But here in Prague we also organise smaller events. At the same time, we are trying to talk to Western politicians and the media so that the struggling Iranians can be heard. For example, our organisation has met with Czech politicians and convinced them of the need to help the protesters. It is important to disseminate truthful information so that the regime does not have a monopoly on the propaganda portrayal of events. Thanks to the fact that the Western world became interested in the fate of the 15,000 demonstrators who were arrested, the regime did not dare to execute everyone quietly. I consider this sufficient motivation to continue the resistance here in exile.
Do you think these protests are really a threat to the Iranian regime, that they are afraid of them?
Absolutely. One of the things they are trying to do is to interpret local events in a propagandistic way. If they weren’t afraid, they wouldn’t be doing that. The anti-government movement has created a sense of belonging in Iran. The greater the brutality, the more united the demonstrators become. This is what a frustrated regime fears.
It is dangerous to participate in demonstrations directly in Iran, but is it also a risk abroad, perhaps here in the Czech Republic?
It depends on how actively you participate. Threats are very common. It happened both to friends from Berlin and to people in Prague who wrote intensively on social networks. They had to move to another place because of threats from the regime. At the same time, most of these people know that they cannot return to Iran because they would be arrested immediately.
You have both Czech and Iranian citizenship, would the regime intervene against you differently if you went back?
Iran doesn’t address this much, so if I went there and got arrested, I would be treated as an Iranian. But certainly knowing that I have a Czech passport is important to me. I know that I can go back to a country where I have basic rights and I am protected
The current protests in Iran are not centralized and controlled from above by a leader, do you think this is more of an advantage or disadvantage?
We will have to wait for the answer to this question. So far, it has appeared to be more of an advantage because the regime has no target to target and destroy. The protests are small and scattered; the biggest advantage remains the sheer number of them. People gather even in small groups in villages. Going forward, however, it is not certain that the revolt will have the strength to continue without clear leadership and that the resistance will not disintegrate. I think that one day the leadership will have to be taken over by us Iranians abroad, as we are safer. In Iran, it is not possible to express support for the movement as a public figure.
Why do you think that it was the death of Mahsa Amini that triggered events in Iran? Why this victim and not a previous one, as Mahsa was not the first woman killed by the regime?
I think that society was waiting for a spark to be ignited by this act. The fact that Mahsa Amini was Kurdish and the Kurdish people are brutally repressed by the Iranian regime played a big role, so they are used to rebelling. The protests at her funeral in the Kurdish region sparked resistance elsewhere. Another trigger was the morality police causing the death of a young woman. Almost all Iranian women have had experience of this institution and so have been directly affected personally. Instead of Mahsa, it could have been any one of us.
Do you yourself have experience of harassment by the vice police?
When I was growing up in Tehran, I always passed by their patrols on my way to school and was terrified. I avoided them until I was 16, when I left Iran. But I confess that I was no rebel growing up. Some of my friends had problems in high school. When I came to Iran three years ago, the police arrested me for my outfit and took me in for an embarrassing interrogation.
What does an arrest by the vice police look like?
You have to go with them to a car where they subject you to a humiliating interrogation. And at the end, they make you sign a confession and a promise not to break the rules of morality again. Often this process is accompanied by violence, but I was lucky not to face a brutal interrogation. The regime uses these patrols mainly to intimidate young women, because you can never be sure that you will not be picked up, even if you are not provoking in any way by your appearance. Mahsa Amini, for example, broke virtually none of the prescribed outfits and still died after being detained by the vice police.
Women are discriminated against on multiple levels in Iran, it’s not just about covering up. What was the most humiliating regulation for you personally?
All of them together. Overall, as a woman in Iran, you are reminded from birth that you are inferior. There is a strict style of dress and hairstyle in the laws. At school, for example, the teachers would check our hair under the headscarf to see if we had cut it or dyed it, and if we had, we could be expelled. A woman’s rights are often half those of a man – a daughter inherits only half of what a son does, or if a man murders a woman he gets half the punishment. Women are not allowed to obtain a passport and leave the country on their own without the consent of their father or husband. And children after divorce always get custody of men. So all of this together creates the humiliating feeling that you don’t have the same rights as the other half of the population just because you were born female.
Do the current protests have the support of the majority of society, or is it mainly women and young people?
Women and young people are definitely the most visible group, but I would definitely not say the only group. The protests are taking place throughout society and people are rioting about different things. In Tehran, which is the largest cultural centre of Iran, the biggest demonstrations are for women’s rights and the rights of sexual minorities; in areas inhabited by oppressed peoples, for equality for minorities; and in the countryside, on a large scale, for improved living and environmental conditions.
And how does the male part of the population feel about today’s feminist movement for women’s rights?
In Iran there is quite a big difference between what the laws and rules are and how people actually behave. A large percentage of the Iranian population have graduated from university, have access to the internet and therefore do not live in a propaganda bubble. The Iranian population is surprisingly quite liberal. There may still be patriarchal cultural customs, but without the Islamic Republic and its supporters, we would have something to build on and we could gradually change our culture and traditions. So I think that the protests have supporters across society – among women and men. At the same time, I would like to remind people that although the regime and discriminatory laws are based on religion, this is a problem of unfree government, not Islam. Not to mention the fact that the regime, in its forty years of operation, has encouraged a large movement of people away from Islam and the faith in general.
So if the vast majority of society is anti-regime, on what does the president base his power?
Money, the military and fear. There is a great deal of corruption in Iran, the richest are loyal to the regime, and at the same time the army and police forces are also loyal so far. We shall see if this develops, because they will have to increasingly justify in their own conscience that they are killing women and children.
Do you think that Western countries should help the Iranians in their struggle?
The Iranians are asking for some form of support. They are asking Western countries to expel Iranian diplomats or to impose targeted sanctions on specific individuals. It is good to remember that the current situation in Iran is not an isolated event. For example, the regime is selling weapons to Russia, which are then being used to kill in Ukraine. So sanctions would help here too. But the protesting Iranians certainly do not want other countries to intervene physically in Iran. The Iranians have to win this fight themselves.
Do you believe that the struggle to liberalise the country can be successful?
I believe so, but there is still a long and difficult road to a happy ending. And it will take a lot of sacrifices, especially among Iranian women.
Interview with Iranian Moujan Mirdamadi conducted by Ema Polívková.
published: 5. 12. 2022