A demonstrator holding up her hijab in Tehran

A demonstrator holding up her hijab in Tehran


Middle East Images / laif

Özlem Topçu

A Lesson for the World The Courageous Women of Iran

Özlem Topçu
A DER SPIEGEL Editorial by Özlem Topçu
Nobody knows how the protests in Iran against the mullah regime will end. But the women of Iran have already accomplished more than they ever could have hoped for. And that deserves our respect.

A young woman, almost still a child really, is standing on stage. She is wearing sneakers, her hair is cut short, and her eye makeup is dark. She is singing into the microphone in her hand and joking around as another young woman, clearly a friend of hers, records the moment, giggling all the while. They are essentially teenagers having a good time. Only later do we learn the name of the girl on the stage: Nika Shakarami, a 16-year-old Iranian.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 42/2022 (October 15th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

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What distinguishes this young woman from teenagers in Hamburg or Berlin?

The fact that she is now dead.

It is likely that her family and the rest of the world will never find out exactly what happened to her after she went to a demonstration in Tehran and was then arrested. It is clear, though, that her last known location was in state custody. Her family was able to briefly see her body after days of uncertainty. But they weren’t permitted to bury her. The Iranian regime is fond of heaping more and more pain on the country’s mothers and fathers, even after taking their children.

Which makes it all the more important to never forget Nika Shakarami and the other victims of state violence. And to not lose sight of what the revolt of Iranian women has already achieved. No matter what lies ahead.

The demonstrations in Iran have been continuously growing over the last four weeks, triggered by the violent death of Jina Mahsa Amini, who was arrested after allegedly not adequately covering her hair. Initially, it was mostly grown women who took to the streets, young and old. But then the demographic began to trend younger, with schoolgirls showing their middle finger to an image of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or chasing an official from their schoolyard. Others were recorded chanting "death to the dictator!" – to the applause of the men looking on.

What the women of Iran are currently accomplishing is extremely rare: a human and political tour de force.

Both women and men are in the process of undermining the system’s logic, according to which Muslim men are complicit in dominating women by exerting control over their bodies.

The protests have now spread across the entire country and include common laborers and salaried workers, the poor and the better-off – different than previous waves of protest. Women are cutting their hair and burning their hijabs – at great risk to their lives.

What the women of Iran are currently accomplishing is extremely rare: a human and political tour de force. They have become the regime’s toughest adversaries and triggered fear within the misogynist circle of power in Tehran – which must now amplify oppression at home while continuing its nuclear posturing abroad, all while dangling the lures of its fossil fuels. Indeed, another of the women’s achievements is that they are forcing the West to adopt a clear stance and to re-examine its policies.

But perhaps the most important lesson they are teaching the world – one that can be applied to numerous other countries in the region – is that there is far more to the country than its regime. It is more than bearded men trapped in yesteryear who can only cling to power with the most brutal of repression. More than just a place for the West to quench its thirst for oil and natural gas. They are showing that not even geopolitics can ignore the people.

Those in the West who are now wondering what can be done "for the women" – the absolute minimum is refraining from downplaying this revolution’s chances for success. There should be no discussion of a likely defeat, or that one’s own "foreign policy is limited in its possibilities," as German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock tweeted. As though the Iranian women themselves had unlimited possibilities!

How insincere, then, do assurances sound that one stands behind the demands of the protest movement? Must realpolitik involve such displays of weakness?

Anything that calls attention to the courage of the women in Iran is helpful, even if it is something as seemingly ridiculous as cutting off a small lock of hair. Watching, listening and showing solidarity is more than just pure symbolism.

Perhaps that is why the images from Tehran and other cities have proven inspirational to so many people around the world. We are seeing how much power is released when people overcome their fear. Hopefully, the women of Iran will inspire folks here in Germany to reexamine their fury at their own country and political system, even as concerns about inflation and gas prices continue to build this autumn.

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