In my early twenties, with the wild, uncertain hope that my homeland had something in store for me, I moved from Los Angeles to Iran two decades after my family fled the rise of Islamic theocracy in the 1980s. The apartment where I lived in Tehran was next to a mosque. From my window I could see the roof and the gilded dome. On religious holidays, the mosque decorated the streets with light bulbs and worshipers gathered to worship.
One such afternoon, on the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, after the memorial ceremony had begun and the voice of a man praising Fatima’s virtues was heard by followers beating their chests, I heard a girl screaming in the streets below. Her voice sounded above the percussion of the chest beating through my open window.
The year I spent in Iran, young and wild and hopeful, I lived in the shadow of fear.
I didn’t want to register that sound. I was expecting a friend for lunch and, busy with the preparations, I told myself it was just a girl laughing in the street. She has to play a game. Tag maybe, considering how raw her cry was. The doorbell rang and I opened it to find my friend, trembling, pale, leaning against the door frame for support. ‘The police outside,’ she whispered, ‘they are beating a girl in the street.’
A month later, that same Iranian friend was arrested at a party with 12 other young adults for the crime of hanging out with boys. She was held for three days. I paid her a visit during her recovery. Her eyes bruised, a big purple bump on her head, she refused to talk about what had happened to her during those three days. We sat together in silence while I held her.
Following the death last week of Mahsa Amini while in police custody for violating the hijab laws, Brig. Gene. Hossein Rahimi, the chief of Tehran’s police, immediately denied using physical force during her arrest or detention. He called the allegations “cowardly” and claimed she had had health problems. Her family has denied this, confirming that she was in perfect health.
The Guardian reported that preliminary CT scans of Amini’s head revealed a bone fracture, hemorrhage and cerebral edema. But those who have lived under the Iranian regime do not need forensic evidence. They know the terror that women face on a daily basis, both physically and psychologically. It’s so common that everyone has experienced it firsthand or knows someone close by who has. The Iranians who risk their lives by taking to the streets are protesting not only against the death of Amini, but also against the imminent death that all women face on a daily basis.
The year I spent in Iran, young and wild and hopeful, I lived in the shadow of fear. Every party I attended, every date I went to, every time I left the house, met a friend, took a trip, listened to music, danced, swam in the sea, cycled, it was a negotiation between the threat of potential violence by law and the urgency to live, to exist, to be happy.
On the third day of my return home, I had my first direct experience with the police in Iran. I was on my way to play tennis with a cousin. In the early days of my return, I was so afraid of the police that I followed the strictest version of the hijab laws. But before I reached the tennis courts, a group of women in black chadors surrounded me and demanded to know why I was dressed so indecently.
My offense? I was not wearing socks with my tennis shoes and a fraction of my ankle was visible under the hem of my long skirt. They escorted me to the police station, where I was led into a stuffy room where I saw a man in uniform behind a heavy, gloomy desk. He questioned me for 20 minutes.
When he learned that I had grown up in Los Angeles, he attributed my indecency to the idiosyncrasy of my American upbringing. He taught me the importance of modesty before finally giving me permission to leave with a warning. I was spared the experience of physical violence, but it did take something away from me. My head dropped, my voice muffled, ashamed and intimidated by a man who had the power to do whatever he wanted with my body, I apologized, even as every atom inside me screamed in rage at the humiliation. I was silent, looking at my feet and thanking him for his grace.
Countless others have not been so lucky. Images of other Iranians shows three grown men attacking a young woman on the side of a road. She falls to the tarmac, her head hitting the side of the police car before two police officers pull her up and push her into the back. Another young woman in a park screams in terror for her mother while an elderly woman tries unsuccessfully to pull her from the clutches of several police officers. When the police lift another young woman who resists arrest to throw her into a white van, a female officer grabs the girl by the hair to help, with the young woman’s head banging against the door several times.
Ahead of his planned trip to New York to speak at the opening of the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called Amini’s family to express his condolences, claiming that she, and all Iranian girls, are like his own daughter, and vowed to continue the incident. Tell me, President Raisi, is this how you treat your daughters?
Amini, the young women who were videotaped being forcibly arrested, the girl who screamed for help under the window of my apartment, my friend who was beaten in police custody – these are not isolated incidents, accidental accidents by a benevolent police force with the sole intention of protecting social welfare.
When prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for representing women protesting Iran’s hijab laws, the courts did not punish a dangerous criminal. The forced confessions of the writer, artist and activist Sepideh Rashno, who appeared on state television after her arrest and detention, did not make Iran any safer from barbaric cruelty.
Iran’s violence against women is systematic, deliberately designed by a government that, under the guise of religious piety, is using this violence to demoralize and control a tired, hungry and desperate people. A month before Amini’s death, Raisi issued an order to increase restrictions on and enforcement of women’s hijab and chastity in Iran. Soon, the government plans to use facial recognition technology to identify women on public transit who fail to comply with these stricter laws.
The European Union stated that Amini’s death is “unacceptable and that the perpetrators of this murder must be held accountable”. US special envoy to Iran Robert Malley said “those responsible for her death should be held accountable”. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken advised the Iranian government to “end the systematic persecution of women and allow peaceful protest”. Nada Al-Nashif, the acting United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for an independent investigation.
And yet Raisi was welcomed in New York at the UN as his police reportedly opened fire on crowds protesting the death of an innocent girl. While Raisi addressed the meeting, the government of Iran continued to disrupt internet connectivity to silence people who want to organize and communicate.
In this silence, as in the past, the government is committing atrocities. Still, the UN listened to Raisi talk about nuclear capabilities and human rights. Who in that audience of deputies, heads of state and dignitaries stood up and held him accountable for his abuses against the daughters of Iran? Who of them, beyond Raisi’s empty promises, will listen to their cries?
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