Woman, Life, Liberty: A Slogan One Hundred Years in the Making

The women's protests now engulfing Iran have roots in decades of feminist struggle dating back to the 19th century

Woman, Life, Liberty: A Slogan One Hundred Years in the Making
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

Of all the videos to surface from the Iran protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16th, one in particular has caught the public imagination. In this short clip, we see a large gathering of people around a bonfire when a young woman dressed all in white enters the circle energetically, whirls toward the fire almost joyously and halts in a dramatic pose before throwing her headscarf to the flames. The crowd cheers ecstatically.

The image seems to perfectly encapsulate the moment. On radio programs, people have called her the “fairy of Sari,” the Caspian city where the scene took place, or the “fire dancing gypsy.” From the ashes of a young, innocent woman’s death in custody, thousands of defiant women have risen to transform this moment of national tragedy and the decades of repression that have led to it into a moment of triumph. In these headscarf bonfires, women perform control over their own bodies, and in so doing, chart a new course for the country.

For decades, people of different political stripes, even Iran’s progressive feminists, argued that the hijab was of secondary concern when it came to attaining women’s rights. There were other more important rights to fight for, such as the right to divorce and custody, or equality in inheritance and testimony.

Protests following Amini’s death in morality police detention have revealed the centrality of compulsory hijab as a symbol of regime repression and impunity. Slogans such as “Woman, Life, Liberty” and “I will kill who killed my sister” intertwine the liberty of women with freedom for the nation at large.

In her death, as a Kurdish-Iranian woman, Amini ignited cross-sectional protests that united people across ethnic, linguistic and class lines, and delivered the perfect slogan from the Kurdish women’s liberation movement, “Jin, Jian, Azadi.” Adopted into Persian as “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” the slogan encapsulated the idea of universal liberation through women’s liberation, a notion that had been pushed to the margins for over a century.

This is not because women and women’s rights groups have not agitated for themselves and their country. Quite to the contrary: As early as 1852, the poet and women’s rights champion Fatimah Baraghani, known as Tahirih, declared at her execution on account of her Babi faith and public unveiling, “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.” She stands in a long line of feminist poets, including Forough Farrokhzad and Simin Behbani, who through their words augured a new dawn both for women’s independence and for the country. Following the 2009 Green Movement, Behbahani wrote a now-famous poem that ends with the lines:

You may wish to have me burned, or decide to stone me
But in your hand match or stone will lose their power to harm me

Certainly, foreign visitors have registered their amazement at Iranian women over the past century. Morgan Shuster, the American civil servant appointed by Iran’s parliament in 1911 to serve as the Treasurer-General of Persia, wrote in his memoir “The Strangling of Persia” about the dozens of women’s secret societies that affected the course of politics in the country. In one stunning passage, he describes the march of 300 women to stop yet another concession to the Russians in 1911:

They were clad in their plain black robes with the white nets of their veils dropped over their faces. Many held pistols under their skirts or in the folds of their sleeves. Straight to the Medjlis they went, and, gathered there, demanded of the President that he admit them all. […] In his reception-hall they confronted him, and lest he and his colleagues should doubt their meaning, these cloistered Persian mothers, wives, and daughters exhibited threateningly their revolvers, tore aside their veils, and confessed their decision to kill their own husbands and sons, and leave behind their own dead bodies if the Deputies wavered in their duty to uphold the liberty and dignity of the Persian people and nation.

While women worked on substantive social and political issues that affected their lives and their country, such as foreign concessions, but also women’s education and participation in politics and the workforce, the male-dominant rulers and governments often treated their bodies as theaters of identity politicking. The modernizer Reza Shah Pahlavi banned women’s veiling in 1936, forcing many women to never leave their homes until the ban was dissolved with his dethroning in 1941.

As revolutionary fervor grew in the 1970s, women constituted large segments in the diverse political groupings – from communist to nationalist and Islamist – that ultimately brought down the Pahlavi dynasty. The revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini stressed the importance of women, but he had a traditional understanding of their role in society as complementary rather than equal. Less than a month after the revolution, he gave a speech in Qom in which he declared that women state employees had to wear the veil. “Sin cannot be committed in Islamic ministries,” he proclaimed. “Naked women must not enter Islamic ministries.”

The women’s response was decisive. In the largest recorded demonstrations following the revolution, tens of thousands of women marched for six continuous days — starting on International Women’s Day on March 8, 1979 — demanding, above all, freedom. In a documentary titled, “Iranian Women’s Liberation Movement: Year Zero,” produced by the French feminist collective Des Femmes, we see mostly-unveiled but also veiled women marching down Tehran’s streets and shouting, “I say it moment to moment, I say it under torture, either freedom or death.”

The American feminist Kate Millet, who joined the marches in Tehran, appears in the documentary, visibly taken by the defiance she witnesses among the protestors. “These were the women who made revolution,” she comments. “They knew they could be killed by the Shah and his troops. They had the courage to defy the Shah’s tanks, the courage to rise up. Many women told me they wouldn’t mind dying for their rights. The struggle has to go on. I have never heard feminists elsewhere speak this way.”

In an interview about his research on the 1979 protest march, the author Nasser Mohajer says, “It seems women felt instinctively that the most important issue of our society was freedom and the most important challenge for all social forces was the struggle for connecting individual, political and social freedoms to legal equality for women and men.”

The new revolutionary leaders and their media all but ignored the protests. Even many leftist and secular factions who had just toppled one of the mightiest regimes in the world did little to support women’s demands.

Similarly, women musicians had no outspoken supporters when they were told that their solo singing voices would no longer be permitted.

The message to women was clear: No matter their contributions to the 1979 revolution, now was not their time to make demands. Their rights were less important than the victory of this anti-imperialist revolution. The women themselves responded that one need not exclude the other, chanting, “Not Eastern, not Western, universal freedom.”

Mohajer wonders, “Would the revolution have taken the same path, a dictatorship replaced by a reactionary theocracy, if other groups had supported the women’s movement?”

By 1983, the hijab was imposed on all females after the age of puberty. As they patrolled the streets, early versions of the notorious morality police became known as “Fati commando,” a derogatory term that combines Islam — in the nickname “Fati” for Fatima, the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter — with vigilantism.

Over the next three decades of the Islamic Republic, women made do. There were of course those who were happy with the new Islamist order, but there were many more who were not. Tens of thousands left the country because the new regime told them their services as professors, judges or public servants were no longer required, either because of their pre-revolutionary political affiliations, their refusal to wear the hijab, or because the positions had been deemed inappropriate for women.

Among those who stayed, women committed to reforming the system participated in protests and worked to win small victories in the legal and political arenas. By the 2000s, women had gained rights in the realms of divorce law, dowry and blood money, achieved a number of seats in the majlis (parliament) and now constituted more than half of all university students. In the cultural arena, female film directors critiqued gender apartheid in their movies, novelists wrote about women’s sexual desires and journalists founded magazines and even a daily newspaper devoted to women’s issues.

By the time of the 2009 Green Movement, women were already central to street-level political mobilization. When we look at images of that movement, we see women at the forefront of the protests. Indeed, its best-known martyr became the 27-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, shot in broad daylight by security officers.

Shaken by the magnitude of the Green Movement protests, the state securitized public spaces — both online and offline. Leading with the discourse of “cultural invasion” and “project infiltration,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reiterated in speech after speech that “the enemy’s” main site of assault was the cultural sphere. The state’s security apparatus thus made a big show of arresting the likes of the “Happy Kids,” who partook in a global youth meme and made a dance video to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” song, or the 18-year-old Instagram dance sensation Maedeh Hojabri, parading them on state television for humiliating forced confessions.

Iran’s newly founded Internet police combed sites for “anti-revolutionary” material, and gradually managed to severely restrict if not shut down Iran’s once-vibrant underground music and culture scene. But the force was simply no match for the millions of accounts that popped up once social media apps such as Telegram, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp became widespread in Iran around 2016. By 2021, the Iranian Students Polling Agency found that three quarters of adult-age Iranians used social media and messaging apps daily.

It was in these alternative public spaces unregulated by the Islamic Republic that Iranians started living out lives that more fully represented who they were. On these sites, young women smash-dubbed ridiculous speeches by aging clerics; brave poets disseminated their razor-sharp verses; dissenting clerics challenged Iran’s Islamist rule; average Iranians divulged their mundane private lives, which did not follow state-imposed religious mores; and numerous women surfaced to show their virtuoso solo vocals, demonstrating to their compatriots that throughout all these years of repression, they had not been silenced. In interviews, they said they took as their model Qamar ol-Moluk, the famed singer who, one century ago, unveiled onstage and sung a feminist poem to a mixed crowd at the Tehran Grand Hotel.

Women continued on the streets, too. This past decade, it has been women on the frontlines leading campaigns demanding state accountability for the killing of their children in protests, pushing for the right to attend games in sports stadiums, organizing teachers’ unions and initiating letters demanding the Supreme Leader’s resignation, not to mention untethering their bodies from state control in spontaneous acts of joyful dancing in busy urban streets.

When, in December 2017, the 27-year-old Vida Movahed climbed a utility box in Tehran to solemnly hold her white headscarf on a stick as a gesture of protest against compulsory hijab, the image spread like wildfire on social media. Soon, there were dozens of other women copying her act across Iran. They became known as the “Girls of Revolution Street.” While social media helped spread this mimetic posture of protest, it probably also helped cause the original act.

The same year, the now-controversial journalist Masih Alinejad had started the “White Wednesdays” campaign, urging Iranian women to wear white headscarves on Wednesdays to express their protest against compulsory hijab. Hundreds of videos started circulating on social media of women wearing white headscarves, and sometimes taking them off. Although Movahed did climb that utility box on a Wednesday and held a white headscarf, we cannot be sure she was following Alinejad’s lead. Either way, the impact of the campaign cannot be disregarded. Alinejad put the hijab front and center in her opposition to the Islamic Republic.

Though the exiled journalist has accrued some 10 million followers across her various platforms, she is persona non grata among leftists and progressive feminists. Given the Western obsession with women’s oppression in the Muslim world, and the particular fixation on the hijab, most feminists have rightly aimed to distance themselves from these narratives and approach the question of women’s liberation from a more holistic and nuanced perspective. No self-respecting scholar wants to become a pawn in neo-imperialist discourses of “white men saving brown women from brown men,” in the memorable formulation of the scholar Gayatri Spivak. However, this particular anti-imperialist stance has also meant that academics and leftists have accorded the hijab a secondary status in women’s struggles.

These misgivings about Alinejad were confirmed when she chose to meet with Donald Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who pursued misogynist policies at home while spearheading Washington’s policy of crippling sanctions in the name of saving Iran’s women.

The same patronizing Western view was also on display last week when The New Yorker magazine published an article hailing Alinejad as the leader of millions of women in Iran. Not surprisingly, there have now been petitions and open letters demanding the magazine take this erroneous and harmful story down.

Regardless, the discussions around Alinejad, while important in the West, are insignificant in Iran, where women have long moved on and beyond. Driven internally by their conditions, rather than any leader situated abroad, they have been pushing against the restrictions imposed on them for four decades. Without managing to change any official regulations on hijab, they have succeeded in changing the public dress code through what the social theorist Asef Bayat calls a “non-movement.” Gradually, from the 1980s onward, they have transformed the long dark robes into shorter, tighter and more colorful outfits. By the time Mahsa Amini was arrested for what by today’s standards looked like impeccable hijab, young women across busy Tehran squares were already letting their headscarves slip to their shoulders.

Both their actions on the streets and their activity on social media have normalized their presence outside of the state’s strict regulations, to the point where a young woman’s killing for “a few strands of hair” seemed utterly outrageous and served as a lightning rod for fierce multi-grievance protests throughout Iran. “An Islamic Republic,” they chanted, “we don’t want, we don’t want.”

Women across the country gathered on the streets and fed their headscarves to bonfires. In dramatic public acts, they climbed cars and cut their hair. “Iranians will die,” they chanted, “but they won’t suffer humiliation.”

It was with Amini’s death in custody that we heard a certain raw truth enunciated in protest slogans and social media commentary: the idea that liberty for all remained elusive unless there was liberty for women. In this, they echoed the chants of their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations, who articulated this same truth decades earlier, now captured perfectly in the slogan, “Woman, Life, Liberty.”

By all accounts, it appears the nation has heeded their call.

Editor’s note: This article has been amended to reflect the Kurdish origins of the protest slogan “Woman, Life, Liberty” (in Kurdish, “Jin, Jian, Azadi,” adopted into Persian as “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”), a phrase rooted in the Kurdish women’s liberation movement.

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