Of Tehran and Tucson

Last month, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman from the provinces of Iran, was visiting Tehran when she was arrested and jailed by the country’s so-called “morality police”—the “guidance patrol,” as they call themselves—for wearing her head covering too loosely. 

Three days later, she was dead, almost certainly killed by those authorities while in their custody. 

I’ll repeat that, as they say on the BBC: She was not arrested for refusing to wear the scarf, just for wearing it too loosely. For that she was murdered by the religious police. (The government claims she died of a heart attack.)

Following her death, Iran erupted in nationwide protest, with demonstrators taking to the streets of the capital, as well as Tabriz, Mashhad, Isfahan, Shiraz, and even the holy city of Qom, clashing with police, who in some cases fired on them with ball ammo. At least 41 people, both protestors and police officers, have been killed. Defiant Iranian women have been burning their own headscarves and cutting their hair in protest, as captured on video in images disseminated worldwide, causing protests to spread to other countries. In an attempt to quell the unrest, the Iranian government has restricted Internet access and shut down Instagram and WhatsApp, with President Ebrahim Raisi claiming that the protests are being orchestrated by outsiders, the US specifically. Meanwhile, his military is carrying out cross-border attacks on Iranian Kurdish groups in northern Iraq for their support of these demonstrations.

All told, it has been a remarkable public uprising against Iran’s medievalist theocracy, maybe the most remarkable in the 43 years since the mullahs seized power, and all the more remarkable for being led by women, at jawdropping risk to their personal safety. Their courage is inspiring beyond belief. 

Observing the fanatic religiosity of the Tehran regime and the appalling oppression of women that it entails, it’s all too easy for those of us in the West to cluck our tongues, with sanctimony dialed up to eleven. 


It’s impossible to watch events in Iran and not register that, at the exact same time, the legislature of the state of Arizona, right here in the allegedly modern world, is putting back in place a law dating to 1864 that bans all abortions except to save a woman’s life, with no exceptions for rape or incest (which P.S. is a form of rape). 

Or that Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor of the critical swing state of Pennsylvania, who is in a close race with his Democratic opponent, is an enthusiastic supporter of the forced birth movement and on record as recently as 2019 saying that American women who have abortions should be charged with murder. 

Or that the Republican Party is generally shot through with a vicious hatred of women, as evidenced by the way the GOP glories in demonizing any strong female politician of the opposing party, from Hillary to Pelosi to Omar to AOC. Or that that same GOP is in the thrall of a radical religious fundamentalism that is keen to take the US back to a retrograde pre-feminist (and white nationalist) Christian dominionism. 

I am not suggesting that the US is in the grip of the same medieval theocracy as Iran—yet. (Unsurprisingly, Iran’s own abortion laws are extreme.) But there are certainly some powerful forces in this country who have indicated that they would be cool with that. 


It has been said many many times, but allow me to reiterate:

The forced birth movement—please don’t call it “anti-abortion,” and certainly not “pro-life”—has nothing to do with the sanctity of human life or the well-being of children, born or unborn. If it did, it would be accompanied by a shred of concern for the health and welfare of children once they have entered this mortal coil, or the mothers who bore them, and maybe even concrete measures to help them. It would not be espoused by people who frequently—irrationally—are opposed to contraception as well.

At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, the Orwellian-named “pro-life” movement is about one thing and one thing only, and that is controlling women. 

Arizona, of course, is far from the only state that has enacted or is contemplating draconian forced birth laws in the wake of the Dobbs decision of this past June. Fourteen states have effectively banned abortion altogether in the last three months, most of them representing the former Confederacy, for what it’s worth. The procedure is in jeopardy in at least nine others, and under severe restrictions in seven more. After years of dishonestly claiming the matter should be left to the states, several Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have even proposed a federal, nationwide ban. (Show of hands: who’s shocked?)

But as the historian Heather Cox Richardson explains, that Civil War-era Arizona law, pre-dating even its admission to the Union, “seems not particularly concerned with women handling their own reproductive care—it actually seems to ignore that practice entirely.”

The law that is currently interpreted to outlaw abortion care seemed designed to keep men in the chaos of the Civil War from inflicting damage on others—including pregnant women—rather than to police women’s reproductive care, which women largely handled on their own or through the help of doctors who used drugs and instruments to remove what they called dangerous blockages of women’s natural cycles in the four to five months before fetal movement became obvious.

(Richardson goes on to explain that that same legislature also prohibited any “black or mulatto, or Indian, Mongolian, or Asiatic” person from testifying in court against a white person, outlawed miscegenation, and defined the age of sexual consent as ten.)

But none of that has stopped contemporary Republican lawmakers in Arizona from using that arcane legislation to foist their religious beliefs on the entire population. 

I lived in Arizona for a time, and have an abiding fondness for it. It is a stubbornly independent state, if a weird and dangerous one, the land that gave us Goldwater (lest we forget), where grandmothers open carry in supermarkets, and a Wild West mentality still rules. Sometimes that mulishness manifests trivially, as in the state’s refusal to participate in Daylight Saving Time (which is actually a pretty rational objection, but means that Arizona is sometimes in Mountain Time and sometimes Pacific). And sometimes it manifests despicably, as in Arizona’s shameful position as the last holdout in recognizing MLK Day as an official holiday, which it didn’t do until 1986. Most recently, it has been the site of some of the most ridiculous Big Lie “auditing” of the 2020 election, to no end except a waste of taxpayer money and an avalanche of ridicule

And it is not exactly covering itself in glory at the moment. 

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which unaccountably continues to be regarded as a legitimate journalistic organization, recently endorsed Republican candidate Kari Lake in the Arizona gubernatorial race because of her stance on—wait for it—school choice. 

Here’s what The Bulwark’s Mona Charen had to say about that:

Kari Lake has declared that the 2020 election was “corrupt and stolen.” Regarding the current president of the United States, she has expressed pity, urging that “Deep down, I think we all know this illegitimate fool in the White House—I feel sorry for him—didn’t win. I hope Americans are smart enough to know that.” 

Lake has also promoted hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19, denounced vaccine mandates, and accused a GOP primary opponent of coddling pedophiles because he opposes putting cameras in school classrooms. “Her campaign merch featured a t-shirt with the image of a burning mask,” Charen reports. 

She told Steve Bannon that her opponent would likely be in jail by election day, and advised another audience that as governor she would criminally prosecute journalists who “dupe the public.” During her primary race, she suggested that fraud was already underway….And despite her victory, she carried a sledgehammer onstage on primary night and pantomimed smashing electronic voting machines. Her loyalty to the orange Jesus is total. After the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, she declared that “Our government is rotten to the core.”

That’s the GOP nominee for governor of Arizona. 

That Kari Lake is a woman does not excuse her or make her any less dangerous as a member of a party that would drag American women into Atwoodian subservience, and similarly oppress people of color, the poor, middle class, Democrats in general, and pretty much everyone else not wearing a red ballcap and waving a TRUMP flag as it merrily rolls along its anti-science, climate emergency-denying, proto-authoritarian way. 

She is emblematic of lots of women who are complicit in that reactionary crusade, from Ginni Thomas, to Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Elise Stefanik, to Judge Aileen Cannon and Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. (Globally, shall we include the likes of Giorgia Meloni and Marine Le Pen?) 

I guess we have achieved gender parity in at least one area, even if it’s the dubious one of being a loathsome troglodyte.


The Islamic Republic of Iran represents the extreme end of where all this might lead, with no need to resort to a fictional Gilead. But real-life Persian women apparently have had enough, every bit as much as the underground resistance fighters of Ms. Atwood’s novel (or at least its TV extrapolation). 

In The New School’s online journal Public Seminar, Kian Tajbakhsh of Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought, writes:

I believe we are witnessing something unprecedented in Iranian history: a feminist social movement. The renewed demand for accountable government and individual freedom—the liberal democratic ideal—has sprung up fromthe battle over the patriarchal control of women’s bodies and the paternalistic domination of public space. 

Today’s feminist movement, women and men alike, is saying no: women will exist in public not as wards under the control of male guardians of religious law, but as equal citizens. They are demanding recognition of basic individual human dignity and liberty, such as modern individuals have come to expect. 

As Dexter Filkins reports in The New Yorker, a key player in the protests in Iran—from afar—is the dissident Masih Alinejad, a journalist forced into exile some 13 years ago, now living in an FBI safehouse due to ongoing threats to her life even here in the USA. What Alinejad has done since 2014 surely must rank as among the simplest and most effective grass roots uses of social media for political purposes ever, calling “on women inside Iran to record themselves defying the hijab rule and to send her the evidence.”

Thousands of women have obliged, and Alinejad has posted videos and photos of them showing their hair to accounts on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Those sites are blocked by the country’s dictatorship, but, by making use of virtual private networks, many Iranians have seen them anyway. Millions have been able to witness the bravery of their fellow-citizens and to see how widely their views are shared—which, in the stifling environment of modern Iran, would otherwise be impossible.

Alinejad—who hosts the talk show “Tablet” on Voice of America’s Persian service—recently published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Women Are Leading a Revolution in Iran. When Will Western Feminists Help?” In it, she speaks of a system she calls “gender apartheid”:

The compulsory hijab is not just a small piece of cloth for Iranian women; it is the most visible symbol of how we are oppressed by a tyrannical theocracy. Now, by drawing attention to that injustice, Mahsa’s death has the potential to serve as a new turning point for Iranian women.

They deserve the support of their Western counterparts. Yet so far we see little evidence that women in Europe or North America are willing to take to the streets to show their solidarity for a women’s revolution in Iran.

Alinejad goes on to criticize female politicians from Western countries, including France, the UK, and Italy, who have donned the hijab on visits to Iran. These Westerners, she says, went “out of their way to show deference to the men who have elevated misogyny to a state principle. A regime that abuses and harasses millions of women each year does not deserve our respect. To do so makes a mockery of all our talk of universal human rights.”

(Just last week the reporter Christiane Amanpour refused to wear a head covering for an interview with Raisi, and as a result had it canceled. Famously, the legendary Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci ripped her chador off during a 1979 interview the Ayatollah Khomeini, telling him, “I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.” That, too, brought about a  swift end to the conversation.) 

Many, like Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have argued that “Amini’s death, and Iranian society’s response to it, should permanently alter how the outside world interacts with Iranian officials. And that shift in awareness should also include a fundamental reassessment of its own Iran policy by the Biden administration.”

Alinejad also makes a direct connection between what is happening in Iran and in the West:

When the Women’s March took place in Washington, DC, in 2017, I was happy to join. Along with the rest I chanted: “My body, my choice.” Some women might well choose to veil their faces and bodies in accordance with their religious or cultural beliefs—but that should be a matter of their own choice, not a rule imposed by the whips and clubs of men. 

Alinejad calls “those in Afghanistan and Iran who are stepping forward, at great cost, to resist the Taliban and Islamic republic…the true feminist leaders of the 21st century, risking their lives by facing guns and bullets. She also urges “the free world to join the protesters in calling for an end to the murderous regime of the ayatollahs,” calling on us to be “louder than the tyrants.” 

We shouldn’t be afraid of the religious fanatics and the jihadists. They are the ones who are frightened. It is why they seek to keep women down. Women in the streets are paying with their lives for change. But too many in the outside world are shaking hands with our murderers.

I am asking all Western feminists to speak up. Join us. Make a video. Cut your hairBurn a headscarf. Share it on social media and boost Iranian voices. Use your freedom to say her name. Her name was Mahsa Amini.


The very term “patriarchy” invites ridicule over so-called wokeism and political correctness. But what else should we call it when faced with a global wave of misogynistic fanatics—largely, but not exclusively men—who are pathologically obsessed with controlling and oppressing the female of the species?

My neighborhood in Brooklyn is fairly diverse. Daily I see Orthodox Jewish women bewigged and covered from neck to ankle, cheek by jowl with Muslim women wearing not just the hijab but the full-body abaya and niqab, leaving only their eyes exposed. Not very well-represented here, but prevalent in many other parts of the country, like the ones where I grew up, are Christian fundamentalists who are very much in accord with that prehistoric view of the subordination of women. 

But from Tehran to Tucson to Tel Aviv, there is a new generation of women who have said “We’re not gonna take it anymore.” As a certain wise woman once said, women’s rights are human rights…..and women’s rights, human rights, and democracy itself are under attack like few of us have ever seen in our lifetimes. 

It’s hard to miss the fact that it is frequently women who are at the forefront of the global fight to defend them.


Photo: Demonstrators in Turkey carrying a photo of Mahsa Amini. Credit: AFP

2 thoughts on “Of Tehran and Tucson

  1. “ The forced birth movement—please don’t call it “anti-abortion,” and certainly not “pro-life”

    Thank you for this. This has been a Crusade of mine for some time.

    As the Lakoffs have demonstrated, it’s all about the framing.


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