Trigger Warning: This post contains mentions of violence against women, including assault, torture, rape and murder.

A year before I was born, Iran experienced a revolution that changed the political system from the Imperial State of Iran to the Islamic Republic of Iran. On September 22, 1980—two months before I was born—Saddam Hussein invaded Iran and engaged the two neighboring countries in a war that lasted almost eight years

Aside from the troubles that came with the war, the government was writing the most dramatic changes ever into the constitution every day, and people were slowly understanding that the new regime was nothing but a theocratic dictatorship. 

Our country had been invaded and we were in the middle of a war, and the people decided we couldn’t fight the regime and defend the land at the same time. 

The Islamic Republic took advantage of the situation and destroyed every aspect of human rights—especially women’s rights—in our constitution and built up a tyrannical empire that the world is now suffering from. 

They changed the law in a way that women are not only second class citizens, but are seen as half a person. For example, to receive your inheritance or to testify in court, two women are equal to one man. This is still the law today. 

Since April 1983, all women have been legally obligated to wear hijab in public, even non-Muslims and foreigners. 

According to Islam, hijab (headscarf) is mandatory from the age of 9, but we go to school at the age of 7. So, from the ages of 7 to 9, we only have to wear the hijab at school, but once we’re 9, we have to wear it everywhere in public. 

About Me 

Spending my childhood in the war was no fun, but it was nothing compared to the pain of being seen as half a person.

On September 23, 1988, at the age of 7, on my very first day of school, I was forced to wear a hijab.

Boys and girls were sent to separate schools, and in every single school across the country, girls had to wear the same uniform: a dark blue mantle, dark blue pants and a Maghnaeh, which is basically a sack with a hole for your face, and it ends somewhere under the shoulders. Wearing the uniform was obligatory until the end of high school. 

So, we had to wear the same uniform for 12 years in a row. Nowadays, human rights activists convinced the government to allow the primary school to use colorful uniforms. It is the same uniform, but each school has a color. This is one of the reasons why Iranian women relate so much to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. 

I just hated it so much. It was uncomfortable, and it felt like I was in a cage. After a week of wearing the mandatory hijab, I was already up to complain. By the end of the second week, I ended up at the principal’s office asking them to let us remove the scarf while we were inside the school as there were no males present inside the girls’ school. All students, teachers and staff were female. 

‘’I don’t want to wear Maghnaeh, can I please remove it?” I asked the principal. “No”, she said. “Not at all.” 

“Why not?” I asked? 

“Because it is the law,” she replied. 

“But this is not fair!” I said. 

“Do you think you know better than God?” she yelled. 

”It is just not fair,” I whispered.

“Behave yourself. You are a girl, not a boy! This is for your own good, to protect your beauty and innocence from the wolves out there,” she replied.

“Be a good girl and do what you are told,” she said angrily. “This girl has no shame,” she said right before she slammed the door in my face. 

It has been a long time, but that is how I remember the conversation. 

She meant men when she said wolves, by the way. Later on, I learnt that, for some reason, they think men are dangerous to us, like wolves. Only one’s father, brother or husband are not wolves to them. What does that make us then? Sheep? Are our fathers, brothers and husbands not wolves at all? Or are they wolves to other women, just not to us?

My childhood was filled with arguments and confusing stories like that. A true troublemaker is what I was—and still am.

It was not about wearing a school uniform or doing chores; it was about experiencing inequality. Boys didn’t have to wear a scarf; why should we?

I was too young to understand what gender-based discrimination is, yet I could feel the injustice of it inside me.

Back then, I had never heard the word feminism, but now I know I was a little feminist in my own way. 

The first year of school finished. I had very good grades in every subject except behavior. That is right, we get evaluated on the way we behave as well. The behavior grade is measured by how we behave as proper Muslims and as polite children. This is a subject like all the others, and its grade would be calculated in our average annual grades. 

Turning 9 

At the age of 9, an Iranian girl supposedly becomes a “woman.” That means we are adults, so we have to pray five times a day, we have to wear hijab everywhere—even after school—and more importantly, we are ready to get married and become mothers, which terrified me for many years. I was so afraid that one day I would cause too much trouble, and my family would marry me off. 

Thinking of a wedding dress for me was more of a childhood nightmare than a dream. 

Thankfully, my family did not agree with this way of thinking. They even allowed me to continue taking my hijab off outside the school for several more years. 

Well, that didn’t last long. 

First Arrested at 10 

I was arrested for the first time when I was 10 years old by the morality police of that time, called Komiteh. They arrested me and my friend, Somayeh, who was extremely scared. 

“How old are you?” the police asked us. 

At the same time, I replied eight (nice try!) and Somayeh replied ten!

“Don’t you have shame?” he asked me. “You are ten years old and not wearing hijab?” 

Long story short, we were not sentenced to any punishment because we were kids. They called our families, and we were picked up. Her parents said I was a bad influence and didn’t let her talk to me anymore, and my days of going out without a headscarf came to an end.

From the next morning and for the rest of my life there, I had to cover myself every single time I wanted to step outside the house.

I remember that I couldn’t sleep that night thinking I do not belong here. Maybe like Anne of Green Gables, I would also find my real home someday somewhere far, far away. Somewhere that I could ride a bicycle and feel the wind in my hair. Somewhere that I would be free to wear what I want and be whoever I want. 

Nowadays, when I walk in the streets of Vienna without hijab or ride my bicycle along the Danube River and feel the wind in my hair, I think of all the little girls who are looking at the sky, wishing to do the very same. 

Second Arrest at 14 

The second time I got arrested was in 1994, when I was 14 years old. One afternoon on the way home from school. This time I was wearing a hijab, but the crime was not wearing it properly. My hair was longer than my Maghnaeh, so it was poking out from the bottom. I was arrested and had to spend about nine hours in Vozara Detention Center. This place still has the same function today. 

From afternoon until midnight, my family were looking everywhere for me. 

Eventually, around midnight, they let me call home so my mother and my aunt could come and bail me out. This time, shit got serious. 

The court hearing was two weeks after the arrest. I was sentenced to 20 lashes and a fine. I was extremely scared. We had to pay the fine and, with the receipt, go to Vozara to receive the lashes. 

Women must be lashed by women, and I got lucky that there were so many arrests that week, they did not have enough women to lash all of us. At least, that is what they told us that day. So, we were given the option to buy our lashes out. We paid and got out of it, but this was not true for everybody. The guys who were arrested had to take the lashes, and some girls and women as well. There was a pregnant woman who was in jail at the same time as me. I often wonder if she also got lucky. 

Ex-Muslim 

As a young teenager, I had many questions like, on what grounds am I considered less than a boy? Who is to blame for all these discriminations? Is it God, or is it the government?

My mother’s family blamed the Islamic regime for abusing their power in the name of Islam, but my Father’s family, who are more traditional and religious, told me that it is the will of God himself, and it can be found in the Quran. My aunt said we should have faith and follow God’s will, and no questions should be asked. 

One day, I decided to read the Quran from beginning to end. After I finished chapter 4 (Alnesa verses), which is specifically about women, I did not want to be a Muslim anymore. 

My personal understanding of the book was that the God of Muslims (Allah) did not seem to like women, and I didn’t like it. I just couldn’t accept it. 

It really broke my heart, but also helped me to quit Islam much more easily and earlier than a lot of people around me. 

Even though I quit, all my family members and most of my friends are still Muslim, and I love them the same. Some of them love me the same, though I lost many of them along the way because it was harder for them to tolerate me than it was for me to accept them. 

I believe any faith that puts men above women is a misguided faith, so I made a decision for my own fate. I did not want to be a Muslim anymore. The big question was, what would I be now? To which God would I pray now? At this point, I was not aware of the fact that, by law, I could not quit Islam. I had the illusion that it was up to me to choose what I wanted to be, only to learn that when you were born from a Muslim parent, you were Muslim, and there was no other choice.

In 12 countries around the world, apostasy, the act of leaving a religion, is punishable by death. Iran is one of them.

I had to hide my thoughts and be careful with whom I shared my secrets because revealing my truth could have cost me my life. For many years, I stayed in the closet together with millions of other Iranians. Yes, we also use the phrase “in the closet” when we cannot legally quit Islam. In private, we call ourselves ex-Muslims.

To this day, even though I live in Europe, as a citizen of Islamic republic, I have to acknowledge that I am a Muslim. Otherwise, they will not renew my passport or other documents. 

Becoming an Activist 

Like many others in Iran, I started my journey of political activism at a very young age. I participated in every single human rights movement, campaign or protest I could. Most of the rebels eventually get exhausted and move abroad before they get arrested, harassed, tortured, imprisoned or killed.  

I have been beaten by the police so many times, I’ve lost count. But during the last big movement (the Green Movement), in one of the major protests, I was beaten up by the security police to the point where I couldn’t move for three days. I had a fractured skull, multiple fractured bones and bruises on my skin from head to toe. 

Thankfully, I didn’t get arrested. Some brave people sheltered me in their house until the street was quiet, and they managed to take me home. 

A week later, I was called by the secret service of my university (the secret service has a branch in every university) to be questioned. Apparently, someone had taken a photo of me all bloody, being carried away by people, and now they had the photo. I was shocked that they could recognize me. I myself needed a couple of minutes to puzzle out that it was me in the photo. I denied it, but I still had the bruises, and they had already identified me. 

Eventually, since I was a top student, a number of my professors convinced them to let me go under some terms. They made me sign an official paper and take an oath that I would never, ever do any political activity, not even so much as saying a word against the government, or else I would be arrested, and all those professors who vouched for me would be in trouble. 

So I received a star and was free to go. That is what they call us, starred students—it is not a good thing to get a star. 

I owe a free life out of prison to every single one of those brave teachers who vouched for me that day. 

So, this was it for me. I had to get out! 

Immigration

I applied to a university in Germany to do a master’s course and left the country in October 2014, at the age of 34. But my fight for equality continues here till today. 

Now I am safe and in the process of recovering from C-PTSD, which is Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which my therapist explains is caused by experiencing war as a child followed by living a life of fear and terror under oppression, suppression and brutality.

Even knowing what it cost me, I’ve never regretted those years of fights and would do it all over again. Freedom is worth fighting for! Freedom is worth dying for. 

Illustration showing multicolored women's hands raised, making peace signs, with the words "Woman Life Freedom" across the top.
Illustration by Sahar Heumesser

About Hijab 

As a woman who was forced to wear Hijab for 27 years of my life, I obviously have a different opinion about it compared to a woman who was never pushed into it and made that decision for herself.

There are two vastly different kinds of hijabs: the democratic hijab, the head covering that a woman chooses to wear, and the tyrannical hijab, the one that a woman is forced to wear.

Masih Alinejad and and Roya Hakakian, The Washington Post

We fight the latter. For more than four decades, millions of Iranian women have been fighting against mandatory hijab, but the fight has never been against hijab itself. It has always been against the mandates on it. 

Many of those women who are fighting in the streets of Iran today are Muslim and will remain so, yet they do not want wearing hijab to be mandatory, and they demand to have equal rights and not be seen as less than a man. 

They also want to be able to make decisions about their bodies. We all want wearing or not wearing hijab to be our choice, and that is why you see hijab-wearing women are also protesting chanting “woman life freedom.”

Talking about Hijab is very controversial because hijab has been used as a tool to control the bodies and minds of millions of women for centuries. It hurt them, so that is the context for their disdain for it. On the other hand, the same hijab offers comfort and refuge to many others who choose to wear it, so the hatred of one group is just as significant as the affection of the other, and they both should be addressed equally.

This issue is not limited to Iran. Millions of women in numerous Islamic states are forced by their governments or by their families to wear hijab from the time they are children through the rest of their lives, while only a very small number of them actually choose to wear it. Millions of women want to be Muslim, but they do not want to wear hijab.

While many Muslim women are against mandatory hijab or wish to follow Islam without wearing hijab at all, those who actually choose and enjoy wearing it are often mistaken for being the representatives of the rest. Well, that is neither democratic nor fair.

The same way that we shall support the right of wearing hijab for those who choose to wear it, we shall support those who do not wish to wear it. 

It is a woman’s absolute right to wear hijab, praise it and celebrate it, if she wants. However, it is also a woman’s absolute right to take it off, burn it and protest against it without fearing offending anyone. 

Many of us, myself included, have been forced to wear hijab for many years, which made us see hijab as a symbol of oppression, yet we do not find it offensive when we see others are wearing it willingly. They are not wearing hijab to offend us. It has nothing to do with us, the same way we do not rip it off to offend them. That has nothing to do with them. 

Let’s stand in solidarity with one another and acknowledge each other’s rights and choices. 

If you can talk about how good your experiences are in terms of wearing it, why can’t we talk about how bad ours were? We all have a story—let us tell ours. 

The world will be a better place when we all accept each other no matter what our differences are. 

2022 Revolution: Women Life Freedom 

The spark of the unfolding revolution in Iran was the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish girl, after she was arrested on September 13, 2022, by the morality police for “inappropriate hijab.” 

She was detained in a “re-education center” in Tehran, and three days later, on September 16, 2022, died in hospital.

A protest started by chanting about her death, which rapidly evolved into calls to oust the regime: “Death to the Dictator,” and “We don’t want the Islamic Republic.” 

Then the slogan and hashtag of the protests became #WomanLifeFreedom. 

Iran’s protests may well be the first time in history that women have been both the spark and engine for an attempted counter revolution.

Robin Wright, The New Yorker

This revolution that has been created and led by women and girls across the country is not just about hijab. It is a response to decades of oppression, gender-based discrimination and inequity. 

We have been pushing back against this tyrannical regime for years, but this time, we have no other choice but to win. 

We want a free Iran where people of different sex, gender and sexual orientation can have equal rights. 

This Iranian revolution carries a message to all autocracies: Your time’s up! 

And what could be more wonderful than to see a feminist uprising topple the theocracy? Let’s be honest: Woman and girls in Iran are leading the defining human rights revolution of our time despite the cost of beatings, arrest, rape, torture and killings.

I’ve never been prouder to be an Iranian woman. It is inspiring and empowering to see how women—with and without hijab—are standing together, fighting for equality. It is really powerful to see how Iranian men are fighting shoulder to shoulder with us, chanting women’s rights are not negotiable. I admire how they shout, “We stand with our sisters, our mothers, our daughters!” 

Women’s rights are human rights, and standing with the women in Iran means standing strong for women’s equal rights everywhere in the world! 

Illustrator, activist and Skillshare teacher, Sahar Heumesser

As Iranian people are fighting to make equality a reality, we ask you all to stand with us and help us end this gender apartheid together. 

Please be our voice! #TogetherWeAreStronger

You can support us using these hashtags on social media:

مهسا_امینی# 

#Mahsa Amini

زن_زندگی_آزادی# 

#WomanLifeFreedom 

#IranRevoIution2022 

We are beyond grateful for all the international support we are receiving, and we are rooting for a world with peace and equality.

Written By

Sahar Heumesser

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