The Death of Mahsa Amini and the Liberties We Cannot Take for Granted: Fighting for Justice in Iran and Voting here in the United States
Every week, I receive dozens of messages from Iranians sharing their love of books and of reading with me. My book Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading is a bestseller in Iran (it was published without my or my publisher’s permission, and I’ve received no royalties from sales). My story of reading a book a day appeals to the avid readers of Iran and the message of the book — how books offer us solace, wisdom, escape, and wonder, and of how all readers in the world are connected by our need to read — has made them love it.
The Iranians I’ve heard from have express to me their great pride in their country’s literary history, and they recommend authors both ancient and contemporary for me to read. They’ve invited me to come visit, to see their bookshops and coffee houses, and the beautiful landscapes of their country, full of places perfect to sit in the sun and read, enjoying the pleasures of a good book.
But the messages I’ve been getting from Iran over the past two weeks no longer contain book recommendations or invitations to visit. Instead, my readers are asking for my help. For my support. On September 10, a young woman named Mahsa Amini was taken into custody by the ruling regime’s so-called morality police for failing to comply with dress regulations. She died three days later. The regime falsely claims the young woman died of a heart attack when in fact she died of injuries sustained while in custody.
Within days of her death, thousands upon thousands of Iranians took to the streets throughout the country. The Iranian government launched an offensive against the protesters that has resulted in the death of at least 85 people (as of this date and most likely, the number is much higher) along with thousands of arrests and beatings. My Iranian readers are asking that I, and all of the west, take notice of what is happening in Iran, and that we support in any way we can the protests of the men and women of Iran who can no longer live under a theocratic dictatorship.
I have responded by retweeting as much news coming out of Iran as I can. I post news along with Iranian messages of protest and hope and pleas for help to Instagram. Now I write this post to try to reach even more people, and to urge all of us to speak up on social media against the regime in Iran and to offer our support of the protesters, as well as demand that our government recognize the fight for freedom in Iran.
The protest against the Iranian regime crosses gender, age, and class borders. But there is no doubt that the women of Iran have led the protests. They’ve staged bonfires for the burning of their regime-mandated head scarves; marched down the streets with their heads bare, chanting “Death to the Dictator;” and cut off their hair as a symbol of both their oppression and their determination to throw off that oppression for once and for all.
The uprising is not just about the morality police enforcing strict rules about how women dress in Iran. The uprising is about sham elections; it’s about the arrests and murders of environmental activists, and artists, and journalists; it’s about corruption and economic hardships and a “43-year history…of repression.” (cite WAPO oped) As an article in Atlantic Monthly puts it, “Iranians recognize that this is their fight, and — unarmed as they are — they are on the streets facing the regime’s paramilitary thugs.”
Around the world, and here in the United States, women’s rights are under siege. Our liberties are all connected, and one freedom cannot be taken away without leaving the others not only diminished but also vulnerable to attack. Women should be able to make decisions about our lives and ourselves. No state or government, whether religious or secular, should be able to dictate what a woman can and cannot do for herself, about herself, with herself. Around the world human beings are connected by our desire for love and joy, and for release from grief and hardship. But we are also all united by our need for, and our right to, the liberty to live our lives as we see right and fit.
In Iran, men and women are taking to the streets to protest the oppression of their human rights. They are dying, they are being beaten, they are scared for their families and the retribution of a brutal regime against anyone associated with the protests, and yet they keep going. They are not backing down and they are paying with their lives.
An Iranian musician named Shervin Hajipour composed a song with lyrics taken entirely from texts sent back and forth among protesters, explaining why their reasons for rising up against the theocracy:
For dancing in the streets
For the fear of kissing
For my sister, your sister, our sisters
For the change of rotten minds
For embarrassment For poverty
For longing for a normal life
For the waste picker kid and his dreams
For the corrupted economics
For the polluted air
For the withered trees of ValiAsr street
For Piroz (Persian Cheetah) and his anticipated extinction
For the innocent forbidden dogs
For non-stop weeping
For imagining the recurrence of this scene ( Hamed Esmailion reading newspaper with his daughter who was killed in plane shot down by Islamic republic government)
For a smiling face
For students For future
For this forced heaven
For imprisoned elites
For immigrant afghan kids
For all this and all that was not repeated
For the empty slogans
For the collapse of flimsy houses
For the sun rising after long nights
For tranquilizers and insomnia
For Man , Homeland , Development
For the girl who wished to be a boy
Last week, Shervin Hajipour was ordered to remove the song from his website. He was then arrested and imprisoned.
As an American woman, I have the right to sit outside with a book, sun on my hair, unmolested and carefree. Would I have the bravery to face down an army to hold onto such a right? My freedom of choice is now under assault: if I lived in Arizona right now, I would have no right to make medical decisions for myself. Am I willing to take to the streets against armed thugs to fight for that right?
I don’t need to. I have the right to vote. To make my voice heard through the ballot box (with the guarantee that those voted out of office will accept defeat and leave peacefully). None of us should take that right for granted, and every single woman — and man — in the United States should go out this fall and vote for the candidate who promises to protect our freedom of choice (and the peaceful transition of power following an election). Do it for yourself, and for your children, male and female. I also ask that you go out and vote, that you make your voice heard in a powerful and peaceful manner in honor of the men and women of Iran who have to fight for their rights by putting their lives at risk.
We all wish for a place where we can be who we are, read what we want, love who we want, and where no one can make us afraid. As Americans, we vote to keep ourselves secure in our liberties. I wish strength to all those who fight for such liberties with their lives; to those who are facing off with hope for a better future against a repressive theocratic regime who wants to keep them chained to a terrible past.