Written by Mona Tajali, Associate Professor of International Relations and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Agnes Scott College
The outrage over her killing resulted in women-led protests. Their slogan “woman, life, freedom,” originally a Kurdish manifesto, has helped fuel the Iranian protesters’ demands for radical change.
The perseverance, bravery and determination of the Iranian protesters, particularly women and girls, have been heroic. Despite risks to their lives and freedoms due to a brutal government crackdown, many remain active in publicly articulating their grievances in a variety of ways.
In recent months, while some street presence has continued in Iran — for example, in response to the poisonings of schoolgirls in cities across the country — protesters are also organizing strikes, sit-ins, boycotts and publicizing their demands in the form of manifestos, charters and bills of rights.
In fact, a key distinguishing factor between the recent protests and the previous ones is that Iranians have been forming coalitions to advocate for important structural and institutional changes in support of equality, human rights, democracy and freedom.
Demands for substantial change
Disillusioned with efforts to democratize and liberalize aspects of Iranian politics and society while working within the confines of the theocratic state, today’s protesters are demanding substantial political and social change that is markedly secular.
The woman, life, freedom protests are calling for basic rights and opportunities that have rarely been recognized throughout the 44-year rule of the Islamic Republic, even after landslide elections of reform-minded figures who promised reforms. In doing so, the protesters are challenging the core tenants of the theocratic regime.
The leaderless nature of the demonstrations, which some key protesters compare to other social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, has also fuelled democratic sentiments in Iran that have empowered ordinary Iranians to protest decades of unresponsive and unrepresentative government.
Protesters are now shifting to more concerted efforts involving charters or bills of rights that outline their specific demands — yet another indication that Iranians are politicized, organized and mobilized as they push for change.
Calls for a humane society
In mid-February, coinciding with the 44th anniversary of the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, several civil society groups — including labour unions, student organizations and women’s and human rights groups — collectively publicized a joint charter outlining their minimum demands for a “new, modern, and humane society.”
The charter focuses on the core demands of large sections of the Iranian population.
It advocates for a secular state in which “religion is a private matter … and should not interfere in the political, economic, social, and cultural destiny and laws of the country.”
The charter also includes demands for the release of all political prisoners, abolishing discriminatory laws against ethnic and religious minorities and ending environmental destruction.
Soon after the charter’s publication, many Iranian scholars, activists and notable opposition leaders outside of Iran expressed their support.
The rallying cry of “woman, life, freedom” has also inspired many women’s and human rights groups to capitalize on the gendered and ethnic aspects of the protests and highlight the interests of historically marginalized populations.
Solidarity among Iranian feminists
In February 2023, a group of feminists republished the Kurdish Women’s Charter that was originally drafted in 2004, but is still relevant given the ongoing systemic discrimination faced by ethnic Kurds in Iran.
One of the biggest successes of the protest movement has been the expressions of solidarity and collaboration among feminist groups, both inside and outside Iran.
After months of collaborative work, a collective of Iranian feminists announced their proposed Iran Women’s Bill of Rights on March 8, 2023 — International Women’s Day — outlining their key demands for gender equality, non-discrimination and social justice to be included in the future constitution of Iran.
Building on decades-long activism inside Iran, the mostly exiled group of Iranian feminists summarized some of these demands in 20 articles and invited feedback from the general Iranian public on each of them.
The document emphasizes the need for a bill of rights that addresses the historical and systemic discrimination women and other minority populations have long faced in Iran.
It also demands a secular form of government that prioritizes pluralism and egalitarianism, gender parity in political decision-making and immediate abolition of all discriminatory laws against women, ethnic and religious minorities and all other marginalized groups.
It outlines mechanisms for how to achieve each human right, building on feminist thought and the work of the global human rights movements. First, however, the living document will be presented to the Iranian public, initiating discussion and dialogue on its evolution and improvement.
In another historic move, the LGBTQ+ community in Iran also published its manifesto in early 2023, outlining its central demands.
This document in particular marked an important moment for Iran in that it publicly addressed assumed taboo topics such as recognition of non-binary gender identities and ways to concretely address systemic violence and discrimination against marginalized populations.
To address the historical and systemic discrimination and injustice that has limited women’s and minorities’ rights, Iran’s protesters and feminists are actively preparing for substantial change.
These types of coalitions and solidarity among diverse populations are important steps towards the realization of fundamental human rights in the democratic, pluralist and just Iran of the future.