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From Iran’s streets to the U.S. ballot box, women fight back against the ‘morality police’

Stunning images of women burning their headscarves in Iranian riots are rooted in a despair shared by U.S. female voters over their eroding rights.

Protesters make fire and block the street during a protest over the death of a woman who was detained by the morality police, in downtown Tehran, Iran on Sept. 21, 2022.
Protesters make fire and block the street during a protest over the death of a woman who was detained by the morality police, in downtown Tehran, Iran on Sept. 21, 2022.Read moreAP Photo

In 2022, women around the world are rising up to fight back against a common enemy: the morality police.

Here in the United States, the long arm of misogynistic social control can appear in many uniforms, from the black robes of Supreme Court justices hellbent on rolling back women’s reproductive rights, to the QAnon-chic of hockey rinks packed with politicized mobs chanting “Lock her up!,” to the ridiculous khaki fashions of well-dressed thugs who incongruously call themselves Proud Boys.

But 6,000 miles away in Iran, the morality police aren’t a metaphor. In the streets of Tehran and other cities in that Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, official squads set up checkpoints on street corners or subway stations to enforce strict laws requiring women to wear the hijab, or headscarf, in public — or look for other perceived offenses against Muslim law. These squads have detained thousands of women and even sent some to “re-education centers” for decades since Iran’s 1979 revolution. But this week, the morality cops went too far.

Say her name: Mahsa Amini.

On Sept. 13, this healthy 22-year-old woman from the Kurdish region of Iran near its western border with Iraq was visiting family members in the sprawling capital of Tehran when a morality police squad reportedly pulled her from her brother’s car. Her relatives and human-rights groups insist that Amini was severely beaten by the officers before she died of her injuries three days later. Iranian authorities have claimed, improbably, that she died from a heart attack. Almost no one is buying it.

The last few days have created once unthinkable videos and images from the fury of fire-lit boulevards and back alleys in cities across Iran — shared on social media despite the government’s desperate attempts to curb access — that depict the seminal moments of nothing less than a revolution against one of the most culturally repressive regimes on the planet, with women manning the barricades.

In several of the videos, women are seen removing their hijabs and tossing them into raging bonfires with a dance of wild flourish, cutting their hair, or otherwise defying Iran’s strict morality codes as massive crowds of young women and men cheer them on. Other images posted to social media show a situation that is spiraling into chaos in a growing number of Iranian cities, with rioting that appears more intense than other sporadic flareups that have occurred in recent years. Male supporters are seen fighting with police and setting their cars ablaze.

The Iranian government is meeting the challenge with predictably violent repression — at least seven protesters have been killed so far, according to reports — but also contrite promises to fully investigate the circumstances of Amini’s death, an indication of the threat this uprising poses to the regime. For sure, the unrest among Iranian citizens reflects deeper issues than just its starkly repressive gender laws — including a growing economic crisis tied to sanctions over Iran’s nuclear standoff with the United States and the West.

But dissatisfaction with Iran’s morality laws, and specifically with the hijab requirement that was re-imposed in 1983, or four years after its Islamic revolution, has been rising among young women in the new millennium, according to several surveys. Anger by female protesters over their nonstop harassment by authorities, and brutally misogynistic practices such as honor killings, is pushing 2022′s uprising to new heights. The new mood was captured by British-Iranian actor Omid Djalili, who declared in a video: “This is Iran’s George Floyd moment.”

But while the story behind the 1979 takeover led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — of how the forces of cultural resistance and religious intolerance undid a once-modernizing state — is one that Americans told ourselves to feel better about our own faith in tolerance and personal liberty, we now see that the reality was more complicated. Women aren’t just repressed in places like Iran. In other, supposedly more modernized countries, the upheavals caused by the inequity of late-stage capitalism, and mass migration amid more multicultural societies — mixed with the persistence of a culture rooted in male supremacy and other unjustifiable hierarchies — are increasingly creating tension around the rights of women all over the globe.

No wonder so many women here in the United States can identify with the plight of their Iranian sisters. In America, our ayatollahs aren’t named Khamenei — the current 83-year-old supreme leader of Iran’s decaying regime — but rather Alito, and Thomas, and Kavanaugh. When the Supreme Court overturned nearly a half-century of abortion rights in June’s Dobbs decision, millions of angry female voters saw not only the practical implications but the much broader significance of losing a fundamental right. Right-wing judges and their enablers in the corridors of Congress and many statehouses who command a woman to carry a fetus — even one that’s not going to survive — to full term are acting in the exact same spirit as mullahs issuing edicts over headscarves: controlling the autonomy of women.

Indeed, rank misogyny — powered by the insecurity of men who, amid industrial decline and the changing workplace, seem flummoxed and frustrated by their role in a changing society — was undeniably the secret sauce behind the rise of Donald Trump and the U.S. far right’s newer, scarier permutations like Christian nationalism. The gender hatred on full display at Trump’s rallies — the drive to not just defeat Hillary Clinton’s bid to become our first female president but to demonize her and lock her behind bars — has not only infected our judiciary and our elections but is giving rise to new, alarming forms of violence.

» READ MORE: What Supreme Court leak confirmed: This is no longer the America we grew up in

A remarkably timely book released just this week — We Are the Proud Boys, by the Huffington Post journalist Andy Campbell — reveals how much of the rise of the violence-loving militia-like Proud Boys who served as the backbone of the Jan. 6 insurrection is fueled by the women-hating “Western chauvinist” values of its founder, Gavin McInnes, and his young male adherents.

New York Times critic Adam Hochschild, noting the popularity of McInnes’ videos such as one that attacks single mothers, recently wrote: “These anxieties reflect a greater fear: that what’s being lost is not just testosterone but masculinity itself. It’s no coincidence that groups like the Proud Boys have arisen at a time when we have a record number of women in Congress and when far more women than men are earning both college and graduate degrees.”

It’s also not surprising that the 2022 midterms are bringing out GOP candidates like the Michigan congressional hopeful John Gibbs, who, according to a report by CNN, railed as a youthful activist against the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, claiming “that women’s suffrage had made the United States into a ‘totalitarian state.’”

But the good news for American women is that their counter-revolution started weeks ahead of Iran’s — fueled by anger at the Supreme Court since its abortion ruling on June 24 — and there is a palpable hope that change in the United States can come not with fires in the street but peacefully, at the ballot box in November.

The first green shoots of this movement appeared in the unlikely red-state setting of Kansas, where research showed the surprising defeat this summer of an amendment to enable an abortion ban was fueled by Democrats out-registering Republicans after the Dobbs ruling; a whopping 70% of those new voters were female. The pattern is repeating in swing states going into November. Here in Pennsylvania, a Democratic consultant found that 56% of new voters registering since late June are women — and particularly young women — fueling new hope for Democrats running to save abortion rights.

The desire in America is that a victory for women’s rights won’t require the life-or-death courage of their Iranian counterparts, just energy and determination to show up at the polls and get their friends, family, and neighbors to join them. But the fury over the backlash against female empowerment — and the sense that, finally, enough is enough — feels much the same on both sides of the world. Maybe 2022 will be remembered as the Year of the Woman that was falsely promised so many times before. And the morality police — literal and metaphorical — can be abolished, for good.

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