Say Her Name

Partha Chakraborty-

Partha Chakraborty

Mahsa Amini was visiting relatives in Tehran.  She just got off the Subway when she was accosted by morality police (Gasht-e Ershad or “Guidance Patrols”). They charged her with violating stipulations for women to cover head and hair with hijab and took her to an “education class.” Within two hours she was taken to a hospital, ostensibly for “heart attack and brain seizure.” She was in a coma for three days before dying on September 16.

The hospital initially said Amini was brought brain-dead. Pictures show a battered bloody face, leaked medical scans show skull fracture and brain edema. Women taken alongside Amini claim they were all beaten with batons for protesting abuses hurled by arresting officers. There is little doubt that custody death of Amini, who had no known medical problem, was caused by complications caused by beatings in the hands of morality police, and not because of a “sudden heart failure.”

What followed is a story of what happens when ordinary people are pushed so hard and for so long that they’ve got nothing to lose. For nine days now pitched battles have been fought by masses against the levers of oppression of a regime that outlived its welcome four decades ago. Authorities have cracked down with all it got, thousands arrested in dozens of cities, scores of innocents are dead by live fire, internet connection has been cut off and remains spotty at best; all in keeping with the wishes of the hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, who commanded that the government would “not allow, under any circumstances, for the security of the country and public to be jeopardized.”

Protests have engulfed high-rises of Tehran as well as working-class suburbs; even in Qum and Mashhad, religious centers and power-base of the hardliners, young women are stripping off their hijab and chanting “Death to Khamenei” and calling the clique around him a “shame.” Women, with their heads bare, and men are standing up against armed police and chanting “women, life, and freedom” and “death to dictator,” women are cutting off their hair in public to cheer from thousands gathered. Shadi Sadr, a human rights lawyer who faced wrath of the regime repeatedly herself, summed up as “they are standing up and saying, ‘Enough of this. I am willing to die to have a life worth living.’”

If anybody’s security is at risk, it is that of the theocratic rule that goes against the grain of an enlightened people boasting, rightfully, highest intellectual and cultural heritage that go back centuries.

For a long time, three tenets provide the battle cry in Tehran – “Death to America,” “Death to Israel” and “Hijab.” Even amongst its most ardent supporters, the first two have not only stopped providing any succor, their detrimental effect on the lives of the commoner is far too transparent. The third, a placeholder for religious purity per hard-liners’ interpretations, remains as the one lever to push. The economy is in a shambles, Iran’s pariah status is making it difficult to conduct even the most ordinary businesses of the government, the nuclear deal is – and relief that comes with it – is as much a pipe-dream as ever. Supreme Leader Khamenei is geriatric at best, an internal power struggle is inevitable upon his demise. That leaves Raisi little time to shore up his base, and few choices but to rail against Western influences and “conspiracies,” and respond with bullets, tear gas, indiscriminate beating, and mass arrests.  He is in no mood for a Hallelujah moment.

Three quarters of Iranian population is urban, the median age of an Iranian is 32 years, and, literacy for age 15-24 is almost 99%. Youth unemployment is touching 30%, and one quarter of Iranians with tertiary education live and work abroad in OECD countries. As Iranian universities train, for free in most cases, to the benefit of other economies, two corollaries jump out – education system remains top-notch and sense of despair of those left behind is mind-boggling. Iranian youth has never known anything but servitude to draconian religious zealots and most will risk everything to escape rule by geriatric despots.

Some might just risk everything to topple the regime too. This time, voices of desperation echo across geographies, across ethnicities, and across economic strata. The state media held debates as to if claws of morality are digging too deep, under explicit threats of retaliation using Sharia law people gathered unarmed facing live bullets, disconnected from the Internet, news, photos, and video do leak out. This time, it cuts too close to the youth, the humiliation they face everyday is too real, potent, and deadly to shake out of.

This time, it just might be different.

Two women died in the last few weeks. One, 22, died battered and in shock. The second, 96, passed away peacefully of old age, was interred draped in finery, topped by the finest (stolen) jewelry. They could not be more different in their lives. In their death, however, they represent a new beginning in two parallel universes. One personified, to her last breath, a noxious past – centuries’ governance by geriatric out-of-touch birthright nobles decked in regalia. The other, in her death, came to symbolize everything that has gone wrong in another regime ruled by geriatric men in robes deliberately out of touch. Both doctrines found a support in religious fervor, both thrived by pounding an iron fist on those who did not take the knee.

One woman meant nothing good except for those who benefitted from bowing to her, and her predecessors, and everything they represented. The other represents aspirations of the next generation, a jest for life, for freedom, for an end to living by diktat. It is easy to see whose name will last longer in the annals of human experience if her legacy truly does bring down a murderous mob hiding behind religion and national pride.

Say Her Name.




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