“Woman, Life, Freedom!”: Breaking the Double Bind in Iran

Caroline Cragg, Contributing Writer

In her 2022 essay “Double Bind of Muslim Women’s Activism in Pakistan: Case of

Malala Yousafzai and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy,” published in the Journal of International Women’s Studies, Naila Sahar describes the unique position of Muslim women activists in global society. Sahar argues that these women are in a “double bind,” in which they are “judged by patriarchy at home and are perceived as victims who need saving in the Western hegemonic discourses.” She considers the cases of Malala Yousafzai and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, two Muslim women activists who are internationally celebrated for their acts of resistance against radical Islamic patriarchy, yet controversial in their home country for “being complicit with the Western agenda of maligning Pakistan and defaming their country.” Examining those cases, it is not difficult to see why the double bind has become a considerable imposition on Muslim women or how the double bind manifests itself in the lives of Muslim women. What is not immediately clear, however, is the effect this double bind has on these activists in Iran in the wake of the death of Mahsa Amini. 

On Sept. 16, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, died under suspicious circumstances in Tehran, the capital city of Iran. According to the New York Times, Amini was arrested by morality police as she exited the subway with her brother during a family trip to Tehran. From there, she was brought to a detention facility; while her brother waited for her outside, he heard screaming from within, followed by the arrival of an ambulance. Witnesses leaving the building told Amini’s brother that security forces had killed a woman inside. Amini was taken to a hospital and fell into a coma, and was kept alive by machines until her death two days later. 

Iran’s security forces offered no explanation for her detainment, other than that it related to the mandatory hijab rule. They claimed that Amini died suddenly of a heart attack at the detention facility. Both the witnesses to the assault and the widely circulated images and video of Amini unconscious in a hospital bed with bruises around her eyes and blood coming out of her ear would suggest otherwise. Additionally, many Iranians already viewed the state’s morality police negatively. A historically unpopular result of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, morality police are well-known for being violent and oppressive. According to the Wall Street Journal, the fact that Amini was allegedly killed by morality police “touched a nerve among many Iranian families, who have had their own humiliating experiences with officers tasked with enforcing the country’s strict Islamic codes for clothing and behavior.” Moreover, polls show that an increasing majority of Iranians are secular and opposed to the mandatory hijab; this has been reflected in the magnitude and diversity of protesters following Amini’s death. 

But while protesters in Iran have been people of all ages, genders, and even political beliefs, the heart and soul of the activism has been Muslim women who, whether they identified as such before or not, are also activists. The New York Times describes how these women have been “tossing head scarves into bonfires, dancing bare-headed before security agents…supplying the defining images of defiance.” For perhaps the first time, Iranian women are the “spark, leaders and foot soldiers all at once,” offering the world not only powerful images of resistance against the mandatory hijab law, but also their bodies and freedom as sacrifices for what they see as a cause worth dying for. Men may be offering up their bodies and freedom alongside women, but these women are not relying on them to do so. The mandatory hijab law directly affects women, and as such Mahsa Amini’s death because of said law directly affects women – this is the women’s war, if only because they have the most to lose by not fighting.

It is under this narrative that Iranian women are wholeheartedly defying the double bind of Muslim women activists in a remarkably revolutionary way. Yes, they are facing patriarchy at home – but they are also being supported by men, as well as actively challenging patriarchy head-on. Yes, Mahsa Amini is viewed as a victim by the West – but the women who rose up against her death simply cannot be, because at this moment in time Muslim women activists are perhaps angrier and more visible and cohesive than ever before. 

Western perceptions of Islam complicate matters, of course – particularly Western feminism, which struggles to reconcile women’s rights and religion. Sahar describes how “the debate around religion and feminism is usually framed in terms of women’s agency, autonomy, and power to make choices, which become a signifier of women emancipation.” Women in Iran are not seeking to reject Islam; they are seeking to overthrow interpretations of Islam that directly impede on their rights as women. In doing so, these women are both flexing and fighting for their own agency and autonomy built around their identities as both Muslims and women – and carving out their own brand of feminism in the process. 

“Woman, Life, Freedom!” has become the standard chant among protesters in Iran and around the world in the aftermath of Mahsa Amini’s death. It’s simple because the demands are simple: women want to be able to be women, in whatever way they want to be, without fear for their life. They want freedom – and they seem determined to get it.