Like a Phoenix from the Ashes

A young woman is arrested on the sidelines of a political rally in 1980. | Photo (detail): © Manouchehr Deghati

This article was first published in Goethe-Institut’s website.

Western media often reproduce the picture of the suppressed Iranian woman. That harms all the women in Iran who for decades have been standing up for their freedom and rights despite great risks and threat of persecution.

By Faranak Rafiei

Twenty-eight years ago, on 21 February 1994, a women set fire to herself in Tehran’s largest square, Tajrish Square, and died. Homa Darabi, a doctor, lecturer and activist was dismissed from all her positions shortly after the victory of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Her surgery was closed. Why? For opposing compulsory hijab. Sahar Khodayari, a young girl who was a fan of Esteghlal Tehran Football Club, died after setting fire to herself in 2019. She was facing six months in prison for watching a game with her favourite team, something women are not allowed to do in Iran. Shahla Shafigh, a sociologist living in France, says that there is a saying in Persian, directed at women, which says metaphorically, “burn and bear your suffering”. Now Iranian women are saying, “I am burning and making my suffering public.”

Protests Against the New Regime

Within the first days of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, war was declared on women. In a speech given less than a month after the victory of the revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of the Revolution, said that women were required to wear the hijab, especially at the workplace. Within the first days of the revolution, the new ruler had suspended much of the legislation passed by the former ruler King Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to improve women’s rights, in particular relating to divorce and marriage (for example, there was agreement on raising the minimum age of marriage). The first major protests in the history of the new Islamic Republic took place immediately. Already on 8 March 1979, many women took to the streets to protest against the new Iranian government’s misogynic policy. Nationwide protests followed Khomeini’s edict on 3 July 1980 that all ministries were to ensure that women dressed in an Islamic way.

The “Morality Police”

The protests were crushed. As a result, women without a hijab were refused access to their workplaces. Teachers, university professors, doctors, radio and television presenters and government employees were subject to controls at work. Unless they were wearing a hijab, they were not allowed to go to their workplace. The controllers, usually also women wearing a black chador, still play an important role in Iran’s political and social system. They are organised in the so-called “morality police”, which operates in all departments of public service, such as universities, schools and airports, as well as on the streets, issuing cautions and warnings to women who are not wearing their hijab properly. Ever more frequently, women are forcibly arrested and locked up.

The Execution of Farrokhroo Parsa

The execution of women’s rights campaigner Farrokhroo Parsa marked the peak of the Iranian Revolution’s hostility towards women. Before the power changeover, Parsa had been Minister of Education. At the time of the Iranian Revolution, she no longer held government office. Her mother, one of Iran’s first female journalists, had been one of the country’s leading women’s rights activists in the 1920s. Parsa is to be seen wearing a headscarf on the last photograph ever taken of her, before the revolutionary court. Within just a few hours, she was put on trial and sentenced to death. The court accused her of “corruption on earth.” She was executed on 8 May 1980. During the execution, the rope broke, so she was killed by firing squad.

They Had to Fight for Their Freedom Themselves

At the end of the 1990s and during President Khatami’s term in office, Iranian women had cause for hope. Khatami announced improvements and promised to grant women new freedoms.

Particularly in recent years, an image of Iranian women clad in brightly-coloured, stylish, open garments has spread throughout the Western world. Many people took this to be a sign of transformation in the political landscape. But over these years, Iranian women have fought for every centimetre their headscarf has been allowed to slip black. They have paid a high price for every little step, protesting for their freedoms that nobody granted them.

The social and political women’s movement came to a head on 27 December 2017. That was the day when Vida Movahed, a young mother dressed in sportswear, lifted herself onto a utility electricity box in Tehran’s Enghelab (Revolution) Street. Removing her hijab, she tied it to a stick and waved it back and forth. Other women followed her example, climbing onto power poles, inspiring the “Girls of Revolution Street” movement. Most of them were arrested by the government, sentenced to long prison terms and forced to leave Iran. Vida Movahed’s fate is still unknown.

The Problem of Western Politicians

As well as anti-feminist laws and restrictions on their freedoms, Iranian women face the new challenge of Western women politicians. When they travel to Iran, these women do not wear the clothing and headscarves resembling those worn by most women in Iran, but of women close to the Iranian government. In November 2021, journalist and activist Masih Alinejad, who lives in New York, challenged Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde by asking her why “my body my choice” only applies to Western women and not to women in the Middle East or countries like Iran. She also asked her whether she realised, when she wore hijab for a meeting with the Iranian government, that she was legitimising those politicians’ suppression of more women and stabbing Iranian women in the heart.

In saying that, she was also referring to women like Saba Kordafshari, an Iranian who, at the age of 21, was sentenced to 24 years in prison for resisting compulsory veils. She is currently serving her sentence in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran.



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Sanasarian, Eliz: The Woman‘s Rights Movement in Iran. Mutiny, Appeasement, and Repression from 1900 to Khomeini, New York 1982.

Katz, Eliora/Maloney, Suzanne: “Girls of Revolution Street. Iranian Woman since 1979”, in: Maloney, Suzanne (editor): The Iranian Revolution at Forty. Washington, D.C. 2020.

Ghiasi, Saghar: واکنش فعالان حقوق زنان به مبارزه با حجاب اجباری: از آزادی‌های یواشکی تا دختران خیابان انقلاب (reactions by women’s rights campaigners in the fight against compulsory veils), December 2018, (most recently retrieved on 21 February 2022).

International Society for Human Rights, Saba Kordafshari,  (most recently retrieved on 21 February 2022).

Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, For Human Rights in Iran, Farrokhru Parsa,  (most recently retrieved on 21 February 2022).

Masih Alinejad’s question to Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde,


Faranak Rafiei was born in Tehran in 1978 and has lived in Cologne since 1998. She studied media sciences, and languages and cultures of the Islamic world in Cologne. She works in the field of women’s rights in Iran.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Faranak Rafiei, Goethe-Institut. Goethe-Institut; This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike 3.0 Germany icense.