Homa X: Iran sees women as sex objects

“This system imposes a terrible burden on us by reducing the honor and chastity of the family to the way women dress.”

Explaining the historical and current background of the women's revolt in Iran, Iranian women's rights defender Homa X says that the state has turned the headscarf into a flag...

The murder of Jina-Mahsa Amini on September 13th in Tehran after she was detained by the Irshad squad, known as the "the guidance patrol," sparked a nationwide women's uprising.

In Iran, where dozens of people have been murdered in the streets in a matter of ten days, the regime is not backing down, but Iranian women, for their part, are not retreating from the streets.

What systemic practices underlie the women's uprising in Iran? What does the headscarf mean for the regime and for women? What gender regime does the state establish in the name of Islamic norms and how does this regime work in everyday life? We spoke with Homa X., an Iranian women's rights activist, whose name is withheld for security reasons, on the background of the women's uprising in Iran...

What is behind the murder of Mahsa Amini that has caused such an outcry and outrage throughout Iran?

Iranian women are currently venting their years of anger. The murder of Mahsa Amini sparked this revolt, but behind it is years of pent-up anger. I came to Turkey from Iran a few weeks ago, and honestly the only thing I feel right now is shame. I am ashamed that I wasn't there for the recent events, and I'm ashamed that women still have to suffer this kind of thing in this day and age. It is also a very difficult time for Iranians like me who are abroad. Because it is a very difficult position morally to support people in danger from the "safe space." For example, I cannot talk to my sister who participated in the demonstrations and who is the same age as Mahsa Amini.

Why is that?

Because I do not know what to say to her, should I say, "Join the demonstrations" or "Don't join"...? You cannot say both. On the other hand, we draw hope from the fact that people are beginning to vent their anger. When women rise up in the most difficult time, despite all the dangers, you think, "Then there is still hope."

Have you ever been warned by the "the guidance patrol" in Iran?

I have not been confronted directly, but I have a friend who has been arrested several times just for riding a bicycle. After you are arrested, they call the family and ask the father to pick you up. The city where I live (we withhold the name of the city for security reasons - I.A.) has a relatively flexible social and cultural structure. Therefore, women can wear more revealing clothing.


How revealing are they allowed to dress?

Of course, you can't wear a T-shirt, but normally your arms should be completely covered, but in our city some women wear "short" clothes that show a little above their hands. That's it! Your dress, your pants must reach to your ankles. In the past, you couldn't see a single strand of hair, but now in some places women cover themselves so that the front of their hair can be seen. Of course, this is an illegal "action," but the women are resisting. In short, they aim to make the woman's body and bodylines completely invisible. If you wear pants, they should not be too tight. Of course, it depends on what kind of police officers you encounter. If the cardigan you are wearing does not completely cover your buttocks, the guidance patrol will treat you as naked and arrest you.

Is it also forbidden for women to ride bicycles?

Yes, riding a bike, going outside with a man... You go for a walk with your brother, the police stop you and ask, "Who's this man to you?" I've never been arrested for my clothes, but I've been caught many times for walking with my boyfriend (laughs).


Were you holding hands?

No! Just because we were walking side by side, he asks, "What is your relationship?" The answer you give to that depends on what kind of family you have. Because the family women are born into determines their fate in Iran. Because I knew my family is standing behind me, I used to tell the police, "She's my fiancée." Sometimes they would detain me and take me to the police station. But when my father came to pick me up, I knew I would not experience violence at home. Unfortunately, most Iranian women don't have that chance. They face violence from the police on the street and violence from their fathers at home.

What is the penalty for violating the headscarf ban?

It can be imprisonment from two days to two months or a fine. I am not sure what the criteria are, but there are also cases of flogging. But it doesn't stop at these punishments, because most of the girls who are imprisoned are subjected to the violence of their fathers and brothers at home when they are released.


Do you refer to an alliance between the family and the state against women?

We cannot generalize this to the whole society because there are families and social groups that do not cooperate with the state. We can observe this in the recent uprising. On the other hand, in Iran, men are spoken of as "morality police at home" and there is such an established mechanism of oppression within the family that women don't need to be stopped in the street by the guidance patrol. In the Iranian city of Hoy, a father shot his daughter because she had a boyfriend. In 2020, a father in the city of Talesh, Gilan province, killed his 14-year-old daughter Romina Ashrafi in her sleep by cutting off her head.

He should have been sentenced to death?

No, he wasn't. The penalty for a father who murders his daughter in Iran is very light. In the case of the father who beheaded his daughter, for example, he was sentenced to only nine years in prison, though it caused outrage throughout the country. This is because, by law, the father is considered the owner of the girl. While the penalty for murdering any person is normally the death penalty, the murder of the father of his children is usually punishable by 3-4 years in prison. Whereas if it is a mother who kills her child, she is punishable by 15 years imprisonment. Women in Iran are held captive by the patriarchal society, patriarchal state and patriarchal law.

At what age does state imposition of religious rules on girls begin in Iran?

According to (Islamic) law, you have to cover your head from the age of nine, but we have to cover our heads at the age of six, when we start school. Even though there are no boys in the schools girls go to and the teachers are women, you have to cover your head.


So boys and girls don't study in the same classroom?

Not only classrooms, but even the school buildings are separated! You'll never see a male in (girls') schools. Male teachers used to be assigned to girls' schools, but that was abolished in the 2010s. Similarly, the employment of female teachers in boys' schools was also ended. It even separated some of the courses that boys and girls took together at universities. For example, men and women take separate mathematics courses. Because they keep the boys and girls strictly separate, terrible things happen when they pass 18 and find themselves in the same college building.

What do you mean?

I mean that young people are not in the same environment with the opposite sex until after puberty and are not even aware of what is harassment and what is not. In addition, in the most important phase of educational life, we have to deal with problems that should have been overcome during puberty, and we mature too late. For young people who cannot communicate with the opposite sex in society, education and social life, the most important role models are the mother and father. Therefore, roles are internalized in the parental home, and generations grow up in the same way as their parents did and treat the next generation as if they were their parents. If the father is violent at home, his son does the same to his wife when he is married. The wife also internalizes obedience because she has been modeled by her mother. Moreover, the entire system is replete with prescriptions about how women should serve men.


And how do young people learn about sexuality?

Through porn. Before there was the Internet, porn magazines were smuggled from Azerbaijan and Turkey. But now young people learn about sexuality on banned porn sites. Of course, the problems caused by sexuality learned there are also a subject of discussion. There is no information about sexuality in the education system. It is a taboo subject in the family, so it is never discussed. At the university level, reproductive health was taught in a separate course for men and women, but that changes depending on Iran's population policies. For example, in my day, about ten years ago, the population policy preferred fewer births, so contraceptive methods were covered. That was the only information taught in the course. Then, when that policy changed, the content of the class also changed.

We hear that there is an underground entertainment life in Iran, where there are parties open to both men and women, in which there is alcohol...

That is a fact, parties like that are often organized by bribing the police. Like drug dealers here, there are people who sell alcohol illegally, they get it from them, or people make wine or raki at home. But if you throw a party without bribing the local police and you get caught drinking, it can have devastating consequences. The penalties are very severe. There are countless people who have been flogged for that. In my country, we joke, "If you have an accident with alcohol in your car, or while you're drunk, leave the car and you run away."


How about weddings, are men and women allowed to mix there?

No, that is also prohibited. Some families have held mixed weddings illegally or by paying bribes. Normally in weddings, men and women are entertained in separate places.

The murder of Mahsa Amini is unfortunately not an exception. There have been similar incidents numerous times. Scores of videos have surfaced on social media showing guidance patrol brutalizing women, forcing them into cars and taking them away. It is this years-long persecution that is the reason for the fierce reaction to Masha's murder. Iranian women can't take it anymore.

In 2019, riots again broke out against rising gasoline prices in Iran, and I was there at the time. During the protests, the Internet was suddenly shut down and remained down for days, in some areas up to 40 days. In this latest women's uprising, it is striking that the Internet was not shut down immediately.

Why do you think the Internet was not shut down this time?

President Ebrahim Raisi was traveling to New York to attend the UN General Assembly meeting and was going to face the foreign press. That is why the Iranian government has so far refrained from cracking down too hard on the women's rebellion. But during the gasoline riots, in just one week, 1,500 people were killed, 400 of them women, as the Iranian Interior Ministry has acknowledged. This is still only the official figure. It is possible that more people may have died. There are also many dead in the current riots, but we do not yet know the numbers.


In Iran, sometimes the lower classes, sometimes the students, sometimes the middle classes and sometimes women revolt, as is the case here, but the general opinion of the international community is that these revolts will not change the regime. Do you think so too?

Yes, many people in Iran are in a similar state of despair. The main reason is the lack of an opposition, a leadership and a program. Although people are in turmoil, they cannot say exactly what kind of Iran they want. This is because there is no opposition that can frame the social discontent within a specific ideological framework. The opposition groups formed abroad are unable to gain the support of Iranian society.

Why do you think so?

Because state propaganda, such as that of "supporting foreign powers" and "US designs," has an impact on society. For example, the struggle waged by Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad has been very effective in the country in recent years, but her main barrier is that she lives in the United States. However, we cannot ignore Masih Alinejad's influence on Iranian women. In fact, if Iranian women are taking to the streets in such strong way today, we must also attribute it to Alinejad's 2014 social media campaign "My Secret Freedom." In that campaign, Alinejad called on Iranian women to post photos of themselves without showing their faces but with their headscarves removed, an appeal to which 30,000 women responded in just two days. Alinejad subsequently attempted to take this campaign from social media to the streets in 2017 through the "White Wednesday Movement." This time, countless women took to the streets on Wednesdays with white scarves.

Why Wednesdays?

I guess there is no special reference to this day, but this movement continued for years. In the last days of 2017, on December 28, on Enghelab Street, one of the most renowned and crowded areas of Tehran, a young woman named Vida Movahed stood in a high place and hung her white headscarf on a pole. This action went viral on social media and inspired the women's movement in Iran.


Why has the struggle of women in Iran against the obligation to wear headscarves only started recently? Why was this issue not on the agenda until recently?

That's right, and it's because women were like, "There are more serious issues beyond the headscarf." But over time it became clear that the headscarf compulsion is actually the crux of the whole system.

What more serious issues are there?

For example, women don't have the right to divorce. You can't get an education or travel abroad unless you have permission from your father if you're single, or your husband if you're married. Until you get married, you are under the authority of your father; after you get married, you are under the authority of your husband.

What if the father is dead?

Even then, your father's father has rights over you, and not your mother. Mothers have no rights over their children. Women still get one third of the inheritance. Even the insurance compensation for a woman and a man who is killed in a traffic accident is not the same. If $100 is paid for a man who dies in a traffic accident, $30 is paid for a woman. If a single man dies in a traffic accident, the payment is 100, but if a woman with three or five children dies, the payment is still 30. Before the law, the woman is still considered half of a man. Can these be considered as minor issues? In fact, the lack of the right to divorce itself is an extraordinarily terrible matter. Imagine that a woman, even if she is subjected to violence at home, cannot divorce without the husband's consent.


So, a woman cannot file for a divorce?

Until yesterday, women could not even file for divorce. But recently, women gained the right to ask for a divorce, but it's to that extent, they still cannot get a divorce without their husband's consent. That's why women didn't even have the opportunity to bother with the headscarf. But now it is better understood that the forced headscarf is the trademark of the patriarchal state system, and that is why women are now fighting against it. The headscarf not only covers a woman's hair, but also obscures her most basic human rights.

You mentioned that your sister is also participating in the demonstrations now. How do you feel about that?

I feel uneasy, but this struggle has to be waged. To tell the truth, getting caught up in these demonstrations can be worse than death.

People have even been asked to "bring a dessert and I will give you the body."

Why is that?

Because you never know what can happen. It can take months for families to even find out where their children are being held. In order to hand over the bodies of people killed in the streets, families are asked to pay for the bullet fired at their loved ones. People have even been asked to "bring a dessert and I will give you the body."

The system in Iran constantly traumatizes society. Iran sees women as sex objects, rather than human beings. They tell women to "Be so invisible that men don't see you and get turned on." Harassment and rape are not seen as aggression on the part of the man, but as a lack of chastity on the part of the woman. A woman in a family I know had her purse snatched from her in the street. As the thief pulled the purse, the woman resisted and her dress was torn. The woman's husband was convinced that it was not only theft but also rape, and instead of prosecuting the thief, he slaughtered the woman in front of her children! It is the Iranian regime that creates and feeds this social perception. This system imposes a terrible burden on us by reducing the honor and chastity of the family to the way women dress.


In the current protests, women are supported by a large number of men. Who are these men?

They are the men of generation Z in Iran. The new generation of men who observe and follow the outside world thanks to the Internet are also very uncomfortable with this system. Obviously, the Iranian regime has been able to maintain this system so far with the support of men. If men use the power they get from the system in favor of freedom, the Iranian women's success will be much more likely. If men will say "I'm not turned on, I demand their freedom" against a system that demand us to "cover your hair so men won't get turned on," things should change. If the forced headscarf, which the government has turned into a flag, can be brought down, the whole system will be shaken.

Is the headscarf really a religious obligation for the Iranian regime?

Definitely not. The headscarf is more of a political symbol than a religious one. It is a flag that Iran uses to show its "uniqueness" to the outside world. Our president can brazenly claim, "The headscarf is not obligatory in Iran, women cover themselves voluntarily."

There should be women who cover themselves voluntarily?

Of course there are, but a large part of those who voluntarily veil themselves are also against the headscarf requirement. Of course, there is also a large section of society in Iran that is connected to and supported by the intelligence service and the state, and they vehemently defend the imposition of headscarves.


Does Iranian intelligence really rely heavily on "citizen informants," as it is claimed?The citizen-on-citizen intelligence system is indeed very thorough and widespread. Also, when you are detained, you are treated like a prisoner. There is no mechanism to defend yourself and they can do anything they want to you, from rape to torture to execution. Political prisoners are well aware of this and speak out about it. In 2018, a national wrestler named Navid Afkari Sangari was charged with the murder of a security guard and executed in Shiraz on September 12, 2020. There was no evidence that Afkari had killed the security guard during the protests. The international community, the Olympic Committee and many heads of state called for Afkari's pardon, but to no avail. There was not even a proper trial. Afkari's two brothers were also arrested and sentenced to 54 and 27 years in prison. Also in 2019, a 27-year-old young man named Puya Bakhtiari was shot dead. His father and relatives who reacted to the incident and spoke to the foreign press were also arrested.


You have been living in Turkey for a while but you travel back and forth to Iran. How do you feel when you go to Iran?

I don't feel I belong in Iran and the only thing I feel when I go there is anguish. Sometimes it's panic, sometimes anger... The feeling of "how did I manage to live in this country until now…" You are a woman in our time who is not allowed to ride a bicycle, can you imagine?

The generation before you was the generation that witnessed the pre-revolutionary period. How do the previous generations describe and remember the Shah's era?

Not as a whole, but there are those who reminisce about that period with longing, for instance in terms of the level of welfare. But that period was not particularly liberal either. After all, if there had been a decent regime under the Shah, the Islamists would not have found the environment to carry out that revolution. When the Shah suppressed and imprisoned all the opposition and opened space for the Islamists, he undermined both Iran and himself.

Tomorrow: Where will the women's revolt lead?

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