By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
This is what real evil looks like: murdering young girls in cold blood, and then making threats against their grieving families to compel them to lie about the circumstances of these atrocities.
Vans have even been turning up at schools in Iran to arrest girls en masse — a sinister development almost without precedent. Schools in Kurdistan province have been closed; these elderly ayatollahs are terrified of little girls.
Sarina Esmailzadeh, a beautiful 16-year-old video blogger, was beaten to death by police with batons, and her family was subjected to intense harassment to coerce them into silence. Vivacious and headstrong Nika Shahkarami, also just 16, made a final call to her mother saying she was being chased by security forces. When her family eventually gained access to her battered corpse 10 days later, they found her skull had been caved in by intensely violent blows.
Family members were arrested and threatened. Such is the tragi-comic, gangster-like nature of this regime that when Nika’s uncle appeared on TV to be coerced into giving a false account of events, a shadowy figure behind him threatened: “Speak, you scumbag.”
Nika’s mother Nasrin was not fooled. “I probably don’t need to try that hard to prove they’re lying,” she said. “My daughter was killed in the protests on the same day she disappeared.” Videos of Nika and Sarina in happier times, dancing and singing, have been shared millions of times as public anger reaches boiling point.
Repressive regimes relish imposing narratives that nobody believes. Tinpot dictatorships such as China, Syria, Myanmar and Iran try to strike fear into everybody’s hearts, while simultaneously compelling repressed subjects to recount grotesque murders through the vocabulary of “tragic accidents,” “suicides,” or malicious acts by “foreign enemies.”
With protests in Iran more widespread than ever, estimated death tolls fall far short of reality. In Zahedan alone in a single day, more than 90 people were killed, including children, when security forces opened fire. Let’s not forget that that these furious protests erupted in the first place after another young woman, Mahsa Amini, died in a coma with a fractured skull merely for “improperly” wearing her hijab.
To exist as an Iranian woman is to subsist in a state of apartheid: formally or informally excluded from so many roles and social spaces, compelled to wear heavy, black, regime-imposed clothing, coerced into being second-class citizens. Meanwhile the wives and daughters of regime hard-liners and their corporate cronies live lives of opulence, debauchery and excess. If the morality police tried entering high-end districts of north Tehran and telling these trophy wives how to dress, they would quickly find themselves dispatched to the farthest reaches of Baluchistan!
However, the protesters in Iran have irretrievably crossed a psychological barrier. Girls publicly cutting their hair is a supreme act of defiance — rebutting the imposed demands of the regime while rejecting standards of beauty and submission to a stiflingly patriarchal society designed to keep women in their place.
People are hungry, poor and jobless as a result of regime neglect and incompetence, but the protests are about so much more than this; they strike at the very core of women’s rights to live their lives unmolested. Make no mistake, the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” seeks nothing short of regime change. Iranian actors, musicians, sports personalities and activists around the world have recorded moving videos demonstrating their solidarity with this uprising.
Attempts by the regime to murder its way out of trouble are exactly what we should expect under the leadership of President Ebrahim Raisi. In 1988, when Ayatollah Khomeini wanted to empty Iran’s jails of tens of thousands of political prisoners, Raisi’s “Death Committee” simply subjected them to kangaroo trials and had them all executed.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s ludicrous assertion that these protests are a foreign plot has exacerbated popular anger. If anything, the international response has been too feeble. It has taken distracted Western states a couple of weeks to realise that events of potentially enormous geopolitical significance are afoot across Iran. Yet when I spoke at Britain’s Conservative Party conference last week, I was once again taken aback by the torrent of wilful naivety about Iran. One audience member confidently told me that the ayatollahs couldn’t possibly desire a nuclear bomb, since such a thing would be un-Islamic — as if slaughtering young girls and launching missile strikes against neighboring Muslim states were perfectly permissible under Islam!
Another participant tried to contextualise all this strife as being part of an eternal struggle between Shiites and Sunnis. What eternal struggle? In recent times in Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen it was entirely normal for Sunnis and Shiites to coexist and intermarry. During my childhood in Lebanon, we had no comprehension of any distinctions between Sunni, Shiite or Druze neighbors, while relishing the national holidays and sharing of sweets that came from celebrating each other’s festivals. This recent phenomenon of explosive sectarian hostilities is almost entirely due to the cynical stirring of intercommunal tensions in pursuit of supremacy, by a theocratic regime in whose constitution “exporting the revolution” is enshrined.
For schoolgirls who should be far too young to have any concept of nationwide political developments, these events constitute unforgettable formative memories, and create a determination to bring down this murderous regime when the opportunity presents itself. A video went viral of angry schoolgirls shouting down a Basij member sent to speak to them, while Raisi visited a university to be taunted by chants of “mullahs get lost.” To be fair, Raisi appears to have been trying to provoke the students — reciting a poem comparing protesters to “flies.” But how can the ayatollahs hope to retain power when even young girls tear up photos of Khamenei and chant “death to the dictator”?
Even if Iranians aren’t immediately rewarded with the liberation they seek, the killers of Mahsa, Nika and Sarina have made it a certainty that, some time soon, enough citizens will descend into the streets to sweep this detested regime aside once and for all.
These girls are Iran’s future. Soon, they will consign these evil, discredited old men to the rat-infested sewers of history.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.