I learned the definition of second-class citizenship in the context of hijab when I was 7 years old. The morality police had raided a pizzeria in Tehran and brutally arrested screaming teenagers for wearing a little makeup. My mother was hatefully warned she was next if she did not pull down her scarf and cover her hair. She tightened her grip on my hand — this was a reminder that women did not count in the Islamic Republic. My family was among the lucky who escaped the brutality of the Islamic regime and found our new home in America.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, mandatory coverings following strict Islamic code were enacted in Iran. Women were mandated to fully cover their hair, wear long overcoats, or preferably black chadors, and effectively claim their invisible status in a society now steeped in Islamic fundamentalism and determined to quash the female voice.
If you failed to comply, you were met with the morality police, which spares no brutality, as they showed with Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian woman ferociously beaten into a comma who tragically lost her life at 22. According to her captors, she was not wearing a proper hijab. Although in the history of atrocities committed by the regime, Mahsa’s story is not new, it sparked rage from all corners of Iran. This cowardly attack on an innocent young woman’s life is the figurative last straw that broke the camel’s back for Iranian women and the men who stand by them, equally angry at the regime’s long history of misogyny.
Today, as demonstrators fill the streets of Iran, burn hijabs openly, shout “death to the dictator Khamenei” and tear down the ugly photos of their oppressors, they are risking their lives in front of the regime’s paramilitary thugs. But heroically, they are willing to die, if it means the abolishment of a religious theocracy and an establishment of a free, democratic Iran.
This same fundamentalist regime that institutionalized violence against women for more than four decades also sponsors terror through organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, aids Russians with evil drones, undermines U.S. interests where it can, and wants to pursue a nuclear program to hold an existential threat over the state of Israel, and arguably over its own people.
The United States, the greatest champion of democratic values, and more broadly its democratic allies, have a small window to act, to embrace the voice of Iranian women, to show they stand for democratic aspirations everywhere, and that includes the streets of Iran.
Curbing the Islamic regime’s nuclear goal becomes moot if the regime is no longer in power and the people have won their democratic ambitions. This starts with decisive action to suspend U.S. and allies’ participation in the talks to restore the Iran nuclear deal and would demonstrate to the Iranian hard-liners that there will never be sanction relief if they are determined to kill people in the streets, and deny women, secular Iranians, religious minorities and the LGBTQIA + community their fundamental rights.
The Iranian population is young, educated, ripe to create and govern a democratic state, which brings a key opportunity for the United States to signal its support for regime change and empower an Iranian American democratic coalition to embrace this historic opportunity for the two nations to forge a new beginning. Iranians are looking to the U.S. in their most desperate hour of need and the question is whether the U.S. will act to support the creation of a democratic Iran that will not only serve its people but become a true ally to the U.S., and democracies everywhere.