How Misogyny Imperiled Iran’s Regime

Four decades of repression and segregation have sparked a protest movement led by women that threatens the Islamic Republic and inspires the world.

By , a professor of Iranian literature and Gender Studies at the University of Virginia.
An Iranian woman walks past a covered shop window in Tehran.
An Iranian woman walks past a covered shop window in Tehran.
An Iranian woman walks past a covered shop window in Tehran on July 9, 2022. Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

One ought to expect the unexpected in post-revolutionary Iran. Still, one month ago, few experts could have imagined that Iran would be the cradle of a women-led movement demanding gender equality and inspiring the world. Few, inside or outside the country, could have envisaged that the arrest and death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, by Iran’s so-called morality police would trigger a massive protest movement, considered by many to be the early signs of a revolution.

Although the morality police—equipped with violence, clubs, and batons to harass, terrorize, discipline, and even murder women—still performs its hypermasculine authority, women are burning their headscarves, displaying them on tree branches, poles, and canes as well as in defiant hands. They burn their mandatory head coverings as a relic of the past or billow them in the breeze as flags of a new future order.

This article appears in the Winter 2023 print issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Explore the issue.

One ought to expect the unexpected in post-revolutionary Iran. Still, one month ago, few experts could have imagined that Iran would be the cradle of a women-led movement demanding gender equality and inspiring the world. Few, inside or outside the country, could have envisaged that the arrest and death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, by Iran’s so-called morality police would trigger a massive protest movement, considered by many to be the early signs of a revolution.

Although the morality police—equipped with violence, clubs, and batons to harass, terrorize, discipline, and even murder women—still performs its hypermasculine authority, women are burning their headscarves, displaying them on tree branches, poles, and canes as well as in defiant hands. They burn their mandatory head coverings as a relic of the past or billow them in the breeze as flags of a new future order.

Young women dancing and chanting have replaced bearded, angry men stressing the differences between Iran and the rest of the world. Life-affirming slogans—such as “Women, life, freedom”—have replaced cries of “death to” this and that.

The streets of Iran are no longer the monopoly of men. They display a youthful, desegregated Iran; more than half of the country’s current inhabitants were born after the 1979 revolution. It is a gentler Iran, tired of dictatorship and violence. It is a digitally literate Iran, transformed by its computational know-how and its virtual contact with a borderless community. It is a global Iran, in touch and in tune with an interconnected, interdependent world.

It is thanks to this young generation of women and men that the country, an isolated and pariah state, is igniting a worldwide celebration of democracy and gender equity.

And this audacious celebration of democratic aspirations is being led by Iranian women—who have so often been represented as voiceless, powerless, and oppressed in the West.


The core tenet of Iran’s 1979 Islamic  Revolution was to put women back in their place and erase them from the public sphere. The ruling elite wanted to resegregate and keep women in their designated spaces. They quickly canceled laws protecting women’s rights and human dignity. Soon, the turban—outlawed by former leader Reza Shah Pahlavi—became the supreme leader’s insignia. It replaced the crown just as “the King, the Crowned Father” became “the Supreme Leader, the nation’s Guardian and Father.”

The ruling elite wanted to reestablish traditional modes of governance, reinstate the patriarchal family, and realign gender relations within it. Unsurprisingly, the very first decree of the Islamic Republic—which occurred on Feb. 26, 1979, before the compulsory veiling act and even before the ratification of the constitution—was the repeal of the 1967 Family Protection Law, which had implemented greater freedoms for women in the realms of divorce, polygamy, and child custody laws.

The directive to women soon after the 1979 revolution was loud and clear: Cover your body. Cover your voice. Erase your presence. Make yourself invisible.

An Islamic society could only be reborn if the nuclear family could be reformed. The clerical regime legislated new restrictive laws. They resorted to bullying, publicly shaming, and imprisoning any woman who tried to reassert her rights, her choices, and her identity. The directive to women soon after the 1979 revolution was loud and clear: Disappear from public places, and if you need to be there, hide yourself under a mandatory hijab—a mobile home, a portable closet, a walking wall. Cover your body. Cover your voice. Erase your presence. Make yourself invisible.

Women, however, refused to become invisible, voiceless, and powerless. They challenged the regime at every step and emerged as vibrant catalysts for change. They fought exclusion. They claimed the streets and struggled for the freedom to move about freely, to be part of the public world, to be heard, to be seen, to be acknowledged as equal citizens. They refused to be deleted. Now, they are on the way to shattering the hardest and highest ceiling: national leadership.

Iranian women are now at the forefront of a vast and transformative movement to reverse a backlash against their earlier gains and attain equal rights. They are fighting the government’s morality police—self-assigned arbiters of morality and women’s bodily integrity. They are rejecting the obligatory hijab, invisible walls and veils, institutionalized repression, and legislative humiliation, which considers a woman’s worth, testimony, and inheritance half that of a man’s.

The young women leading the uprising are the daughters and granddaughters of women who risked life and limb to pave the way for democratization and desegregation. Forty-three years after the ruling elite’s obsessive attempt to resegregate Iranian society, they are making unprecedented history inside and outside the country.

Women writers, always at the forefront of social justice movements in contemporary Iran, brought the struggle for democracy and gender equity inside the home, into kitchens and bedrooms. They demanded its implementation in interpersonal relationships. Without shedding a drop of blood, they prepared the way for a smooth transition to a more democratic, desegregated society.

Women writers and poets are the harbingers of future political trends in Iran.

Segregation establishes complex interconnections between bodies and borders in a physical, literary, and symbolic sense, and women writers and poets, having suffered its impact on their bodies and voices, know desegregation is central to their literary enterprise. They know they have to trespass walls, boundaries, borders, and ancestral silences.

If we accept that good art knows more than the artist, then women writers and poets are the harbingers of future political trends in Iran.

If earlier, a “world ruled by women” was the distant and unattainable dream of Zari—the female protagonist of Iran’s first major novel by a woman, Savushun by Simin Daneshvar—the younger generation, within the country and in the diaspora, is assuming the role of rulers and even prophets.

“I must be King, even if I don’t have a crown on my head,” writes the female narrator of the prize-winning novel My Bird by Fariba Vafi. The young and sassy protagonist of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir, Persepolis, goes even further and declares herself the first female prophet in a long line of male predecessors.

Iranian women have emerged as seasoned survivors and a formidable civic force to be reckoned with. They offer a promising alternative to lead a country in deep and swift decline out of its current crisis.

The prescient chronicler of seismic moments of transition in Iranian history, Bahram Beyzaie, in his masterpiece The Death of [King] Yazdgerd, puts the crown on the head of his formidable female protagonist and these words in her mouth: “I have been waiting for liberation for a long time.”

This is the dawn of a new era in Iran.

This article appears in the Winter 2023 print issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Subscribe now to support our journalism.

Farzaneh Milani is Raymond J. Nelson Professor of Iranian literature and Gender Studies at the University of Virginia. She is the author of several books, most recently The Literary Biography of Forugh Farrokhzad and Unpublished Letters. She is currently working on a book about Iranian women writers.

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