THE CELLPHONE RECORDING showed the young woman twirling, twirling, twirling. Her white garments catching the red-orange glow of the firelight. Above her head, above her flowing hair, held aloft for all to see, was the symbol of her oppression. Dancing perilously close to the flames, she flung the hated hijab into the fire. All around her, hundreds of other young Iranian women cheered. Smiling and laughing, the dancer twirled her way back to the safety of her sisters.
The video went viral. All over the world, lovers of liberty and equality applauded the young woman in white. Not long after the first video, however, came a second. It also captured the image of a young woman – a young woman agonisingly similar to the joyous, dancer. Clad all in white, she lay crumpled in the street, unmoving. The young protester’s jet-black hair was spread all around her frozen features like a dark pool of mourning.
According to Amnesty International, more than 200 people have been killed by the Iranian police and security forces since the nationwide protests against the wearing of the hijab began. Sparked by the death in “Morality Police” custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, arrested in September because she was wearing her hijab “incorrectly”, these protests have morphed into an intergenerational struggle for the future of Iranian women – and men.
Extraordinary scenes have been broadcast of girls in their early teens shouting down representatives of the theocratic Iranian government. Bareheaded, waving their hijabs in his face, they cry “Death to the Dictator!” Outraged, the government official recites a poem in which the enemies of the Islamic Republic are compared to flies. Another cellphone video, recorded by a shocked woman standing at a second-floor window, shows helmeted riot policemen beating a twelve-year-old schoolgirl mercilessly in the street.
In the European Parliament, a Swedish lawmaker takes out a pair of scissors and hacks off a lock of her own hair in solidarity with the oppressed women of Iran. Clutching it in her upraised fist, she cries out the slogan of the protesters: “Zan! Zendegi! Azadi!” Women! Life! Freedom!
Our own lawmaker, the Greens’ Golriz Ghahraman, does the same. Cutting off chunks of her own hair in solidarity with the women and girls of the country from which her parents fled for the liberty and equality of New Zealand.
One can only imagine the impact of this country’s internationally acclaimed prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, taking a pair of scissors from the podium in the Beehive Theatrette and making an identical gesture of solidarity with the young women risking their lives on the streets and in the schoolrooms of Iran. Her own cry of “Zan! Zendegi! Azadi!” would be heard around the world.
Why our prime minister has had so little to say about the events in Iran is a question many New Zealanders are asking themselves. After all, if words can become “weapons of war”, as Ms Ardern told the General Assembly of the United Nations only a few days ago, then so, too, presumably, can pieces of cloth. And if the shooting of Ukrainian civilians by Russian troops warrants the loud and very public condemnation of the New Zealand Government, then, surely, the beating of schoolgirls and the shooting down of young women in the street by Iranian policemen and soldiers warrants the same?
Surely it cannot be? No! The very thought is outrageous! That Ms Ardern, so sensitive to the power of images, is unwilling to devalue what is surely the most potent image of her entire prime-ministership; the image projected a kilometre-high against the imposing walls of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa; the image of Jacinda Ardern consoling the families of the Mosque Massacre victims – in a hijab?
Never! Our Prime Minister, a communications studies graduate, would not need to be told that the wearing of the hijab in the fraught context of the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings was a powerful statement of unity with the devastated Muslim community. Ms Ardern’s hijab gave visual expression to her inspired declaration “They are Us.”
The New Zealand prime minister did not wear the hijab because she had to. She wore it because she chose to. She wore it as a symbol of her own – and her country’s – rejection of the politics of bigotry and violence.
She wore it in solidarity.
“Women! Life! Freedom!”
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 October 2022.