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"Just the tip of the iceberg"

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

Four Muslim women in West Orange on what the protests in Iran mean to them

Solidarity protest in Orlando with women in Iran
Protests demonstrating solidarity with the women of Iran are happening around the world, including in West Orange County, like this one in downtown Orlando on Oct. 8. Photo courtesy of Helen Loiacano

Women in Iran have taken to the streets in ever-growing protests since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was severely beaten by the government’s Guidance Patrol or “morality police,” for allegedly violating laws on wearing a hijab. Women are burning their hijabs, cutting their hair and chanting in the streets, Zan, Zendegie, Azadi or "Women, Life, Freedom" — a mantra of Iranian feminism.

In the online magazine History Today, Nazanin Shahrokni, author of Women in Place: The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran and London School of Economics assistant professor of gender and globalization, wrote that the protests are the first time that calls for women’s bodily autonomy — as women openly defy the laws on compulsory veiling — have led to demands for the end of the current regime.

Iranian authorities have responded with brutality, firing bullets into crowds, killing protestors and arresting journalists and activists. The U.S.-based non-government organization Human Rights Activists News Agency, which monitors Iran, reports that 233 protesters — 32 under the age of 18 — have been killed since the protests started Sept. 17. Protests have erupted around the world, including in West Orange County, to demonstrate solidarity with Iranian women calling for freedom.

VoxPopuli talked with several Muslim women in West Orange County to hear what these unprecedented protests mean to them.

women's protests in Iran
Many Muslim women approached for this story told us they were too afraid to speak freely about Iran. Dina agreed to be interviewed as long as we shielded her identity. Photo: Ellie Nassrallah

Dina is a University of Central Florida sophomore who was born and raised in Syria but has many friends in Iran. She believes that Amini’s death sparked the backlash against decades of the theocratic government’s abuse of power and control over women’s lives. Dina spoke to VoxPopuli but didn’t want her last name or where she lives in West Orange County disclosed so she could speak freely about events in Iran.

She said women have been chafing at the repressive laws for a long time; Amini’s death was the “trigger.” “She was just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

“Obviously, it’s very unfortunate what happened to her,” Dina said. But protests could bring more media attention to the ways Iranian women are repressed, she said. “The more people are aware, the better. ”

The way Dina sees it, women should be allowed to wear a hijab if they wish, but they shouldn’t be forced. Faith is personal, she said, and should not be under governmental control. “If you’re being forced to adhere to the rules [of religion] is this really faith? Faith is taken out of the equation.”

For her part, Dina chooses not to wear a hijab. A hijab is the traditional headscarf while a niqab is the veil that covers the face, except for the eyes. However “hijab” is often used interchangeably to mean coverings for both hair and face.

“I do not believe I am less of a Muslim for not wearing a hijab,” said Dina. “I am not a perfect Muslim, but I do not think anybody can claim that just because they wear a hijab.”

Dina does wear a star and crescent necklace, the symbol of Islam. “You see people wearing the cross all the time, so I was like why shouldn’t I have a symbol that shows how I am a proud Muslim,” she said. “Nobody has to know what it means. But I know, and that is what matters.”

Women's protests in Iran
Helen Loiacano fled Iran during the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah and created the current theocratic Republic of Iran. Photo courtesy of Helen Loiacano

Helene Loiacono, of Windemere, left Iran at age 7 during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The uprising overthrew the Shah’s brutal, pro-Western regime that was installed in 1953 through a coup, orchestrated by the U.S. and Great Britain, to ensure access to the country’s oil reserves. The revolution established the hardline theocratic Republic of Iran. During the revolution, militant university students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and held 52 people hostage for 444 days in what became known as the Iran Hostage Crisis.

“For 43 years, the people have had no voice,” Loiacono said. “[The Iranian government is] forcing people to close their mouths, and the women have no freedom to express themselves.”

That’s one reason the mantra Women, Life, Freedom has resonated throughout Iran and the Iranian diaspora.

Women, Life, Freedom means to me, finally we can go home, we can be who we are,” Loiacono said. “Hijab or no hijab, we respect the hijab and the religion. Women who are immigrants here, when we go home, we want to have a choice. I want to go home and be myself. I walk in the streets of Iran, and feel that I belong here.”

Watching videos of the protests in Iran on social media, as women defy government crackdowns and the demonstrations continue to grow larger, Loiacono, reposts clips at every opportunity. She is hoping for a strong reaction from the West.

“The women are so brave in Iran. They say, We die for our next generation, so they can live,” Loiacono said.

Democratic State Rep. Anna V. Eskamani addresses a peace rally in downtown Orlando on Oct. 22. Still image from WFTV.

Democratic state Rep. Anna V. Eskamani, the only Iranian-American lawmaker in the Florida Legislature, visited Iran in 2005 to scatter her mother’s ashes in the Caspian Sea. “Even as a 14-year-old, I was harassed by the police for showing too much wrist,” Eskamni told VoxPopuli in an email.

Eskamani, who is running for re-election in House District 42, said, “As courageous Iranians come to the streets to protest in honor of Mahsa and for their collective freedoms, I want them to know that we see you and support you. I wish for the day when Iran’s women — the country’s greatest asset — will be free to flourish however they choose.”

Eskamani slammed the “dangerous and misogynistic ‘morality police’” that she said “have targeted and tortured Iranians and especially Iranian women for far too long.

“It’s absolutely absurd that in 2022, women anywhere in the world must fear for their lives for not meeting a government-mandated dress code.”

Eskamani is among a number of Iranian-American women, either elected or candidates for U.S. office, who have signed a letter condemning “the murderous and barbaric Islamic Republic that has violently oppressed Iranian people for 43 years.” The letter supported the Iranian people’s calls for “a new government; one that is democratically elected and free.”

He made it clear if I didn't abide by the hijab rule and cover even my face, there would be no future for us together

A Muslim woman from Windermere, who did not want to give her name so she could discuss details about a former romantic relationship, said she felt a kinship with the Iranian protesters because she, too, does not wear a hijab.

“I respected my religion ultimately and I abided by so many rules enabling me to fit into my culture and equally into my environment,” said the woman. “I respect every woman wearing her veil by choice,” she said. “However, I condemn imposing it on those who do not willingly believe in wearing it,” she said.

Her stance cost her a romantic relationship. During a talk with her then-boyfriend about their future together, “he made it clear that if I didn’t abide by the hijab rule and fully commit to wearing it to cover even my face, there would be no future for us together,” she said.

“It was a shocking moment for me,” she said. “I tried reasoning with him, I explained to him logically that wearing a veil and covering my face does not change a person nor define their character nor make them better than anyone else not wearing it,” she said.

“It was a dead end for us both, and even though it hurts to end a relationship over such a reason, it felt like being released from prison with no looking back.”



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