As the tragic death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iranian police custody sent shock waves around the world, women including actors Marion Cotillard, Isabelle Huppert, and Isabelle Adjani protested it by cutting off their own hair in solidarity. The powerful act made its way to the European Parliament on October 4 when Swedish MEP Abir Al-Sahlani took a pair of scissors to her ponytail during a speech, which ended with, “Jin, jiyan, azadi” (Kurdish for “woman, life, freedom”).
Speaking to Vogue Arabia, the Iraqi-born politician reveals what was going through her head at the time. “Hope that the scissors work!” she begins. “I had tried them on a towel in my office just before my speech, but that thought kept going through my mind.”Al-Sahlani continues, “Besides that I was angry. Angry with the mumbling men, the leaders of the world, who just couldn’t speak out to support the women in Iran, who hadn’t taken the opportunity during the General Assembly of the UN the week before to address the issue, and who were talking about peaceful protesters instead of a feminist revolution.”
With strong words like “Enough with the mumbling”, and “Until Iran is free, our fury will be bigger than the one of the oppressors” in her speech, Al-Sahlani aimed for more than getting the European Union and its high representative Josep Borrell to actively help. She also took the opportunity in the parliament in Strasbourg, France, to publicly stand by the “three weeks of continuous courage” of the women of Iran. “I know from my years in politics (and in life) that men who get criticized like that in public will not show any reaction,” the 46-year-old says of the aftermath of her speech. “But from my women peers, from all political groups, in the parliament the reactions were like, ‘Finally, someone said something, finally someone did something.'”
Al-Sahlani’s communication channels have since been flooded by messages from women who felt comforted and heard. “The response from the public has been so strong to receive,” she says. “I keep getting messages from young women inside of Iran who managed to get around the blocking of the Internet to tell their stories and keep asking us to support them in their fight for freedom.” This fight, Al-Sahlani believes, transcends boundaries, and can’t be fought in Europe or the Middle East alone. “We have to do it everywhere,” she says. “Their fight is with their lives at stake. My fight is much more privileged. This is why I, and people globally who believe in human rights, freedom, and democracy, are obliged to show support and solidarity with the women in Iran.”
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Recent weeks have also seen activists highlight the duality of women’s rights, and how they are jeopardized when systems get in the way of both, a woman wanting to wear the hijab, and one wishing not to. “A woman has a right to her free will,” Al-Sahlani remarks. “If she doesn’t want to wear the hijab she doesn’t have to. If she wants to wear the hijab, she should be able to. It all comes down to free will. No man should decide what women shall wear, who we shall love, what we shall eat, who we shall talk to. It all comes down to women being free.”
While a lot has been said and left unsaid in the wake of Amini’s death, Al-Sahlani’s message to the EU and its members is as clear as it gets. “Unite,” she says. “Together we can put pressure on the regime in Iran. Being the only union of democracies in the world, it is our duty to defend and support movements like the feminist revolution in Iran.” And to the women of Iran, she says, “We hear you. We see you. We support you. We will be your voice.”
On October 14, the EU announced its plans to impose sanctions on Iran “over a human rights crackdown,” Reuters reported. EU ministers will also be pressing travel bans and freezing the assets of about 15 Iranians involved in the government crackdown against protestors. This was followed by Borrell’s statement on October 17, in which he urged Iran to stop the repression of protesters and to release those that have been detained in recent weeks.