This personal reflection is part of a series called Turning Points, in which writers explore what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead. You can read more by visiting the Turning Points series page.
Turning Point: In September, Mahsa Amini, 22, died while in the custody of the Iranian morality police in Tehran after she was arrested and accused of violating strict dress code laws requiring that women wear head scarves. Her death sparked massive protests across Iran as well as solidarity demonstrations around the world.
Dear Feminists of the World,
I am an Iranian actress and artist. I have lived in exile since 2008 when I starred in Ridley Scott’s movie “Body of Lies” and the Iranian authorities accused me of working with the Central Intelligence Agency.
I am writing on behalf of the brave young women and men rising up against oppression and inequality in Iran. As an exile, I have no authority to represent this courageous uprising. I’m simply trying to echo the feelings of my sisters and brothers to help the entire world understand what is happening. I want to translate the foreign language — not only its words, but its meaning.
My experience growing up in Iran until I was 25, and living in exile for the last 14 years, has enabled me to be a form of bridge between two very different cultures that have more in common than many in the West may think. This is especially true for Generation Z, the group of young people born between 1997 and 2012 who are the driving force behind the current revolution.
Let me start by saying I understand that it took many in the West a long time to notice the historic revolution happening in my country now. My home, Iran, is in one of the world’s most difficult-to-understand regions. Right and wrong are often blurred, and there is great suffering among my people. While Iran is the cradle of modern humanity in many ways, it is also the most complex political, cultural, social and religious fabric imaginable, where contradictions run deep between classes, age groups and even within families.
The contradictions and confusions of Middle Eastern politics and cultures are merely an exaggerated reflection of the contradictions and confusions that dominate the discussions of many important current global issues. Instead of easily understandable right and wrong, black and white, the world seems to be an endless spectrum of shades of gray — or a rainbow of colors, as I prefer to frame it.
So why is this uprising different? This time, there are no shades of gray. What Iran’s Generation Z wants is very simple: Freedom. Freedom of choice. Freedom for Iranian women to behave, dress, act, walk and talk as equals to Iranian men. There is no ideology involved, no formal political movement from the right or left. The simplicity of the demand for freedom is what makes it so powerful. There are no two perspectives. There is no complex argument. There is no room for confusion.
I feel this is the reason previous uprisings, some more violent and brutally suppressed, did not succeed and did not attract the same attention worldwide.
I guess since there are many misperceptions about our region, it is hard to believe that it can also be a source of inspiration. We are used to hearing about terrorists blowing themselves up. We read about the medieval practices of the Islamic State and the Taliban. We watch TV reports showing women covered from head to toe who are not allowed to ride bicycles or drive cars.
What the West doesn’t see is that our Generation Z is very similar to yours: They post videos on TikTok, follow their celebrity idols on Instagram, love to sing and dance and be happy. They seek spiritual meaning in a confusing world. And now they’ve had enough of living this double life — a life where they experience freedom only in the virtual world or behind closed doors and young girls are being forced to cover their hair in public as if they live in the Middle Ages.
Since the beginning of this revolution, I have wondered why many great Western feminists and defenders of women’s rights have stayed silent, apparently struggling to come out publicly to support our revolution. Having lived in the West for so long, I see how hard it must be for these feminists to understand the depth and historical importance of what is happening in Iran.
I welcome your change of heart. I feel obliged to tell you that in the early days of their brutal struggle, my sisters felt abandoned by the great Western feminists. The silence from powerful women was incomprehensible to them. They were wondering why men like Trevor Noah, Justin Bieber or Chris Martin and the members of the band Coldplay voiced support early on, but they didn’t hear from enough famous women. How could young women in Iran, including 16-year-old Nika Shakarami and 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, be brutally murdered while many American women, who have been at the forefront of the most prominent feminist movements, remain silent?
What’s happening in Iran is a struggle for freedom and equality. This is not a fight against the hijab or against men. It is a fight against ignorance. That is why it is supported by men as much as by women.
My sisters are, in many ways, fighting the battle of all women for their rights and equality. The only difference is that they risk their lives every day.
You can be sure that the repercussions of this movement are not limited to the borders of Iran. They will influence the entire region by giving hope to other women who could not even dream of raising their voices against all the different kinds of oppression that they have to live with every day of their lives.
But this movement will fall apart without you. We don’t need military interventions. Even political interventions are viewed with suspicion by so many people in the Middle East. The foreign involvement in the 1953 coup d’état against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh is deeply ingrained in the Iranian psyche.
A movement like this needs raised voices of support. Remaining silent is being complicit. The way I see it, ignoring Iranian women and their courageous fight means turning your back on centuries of women’s struggles for freedom and equality.