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The women who could change Iran

The women who could change Iran

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This year the stories of two Iranian women – Mahsa Amini and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – can help us understand the challenges facing Iran’s regime

In the early hours of March the 17th this year, a plane carrying two British hostages touched down at an RAF base in Oxfordshire. One of them was Anoosheh Ashoori who’d been held by the Iranians since 2017. The other – who’d become quite well-known since she was put in prison in 2016 – was Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

She was delighted to be home but frustrated it had taken so long.

I was told many, many times that ‘oh, we’re gonna get you home’. That never happened. So there was a time that I felt like, you know what, I’m not even gonna trust you because I’ve been told many, many times that I’m gonna be taken home, but that never happened. I mean, how many foreign secretaries does it take for someone to come out? Five. It should have been one of them eventually. So now here we are. What’s happened now should have happened six years ago.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

You probably remember Nazanin’s story. She was on holiday, visiting family in Iran in 2016 when she was taken prisoner along with her daughter Gabriella.

Iran accused her of spying, but that was always a trumped-up charge. Something else was going on.

Richard Ratcliffe: “So when she was very first arrested we were completely bewildered. She was taken on holiday, had been to Iran three times in that year, had been many times previously, all fine, was taken and disappeared.”

Ceri Thomas: “How long were you completely in the dark for?”

Richard Ratcliffe: “It came in stages. It didn’t make any sense at all. So for this to suddenly happen, it just didn’t make any sense. I think in terms of it being explained to us, it was explained to her first, through kind of half suggestions than gradually clearer messages, the message that came to us from the interrogators, was listen, we’re holding you to make the British reach the agreement – if the British reach the agreement you’ll leave without charge. I passed that onto the Foreign Office, she then got charged, and then gradually it got clearer and clearer as to what it’s about.”

Tortoise Slow Newscast: Trapped in Whitehall

That’s Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, talking to Tortoise before she got out.

What it was about was a lot of money that Britain owed to Iran for some tanks that the Iranians had paid for back in the 1970s. The UK had never delivered them and so all that time, the debt grew. 

The UK paid it – £400m altogether – just before Nazanin was let out. They said it was unconnected to her release, though many people didn’t believe them.

They naturally wanted to avoid the accusation that they had paid a ransom to the group that had taken Nazanin hostage: the Revolutionary Guard.

Established in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Revolutionary Guards are often described as a parallel government within Iran. Tasked with protecting Iranian interests at home and abroad, it’s also heavily involved in regional politics and conflicts.

France 24

The Revolutionary Guard’s job is to protect the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Islamic hard-liners who run it. 

The kind of policies that affect women in particular – like strict dress codes and a Morality Police to enforce them – are close to their heart. 

The Revolutionary Guard is extremely powerful, very wealthy, and has a life of its own within the country.

It also runs Iran’s programme of taking hostages. So when Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe was released, and the British government paid that tank debt, it looked like a triumph for their old way of doing business. Taking Nazanin hostage had worked: the debt had been repaid.

There wasn’t much doubt as Nazanin flew home in March this year that things looked pretty rosy for the hard-liners in Iran. There was no reason for them to think there was serious trouble ahead. 

That was until the awful case of another woman came along to turn everything on its head: Mahsa Amini.

***

Six months after Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe flew home, Mahsa Amini was killed. 

She was 22 years old and from Kurdistan in the north of Iran. But in September this year she was visiting her brother in the capital, Tehran. While there she was arrested by the Morality Police, apparently for not wearing her hijab properly, and wearing what the police chief in Tehran described as tight pants. 

The evidence shows that she was badly beaten in the back of the police van. She collapsed at the police station, was taken to hospital where she went into a coma, and died on September 16th.

Her death was rare enough that a reporter called Niloofar Hamedi wrote about it. Within a few days Niloofar had been arrested for her reporting. But it didn’t stop her story being the spark for some really astonishing events.

The day she reported Mahsa Amini’s story, people took to the streets. They chanted “I will kill whoever killed my sister.”

The next day, September 17th, the protests began to spread. At first to Mahsa Amini’s hometown, and then further still.

By September 20th there seem to have been demonstrations in more than half of Iran’s provinces. And people had started to die. One Norwegian human rights organisation reckons 402 demonstrators had been killed.

On September 28th, Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe released a video of her cutting her hair – something which women across Iran were doing to symbolise their fight against oppression – and reciting the names of some of those who’d died…

Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe cutting her hair

The Revolutionary Guard weighed in to support the government’s line, which was that Mahsa Amini had died from natural causes, but it made no difference.

High school students protested; university students, too. Oil workers went on strike and blocked roads. The government, the security forces and the Revolutionary Guard seemed to have lost control of the situation. There hadn’t been anything like it in Iran for more than 40 years.

By the end of October, the head of the Revolutionary Guard went public to tell the protestors that he’d had enough.

Head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard speaking to protestors

Today’s the final day of riots, he said. We will not leave you alone, we will take revenge.

People feared that a brutal crackdown was about to start. But it never materialised, or at least it didn’t get any worse.  And so the protests carried on into November.

***

Mahsa Amini’s death was the spark which lit the fuse in Iran. But the demonstrations haven’t only been about Mahsa’s murder.

Iranians have been getting poorer because America has imposed sanctions on the country to try to stop it developing nuclear weapons. They’ve had an enormous effect on daily life.

And after 43 years of rule by the Ayatollahs as they’re known – the leaders of Islam in Iran – people have had enough of strict religious rule and all the brutal policing that’s needed to keep it in place. 

The Ayatollahs have got a problem now. Many of the protestors have gone too far and risked too much to go back. 

And the world is well aware of what’s going on thanks to moments like this…

This is the moment the Iranian football team refused to sing their national anthem at the World Cup. An act of bold defiance on one of the biggest stages in the world.

And the Ayatollahs don’t seem to know what to do. 

***

Iran’s New Year isn’t until March, but as our 2023 comes to an end Iran finds itself in a more perilous position than it has for decades. If the protests continue into next year, as there’s every sign they will, then a lot of Iranian people will start to believe they’re in the middle of a counter-revolution which will sweep away the Islamic Revolution and all the ayatollahs with it. 

It’s hard to imagine that would happen peacefully.

And the stories of two women will have been central to Iran’s history at this critical time. 

Anything seems possible in Iran in the months ahead.

This episode was written by Ceri Thomas and mixed by Matt Russell.