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In Conversation: Journalist Zahra Joya and Scholar/Activist Esha Momeni on the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan, Iran and beyond

October 10, 2022
This Q&A was republished from a Fuller Project newsletter on October 10, 2022. Subscribe here.

Zahra Joya and Esha Momeni hail from different countries and live a continent apart, but they have much — sadly, too much — in common.

Joya is the award-winning founder and editor of Rukhshana Media, a woman-led newsroom in Afghanistan focused on coverage of women. She was one of 12 women named TIME’s 2022 “Women of the Year” for her courage in the face of Taliban repression. Joya, who was forced to flee her homeland, was recently recognized with the Gates Foundation’s Goal Keepers Global Award for her “inspiring efforts to drive progress for all.” (The Gates Foundation is also a funder of The Fuller Project.)

Momeni was born in Iran and earned a Ph.D. in gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. When she returned to Iran in 2008 to film a documentary on the country’s women’s rights movement —  meant to debunk the stereotype that all women in the Middle East were powerless and oppressed — she was arrested, forced to endure solitary confinement for one month and barred from traveling for one year before returning to the United States. She is now a lecturer in gender studies at UCLA and an activist and scholar for women’s rights.

Joya, Momeni and I came together in a Zoom conversation on Friday afternoon to talk about the forces driving the erosion of women’s rights in Afghanistan, Iran and beyond, including in the United States. 

The conversation, below, is edited for clarity and length. 

Eva Rodriguez: Zahra, Esha, please give us your assessment of the status of women in Afghanistan and Iran.

Zahra Joya: More than one year [after the Taliban takeover], the women in Afghanistan are not in a good situation — they lost their rights, half of the population is in [a virtual] prison. Last week, a bomb attack occurred in my [Hazaras community in Kabul] at a school; more than 50 students were killed and more than 100 injured, most of them girls. I’m based in the United Kingdom with my siblings, but part of my family is still in Afghanistan and they are at high risk. So for me it’s not only the fall of Kabul, the fall of Afghanistan; it is the fall of my fellow citizens’ futures and hopes. That’s very difficult. Unfortunately, very bad things happened in Iran with Mahsa Amini, may she rest in peace. It’s a very terrible reminder for our Afghan sisters, Afghan women. We were witnesses to that [in our country.] We have to tell these stories and inform the world. Please listen to us.

Esha Momeni: The image of women created by the domestic governments, by the Iranian state, by the Taliban is this image of the oppressed women. But we’ve been in the streets. We’ve been fighting. In Afghanistan, after so many years of war and after the Taliban’s systematic oppression of women,  in 2013 Afghan women occupied 30% of Afghanistan seats in government, which is higher than many—definitely higher than America. . . .And also in Iran, we know that some of the most notable anti-government figures are women. 

Eva: What similarities, differences are there with what is happening now in Iran and Afghanistan? 

Zahra: Both the Iranian government and the Taliban government employ the morality police. Both of them have an extremist ideology against women, forcing women to wear hijabs, etc. I think it’s the very same. 

Esha: I agree with that, and how much their identity is invested in the oppression of women. The question we should ask is, what role does oppressing women play . . . in creating a specific kind of masculinity and a global image of this state? There are similarities, in that sense. The difference between what’s going on in Iran and Afghanistan — and I think we should connect this to what’s happening in the United States – it’s like a new generation of targets [and participants.] Now the targets are students. Masha Amini was 22, but now two other young women — 16 or 17 years old — have been killed. Students have been protesting for the past few days, they’ve been at the center of the protests. This new generation is very much connected to the world. In Iran, 75% of the population is connected to the Internet, they have the tools to connect to the Internet. This new generation sees themselves as part of the global society, even in this most isolated country.

Eva: So this a protest movement that could not or would not have happened prior to smartphones and the Internet?

Esha: This is 42 years of women resisting compulsory hijab, turning to a revolution with a generation that doesn’t have the fears that my generation had. When I was 18 years old, I was arrested at a party and I was lashed and whipped. Just being in the streets was always a place of danger. But this new generation, in 2016, they were already not wearing their scarves. And they weren’t scared. I was talking to a friend and she was sharing her experience about when she was arrested three or four years ago. She said, ‘when I was arrested, I was sitting with these girls. They all knew each other. They’re like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re here again.’ And they were laughing. It was apparent that not only is that violence normalized, but also resisting that violence is normalized and is now part of everyday life. What’s happening in Iran is a result of resisting and pushing back. Iranian women have been practicing this for the past 40 years. And now this is a result of that.

Eva: In Afghanistan, we know there have been incredibly brave women protesting publicly, but many have been forced to go underground. 

Zahra: Yes, unfortunately, that’s true. The Taliban violence against women is barbaric. Most of the female protesters are arrested, beaten or even tortured. And some of them had to get out of Afghanistan. It’s heartbreaking. But still, I’m seeing women trying to resist, trying to take their story to the street. Two or three days after the school attack in [the Hazaras community in] Kabul, women’s groups from different provinces protested against the Taliban and demanded they protect the civilian people in the country. It gives me hope. 

Eva: We’ve seen many TikToks and videos of celebrities and non-celebrities cutting their hair in solidarity with women in Iran. Is that really helpful?

Esha: Awareness is important and symbolic acts have their own place in revolutions. Being seen, being visible to the world, in that sense, it’s important. Does it have real consequences on the outcome of this moment? No, that’s just the first step. But then we need to put pressure on the politicians, we need sanctions on [Iranian] individuals and the state. 

Eva: What do you expect Afghanistan and Iran to look like in the next few years? 

Zahra: That’s a difficult question. The Western countries have invested a lot in 20 years in Afghanistan. They left behind everything. So now the Taliban, as an extremist group, is in charge. That my country is home to a terrorist group is heartbreaking for me. If the world does not break its silence, the situation in Afghanistan will be the same in five years. 

Esha: For Iran, I was very hopeless before this uprising, but with this new generation and how brave and how innovative they’ve been, it just brought so much hope. They’ve inspired us to again make sure that we use our resources or energy to support them. But what we see in Afghanistan and Iran — and again now in Italy — is fascism, and I’m worried that throughout the world, even in the West, it’s going to get worse for women. [We see significant curtailment of] abortion rights in the U.S. We see femicides in South America. I remember when the Taliban took power again they ordered female mannequins to be beheaded. And that image just stuck in my mind. If we don’t come together and push back against [these forces] then women’s rights, human rights for all of us, are going to regress all over the world.

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