Listen to the Women and Girls of Iran
It was gigantic and staring at me. Everyone around seemed as mesmerized by it as I was: an eye, wide open. It was staring at the sky, too, and it covered most of the steps of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park at the far end of the oblong Roosevelt Island on the East River, an unlikely urban cable car stop away from Manhattan. In the background, lurking in the shadows, stood the 39-story United Nations building, proud and self-confident.
In that park, at the bottom of the steps that morning of November 28, 2022, every spoken word and every single stare were targeted at the United Nations, at the United Nations and Iran.
The eye, — also known as The Offered Eyes — is actually a famous artwork by Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat. Along with other artists—Iranians, of course, and among them the musician Mehrnam Rastegari and the actress Sepdieh Moafi, but also the American singer Jon Batiste and the French photographer JR—Shirin Neshat had taken possession of this place, a symbol of freedom and peace. In this urban garden, she focused her voice with the ones of activists around a single message and a series of art installations, Eyes on Iran. Hillary Clinton sat among them, and so did a survivor of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Zainab Salbi, now a board member of one of the most influential networks of women in the world, Vital Voices, and its president, Alyse Nelson.
United by the same fight, they shout, paint, photograph, act, sing, speak, demand, protest, and insist.
Look at the women and girls of Iran, they all say.
Do you hear their popular revolt?
And look at the bloody repression against them.
How can you, Ambassadors to the United Nations, continue polite conversations with Iranian representatives about the condition of women in the world when women are, within your own country, daily victims of your theocratic regime?
We must remove Iran from the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The fact that Iran is a member is a bitter irony.Hillary R. Clinton
This Monday, November 28, was a relatively sunny, calm, and ordinary New York day. Yet, it carried with it a memory that many have undoubtedly forgotten. On this same day in 1943, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met in Tehran to discuss the Allied military strategy and the post-war reorganization. At this historic conference, Stalin accepted the American idea of creating a new international body, the United Nations.
Fast forward six decades. A series of disruptions and conflicts are challenging every aspect of the world and mankind: the war in Ukraine, of course, has yielded significant human suffering, energy and economic crises; the climate change and environmental have been accepted as a global threat—the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently worried about humanity becoming “a weapon of mass extinction.” Forgotten wars are burning in so many places, and repressive, rights-denying authoritarian regimes keep casting shadows over Burma or Afghanistan. Health and public health systems, finally, remain weakened by the consequences of the Covid 19 pandemic.
Echoing these multiple plights, a background noise of hope has resounded from the streets of Iranian cities. Its murmur are cries for genuine reform. The outrage of a new generation of Iranian women and girls—and men, too—is reverberating worldwide, and Roosevelt Island is no exception. The Iranian youth want to remove their authoritarian and theocratic regime. They no longer hide their revulsion for a brutal clique who rule with impunity.
The revolt started on September 13, 2022, when the so-called Morality Police arrested a young Kurdish-Iranian woman of 22, Jîna Mahsa Amini, outside a Tehran subway station. Her crime was to wear her hijab improperly. She died three days later in a hospital, allegedly of a heart attack, the authorities said, but actually because of wounds that the police had inflicted on her, according to other women detained along with her. Mahsa Amini’s death triggered a wave of protests. In homage to Mahsa Amini, now a martyr, young Iranian women across the country cut their hair, disposed of their veils, and tirelessly chanted, ‘Woman, life, freedom.’
“So, I stand here honoring her memory, as well as the more than 400 other Iranians who have since been killed, protesting her death and protesting for their freedom, and the tens of thousands who have been arrested,” said the 2016 U.S. presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
It’s not over until the Iranian people say it’s over.JR, Photographer
All eyes are on Iran, say these artists and activists in unison. All eyes are watching these women. They ask for a new world without fear of prison or torture. Their cries, their struggles, and their hopes have resonated across the country’s borders. Suddenly, at least for now, the world remembers to bear witness to the Iranian regime, its morality police, and the actions of the Mullahs.
“The campaign Eyes on Iran is intended to make sure that the public does not forget or ignore the brutal crackdown occurring on Iranian women and girls,” Hillary Clinton explained. “It is a plea to the press of the world to continue covering this horrible series of events. We beg you because this story is a story that has so much depth and importance to all of us.”
Shirin Neshat also insists that the ongoing revolution must not simply be heard but accompanied by a vision “to ensure international audiences and institutions remain aware of what is happening in Iran, in their eyes and in their hearts, and feel moved to respond.”
A few days after the artistic unveiling at Four Freedoms Park, photographer JR designed a photo he took from above of 300 people standing at the top of the park’s steps Their shadows gave shape to hair floating in the wind and freed from the veil of Nika Shahkarami’s face, an Iranian woman who disappeared on September 20th, 2022, during a demonstration and was found dead a week later. “Say her name!” the women posing for this photograph repeat. “It’s not over until the Iranian people say it’s over,” JR wrote on his Instagram account.
“Freedom for those who grew up with no freedom and who are living in freaking fear is a huge thing to do,” said Zainab Salbi. The Iraqi-born American, daughter of Saddam Hussein’s helicopter pilot and founder of Women for Women International, a foundation created to help women victims of war, knows what she’s talking about. At 19 years old, her mother forcibly married her to an Iraqi American and sent her to the United States to escape personal threats from the Iraqi dictator. “Every day going out in the street demanding their freedom is a magnificent act of courage; they need to succeed not only for their freedom and rights,” but also “for all women in the region, the entire Muslim world (..) and they need to succeed for all of us,” Zainab Salbi added.
Every day going out in the street demanding their freedom is a magnificent act of courage; they need to succeed not only for their freedom and rights, but also for all women in the region, the entire Muslim world (…) and they need to succeed for all of us.Zainab Salbi, Board Member, Vital Voices
Could the Iranian women and girls, beyond their combat, implicitly reflect in their demands those of women subjected to violence by governments, legislators, and individuals. “Their fight is our fight,” Hillary Clinton said. “This is about the global struggle for human rights, human dignity, human freedom, gender equality and justice.”
“Think of the women in Afghanistan deprived of education,” Hillary Clinton continued, “the women in Ukraine defending their country against the barbarity of Putin’s invasion.” And also, of the American women who have had their right to abortion taken away, to the victims of femicide, physical violence, harassment, and economic oppression everywhere.
It is to Iranian women, and through them to all women that these activists and artists sent their Eyes on Iran message.
And the UN diplomats? Were they watching from across the East River? Did they hear the former Secretary of State calling out to them: “We must remove Iran from the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The fact that Iran is a member is a bitter irony.”
It was not the first time that Hillary Clinton called for the removal of Iran from this UN commission. In October, she joined Vital Voices and For Freedoms to publish an open letter in the New York Times signed by tens of thousands, including Christine Lagarde, Ambassador Melanne Verveer, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and Nobel Peace Prize winners Leymah Gbowee and Malala Yousafzai.
The women and girls at the heart of the Iranian protests, the largest since the establishment of the Islamic State 43 years ago, are Time Magazine’s Heroes of the Year. They may be next Fall’s Nobel Peace Prize winners—but wouldn’t that be too late? The Iranian movement needs leadership, and therefore, financial resources—which a Nobel Prize could provide.
After she finished reading her prepared notes, Hillary Clinton addressed Iranian women and girls once again. “We see you, and we stand by you. You are not alone in your efforts (…) because your struggle is our struggle. Your rights are rights that we claim for ourselves and that every human being is entitled to.” The woman, who has dedicated her political career to equal rights and women’s economic, political, and social emancipation, then looked up at the television cameras and talked to the Iranian leadership.
“I remember after I gave the speech in Beijing in 1995 (at the 4th World Conference on Women), I appeared on a radio broadcast of Voice in America. It was a call-in show. And one of the calls came from inside Iran.
The male questioner asked me, ‘What do you mean, Women’s Rights are Human Rights? What do you mean by that?’
And I said, ‘I want you to shut your eyes and imagine all the rights you, as a man in Iran, have right now. We want the same rights that you have.’
I will never forget that call and I will never forget where it came from.And today, I am saying to the people who control Iran, who have suppressed freedom—not for religion and ideology, as they claim, but for the sheer raw exercise of power: Listen to your people.”
— On December 14, 2022, two weeks after the unveiling of Eyes on Iran and this artist and activist demonstration at Four Freedom Park, the United Nations Economic and Social Council expelled Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with immediate effect for the remainder of its term, which was to end in 2026. Of the 54 members invited to vote, 16 abstained and eight, including Russia and China, voted against. —
To date, Eyes remain on Iran.
More information on the campaign #EyeOnIrans: https://www.womanlifefreedom.today/eyes-on-iran/#assets
(translation from French edited by Delphine Schrank)