The genie is out of the bottle: women's confessions that help understand what's really happening in Iran

The hijab revolution broke out in a moment, but matured for 43 long years, since the formation of the criminal regime of the Ayatollah, who took away the rights and freedoms of Iranian women. The artist Mahboubeh Absalan, who lives in Iran and usually speaks through paintings, and the founder of the women's community The Soulfuls, Aram Ostadian-Binai, who as a child had to run away from her native country with her mother and sister, shared their candid stories with us.

In Berlin 80,000 people demonstrated against the suppression of protests in Iran
Aram Ostadian-Binai

My name, Aram, means quiet. I was not quiet as a child, not even a bit, but as I grew into a young woman in Iran, I was told to get quiet. When we relocated to Denmark, I had to be quiet again – this time as a brown woman. The thing with silence is that you listen, you observe, and you become an expert in reading people. You notice who gets ignored and who keeps getting the microphone. Over time – as you grow – that longing to break the silence and be free, becomes a force called courage and bravery.

On september 16, 2022, a young woman aged 22 years, was taken by Iranian moral police for not covering ALL her hair. Her forced hijab was not good enough. That was her crime. She was aggressively taken and arrested, and later she died in police custody. The journalist – an Iranian woman – who reported Mahsas death is now in jail, her crime was breaking her silence. High school girls aged 14 are now removing their compulsory hijab uniform in schools, risking their life and getting to the streets to chant ‘we are all Mahsa’ and ‘Women, life, freedom’.

The Iranian government keeps shutting down the internet, and telling to Iranian people no one cares – to take away their hope on top of their freedom, dignity and identity. That is why it’s so important to amplify their voices and their uprising. After 43 years of oppression, Iranian women are finally breaking their silence, and the world is witnessing their bravery. These protests are the first counter-revolution led by women, against an armed army!

I remember when I was only 14 in Iran, a year that was particularly important to me as I had just found my tribe of friends. I was happy going to guitar lessons, and was stepping into womanhood. Much like most high school girls in Iran now, this was the age when I could slowly start feeling what it means not to have freedom. However, my destiny became different than theirs. My brave mom saw a way out and – in her early 30s – she took my little sister and me under her wings and fled to Denmark. Before being able to do that – like any other Iranian woman – she needed her husband's permission and signature to get a passport and ticket to leave the country. Till then – for all I knew – Iran was my home, but my mom knew soon my freedom would be taken and home was not safe anymore!

Protests in Berlin

In Iran, I knew being a woman was a disadvantage. I vividly remember how I always wished I was a boy – because boys had freedom. In Denmark I learned being a brown woman is a disadvantage ("double trouble" is what I call it). So I made a choice to start The Soulfuls in 2018 and make it my mission to help girls and women of all backgrounds feel free, shine and to follow their dreams. Freedom to be who you want and wear what you want lies deep within me. Even though I am now safe in Denmark, my heart is with women and girls in Iran. I am not completely free until they are free.

Back when I had just ‘settled’ in the asylum centre in Denmark, an artist held a workshop about the ‘past, present and future" and gave us a canvas to paint. For my past, I drew a bird in a closed cage (me in Iran). For the present, I drew the bird in a cage with the door open, but the bird was chained to the cage (me in the asylum centre in Denmark). For the future, the bird had her wings spread open, with a graduation hat on and was flying: she was free (me now)!

When we were finally granted asylum, I wrote my very first Danish assignment in school, a poem called "Freedom Day". Now, my dream at the age of 37 is to see "Freedom Day" for the people of Iran, for all women and girls to live freely, on their own terms.

That is why I asked Mahboubeh to join me in this piece. She is a brave woman based in Iran, and her voice is important. She usually speaks through her stunning work of art, but today she writes about her reality in Iran.

Mahboubeh Absalan: "I was arrested four times by the moral police, but I will not be silent anymore"

Imagine a world where wearing the clothes, hairstyles, nails and makeup that you want is banned by law.

Imagine by the age of 6 you’d have to wrap a piece of fabric around your hair and neck all the School year by law.

Imagine a world where you’re born in a coastal city but you can’t swim in public by the age of 7 when your body starts developing as a woman.

Imagine a world where learning guitar is your life, but you’re suspended from school because of growing your nails on one hand.

Imagine a world where you’re forced to marry at the age of 13!

Imagine a world where the law supports honor killings.

Imagine a world where you get arrested and shaved if you grow your hair as a man.

Imagine a world where you will get arrested for wearing leggings.

Imagine a world where being a singer and a dancer has been your dream since you were a little girl but you will be arrested and Imprisoned if you sing or dance in public.

Imagine a world where women get arrested for riding a bike!

Imagine a world where it is illegal for you to go to stadiums as a woman.

Illustration: Mahboubeh Absalan

Well, I grew up and am still living in that world.and there are millions of people living exactly like me. I have been arrested 4 times by Iran’s morality police, And this is my life experience. I am finally feeling empowered to break my silence and not fear the prosecution it may cost me.

I was born in a coastal city. We had beautiful scenery, beautiful nature, open waters and rivers. From the age of 3 I was so obsessed with water and swimming that my father taught me how to swim. Because he was scared of me drowning myself .

I grew up and my body started developing at the age of 7, so naturally I was banned from ever swimming in the public eye. It was quite traumatic for me , I still have hunched back trying to hide my breast area because I felt betrayed by my body for growing too soon. I still wanted to be a kid and swim and climb the trees but I was encouraged to act like a grown woman.

Protests in Berlin

From the age of 6 in school Wearing your hair out was an act of crime and you would have gotten summoned to the principal's office. Imagine the heat under that headdress, and an itchy neck. We developed rashes and weird hair conditions for life because of constantly covering our heads in the heat and humidity. Often we develop a lack of vitamin D because our bodies are always covered.

I remember the first time I was faced with a grown woman not wearing a hijab in public was when I was 7 and we travelled to Dubai for 3 days! I was shocked!

Big uniforms in ugly greys and browns were our dress codes for school.

Boys were forced to shave their heads all school year.

Speaking of boys, if you had a boyfriend or had a crush you were committing a deadly sin. So imagine the guilt and confusion we felt when puberty hit.

In my school a girl was murdered by her father because the rumors broke that she has a boyfriend. Wearing the Emo dress code was a challenge for us Iranian teens, we used to wear the striped sleeveless and long striped socks under our mandatory hijab. and naturally we were always in the principal's office. I dodged a marriage at the age of 16-17 and moved to Tehran when I was 18. We were forced to wear Maghnaee and not a simple scarf as our dress code for university, imagine that in an art university. We were often summoned and suspended for wearing colourful scarves and not wearing maghnaeh! For wearing skirts and colourful socks. For wearing short coats.

The first time I was arrested I was going out for the first time after my car accident and because of my body cast I wasn’t able to wear the proper hijab, so I was arrested, even though they saw my bodies condition and begged them to let me go home because I was close to my apartment. The second time was for wearing leggings! In winter! The third time was because I was wearing a knee length coat, and they said it’s too short. The fourth time it was for not wearing my coat Buttons ! Even though I was wearing a long shirt under it. And I had a high fever.

Protests in Berlin

And once I was travelling and holding my luggages with both hands, it was a windy day and it uncovered my hair for a few seconds and two police officers, one female and one male started to yell at me and follow me, so I ran away. In my country if you drink alcohol or do drugs or party you will get lashes. In my country if you go out for a run you have to go with full coverage, so imagine the heat and

When I was 21 my friend attempted to rape me in my own apartment and I couldn’t scream or call the police because for a strange man to be inside your apartment is illegal itself. And I didn’t want any trouble. Today at the age of 30, I was getting ready to go out, and for a moment I made eye contact with myself in the mirror and it was the first time in my entire life that I smiled and said IM A MOTHER FUCKING IRANIAN WOMAN!

I have always felt ashamed of my gender and my nationality, I always felt like my gender is a liability, I always felt like I have to hide and isolate myself because of my body. But this time I didn’t feel like a powerless victim of oppression, but the symbol of bravery!

From 11 – 13 November, in the heart of Copenhagen at Arne Axel space, The Soulfuls launch a pop-up exhibition that showcases brave Iranian women's art in this time, among them Mahboubeh Absalan. There will be a series of talks, music performances and gatherings during those dates.

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