It's easy to be blinded by the lights and get distracted by influencer activism or celebrity feminism, but Minoo Jalali and others like her do the hard, dangerous work that makes the biggest differences to so many lives.
Minoo Jalali was a revolutionary in Iran in the 1970s. Pursuing the ideal of freedom, she was one of a huge number of women who rose up to oppose the Shah, disgusted by the brutal dictatorship, socio-economic inequality and foreign domination that he came to represent to his critics.
She describes the rare courage that the revolutionaries showed in fighting for what they believed in. "It was a turning point when the army attacked and I think about 100 or so people were killed. And you could see that people were showing no fear."
For her, and for many women like her, the revolution was a chance for liberation because they sought to end dictatorship and gain a political voice, but also because it offered a new way to feel and prove their worth that was different to the usual standards that applied to women at the time.
"There was a defiance in the air, which was beautiful,” Jalali describes, noting that women were now being seen as valuable because of what they could work together to achieve, not just on the basis of skin deep beauty.
#notallmen has been trending again in the past few days, and whilst it’s come to be mostly used by those who are too insecure to discuss gender politics without feeling personally victimised, the Iranian revolution and its aftermath is a historical moment that strengthened Western homogenisation and vilification of ‘Middle Eastern’ masculinity. It is worth noting that the finals days of the Iranian revolution saw male allies of the female revolutionaries put their reputations and their lives on the line to support them. The intensely patriarchal structure of Homeini’s government and religious society, plus Western bias, has led to Iranian men being frequently mis-characterised as homogenously oppressive. Just as the revolution had given women the opportunity to fight alongside men for the society they wanted to create, it also gave men the opportunity to learn more about their female comrades’ politics and some were radicalised to the feminist cause. When chanting mobs began attacking female protestors at demonstrations in early 1979, for example, their male allies would form a circle around the women, trying to protect them from the violence that was erupting. The Iranian revolutinaries arguably no more reproduced the patriarchal structures of the society they opposed than the countercultural activists or the Student agitators in the West.
The female Iranian protestors were also supported by solidarity form feminists the world over. The American feminist Kate Millett, who'd accepted an invitation from student activists, marched with women in Tehran. The International Committee for Women's Rights, chaired by feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, sent a delegation.
Most famously, the militant French feminist group, Psychoanalysis and Politics, marched on the streets and documented what they saw. Their 12-minute documentary remains the only existing film of those events.
This is just one of the countless points in history when the opportunity for a reset, a new chance and a better future is missed. Even though it’s so often progressive forces that agitate for change, it’s equally often the case that the right is the force able to take a hold of the chaos that comes with moments of transformation and put their vision into practice.
"At that time there were potentials for other possibilities, but unfortunately we lost that opportunity," she says. "Iran lost a golden opportunity. And we have gone back in history."
"That revolution was inevitable. Nobody could have really stopped the force of it," she says. "We hoped that we could steer it [but] we were wrong. And the clergy hijacked it … and deceived many people."
That didn’t squash Jalali’s political vision or stop her political activities. In the wake of the revolution she became an executive member of the largest Iranian women organisation. She campaigned against the violation of human, and specially, women’s rights. And she paid the price. Having become a lawyer, she was barred from practice and had to leave Iran in 1983.
Even after becoming a political exile, Jalali was determined to make a difference in her life. In Britain she first worked with the Citizen Rights Office in Edinburgh and together with other women activists helped to set up the first Asian women refuge in Edinburgh.
In 1987, she joined Avon and Bristol Law Centre in Bristol where she helped in setting up its immigration team, representing clients and campaigning on asylum and immigration rights issues. She was a founding member of the Refugee Women’s Legal Group which was formed in 1996 aiming to develop a gendered perspective on refugee law and practice.
Eventually, she was on board of trustees of Refugee Action for the period 1994 to 2016. She has been a trustee of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants since 2008. In 2013 she was elected as its Chair and continued to act in this capacity until March last year.
She proves that the revolutionary spirit cannot be crushed. Whenever she met opposition, even life threatening opposition, she found a way to transform what she was doing and continue to make a difference in the world.
Whisper Tapes: Kate Millett in Iran by Negar Mottahedeh, published by Stanford University Press, 2019.
Iranian Women Risk Arrest: Daughters of the Revolution by Homa Hoodfar, Maclean's, March 7, 2018.
The Post-Revolutionary Women's Uprising of March 1979: An Interview with Nasser Mohajer and Mahnaz Matin by Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, Iranwire, 2013.
Women in Iran: Gender Politics in the Islamic Republic by Hammed Shahidian, published by Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002.
Populism and Feminism in Iran: Women's Struggle in a Male-Defined Revolutionary Movement byHaideh Moghissi, published by St. Martin's Press, 1996.
In the Shadow of Islam: The Women's Movement in Iran by Azar Tabari and Nahid Yeganeh, published by Zed Press, 1982.
Going to Iran by Kate Millett, published by Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1981.
But in the courage, and the chaos, of fighting to overthrow the Shah, the differences of opinion about what should happen afterwards were masked by the common and immediate enemy. And after the dictatorship ended, Jalali and others like her found that their revolutionary comrades no longer needed them and, just like the Shah, did not want to offer them their freedom.
It’s hard for us to imagine today, but Jalali describes the disbelief she felt when religious slogans started to dominate the streets. "[We] never thought that it would be a possibility for the clergy to take the power and rule," she says.
Now women were told to cover their heads at demonstrations; still allowed to take to the streets to build a new society, but only if they met certain conditions. The emphasis was again on how they looked, a move to return them to their role as objects rather than subjects in Iran’s history.
In February 1979, the Ayatollah officially took power, and the revolution was declared over.
It was only a matter of weeks until his administration began an assault on minorities, the political opposition and women's rights.
International Women’s Day, March 8, became a day for the progressive revolutionaries to fight back.
For six days straight, the women marched. On the streets, women were attacked by counter-protestors, who assaulted them with knives, stones, bricks and broken glass.