The Iranian regime and its henchmen will stop at nothing to crush the Hair Revolt.
These doddering mullahs capable of beating to death a woman who wears the veil askew, these turbaned police whose souls are as naked as the terror that a woman’s face inspires in them, these serial killers who never let a day pass without lengthening the list of their femicides—this time, they’ll go all the way.
Iran is on the edge of a cliff.
The regime is desperate, pitiless, and ready, if unchecked, to make rivers of blood flow in the streets, as they cripple another generation of young Iranians into submission.
And I write these lines in fear and trembling, eyes glued to a photo of Mahsa Jina Amini, the Kurdish student who started it all, with her hair floating free, but on a hospital bed, by a respirator incapable of saving her.
And yet …
The countryside, like the urban centers, has been won over by the revolt.
The fury goes from universities in Tehran to far-off Baluchistan, aflame after the rape, by a police officer, of a protester.
Twenty-seven provinces, out of the country’s 31, are rising up in solidarity with Amini and the dozens, perhaps hundreds of women murdered after her, fanning the winds of revolt.
In Ardabil, it’s the green flags of the anti-riot units that retreat in a deadly game of hide-and-seek that the insurgents inflict on them.
What is visible to even the most disillusioned observer is the strength of a movement that seems willing to stop at nothing to achieve its goals.
Their demand this time is not, as it was in 2009, a transparent election, or as it was in 2019, a drop in fuel prices. They demand the toppling of a regime that can offer them nothing and should just be sent to the bins of history.
“Barayé,” the protesters sing.
That is, in English, “For” (life, liberty, women).
It’s 1979 upside down. It’s the true uprising of the spirit, faultily announced, at the time, by Michel Foucault. It’s go-for-broke time.
In these redoubtable days, where the planet plays Russian roulette, Iran is having its Ukraine moment.
The singularity of this moment lies in the role of women.
Veils being burnt in the streets, like breaking chains, in scenes where, despite nightsticks and bullets, hair, face, beauty is reborn.
Among the more timid, the demand is whispered under a thin square of fabric, laying lightly on the temples, so light that, like with Amini, the day the morality police arrested her, one nearly confused it with hair—what a long way from the black veil, so severe, of another woman, Sakineh, who was saved from death by stoning through international public outcry.
Iran is being reborn by its women.
It is they who, like the “heavenly saints” in Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, have the honor of “healing the ferocious wounded.”
This “pyramid of martyrs,” about whom another poet would have said “haunts the earth,” is not just a tomb: It’s a monument to the glory of a people kept hostage, who, with one voice, clamor for liberty.
Many are surprised by these women’s gesture of not just showing their hair, but of cutting it.
And they see something almost cruel, sacrificial—like a violence done to their own beauty.
There is something to that, of course.
There is the dark memory of the riots in 2014 when, in solidarity with women whose heads were shaven in Evin prison, hundreds of their sisters did the same sublime and fateful act.
But of the little I know of Persian literature, the Book of Kings tells another story: women soldiers for whom shaved heads were a symbol of either great grief, or inextinguishable rage, or of preparation for battle, like that of Gordafarid and Sohrab.
Heroism nourished by a prodigious past.
It’s either that or the “cabbage-headed mullahs” of Sadegh Hedayat who, left to their own devices, would reduce to ashes one of the world’s great civilizations.
The other question, as in Ukraine, is whether the free world will show its face or not, and—faced with an enemy (Khamenei … Putin …) who is also their own—be up to the task.
It would require a mobilization of souls.
An increase in the sanctions that the revolutionaries wish on Tehran.
The expulsion and recall of ambassadors, resolutions with actual consequences in the U.N. Security Council.
It would require all feminists to support the daring women of Iran, who risk their lives daily for an end to their decadeslong imprisonment by medieval fanatics, in this unconscionable, real-world telling of The Handmaid’s Tale, by no longer accepting forms of subjugation that they reject in their own countries.
It would require all the implicated countries, starting with the United States, to leave their embarrassing “nuclear negotiation,” which will always be—so long as the ruling obscenity police in Qom are prepared to drown in blood a single line of red lipstick—a fruitless charade.
We have done so well with Ukraine!
We stood, with such unity, against Putin!
We should have the same resolve in front of this new affront!
More than ever, we should say “no accommodation with our radical enemies.”
Western accommodation of evil regimes has a poor track record. It is bad strategy in a world that is never short on demons. It makes a mockery of the rights and freedoms consecrated by the blood of generations of our best thinkers and fighters. It suggests that our most deeply held beliefs and most painful sacrifices are deserving of the cynical mockery of those whose world is founded on torture chambers, on the breaking of bodies, and of the enslaving of minds to the moronic aims of dictators.
Nothing is as fragile as a liberating storm.
Will we heed this liberating call? Or, to speak like another poet, this time, Charles Baudelaire, will Hope, defeated, plant his black flag?
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His most recent film, Slava Ukraini, premiered nationwide on May 5, 2023.