I start my week sitting on my carpet at home with a pair of scissors in my hand, cutting my braid. It is a very small gesture to express feelings of solidarity that extend beyond national borders. Women across Iran and the Iranian diaspora are leading the way, cutting off their own braids and locks of hair following the murder of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, in Tehran. She was arrested in September by the so-called morality police for not wearing her headscarf “properly” and beaten so severely she died in hospital days later. People have marched on the streets of Iran ever since, and many of those taking part in the protests are young students. The new generation is chanting “jin, jiyan, azadi” – “women, life, freedom”. Their bravery is extraordinary but their demands are not: they want basic human rights. They want to be treated equally and with dignity.
When I share messages of solidarity on Instagram the response is incredibly touching. The truth is I am always torn about social media. As an introvert, there is a part of me that wants to stay away from these platforms, vitriolic and polarising as they can be. But another part appreciates the way they help us to hear each other’s voices, especially against the background of populist jingoism, religious fundamentalism and rising authoritarianism. How else can we use online and offline platforms to amplify unheard voices? How can we make those embedded structures of inequality and discrimination more visible? Likewise, how can we transcend the narrow boxes of tribalism that we have been pushed into, remembering that, despite what populist politicians tell us, we are, and always will be, citizens of the world.
There is a photo on my computer of a Hazara girl in Afghanistan. Her name was Marzia. She was one of the schoolgirls killed in a horrific suicide bombing at a learning centre in early October, which left more than 50 people dead and 100 injured. Marzia and her friends were targeted both for being female and for being from an ethnic minority. Under the Taliban regime, the Hazara community is systematically persecuted and violently attacked. I heard about Marzia’s story when her family published her diary. I found out she was an avid reader of literature and she wanted to be a novelist. She had written a list of all the things she wanted to do in life, such as eating pizza at an Italian restaurant and visiting the Eiffel Tower. I was very moved to learn that at the top of that list was her wish to meet me.
Demolishing old ideas
I make an appearance on the BBC to talk to Yalda Hakim about women’s rights across the world. I wholeheartedly believe that the new feminism has to be two things if it is to exist at all. It has to be intersectional and it has to be international. It would be a terribly arrogant illusion to assume that fighting for gender equality is the preserve of non-Western women and that the West is generally beyond such concerns. From Iran to Afghanistan, Turkey to the US, we must connect the dots. Sometimes in the name of a particular religion, sometimes in the name of “traditional family values”, women’s rights are in danger everywhere. A study spanning 20 countries published earlier this year by UN Women found that there is a worrying regression in attitudes towards gender roles across the world. The old, dualistic rhetoric that divided the world into “the West” and “the rest” has to be dismantled. I believe we need feminism everywhere.
The next day I read poetry – Pádraig Ó Tuama’s Poetry Unbound is a wonderful collection that will open your mind – before attending the Cliveden Festival to chair a panel of young writers, historians and scholars. The event focused on what it feels like to be young and creative in today’s world, and whether some subjects have become more difficult to address in the digital age.
And the winner is…
Back in London, I attended the Booker Prize ceremony at the Roundhouse, where we applauded this year’s winner: the Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka’s brilliant The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. The novel has a gallows humour that will resonate with anyone from a country that has suffered from cycles of political violence. At the ceremony I was honoured to give a brief speech about the horrific stabbing attack against Salman Rushdie at an educational centre in upstate New York in August. I spoke about why it is more important than ever to stand in solidarity with him and all authors and poets who might be facing threats today, and that we need to support literary festivals and cultural spaces as we celebrate pluralism, diversity, inclusion, equality and the ancient art of storytelling.
Elif Shafak is a novelist, activist and political scientist
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency