Editor’s note: This blog post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine.
Mahsa Amini was only 22 years old when she decided to visit her brother in Tehran from her hometown of Saqqez in northwest Iran. On Sept. 13, she was arrested and detained by the “morality police” for wearing her hijab in a manner that the police deemed inappropriate. Three days later, she died of what police claim was a heart attack while in detention, but what activists believe was torture.
Amini grew up under the harsh realities of a theocracy. In Iran, a Supreme Leader exerts ideological and political control over all aspects of the government and has exclusive authority over the armed forces.
In this regime, women face abhorrent discrimination and violence. The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Iran 140 out of 144 countries for gender parity. Child marriage is not only allowed but on the rise. Men commonly demand that women take a virginity test before marriage. Husbands can prevent their wives from taking any job found to be incompatible with the family interest or the dignity of the husband or his wife. Women have no legal protection against domestic violence or sexual harassment. Women comprise less than one-fifth of the workforce. Women are not permitted to ride bicycles. They are harshly punished – and even killed, as Amini was – when they fail to comply with the government’s strict “decency” code.
I cannot think of a clearer or sadder tale than Amini’s to make the point that religious freedom is a human right. Her story illustrates that religious freedom is a matter of equality, and even life and death. And the protests that erupted in the wake of Amini’s death demonstrate that women in Iran’s oppressive system are willing to risk everything to fight for this freedom.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State has fought every day for the past 75 years to keep religion and government separate in America because we know the dangers when the two are entangled. We know how perilous it is for our country when a member of the U.S. Congress, such as Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), says things like, “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.” We know that we have to frame our issue in modern language, mobilize religious and nonreligious people and speak to the younger generation of leaders to protect our country. We fight on behalf of every person who cherishes their freedom and wants to avoid the violence and division we’re witnessing in Iran.
Unfortunately, Americans are waking up to what it looks like when we do not have a firm, impregnable wall of separation between religion and government. Our freedom to have reproductive control over our own bodies is no longer guaranteed. Public school dollars are diverted to private religious schools that often discriminate against the very taxpayers who fund them. Towns shutter public libraries that refuse to censor books according to ultraconservative Christian views. LGBTQ people lose access to health care, jobs and public accommodations because they live as themselves and defy a narrow religious doctrine.
We also know where we are headed if we let our opponents win. The parading crosses and “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirts present during the Jan. 6 insurrection made clear that religious extremists want to take down our democracy in order to cement their full power and privilege into our law and government. Church-state separationists are no longer just fighting for themselves and their neighbors; we are fighting for our children and our country’s future. That’s reason enough to motivate many of us, and not surprisingly, our movement is growing stronger by the day.
Please join me in pausing to rededicate ourselves to church-state separation. Do it in memory of Mahsa Amini and the women like her in Iran and across the world who are fighting for their freedom. Amini was in the same age group as my own children. I imagine that she also was coming into her adulthood, defining her values and feeling them strongly. She must have been relieved that the global pandemic was finally subsiding. She must have had ambitious dreams about her own freedom and how she wanted to live the long life ahead of her, as she had just been admitted to university and aspired to become a lawyer.
An extremist religious government took Amini’s life, but they can’t take her light. Americans United will carry her torch forward in our daily work to protect freedom without favor and equality without exception.