Press Releases Laudation by President von der Leyen for the Iranian ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ movement at the M100 Media Award 2023

Laudation by President von der Leyen for the Iranian ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ movement at the M100 Media Award 2023


Ladies and gentlemen,

It happened exactly 1 year ago. On 16 September 2022 a young woman died in an Iranian hospital. Her friends knew her as Mahsa. To her family back home she was Jina. That was the name that her mother cried while sobbing at her grave. Jina, a beautiful Kurdish name. It means ‘life’. Mahsa ‘Jina’ Amini had just turned 21 when she was killed by the Iranian morality police. She had been arrested 2 days earlier for showing too much hair. In the police van she was beaten. At the police station she fell into a coma. Jina never woke up. But millions of her compatriots did rise up in her place. And continue to rise up, risking prison, exile or even death, for ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’.

That is why we are here today in Potsdam. To honour the life of Jina. And to honour the countless Iranian women and men who each day risk their lives for justice, equality and democracy. We honour all the heroes of ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ with the M100 award, because we support your fight for fundamental freedoms with all our heart.

What makes this protest and this moment so important? If we are honest, we do not yet know where this movement will lead. Its story continues to be written while we are here talking about it. But today we can already say with certainty that something historic is happening in Iran. For the first time, women in Iran are both the spark and the driving force of a revolution. And I am in awe of the courage of the Iranian women leading the men in protest. I am deeply impressed by the chutzpah of the young girls, teenagers, who burn their mandatory veils in the street; who put their young lives on the line because they want freedom and a better future. This is not only a turning point for hundreds of thousands of women and girls in the country. It is a deeper transformation in the country. Because women are taking the lead. They are fighting for their personal freedom and at the same time for a freer, more open Iran.

When the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded in 1979, I was 21 years old. Exactly the same age as Jina when she was killed. I grew up in Europe, in a society that was not perfect. But I could strive to be myself. I could demand equal rights as a woman, without fearing state violence. I grew up in an open democracy where my fundamental rights are protected by the rule of law. In Iran’s theocracy, millions of women live under constant fear and oppression, feeling like second-class citizens. Few are allowed to work.

They are told how to dress, how to behave and ideally to stay at home. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, called the veil the ‘flag of the revolution’. But, over the past year, Iran’s women have made it abundantly clear: they are leading their own revolution – the women’s revolution. They are fighting to cast off the veil of oppression. They are fighting for the right to have a face and a voice in Iran, their home country.

This brings me to my second point. Another reason why this moment matters so much is that these women are also fighting for the fundamental rights of all Iranians. From the outset they wanted more than just to show their hair or to choose what sport they did; to be allowed to work independently, to love without asking anyone’s permission. These women are calling for freedom from fear and violence – for themselves and all other citizens of Iran. That is the reason why millions of men and women, young and old, support these protests. And that strikes fear into the heart of the regime.

Iran’s theocracy has responded to this call for openness with brute force. Since September last year the regime has imprisoned more than 20 000 peaceful protestors. Over 500 have been killed by security forces. More than 100 defendants now face execution for their ‘crime’ of dreaming of a better future.

And yet, despite all the state violence, Iranian women and men are putting up resistance. In July the trial of one of the country’s foremost female political prisoners had to be adjourned. The defendant, activist Sepideh Gholian, had refused to wear a veil in court.

In the city of Rasht, brave passers-by intervened when police attempted to arrest three girls for violating dress regulations. That shows that the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement has already changed Iran. There is no going back.

What can we contribute here, in the safety of Europe? We have a duty to honour the memory of Jina and of all the innocent women and men killed by the regime. I am very pleased that you are all here this evening precisely for that reason. But we also need to follow up with action. We must call those who violate the most basic human rights to account. The European Union and its Member States have imposed sanctions on 204 individuals and 34 entities responsible for the brutal crackdown on peaceful protest. We have frozen their assets and banned them from travelling to the EU. We have banned all exports to Iran of technology that could be used for surveillance of its population and for internal repression. And much more. We will not reduce the pressure until the Iranian regime ends its violence against peaceful protests, stops the arbitrary detentions, overturns the death sentences and releases all those being unjustly detained.

Human rights must be respected everywhere. That is written in the founding document of the United Nations. Where serious crimes are committed, we must have the tools to act.

Because the Iranian regime is not just mistreating its own people. It is also helping Russia to terrorise the people of Ukraine. Iran’s leadership has chosen to support Russia’s war of aggression. It is supplying Putin with kamikaze drones that are used to attack not only military targets, but also innocent people, the elderly, women and children. The stance that Iran takes towards Putin’s war must and will play a decisive role in shaping the EU’s future relations with Iran. The EU’s position is clear: we will defend democracy. We will defend the UN Charter. And we will defend those who stand up for human rights, wherever they are.

The fight and courage of Iran’s women are having effects far beyond the country’s borders. It is moving and inspiring women all over the world. The challenges they face may be different. But the rights they strive for are the same. First and foremost, the most basic of all rights. The right, as a woman, to be protected from violence. Violence against women is there, throughout the world, including here in Europe. How can you have equal rights if you are not safe on the street, at work or even at home? It is never justified to hit a woman. It is never justified to mutilate a girl’s body. ‘No’ always means ‘no’! We will do everything in our power to ensure that women throughout Europe are given equal protection.

I am proud that, this year, the European Union has finally joined the Istanbul Convention. And for me, one of my most important tasks is to get the first EU law on combating violence against women and domestic violence across the line before the end of the year. Because gender equality does not just ‘happen’. Progress is hard won and easily lost. Even in countries where there are no morality police. True equality requires daily attention and commitment. Women and girls must have the freedom to pursue both at the same time – a family and a career. Just as boys and men must. Women must be paid as much as their male colleagues. Because they have earned it. And talented women must always have the chance to reach the highest levels. Because they bring competence and experience. I believe that a society where women are free and equal is not just a fairer society. It is a more successful society. A society with much more talent, ability and potential.

And I am sure: the violent subjugation of women in Iran will prove to be the Achilles heel of Iran’s theocracy. Women will be the downfall of the Iranian regime. Just as all societies that marginalise half their population are doomed to fail.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The week after Mahsa ‘Jina’ Amini was murdered, she was due to start studying at university. Jina wanted to become a doctor. That was her dream. To save people’s lives. Instead, the regime took her life away from her. But they can never take away her dream. The dream of women and girls around the world to be free and achieve their full potential. I am full of hope for the future of Iran because of the example set by these brave people every day. People who pave the way for others. And today I am so glad that we are joined by one such role model, who will accept the M100 award on behalf of all the heroes of ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’. Please join me in applauding Shima Babaei.

Shima, you have been fighting for justice, democracy, and women’s rights in Iran since 2017. Twice the regime has imprisoned you. They put you in solitary confinement. They forced you to leave your home. But no one has managed to silence you. You are a role model. For girls and women everywhere. And if your father, Ebrahim Babaei, could see you now, you would be a role model for him too. The regime in Iran will one day have to explain what has happened to your father. We will find out the truth and call the perpetrators to account.

‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ is a turning point. For women in Iran; for democracy and freedom in your country; and for women everywhere. You have shown the world that there is a different Iran. And we believe in the Iran that you stand for. We thank you for your courage. It is our responsibility to amplify the voice of the strong women in Iran by speaking loud and clear ourselves. I will never stop speaking up loud and clear against the mullahs and ayatollahs. Let us all speak up so that the strong women of Iran can hear us. That is what this award stands for.

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