French actresses show support for Mahsa Amini protesters in Iran

LONDON — A host of French actresses, among them Oscar award-winning Juliette Binoche and Marion Cotillard, as well as human rights activists and a European lawmaker, have been cutting locks of their hair in solidarity with protesters in Iran.

The action comes after the high-profile death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, who fell into a coma and died on Sept. 16 after being detained in Tehran by the country’s “morality police,” amid allegations by her family that she had been beaten. She had been arrested for not properly wearing a headscarf or hijab – a mandatory hair covering for Iranian women.

Her death has sparked a wave of outrage across the Middle Eastern country as protesters across all of Iran’s 31 provinces have taken to the streets. Many protesters set their headscarves alight or hacked off their hair, and called for the downfall of the Iranian regime.

The protests are the largest since demonstrations three years ago, which were met with a deadly crackdown, killing hundreds.

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Cutting hair is culturally symbolic in Iran, and has featured in ancient Persian literature as a sign of protest, anger or grief. The gesture has spread internationally among demonstrators from the Iranian diaspora (many of whom fled after the 1979 revolution, and during other periods of mass protests in 2009 and 2019) and other supporters.

One widely shared video features a montage of French actors cutting their hair, interspersed with information about Amini’s case and overlaid with a mournful rendition of the historic Italian protest anthem “Bella Ciao.”

Binoche is seen wearing black and staring directly into the camera. The star from “The English Patient” and “Chocolat” hacks off a chunk of her hair with scissors, before leaning in to proclaim: “For freedom.”

She is followed in the video by Cotillard, known for depicting French singer Edith Piaf in the 2007 movie “La Vie en Rose,” who also wrote on Instagram: “For the courageous women and men of Iran who are changing the world at this very moment moment, fighting for freedom. We stand by you.”

At least 52 people have been killed in Iran during the protests, as government security forces have responded at times with force, according to Amnesty International. Among the dead are women and children, said the human rights group, which estimates the real death toll could be “far higher,” as social media and other internet communications remain curtailed.

In Tehran this week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Amini’s death “deeply broke my heart” but also denounced the unrest, labeling demonstrators “thugs, robbers and extortionists.” He also, without evidence, blamed foreign powers for instigating the protests, which have snowballed into wider calls for regime change. President Ebrahim Raisi has also blamed foreign enemies and ordered an investigation into her death.

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Although the French video has been widely shared online, some have been critical of the symbolic support of the French movie stars, dubbing their acts “hypocritical” and “performative,” in a country that has legislated against Muslim women wearing full face veils (known as niqabs or burqas) and restricts head-covering hijabs and other conspicuous religious symbols in some public spaces.

British-Iranian academic and artist Katayoun Shahandeh argued that both matters were about “the control of women’s bodies and rights to choose how to dress and present themselves.”

“In Iran it is welcome but I do see the irony,” she told The Washington Post on Thursday, although she added that the video will likely be supported by protesters there. “Iranian women have asked for those outside to be their voice, for further attention… after years of people turning a blind eye.”

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Sara Silvestri, a professor of European politics and religion at London’s City University, told The Post in an email that the “solidarity will probably give a further incentive to the demonstrators but won’t have a direct effect on the behavior of the regime.”

“The Iranian authorities have been suspicious of Western countries’ intentions and discourse for decades,” she added.

Others who have expressed support for the protesters include Iraqi-born Swedish lawmaker Abir Al Sahlani, who sent shock waves around the European Union’s Parliament in Strasbourg, France, when she started cutting her hair while delivering a speech at a debate about the protests. She later tweeted that she had done it so women in Iran know that their voice is heard “all the way here.”

A Turkish pop star, Melek Mosso, also cut her hair mid-concert, while British Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was detained in Iran for more than five years before being freed earlier this year, has also shared footage of herself cutting her hair. .

In Italy, the MAXXI museum in Rome has an ongoing “solidarity campaign” allowing people to cut their hair at the museum and place it in a box, a spokeswoman told The Post on Thursday. It will eventually be delivered to the Iranian embassy in Italy “as a symbolic gesture to protest the violence occurring in the country.”

Iran president threatens ‘decisive’ response as protests continue

The United Nations has condemned Amini’s death and crackdown on protesters, while the United States has also voiced its concerns.

“Mahsa Amini should be alive today,” tweeted Secretary of State Antony Blinken shortly after her death. “Instead, the United States and the Iranian people mourn her. We call on the Iranian government to end its systemic persecution of women and to allow peaceful protest.”

The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has placed sanctions on Iran’s “morality police” for violence against Iranian women and the violation of the rights of peaceful protesters following the death of Amini.

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