Growing up in a home with a Muslim father and a Christian mother, Iranian American Shirin Taber had a special appreciation for being able to choose what she believed. When she told her dad that she wished everyone back in Iran could have the same freedom, he—knowing the harsh reality of the regime—said it would never happen.
Since then, Taber has worked on the cause of international religious freedom, hoping to see the trajectory change in one of the most restrictive countries in the world. And with the current uprising of Iranian women and young people, the American advocate is more optimistic than ever.
In Iran, Generation Z—whose grandparents lived through the revolution—has become particularly emboldened, creative, and strategic, inspired by the impact of movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.
“Millennials did their part, Gen X did their part, their parents, but this generation is very unique,” Taber said, referencing the viral impact of young activists, including the move to dye Tehran’s fountains blood-red. “Gen Z is no-nonsense. They’ll just go out tough. The girls, they’ll cut their hair, and they’ll jump on cars.”
Iranians eager for reform have held out hope that they could work within the Islamic government, but Taber believes the country has reached a tipping point.
It’s been a month of protests, spurred by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for not wearing her hijab properly. The viral videos of women cutting their hair symbolize longstanding grievances beyond dress code regulations to women’s unequal status in inheritance, marriage, custody, and travel.
The political pushback, Taber says, correlates with a growing disillusionment with Islam itself, too. Iranians are spiritually hungry and looking for answers; even with government restrictions on religion, the church continues to grow through Christian teaching coming into the Islamic nation over satellite TV.
“The women and the youth are driving the house church movement,” Taber said. “The students are on fire, they’re so resilient, and it’s happening all over the country, all the major cities.”
The current global attention around the protests in Iran is also drawing more awareness to the dynamics between gender equity and religious freedom—the central message of Taber’s work through her organization Empower Women Media. Ahead of an upcoming forum in Washington, she spoke to CT about how the cry for women’s rights relates to freedom of religion and belief in Iran and why Christians should be at the forefront of the cause.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Many of us see the protests around Mahsa Amini as a fight for human rights for women. What does it tell us about the fight for religious freedom?
I have had a lot of people say, “Wow, Shirin, we’re finally seeing in Iran what you’ve been talking about.” It was very abstract to people when I would say Iran needs religious freedom. They’re like, “What are you talking about? It’s a Muslim country, that’s just the way they are.” But when they see women now saying, “It’s not just about a hijab, we want systematic change. We want to topple the regime. We no longer want to live in a one-state religion. We no longer want the state to dictate to us what our faith should look like, how we practice it, how we live it. We want separation of church and state. We want separation of Islam and the state.”
Now, they’re not saying they’re not going to be Muslim, because some of them still want to be Muslim. They just don’t want the state enforcing what it looks like. And that is the definition of religious freedom. Religious freedom is one of many human rights, but it is a pillar because religious freedom correlates with multiple other freedoms like freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom to congregate, freedom to manifest, freedom of art. I mean, there’s so many things that are tied. You could even say LGBT is related to religious freedom because it allows you freedom of conscience.
The thing we have to help Christians understand is freedom of religion is more than religion; it’s freedom of conscience. It’s an issue of the soul. We’re not promoting religion per se; we’re promoting the idea that every human being has their own right to make their decisions regarding matters of faith and belief. As Christians, we can say it’s a God-given freedom that we can choose him or not choose him.
In your own experience and work, how have you seen women’s rights and religious freedom go together?
I think the turning point for me was after the Arab Spring in 2011. I was really hoping that we would see massive change in the region, we would see women’s rights, religious freedom, and open secular societies, and it didn’t happen. In fact, ISIS came in, and they attacked. Muslims were attacking Muslims. We saw in many ways these societies were going backwards since the Arab Spring. …
In 2017, I started reading what other women were writing about the intersection of religious freedom and women’s rights, and how these two rights had to work together, but historically, we thought they were different. Women’s rights people didn’t want to talk to religious freedom people because women’s rights people thought religious freedom people were going to try to take away their rights and subjugate women and make them second-class citizens … but the research was showing, no, actually if we can work together, we can propel both movements better, because if women have religious freedom in the Muslim world, there’s no ceiling on women’s rights.
In my own work with Empower Women Media, we lead a women’s religious freedom media training, and we train women to become religious freedom advocates in the Muslim world. What we learned was women were the best frontline workers for religious freedom. If you sent a woman to speak about religious freedom or advocate for it, the public was way more open to it than if you sent men. If you send men, they think, “Oh, he has an agenda, he’s from the CIA, he’s from the government.” But if you send a woman, they’re like, “Oh, she sounds like my sister, she sounds like my mom.”
So that’s why I’m so passionate about equipping and empowering women as religious freedom advocates in the Muslim world, because it’s just more accepting, more palatable. People are willing to listen and engage, and it actually shifts their heart.
What are the things that you are working toward, praying toward, as next steps after the protest movement that’s happening now?
What we really need right now is some clear leaders to emerge. There are some leaders that are kind of emerging, but it’s not like a Nelson Mandela for South Africa. We need some leaders to really emerge and stand strong and be courageous, and then we need people to rally around them and support those leaders, so if the country topples that there will be people to step into that vacuum. Because the worst thing is if the country toppled and someone worse took over. Maybe even more radical like the Taliban or the communists took over … We need business people and stakeholders to get ready, to have a plan of action.
Because that’s what we found at Arab Spring—there was this big gap, but the countries weren’t really ready, they were just scrambling to throw together their constitutions. I think we need to demand that it’s no longer an Islamic state, it’s no longer a one religion state. We need to demand that they become a democracy. That’s the only way forward. People can be Muslim, but it just cannot be a Muslim state anymore. That would send huge a shockwave all over the Middle East because everyone is watching. The Saudis are watching; the nearby countries, Egypt, Jordan, and these other power brokers are all watching Iran to see what happens.
That was going to be my next question. What are the implications for international religious freedom in the rest of the region?
I think they’re watching and they’re realizing that [being a Muslim country], it just doesn’t work. They really need to be thinking about becoming a true democracy. It doesn’t mean they have to give up their faith or religion, but they need separation of church and state.
Research shows the countries that have the highest religious freedom have the highest levels of economic prosperity and human rights. The problem is a lot of Muslims are worried they’re going to lose their culture if they give up being a one-religion state, but they don’t have to. They need to trust that the culture will stay intact. Yes, there will be some shifts, but it will be better.
What’s your outlook given the current protests in Iran?
I’m very hopeful. I just don’t know the timing. The shift is coming. It’s kind of like that expression, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” The elephant is in the room. I don’t know, whatever idiom you want to use. But women and youth know too much now in Iran. They have too much information about the outside world. The youth culture is becoming more homogenous, they want a lot of the same values, and they want to have the same freedoms. A change is coming, we don’t know how brutal it will be, we don’t know how many people will be killed, we don’t know if it’s going to happen overnight. It’s coming.
Do you have a sense of what Christian leaders in Iran are doing now?
They’re not necessarily leading the movement, but they’re right there with the movement, supporting it. Our hope is that if there is a regime change, there will be Christians that are also a part of that governmental change, and maybe some Christians will get some of the posts and they’ll get some influence and roles.
It’s going to be a process; nothing will happen overnight. Iranians still consider themselves Muslim, so it’s not like overnight it’s going to be Christians who are in charge of everything. But we’re hoping that there will be space for Christians at the table, along with Jews, who are historically a big part of Iran also, and the Bahá’í’s, who’ve been very heavily persecuted.
What are some ways for Christians to pray and help?
There are some really great ministries that you can support financially, pray, and find out what are some projects that we can help … there’s Mohabat TV that’s part of CBN. They have incredible TV programming that goes into Iran, so that’s how they do their house churches. They literally watch satellite TV. There’s Elam, which is a ministry that equips pastors and house churches and student ministries. There’s Satellite-7, there’s Iran Alive.
Of course, there’s the Iranian diaspora that is millions of Iranians living in America, Europe, and Canada. We want to encourage them who come to Christ to grow in their faith. Because if the country topples, we want those people to go back and help build the infrastructure and build the communities, build the churches, build businesses, build schools, charities, hospitals. We really need people to give back once the country opens up, so if we can support Iranian Christians in America, disciple, mentor them, when that door opens, we want them to go back and help.