Iran: could women protesters bring down the theocracy?
The death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, at the hands of the morality police for ‘improperly’ wearing her hijab, has sparked a widespread and sustained challenge to Iran’s theocratic regime. Women are rejecting the hijab as a symbol of the patriarchy that oppresses them. Protests in Iran are by no means unprecedented: in its 43 years of existence, the Islamic republic has faced repeated resistance and brutally crushed it. But this wave of protests is calling into question the continuing existence of the theocratic regime. Global feminist solidarity must mobilise in full force behind the protesting women.
Mahsa Amini would still be alive if she had lived in a free country. Her death is the direct result of the stifling restrictions Iranian women are forced to live under. But it has lit a flame. Ever since, Iranians have at great risk taken to the streets in numbers, and against all odds have remained out there for two weeks, desperate to bring change. This is the biggest show of defiance since at least 2019, when protests against fuel price rises were violently suppressed.
On 14 September, 22-year-old Mahsa was picked up by a Guidance Patrol, popularly known as the morality police, for wearing the hijab ‘improperly’ while visiting Tehran with her family. A few hours later she was in the hospital, brain-dead after collapsing in detention. She was declared dead two days later.
Photos seemed to show bruises to her head and face, but official reports first said she had epilepsy, then mentioned a heart problem or a stroke – although her family insists she had no such health conditions. They are convinced her death was caused by being beaten and are calling for the full release of the detention centre’s CCTV footage, which the government continues to withhold.
Waves of fury and repression
Around 1,000 people attended Mahsa’s funeral in her hometown of Saqqez, Kurdistan Province. The police tried to keep them away, but they persisted and went on to protest outside the governor’s office in Saqqez. As people gathered to protest, the authorities cut off mobile data connections. On 18 September, text messages containing the words ‘Mahsa Amini’ in Farsi were blocked.
Protesters want more than the freedom not to cover their heads: they are pushing back against theocracy.
Around Iran, something extraordinary happened: women started to take off their headscarves in public and burn them in protest. Others broke a taboo by publicly cutting their hair and sharing the videos online. Often men and women protested together, with men seeking to protect women from security force beatings.
Young women born under the theocratic regime went to protest alongside their mothers, who still have memories of a freer life prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Several petitions started calling for the morality police to be disbanded.
Protests spread to at least 15 cities, with police deployed to try to disperse them with teargas, water cannon and batons. As protests expanded across Iran, so did mobile internet shutdowns, which eventually reached the capital, Tehran, as the government sought to obstruct coordination and prevent news of the uprising spreading. The government also arrested prominent activists and journalists, including Nilufar Hamedi, who reported from the hospital where Mahsa died.
The government has fallen back on familiar rhetoric, claiming the protests were organised unrest, including by Kurdish separatists. President Ebrahim Raisi said that authorities must ‘deal decisively with those who oppose the country’s security and tranquillity’. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, he somehow claimed his government was at the forefront of struggles against injustice and criticised western reactions as unjustified. But he then doubled down, even pulling out of an interview with CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour because she refused to wear a headscarf. The official line continues to label women who removed their hijab as essentially ‘prostitutes’.
The theocratic regime has also mobilised its supporters. In pro-government rallies on 23 September, people called for protesters – identified as enemies and agents of Israel and the USA – to be executed. The army has talked tough about taking on what it also called ‘enemies’, while courts have been instructed to take a hard line with them.
The extent of the repression has likely been underestimated as a result of the news blackout. The official death toll – impossible to verify – soon stood at 35. After almost two weeks of uninterrupted protests, on 29 September Human Rights Watched reported that 83 people had been confirmed dead – many of them shot dead by security forces who have a long history of firing live ammunition at peaceful protesters. Among them was 22-year-old Hadis Najafi, who was hit at least 20 times with shotgun pellets to the chest, face and neck during a protest in Karaj on 21 September.
Hundreds, perhaps more, have been arrested, and hundreds likely injured. The theocratic state knows no other way of asserting control than force.
The hijab as a symbol of oppression
In different contexts, the hijab can mean very different things. Where they are banned from wearing it in public or are denied access to some spaces while wearing it, as has recently been the case in India, many women will fight for their right to wear it. Where they are forced to wear it, many will fight for their right not to. Either way, what is at stake is a woman’s right to make her own decisions over how to appear in public – and what to do, when and with whom.
In Iran, the hijab became compulsory in 1981, two years after the Islamic Revolution. The decision triggered protests, but these were easily suppressed at a time when the newly established regime was immensely popular.
Over the years, many women have pushed the boundaries of what may or may not constitute ‘proper clothing’, fighting a daily personal battle against the morality police. Some have also campaigned against laws that discriminate against women, but often have had to leave the country as a consequence.
In 2014, exiled activist Masih Alinejad launched a Facebook page where Iranian women posted photos of themselves without hijabs. In 2015, a female reformist candidate who had won a parliamentary seat, Minoo Khaleghi, was retroactively disqualified by the Guardian Council, the powerful religious body that oversees the government. Although no explanation was provided, it was widely speculated that the decision was motivated by a photo of her shaking hands with a man while not wearing hijab.
Soon after, the Girls of Revolution Street protest movement against the mandatory hijab began. Female protesters recorded videos of themselves without hijab or waving their hijabs on street corners and other public places. Vida Movahed became the icon of women’s resistance as she defied the authorities by standing on a platform while waving her headscarf on a stick. Her viral image inspired many others to stage similar protests. But Vida paid a steep price: she was sentenced to a year in prison for ‘encouraging corruption’.
In 2019 human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 years in jail and 148 lashes for nine charges, including of encouraging ‘corruption and prostitution’ – again, without much explanation but likely in connection with her work representing women arrested for peacefully protesting against the hijab.
Over the decades, the balance of power between moderates and conservatives within the government shifted. Under the more moderate President Hassan Rohani, in power between 2013 and 2021, the enforcement of hijab rules became less strict, allowing for the protest movement to develop. But this changed with the arrival of Raisi to the presidency in August 2021, in a government now dominated by hardliners.
In July 2022, Raisi issued an order to enforce hijab and chastity laws strictly, spelling out a long list of restrictions on women’s clothes and behaviour, including punishment for sharing online photos without hijab. As part of this campaign, 12 July was designated as ‘National Day of Hijab and Chastity’. Civil society’s counter-campaign, #No2Hijab, simultaneously took off on social media – which is why the authorities not only moved to arrest a number of high-profile dissidents, but also targeted the Instagram accounts of feminist activists and organisations.
Among those arrested following the tightening of the hijab rules was Sepideh Rashno, who rode a bus without hijab and was caught on camera arguing with another woman who confronted her about it. She was charged with planning to commit a crime against Iran’s security and colluding with foreigners, kept in detention without access to a lawyer and forced to make a televised confession. Women demanded her release by carrying ‘where is Sepideh Rashno?’ placards and getting the question trending on twitter. More than 1,000 Iranians signed a letter in solidarity.
At least 1,700 people were subsequently summoned for hijab-related reasons and 33 hairdressing salons were closed down, shutting off one of the few remaining spaces where women enjoyed some form of freedom. In September, the government announced plans to use facial recognition technology to identify women who don’t comply with the new rules on public transport.
As a result of this conservative turn, women deemed not to be respecting ‘complete hijab’ or wearing it improperly have been banned from government offices, banks and public transport, and have been picked up by an increasingly violent morality police – as was the fate of Mahsa Amini.
Women of Iran are leading a movement against religious dictatorship.— Masih Alinejad 🏳️ (@AlinejadMasih) September 26, 2022
We are not fighting against a small piece of cloth.
Forced hijab is one of the most visible symbol of oppression.
We want separation from religion and politics in the Middle East.#MahsaAmini #مهسا_امینی pic.twitter.com/LqdGw6FPK8
The Iranian diaspora is more than four million strong, with the highest concentrations of people of Iranian origin living in the USA, Canada, the UK, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Germany. Iranian diaspora-driven protests took place in all of these countries, with the notable exception of the UAE – not surprisingly, as its civic space is as closed as Iran’s.
Led by Iranian women abroad but including numerous locals, solidarity protests have been held across the Americas including in multiple cities of Canada and the USA, as well as in Argentina and Chile. Across Europe, protests have mobilised in countries included France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Turkey and the UK. A protest took place closer to home in Beirut, Lebanon.
The Iranian uprising had a special resonance for Afghan women who saw their own struggles reflected in those of their Iranian sisters, and found in them the inspiration to take to the streets yet again to demand their rights in the face of the Taliban regime.
Hundreds of academics from around the world joined in by signing an open letter, Listen to the Voices of a Feminist Revolution in Iran, to urge international feminist communities to build transnational solidarity with Iranian women.
Some governments have taken action too. Early on, the US government imposed sanctions on the morality police and seven senior leaders of the force and other security agencies. The German government summoned Iran’s ambassador to urge his government to stop the crackdown on protests.
In taking to the streets, protesters around the world have not only expressed outrage at the crimes committed by the Iranian regime, but also made demands to their own governments, some of which have clearly not been assertive enough in defending Iranian women and protesters under attack. French protesters were particularly upset by President Emmanuel Macron’s public handshake with President Raisi at the United Nations in September. The march in Paris was blocked and dispersed by police in full anti-riot armour to stop protesters approaching the Iranian embassy.
Outside the Iranian embassy in London, protesters clashed with the police. The authorities claimed that the initially peaceful protest had been ‘hijacked’ by violent provocateurs. In Athens, a petrol bomb was thrown into the Iranian embassy from a moving motorcycle while people peacefully protested outside.
But solidarity protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, echoing the slogans heard on the streets of Tehran, targeted at Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and calling for ‘death to the Islamic republic’.
A turning point?
Mahsa’s death was the direct consequence of a system of oppression against women that has recently become even more repressive. Her name has become a rallying cry against the subordination and oppression of women, leading to calls not just for the end of the hijab but of the patriarchy it represents and the authority that entrenches it, the Islamic republic. Protesters want more than the freedom not to cover their heads: they are pushing back against theocracy.
How much change results remains to be seen. Iran’s regime has on multiple occasions ridden through crisis by unleashing violence. This time, however, the protests come when the country’s 83-year-old Supreme Leader Khamenei, who has held ultimate power since 1989, appears increasingly frail. He may not have long to live. Could the same be said for the regime he leads?
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Iranian government must stop violently repressing protests.
The government should commit to disbanding the morality police and stop enforcing the hijab rule.
International civil society should mobilise solidarity with Iranian women activists.
Cover photo by Reuters/Lisi Niesner via Gallo Images