By Farheen Nahvi
On 16 September 2022, 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the Iranian morality police after being arrested for improperly wearing her hijab. While the police claim Mahsa died of a heart attack, eyewitnesses say she was beaten by the police, a claim seemingly corroborated by photos of Mahsa in the hospital covered in blood and bruises. Following her death, Iran has been gripped by an intense wave of anti-establishment protests.
Almost a month later, the unrest in Iran only seems to be growing. A fundamental characteristic of this unrest-turned-movement has been the wide participation of women. Iranian women are leading the charge, coming from all ages and backgrounds, demanding justice, reform, and their rights. With thousands of men joining in as well, the protests have spread from Tehran to a reported 50 other cities and towns across Iran. The streets are filled with angry demonstrators crying, “death to the dictator,” and women are out burning their headscarves and cutting their hair in open defiance of the regime’s strict control over Iranian women.
Meanwhile, the Iranian authorities have called the protestors dangerous, and alleged that they have been influenced by the West. The state has increasingly restrictedaccess to internet services and social media in an attempt to control the official narrative; suppression using violent methods also runs rampant. Iran Human Rights has estimated the death toll from the civil unrest to be about 200 people, while more than 1,200 people have been arrested. The state has not shied away from using lethal force to subdue the protestors: 20-year-old Hadis Najafi was shot six times in the face, neck, and chest by the Iranian security forces during one such protest.
Women’s rights in Iran: An enduring freedom struggle
Iranian women have struggled long for their rights, with most achievements credited to the period leading up to 1979. The Shah’s modernisation policy allowed women’s groups to advocate for various issues affecting them. They had the choice of wearing the hijab, gained the right to vote in 1963, and generally challenged the patriarchal norms limiting their advancements. They were active in all areas of life in Iran. The Family Protection Act increased the age of marriage for women, curtailed polygamy, restricted temporary marriages, and decreased the clergy’s role in this sphere.
In 1979, Iran underwent an Islamic revolution. The monarchy was deposed, and an Islamic regime was established with Ayatollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader. The revolution was a bottom-up movement, characterised by several years of protests and the participation of people from every section of society. Women played a pivotal role in the revolution as well; they participated in marches and demonstrations, served as nurses and caretakers, and partook in guerrilla activities.
While these revolutionary women did not forget their struggle, the issue of women’s rights was deemed to be an afterthought under the new regime, and, thus, no immediate steps were taken by them to address their concerns. Instead, as was feared, women gradually lost their rights as strict control over their bodies was legislated. Women found themselves pushed out of the public sphere, losing all advancements made under the Shah’s regime. More importantly, the Family Protection Law was repealed and the hijab was made obligatory.
Even as their freedom was systematically curtailed, women did not quietly accept the restrictions. Instead, they were forced into submission through the use of violence, making it difficult for them to participate in society in any capacity. In the 1990s, women activists focused on restoring some of their lost rights under family laws and succeeded in regaining the rights to initiate divorce and obtain child custody. Throughout this period, many women committed daring acts of disobedience to highlight the conditions they lived under. In February 1994, Homa Darabi publicly removed her hijab and immolated herself in protest against the mandatory veiling. In 2019, Sahar Khodayari became a symbol of the regime’s oppression of women following her death by self-immolation after she was arrested for trying to enter a football game.
Control over a woman’s body has long had political overtones in Iran. The politicisation of the hijab was first carried out under Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1936 when he prohibited women from veiling in public (kashf-e-hijab). For his regime, unveiled women symbolised a secular, westernised Iran. Later in 1983, when the Islamic Republic made hijab mandatory, veiled women were to symbolise the religious identity of a new Iran. Unwittingly, these regimes chose the hijab as a characteristic of the national identity of Iran.
But what makes the 2022 protests different?
As the world has advanced technologically, the form of protests has also evolved. Social media has become a new site for disobeying modesty laws, with women posting pictures without their hijab. The internet has provided a platform to form a virtual support community of Iranian women within and outside Iran. Social media campaigns such as My Stealthy Freedom and My Camera Is My Weapon, started by Masih Alinejed on Facebook, have allowed these women to connect and organise, generate proof of the harassment they face, and reveal the oppressive regime they live under.
What’s at stake?
There are several dimensions to the unrest gripping Iran at this moment. What started as a fight for justice since Mahsa’s death has merged into a much wider movement against the current clerical regime, with the ‘post-revolutionary generation’ rejecting the current system. Moreover, frustration stemming from a series of events in the political, economic, and social spheres has increasingly isolated the hard-line government from the demands of wide sections of the population.
At the same time, international support for the women in Iran is widespread. While the country has already been subject to tough sanctions since 2016, on 6 October, the United States Department of Treasury levied fresh sanctions against seven senior leaders in Iran’s government and security for human rights abuses, while also having sanctioned Iran’s morality police, senior leadership, and other leaders in Iran’s security organisations immediately following Mahsa’s death.
With the veil being a visible symbol of the Islamic Republic’s control over the population, the current protests are a direct attack against the Islamic regime’s characterisation of Iran’s identity at home and in the world. The administration, especially the Guardian Council, is unlikely to give in to allow any major change in their position on women as conceding their power on this issue opens them up to further attacks on their legitimacy and ability to retain power in Iran.
According to a 2020 survey of 50,000 Iranians, 75 percent Iranians opposed the mandatory hijab, a drastic change from the days of the revolution when only one-quarter of the Iranian population was opposed to it. Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a public statement calling upon the government to engage in dialogue with the protesters. The protests are dominated by young men and women, whilst Khomeini’s main support base lies among the ultra conservatives. The root cause of the movement, ultimately, seems to be a dissatisfied youth, at odds with a guarded conservative elite.
Depending on which side outlasts the other and what state the country finds itself in at the end of this battle, the implications for the women’s movement will be massive. Either the laws governing women will be further tightened, or Iran will enter an era of reforms. Neither scenario is likely to occur without a period of political uncertainty. It is undisputed that the current crisis gripping the country is a manifestation of a deep dissatisfaction long in the works. The question Iran now faces is an existential one—whether the regime is willing to change, or risk being overthrown. Given how the authorities have responded so far, the former seems an unlikely scenario for the Islamic Republic.