The continuing and widespread protests in Iran demonstrate the astonishing bravery of ordinary Iranians, and Iranian women, in particular. Iranian women, by removing and burning their headscarves and cutting their hair in public, are standing up against the callous violence of current regime. The message is clear: end the Islamic Republic.
The current protests began with the death of Mahsa (Zhian) Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian who was killed on 16 September while in the custody of Iran’s “morality police”, having been accused of nonconformity with Iranian hijab laws.
Mahsa’s death has proved a tipping point and we are witnessing a reaction to the injustice of her own life cut short compounded by 43 years of the Islamic regime’s brutality. The long-term effects and traumas on the bodies of women, minorities, political dissidents, and other marginalised peoples are coming to the forefront of the country’s consciousness. As this legacy demands response, many Iranians who are utterly dissatisfied with the current regime’s widespread corruption and economic mismanagement are also joining to protest poverty and living conditions alongside discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion.
These protests are giving voice to deep anger about Mahsa’s fate, and the way in which it has mirrored that of so many others who have been controlled, coerced, repressed, arrested, tortured, and killed.
Iranian women have protested for choice and bodily autonomy throughout the history of modern Iran, yet every year thousands of women in Iran continue to be accosted in public, arrested, and referred to judicial authorities for not observing the state’s definition of a full Islamic hijab.
According to a study by Justice for Iran, a human rights organisation based in London, in the ten-year period from 2003 to 2013 more than thirty thousand women were arrested across all parts of Iran for “bad hijab,” including for allowing hair to show from under their headscarves and for wearing make-up.
Iranian women have previously challenged these laws through various social movements and individual actions. In 2019 Mojgan Keshavarz, Yasaman Aryani and Monireh Arabshahi were arrested while handing out flowers in Tehran’s metro on March 8 (International Women’s Day). They were sentenced to between 7 and 12 years in prison respectively. In the same year Saba Kord Afshary, another 22-year-old woman was arrested for her activity against compulsory hijab; she was sentenced to seven years and six months imprisonment and her mother Raheleh Ahmadi was also arrested for supporting her daughter and sentenced to 31 months in prison. And many will remember the 29 women who came to be known as the “The Revolution Street Girls” in 2018 after they took off their headscarves and waved them on sticks. Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer representing some of these women, was also arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. More widespread nationwide protests in December 2017 and November 2019 due to economic problems were also signs of the dissatisfaction of different sections of society with the Islamic regime. Like the current protests, these past acts and rallies demanded fundamental and structural change.
In the wake of Mahsa’s death, more than 50 people in Iran have been killed and hundreds have been injured and arrested. As the most recent protests surged, European leaders continued to meet Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, who also played a pivotal role in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, and whom Amnesty International has called to be investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance, and torture. In recent days the Iranian diaspora in Europe and elsewhere has been showing solidarity with the protesters in Iran. It is hoped that by raising awareness of the violence being perpetrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran, European leaders will also be encouraged to stand up more strongly for the right to peaceful protest, for women’s rights, and for the basic right to life in Iran. It is imperative that ordinary Iranians be afforded basic safety in which to deliberate on how best to advance human dignity and fundamental freedoms in Iran.
The central hope of these protests has been condensed in the slogan, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” which has been chanted by protesters all over the country and has had a unifying effect. In origin a Kurdish slogan, this chant was shouted at Mahsa’s burial in her hometown of Saghez, and has been mobilising protesters inside and outside of Iran across ethnic differences.
The national character of these protests both elevates and mourns the life of a young Kurdish woman, and also suggests a hopeful way forward for Iran — a path that pivots from the regime’s own practices of death. A familiar slogan among supporters of the Islamic regime in Iran has been “Death to America.” In more recent years Iranian protesters have often used similar language, shouting “Death to Dictators.”
But with Mahsa’s death perhaps we have finally reached a surfeit of necrotic politics and its lamentable ends. “Woman, Life, Freedom” offers a different and vital path. It must be turned from a graveside lament into a political reality.
Roja Fazaeli, Associate Professor in Islamic Civilisations, Trinity College Dublin and Maryam Foumani, Iranian-British Journalist