Widespread displays of protest have transpired in Iran as means of resistance against the discrimination of women in response to the murder of Mahsa Amini. On Oct. 26, a crowd of several thousand people marched to Amini’s hometown of Saghez to mark the 40th day since her passing.
Although the cause is by no means new, Amini’s mistreatment and death have sparked this current wave of demonstrations that are opposing Iranian law, particularly regarding the compulsory hijab requirement.
The 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini (also known as Jina Amini) was arrested by the Morality Police of Iran for allegedly wearing her headscarf too loosely, which is not in accordance with the ultraconservative government’s standards.
It was reported by the Law Enforcement Command that she suffered a heart attack at the police station and fell into a coma before passing away on Sept. 16. However, several eyewitness accounts including those given by women detained with Amini report that she was severely beaten, meaning the true cause of her death was police brutality. This was denied by Iranian authorities, but leaked medical scans further expose the truth: she suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Mahnaz Vahdati is an Iranian graduate student pursuing her dual master’s degree at the University of Maine in global policy and business. She moved to the United States five years ago, and her primary focus is on peace-building and mainstreaming in the Middle East.
“Although civil society in Iran has been suppressed for 40 years, and this is not the first time, we should consider that all of these events and horrible news about protests have been shocking, tragic, heartbreaking and disturbing for us. It is not normal. These events are not normal. It is not normal if something like this happens in the Middle East. Each person who was killed is a beautiful dream that has been stolen from us,” Vahdati said.
From the regime’s point of view, the traditional role of a woman in Iran is built upon the framework of family. Portraying oneself as independent is viewed by society and the government as completely unsatisfactory. Women are looked down upon or perceived as incomplete if they do not bear children and devote their livelihood entirely to caring for their families. There is no equality within the contract of marriage, and men have been granted the agency to control their wives in multiple facets of life. Their ability to seek employment, leave the country and access to certain surgical consent forms or educational documents regarding their children can only be granted with the permission of their spouse.
Furthermore, divorce is incredibly difficult to pursue without compliance from their husbands. Regardless, in the instance of divorce, the children are automatically put in the custody of the father, and he is given the sole right to make decisions. A man’s testimony in court is valued higher than a woman’s. Each of these restrictions further deprive women of their freedom and autonomy.
It was shortly after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 that a mandatory dress code aimed toward women was established on March 7. Ayatollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader of Iran, decreed hijabs mandatory for women when entering the workplace or any government office. It led to a pattern of violence and harassment toward those who were not conforming to the rule. In 1983, the law expanded to compulsory hair covering at all times in public.
Throughout recent years, Iranian society has undergone a vast change in terms of liberation regarding the female standard of clothing. Many women have, in their own way, challenged the law through the implementation of their personal style. This could include showing more skin or not covering their hair in its entirety. Guidance Patrol, also known as the morality police, has responded by launching intermittent campaigns of verbally reprimanding or arresting women who are not fully adhering to the requirements. Once detained, the morality police will “re-educate” these women by further instructing them on the dressing regulations for hours and forcing them to sign a pledge in agreement with the standard. The process is entirely humiliating and dehumanizing.
The extent of risk that protesters are taking is of the utmost severity and must be acknowledged when considering the movement. Advocates have been beaten, shot by combat, shotgun or paintball bullets and arrested without access to legal representation. Upon arrest, many are subjected to frequent, harsh interrogations, as well as potential torture and rape within the inhumane detention center they are taken to.
Furthermore, some have been forced to confess against themselves, which is often broadcast on national television. All of these methods are a means of dissuading protesters from challenging the law and acting out against the suppression that women are facing. There have been cases where the bodies of those who have died in the hands of law enforcement have not been returned to their families and buried secretly. These bodies have been found to have brutal markings on them indicating the extent of the abuse they suffered. Family members of those detained or killed are under serious pressure to avoid speaking to the media.
Throughout the last 40 days, the internet connection in Iran has been vastly unstable, which prevents citizens from expressing the harrowing harm done to those speaking out. The government has blocked Instagram and Whatsapp as well as slowed cellular service across the country. Headlines properly articulating the situation have been very few and far between.
However, social media has played a prominent role in spreading awareness on a nationwide scale.
“I really hope that we can move forward in getting more interaction and contribution from others inside and outside of Iran. I think this is a turning point and I wish that we can change the system, that we can use this movement to get closer to equality, democracy and peace. Those values are not a destination to reach but a road to take,” Vahdati said.
The ratification of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is nearly impossible to implement within Iran because it conflicts with the ideology their government follows. CEDAW requires subordinate governments to eliminate female discrimination in any form and level. Iran’s system was built completely based on a religious, totalitarian system catered to men. The constitution was formed upon Sharia Law, causing its establishment to materialize through a patriarchal interpretation of the religious text. Allowing complete equality between women and men would cause a collapse in the non-democratic institution which is leading Iran.
In consideration of the fact that this issue has been fought against for decades, there are a few things that set apart this current movement from others.
The first is that women’s demand for equality is the center of this movement, and the government refuses to recognize women as figures in protest. In the past political activists had a tendency to center movements around the prioritization of other demands and marginalize the necessity of women’s rights.
Second is the strong presence of the younger generation and the lack of a specified leader. This serves as both a strength and a weakness. The regime is unable to target a specific person or group to hold accountable, but it is also more difficult to organize and create direction without the guidance of a strong figurehead.
What is most significant is the bravery of young Iranian women and their willingness to put their lives at risk to further promote the cause.
This movement has cut across all ethnic, social and religious class divides due to the fact that discrimination is a commonality faced by women in all regions of Iran. Their mantra is “Women, Life, Freedom.” They share similar disappointments, hopes and dreams regarding the future of the country. The demands of women intersect within each of these groups and unify the country as a whole.
“I wish this opportunity was for talking about something pleasant in Iran. Like our great history, impressive civilization and wonderful food. … [However,] this movement is a good sign of our culture, that we are seeking equality,” Vahdati said.