Protests in Iran: women, life and freedom
Shagnick Bhattacharya discusses the extent and significance of recent protests in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody, considering the future of the Islamic regime in the face of mass resistance led by women.
On the 14th of September, Mahsa Amini was arrested by the Gasht-e Ershad, Iran’s “morality police, for not wearing her hijab properly. She was brutally tortured and unfortunately died two days later. This extremely inhumane act is one of many which have occurred in recent months. Amini’s death has sparked fierce protests which have spread across the country, united by the slogan ‘women, life, freedom’. People across the world have expressed their solidarity with Iranian women. As tensions rise, the Iranian government has mercilessly cracked down on protesters, leading to numerous casualties and several deaths on both sides.
The Iranian government are continuing to claim that Mahsa Amini’s death was an “unfortunate” incident, completely denying any mistreatment or responsibility for her death. Hossein Rahimi, Tehran’s Police Chief, dismissed the allegations in a press conference after Amini’s death as “completely false” and “cowardly accusations”. The Iranian President, Raisi, who was in New York at the time for the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, has offered his condolences to the family, and ordered an investigation into the matter. It could be argued that Raisi is being hypocritical, particularly after Amnesty International’s researcher Raha Bahreini revealed that the number of morality police units which have been deployed has increased since he was elected to his office.
The Iranian authorities maintain that Mahsa Amini died from a heart attack, as a result of pre-existing health conditions. Her parents insist that she was a healthy young woman who never even underwent surgery. The bruises which were visible on her dead body, were certainly not indicative of a death caused by heart attack. Mahsa’s father, Amjad, was not allowed to see his daughter when she was in the hospital, nor was he given the report of her autopsy. If Mahsa truly died from a heart attack, why would the state be trying to hush up the circumstances regarding her death? The state has offered nothing but footage of a woman in a “guidance centre” for women who have been found guilty of breaking the hijab law, which has likely been censored.
Protestors are calling on the Government to bring Amini’s killers to justice, to introduce reforms to laws that restrict women’s rights, and also to disband the morality police
There is conclusive proof that Mahsa was physically abused: a group of activists whose names are unknown were able to recover confidential medical documents and CT scans, which they sent to media outlet Iran International. The recovered documents established that the right side of her skull suffered fractures as a result of “severe trauma”, which is likely to be from “multiple blows” to the head. Kasra Hospital, where Amini was supposedly undergoing treatment when she was in coma, put up a post on its social media handle, stating that Amini was already “brain dead” when she was admitted. The post was later deleted. It should also not be forgotten that other women who were detained with her by the morality police, witnessed Mahsa’s mistreatment.
The current protests in Iran began hours after the death of Mahsa Amini on September 17, which saw thousands of outraged men and women unite on the streets, calling on the Government to bring Amini’s killers to justice. Protesters are also demanding that the Government introduce reforms to laws which restrict women’s rights, and also disband the morality police.
However, this is not the first time such protests have broken out in Iran. In 1979, tens of thousands of Iranian women marched in protest on Women’s Day, which happened to be the day after Ayatollah Khomeini announced it was compulsory to wear a hijab. In the years since there have been many other acts of defiance. From 1983, not wearing a hijab had become a punishable offence, as it was seen as a violation of the law. Amini’s death and the subsequent protests have brought to light the many problems which have been bubbling away and the underlying tensions between the Iranian people and their government. Decades of repression and the lack of socio-political freedom, rampant corruption and economic troubles – with inflation levels higher than 50 per cent and at least 25 million Iranians (as of June 2021) living below the poverty line – are fueling the protests to greater intensity.
Throughout history, a large part of the attempts at the subjugation of women directly translated in some measure to men’s control over women’s bodies
As of 26th September, figures suggest that at least 13 people have died at the hands of the Iranian authorities, although that number remains controversial as Iran Human Rights suggests the figure is at least 76. It is hard to know how many people have been injured. An additional 1,200 people have been arrested in relation to the protests within the country. Police forces in Iran have unlawfully and deliberately fired live ammunition and birdshot to violently quash the largely peaceful protests, as well as using batons, water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowds. An internet shutdown has been imposed nationwide. Amnesty International has also documented sexual assaults and other gender-based violence inflicted upon protestors by security forces. Several of the arrested protestors currently in imprisonment are being tortured to give false confessions, as the state maintains the theory that the protests are a work of Iran’s enemies.
So, overall, what are the consequences of this entire incident for women’s rights in Iran? And by extension, what does it mean for women’s rights on an international scale? Consider what else has happened this year such as the repeal of Roe v Wade in the USA. Throughout history, a large part of the attempts at the subjugation of women directly translated in some measure to men’s control over the former’s bodies – whether it be in the form of women living under a despotic regime being required to wear hijabs and loose clothes such that her hair and physical features aren’t visible, or in the form of a modern-day democratic country’s Supreme Court ruling the right of a woman to abortion as illegal. Direct representatives of the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei have even given statements like “improperly veiled women should be made to feel unsafe” in public because immodesty is a “dangerous virus” in the society. As it’s very horribly apparent, the only way ahead is not accepting things for how they are – to rise up and resist, in the hopes of someday leaving these things behind where they belong: in history books.
The current protests would hopefully either bring the regime to its knees, or bring it to an end altogether, ending all its outdated laws and practices with it
A major and commendable feature of the ongoing protests in Iran is how women themselves are taking the lead, resorting to acts of resistance like publicly cutting their hair off and burning their hijabs. Several Iranian women have opened up on social media about their experiences of being harassed, attacked and arrested by the morality police, even though the Iranian government keeps denying any hostility against women. On the positive side though, an independent survey in 2020 had found out that as many as 72 per cent of Iranians opposed the strict dress codes for women, in a country where these dress codes have been in existence for over four decades now.
Ultimately, no matter how hard the regime is, it is the people and their views and beliefs that matter. The current protests, if they are able to resist all the brutal waves of repression from the government, would hopefully either bring the regime to its knees, forcing reforms and the disbandment of the morality police, or bring the current regime to an end altogether, ending all its outdated laws and practices with it.