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Fighting for the Right to Choose—A Woman’s Battle Against Dictatorship


Against a turbulent backdrop of political regulation of choice, a young woman climbs to the top of a car on an ordinary day in Mashhad, a conservative Iranian city famed for its Islamic shrines. She removes her headscarf and starts chanting, “Death to the dictator!” Protesters nearby join in, and cars honk in support. This young woman is Mahsa Amini, a twenty-two-year-old Kurdish Iranian visiting Tehran. Because Amini revealed some of her hair, she is sent to a re-education camp and, several days later, dies while in custody.

Protestors in Iran hold up a sign showing Mahsa Amini. [Source: TRT World]

Iran’s Islamic laws require women to cover themselves up completely in public, such that their hair is not visible, using a hijab or a headscarf. The hijab became compulsory in 1981, two years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The move triggered protests that were swiftly crushed by the then-newly-elected authorities. Many Iranian women, especially in major cities, have long played a game of cat-and-mouse with authorities, with younger generations wearing loose scarves and outfits that push the boundaries of the state-imposed conservative dress code. Under former President Hassan Rohani, who served from 2013 to 2021, the enforcement of the hijab law was loosened. But since hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi came to power in August 2021, the authorities launched a crackdown on women who violate the law. At least 185 people, including 19 children, have been killed in the nationwide protests across Iran. The highest number of killings occurred in Sistan and Baluchistan provinces.

While the government argues that Amini had underlying health conditions, her family and thousands of protesters believe she was killed due to a deadly beating at the hands of the police. This incident of police brutality and violence against women ignited what has now grown into nearly two weeks of widespread unrest in Iran, which seems to be continually taking a turn for the worse. During the ongoing rallies and omnipresent protests, some women, including female members of Mahsa’s family, removed and burned their headscarves, directly challenging the clerical regime. 

Systematic suppression of voice

The government of Iran has made several attempts to suppress the protests, from shooting protesters with birdshot and metal pellets, deploying tear gas and water cannons, to blocking access to many apps including Instagram and WhatsApp, and limiting internet accessibility to reduce protesters’ ability to organize. These may be the most severe internet restrictions in Iran since 2019 when the internet was shut down completely.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently issued a statement focusing on violence against women in the Islamic Republic of Iran, in an attempt to plead with the Iranian government, as demonstrations become increasingly grotesque, and the series of large-scale protests across the country begin to steadily garner international attention.

A woman holds up a piece of her hair, cut in protest against Iran’s hijab-and-chastity law. [Source: Lowy Institute]

Apart from the protestors, the authorities have also been cracking down on the media personnel. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), around 11 journalists were picked up in “post-midnight raids” of their homes. It said that Shardh Daily’s Niloofar Hamedi, who was credited for reporting from Amini’s hospital bedside, was one of the journalists who had to go through the raiding of her house. Similarly, photographer Yalda Moaiery was beaten and arrested over her coverage of the protests.

“This image created, this act was something which would most certainly have been unthinkable,” said Iranian scholar Fatemeh Shams, who grew up in Mashhad and had been living in exile since 2009. Shams teaches Persian literature at Penn and is the author of the book  ‘A Revolution in Rhyme: Poetic Co-option Under the Islamic Republic, which is a study of poetic legitimacy and the role of poetry and poetics in the political ideology of the Islamic Republic. She opines that the central slogan of this revolution is “Women, Life, Freedom” used by The Kurdish women of Kurdistan and Turkey.  The focus, the very core of this revolutionary movement, is reclaiming the bodily autonomy of women. Shams also mentioned how this revolution is a continuation of the Green Uprising that took place in 2009.

Protestors hold up signs reading “Women”, “Life”, and “Freedom” in the Iranian flag colours. [Source: News18]

On June 23, 2009, a spontaneous mass demonstration erupted in Iran against the officially declared victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This was perhaps the most publicly contested presidential election in the history of the Islamic Republic. The following day, the victorious Ahmadinejad staged an official demonstration in support of the declared victory. The day after that, on June 25, Iran witnessed a huge mass rally against the status quo with the slogan of “Where Is My Vote?”, which eventually emerged as the defining moment of an uprising that its supporters by now called the “Green Movement” or “Green Uprising”. The Green Movement progressed apace with mass demonstrations and civil disobedience until February 14, 2010, when its attempt to stage a rally in support of the emerging Arab revolutions was brutally suppressed. 

According to Shams, the difference is that back in 2009, there was still a belief that the system could be reformed. If there were a fair election and a free election, the protesters could possibly have a candidate that represented their hopes and their demands, to some extent. Today’s revolution is completely leaderless in the sense that none of the previous political figures such as Mohammad Khatami, who was the ex-President of Iran, are being called upon. People in the streets are not waiting for anyone to come and take the lead. They are the leaders of the revolution. It becomes important to keep in mind that these protests were a response to the brutal killing of an innocent woman, but at this point, it has gone much beyond that.

Separatist colourings plastering brutality against Mahsa

Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the emancipatory Kurdish movement, gave a renowned speech in 1998 where he said that women are the first captives in history and until they are liberated, any such movement, in fact, will be doomed to fail. Mahsa Amini’s family in Iran, including her father and uncle, have repeatedly denied supporting Kurdish opposition groups, which Iran accuses of separatism. Her cousin Erfan believes the momentum could have a lasting effect. “We shouldn’t forget the people of Iran have been in resistance and protest against the regime for many years, but the people now are revolutionaries,” he says. “They are women, workers, teachers, sportspeople, artists, taking to the streets and mixing their voices of dissent with that of Zhina’s family. In my opinion, these protests will continue and they will end with the fall of the Islamic Republic.”

A protestor holding up a sign with Mahsa Amini’s name and picture. [Source: News18]

As per recent developments, more gruesome details have been revealed. On 20th September 2022, a 16-year-old girl named Nika Shakarami disappeared in the city of Tehran hours after the protests. After nearly 8 days, a family contacted the police upon discovering a body that matched the description of Nika. A few days later, on 23rd September, another 16-year-old girl named Sarina Esmailzadeh, was reportedly beaten by the authorities at a protest in Gohardasht in Alborz province. Sarina was a popular YouTuber who used the platform to speak up against the Iranian government.
In an attempt to explain the continuous disappearances and deaths, officials attributed the protestors’ deaths to suicide. They even claimed that Sarina had a history of mental health problems, which only helped to catalyze the protests even further.

On an ending note, we send our prayers and support to the protestors and the families of those who lost their lives for this strong cause of the Iranian women. No one deserves to suffer through such grave injustice. We hope the sun shines upon them soon, and they get what is due—their basic human rights.

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