A tragic death of Mahsa Amini, 22-year-old woman in Iran has sparked wide-spread protests throughout Iran and could be the turning point for a regime that has targeted women’s bodies for decades.
You could ask the question ‘what is happening in Iran?’ on any given day and the short answer would be ‘something not good,’ because a lot of the news that comes out of Iran is often not good. But the way the Western news portrays Iran is often very single minded and much maligned.
This is the contradiction of Iran. As a country and a culture, Iran – Persia – is simply one of the best places in the world. It is far and away the best place I have ever visited and I am hoping to go back – and eat all the delicious food – as soon as I can. But the politics of the government dominates the entire cultural conversation about Iran in a way that doesn’t happen to a lot of countries that have even more oppressive regimes.
But what is currently happening in Iran is important and like most important movements, it is rooted in tragedy. On September 16, a 22-year-old woman called Mahsa Amini, also known as Zhina Amini or Jîna Emînî, died in Tehran – the nation’s capital – under suspicious circumstances after she was arrested by the Gasht-e Ershad (Guidance Patrols) – known as ‘The Morality Police’ – for not wearing her mandatory hijab correctly, because some of her hair was visible.
She died in custody and ‘The Morality Police’ (I can’t help but put that in quote marks, sorry) have been accused of police brutality. The police say that while Mahsa was in custody, she fell over, hit her head and went into a coma. Eyewitnesses say she was beaten by the police and her leaked autopsy report shows violent head injuries and bruises. Since Mahsa’s tragic death, many women of Iran have started burning their mandatory hijabs in protest. The protests are said to have spread to over 20 cities in Iran and have turned deadly, after security forces opened fire on some crowds.
“Women’s rights are only as secure as the government that makes or breaks them.”
The death of Masha and subsequent protests have been compared to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, after George Floyd was murdered by the police on the street. BLM protests sprung up around the world – including here in Aotearoa – and brought the issue of systemic racism and race-targeted police brutality back to the forefront of the conversation.
Social media and international press played a huge part in the success of those protests, because it helped spread the message. It’s trickier in Iran – because access to both the internet and social media isn’t as consistent as it is in other countries. But the message is currently clear and currently getting a lot of attention, as women both burn their head coverings and dance in the street.
Why is the burning AND dancing such a protest combination? Because the hijab has been mandatory for women in Iran since the current regime took over in 1979 and Iran became the Islamic Republic of Iran, with stricter religious rules across the entire country. For instance, Iran went from being a country with a huge wine production – e.g. the city called Shiraz, which made, you guessed it… – to alcohol suddenly being illegal.
But the rules were much harsher for women. Now, Iran tends to get mixed up with its neighbours when it comes to women’s rights and that’s over-simplifying it. In Iran, women are well-educated, own businesses, vote, drive, etc. It’s their bodies that are policed the hardest – ever since 1979, it has been mandatory for women to wear body-covering clothes and a headscarf at all times. Even in summer! Even while doing their jobs! Even from a young age! Even on the plane as you cross into Iranian airspace! Even in your own hotel room as you answer the door for room service! (For whatever reason, that specific situation was the one that tipped me over the edge when I was there in 2019).
It is also illegal for women to sing or dance in public – just one of the arbitrary rules that are designed to reduce a certain kind of freedom and joy. Like how the beaches are segregated by gender – so you can’t go to the public beaches with your family or your boyfriend, only your own gender (where the heck do transgender rights fit into this, you have to wonder? Nowhere good).
So it is a BIG DEAL that women are protesting by burning their hijabs and dancing, because both are very illegal and very punishable by ‘The Morality Police’, an official line of public servants whose job it is to literally police the rules of the regime, in particular what the women of Iran are wearing and doing. Anecdotally, I know women who were on their way to university and were aggressively told to go home and change, or aggressively made to fix their headscarf. This is the polite end of the equation. What happened to Mahsa is the other end – one of the tag lines running with the coverage on social media is ‘it could have been any of us,’ because for women in Iran, that is the reality.
The majority of the time, things are okay, life is normal-ish (if you stick to the rules). But all it takes is one overzealous member of ‘The Morality Police’, on a day when your headscarf has slipped down, on a day when you don’t have the energy to be polite. And things can go very badly. This is the weight that generations of Iranian women live with on a daily basis. And this is what the protests are hoping to change. Because it’s not an Islamic problem, or an Iranian problem. It is a regime problem – none of this existed until the government changed dramatically in 1979 and Iranians woke up to the start of an entirely different reality.
As the western world learned recently with the overturning of Roe vs Wade in America, women’s rights are only as secure as the government that makes or breaks them. These protests in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini deserve our attention and the women in Iran deserve our support.