It was not an isolated incident of police violence in Iran. But the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody last week has captured the country’s attention.
Amini was visiting the capital of Tehran, coming from the Kurdish province in the country’s northwest, and Iran’s so-called morality police detained her, allegedly for wearing the mandatory headscarf improperly. Several hours after entering police custody, she was in a coma. She died two days later. Iranian police claimed she died after a stroke and suffering cardiac arrest, but witnesses say she died after sustaining blows to the head, and shocking photos that spread online of Amini intubated in a hospital have galvanized the nation.
Protesters have since taken to the streets in more than 50 cities across Iran. Authorities reportedly have killed as many as 36 people during demonstrations. The government has also restricted the internet, so the complete picture may not be available. But the growing arrests of human rights defenders, activists, and journalists are particularly troubling.
Demonstrators have defied the repressive government regularly in the past several years, often expressing economic grievances. Women have been central to Iranian politics of resistance since the 1979 revolution, and before. What’s different about these protests is the diversity of people out on the streets and the widespread nature of Iranian resistance, in cities big and small.
The government may weather the emerging movement. Or Amini’s tragedy could prove to be Iran’s Mohamed Bouazizi — the Tunisian street-seller who self-immolated in December 2010 and helped catalyze the mass protests across the Middle East and North Africa that came to be the Arab Spring.
The protests have also provoked an outpouring of anger and sympathy from artists inside and outside of Iran.— Alex Shams (@alexshams_) September 19, 2022
These images commemorating Mahsa Amini are by artist Sahar Ghorishihttps://t.co/XDh0Dt2Xt5 pic.twitter.com/Mcw7I3yXCF
Across the country, protesters are chanting, “Woman, Life, Freedom.” Those words have resonated deeply because they’re affirmative and unifying, says University of Sussex professor Kamran Matin. “This triangular slogan is uniting different strands of discontent in Iran,” he told me. “This slogan has united every section of Iranian society which has some sort of grievance against the government.”
Why Iranian women are burning headscarves
In response to Amini’s death, Iranians are demanding an end to mandatory hijab laws and burning the scarves in powerful displays of refusal. In Tehran, they have been chanting, “We don’t want forced hijab.”
That’s connected to the police’s purported reason for detaining Amini, but the act of protest carries multiple meanings. Negar Mottahedeh, a professor of gender and feminist studies at Duke University, likened the images of Iranian women burning their headscarves to the bra-burning of the 1960s. Bra-burning meant many things at once: an expression of feminism and liberation, but also a broader rejection of the Vietnam War and of capitalism. Similarly, the images from demonstrations across Iran over the last week object to compulsory veiling and the morality police, but also against a paranoid, controlling state that has sought to police women’s bodies.
The so-called morality police, an independent unit that has been around since 1979, don’t only enforce headscarves but a variety of regulations, including mixed-gender gatherings and prohibitions against drinking alcohol. During the late 1990s when Mohammad Khatami was president, Iran instituted a number of reforms, but his successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reversed these. The current president, Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative, has maintained such restrictions and emboldened officials to clamp down. Authorities in Iran take it upon themselves to interpret the codes, and enforcement can be arbitrary and violent.
Human rights researchers note that the morality police in the past few months have resorted to violence more frequently.
Even if the protests don’t immediately result in transformative change, they’ve forever changed the debate on compulsory hijab in Iran, says Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There’s no going back,” she told me. “Yes, police can pretend this never happened. But it did happen. Women took off their headscarves, walked down the street, and the debate has moved forward.”
The boldness of Iranian women in the face of a police state has been one of the enduring dynamics of the country’s street politics. “From the very beginning of the revolution in 1979, women were at the forefront. They were walking shoulder to shoulder with men in front of tanks and guns, and they were seeking a different kind of government, an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist government,” Mottahedeh told me.
The 1979 revolution overthrew a corrupt, US-backed dictator and brought together a disparate opposition, including leftist and Islamic groups. But the political faction that took power after the revolution succeeded, which still rules today, began to implement religious-based laws that discriminated against women.
Mottahedeh emphasizes that many of the initiatives of the country’s first supreme leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in the immediate post-1979 moment were about controlling women’s bodies, their careers (excluding them from being judges, for example), and their appearance. Back then, some of the first revolts against the revolutionary government were about the right to abortion, the right to divorce, and the right for a wife to have a say about who her husband’s second wife was going to be.
Despite severe restrictions, women have continued to push back. “It’s really important to focus on women’s resistance and resilience inside of Iran, and not see them as victims,” says Sussan Tahmasebi, executive director of the human rights organization Femena. “Iranian women — even though they deal with a lot of discriminatory laws, structural and legal discrimination — they have always taken every opportunity to advance their lives.”
A map showing the extent of the protests in Iran. Importantly, the 2017 and 2019 protests also took place in cities across the country.— Esfandyar Batmanghelidj (@yarbatman) September 21, 2022
What's new about these protests is that they appear to have drawn individuals from across various classes and social groups. #MahsaAmini pic.twitter.com/NxGY6YdHOR
Another important element of the ongoing mobilization relates to Amini’s Kurdish identity. The Iranian government has, over the years, painted Kurdish activists as separatists seeking to delegitimize the Iranian state. But now with demonstrations so dispersed across the country, the Kurdish minority’s prominence in the protests may reflect the fact that Iranians are becoming more sensitive toward the injustices inflicted upon the ethnic and sectarian minorities in the country. The national character of the protests that elevate the life of a young Kurdish woman provides crucial recognition of their plight.
Matin, who studies Iranian and Kurdish politics, noted that the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” originates from Syrian Kurdistan. “The Kurds have always led the way in resistance against what I would describe, even in kind of scientific terms, as a semi-fascist state,” he said.
What’s next for an Iran in revolt
The demonstrations come at a time when the socioeconomic conditions in Iran are extremely tenuous, with a large portion of Iranian society impoverished. This is partly because of the impact of US sanctions over the Iran nuclear program, as well as the broader global economic conditions and the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. The country’s economic troubles are likely to persist without a return to the Iran nuclear deal. Then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the deal in 2018, and obstacles to its revival remain frozen despite diplomacy between the Biden administration, Iran, and world powers, leaving intact intensive economic sanctions on Iran. And without the money to address Iranians’ underlying grievances, the state is likely to flex its strength to deter social unrest.
Ali Vaez, an analyst with International Crisis Group, grew up in Iran and has been taken with the images of boys and girls fighting back against government forces. “These are scenes that were unimaginable 10 years ago, 20 years ago,” he told me. “This is a society that the Islamic Republic clearly is no longer able to control. With repression, they might be able to buy time, but they are not going to be able to address the underlying drivers of these protests.”
It’s impossible to know whether the protests will carry on and grow, as they have in the 2017-18 economic protests or the massive 2009 Green Movement protests, led by a presidential candidate at the time. One thing that’s certain is that protests in Iran are becoming more frequent, says Vaez, which shows the degree of discontent. “We used to see this kind of outburst of public ire once a decade in Iran,” he told me. “Now it’s becoming every other year, basically, and it’s becoming more ferocious, more violent.”
The demonstrations appear to be a spontaneous movement. But a leaderless revolt is also by extension disorganized. That may make it less likely for the movement to grow beyond a street movement into something that can transform Iranian policy and governance.
Two enduring forces also stand in the way of political change: a geriatric supreme leader who is completely averse to change, heading a regime that is willing to deploy brute force against its people. (By coincidence, the protests began the same day as news broke about Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s ill health and as the conservative President Ebrahim Raisi has left the country for the United Nations General Assembly in New York.) The discontent in the state and its crisis of legitimacy has been on display since the low voter turnout in the presidential election won by Raisi last year.
Now, the Iranian authorities are arresting activists, organizers, and students. “What concerns me is the escalation of the crackdown — they’re going to try to really force the protests to die down,” said Sepehri Far.
Such a brutal response to the mass protests will further expose the brittleness of the Iranian government. “It reflects the total incapacity of a political system to listen to its own population,” Vaez told me. “So there is a clear divide between state and society in the country — there is no doubt about it. But this is a system that still has the will and a fearsome capacity to repress.”