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Matt Hrkac

Jina Amini’s death has sparked a fight for freedom in Iran

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The struggle over our bodily autonomy stands at the heart of the anti-government movement.

29 Sep 2022

Content warning: mentions of death and descriptions of violence

Hundreds of women stand in a crowd under the beating sun at Jina (Mahsa) Amini’s funeral, their arms held high in the air waving their headscarves in a symbolic act of defiance.

The 22-year-old Kurdish woman died on 16 September after being violently arrested by Iran’s ‘morality police’, or Gasht-e Ershad, for not adequately complying with compulsory veiling laws. She allegedly had some hair visible under her headscarf when she was beaten and taken to a detention centre in Tehran. Within hours of her arrest Amini had fallen into a coma – the authorities claimed she’d suffered a stroke. Looking at the photos of her in a hospital bed, I felt a familiar rage and fear tingling on my skin; that could be me, my sister, my mother.

Encounters with the so-called ‘morality police’ were a rite of passage in my high school in Tehran; every girl seemed to have a story. One girl, an early secret crush of mine, showed a group of us the bruises on her forearm: three blueish-green lines where one of the female agents had grabbed her. The Islamic Republic of Iran has strict rules based on sharia law for how women are supposed to dress, behave and who they are allowed to socialise with, enforced by the ‘morality police’ , sometimes violently so.

As a teenager I would obsessively check my headscarf in the mirror before I left the house to make sure not too much of my hair was showing. What I didn’t realise at the time was that these efforts were often futile – you can’t predict when your path might cross theirs. Although my encounter was less scary than a lot of my friends’, it still terrified me. I was sitting on a park bench waiting for a friend when I looked up from my phone and a woman in chador was towering over me. A green and white van was parked only a few feet away; there was nowhere to run. She screamed at me, saying I was a whore who was going to hell. My heart was pounding and all I could think was that I didn’t want to be in that van, so I apologised and pulled my headscarf forward. She told me she would let me go with a warning, just this once. 

“Their outrage is the culmination of years of oppression”

Millions of Iranian and Kurdish women have suffered harassment, arbitrary arrest and violent beatings at the hands of the ‘morality police’, who systematically use excessive force to impose strict dress codes. Amini’s death sparked a wave of protests across the country, spearheaded by women who have taken their headscarves off, burnt them and cut their hair in brave acts of rebellion. Huge crowds cheered them on, chanting “death to dictator” and demanding the fall of the Islamic Republic. Their outrage is the culmination of years of oppression where women are routinely punished with heavy prison sentences for peacefully protesting forced veiling laws, or simply not properly adhering to them.  

In 2019, Yasaman Aryani was arrested and given a 16-year prison sentence after a video of her handing out flowers to female passengers on a bus with her head uncovered to protest forced veiling laws went viral. In October 2021, a video circulated on social media of police using a dog-catcher’s pole to detain a woman, placing it around her neck as three agents violently forced her into a van. In August 2022, Sepideh Rashno was tortured and forced to give an apology on national TV after a video of her defying the hijab laws and standing up to a female ‘vice agent’ on public transport was circulated online. What has made Amini’s death particularly harrowing is that she had not chosen to fight these oppressive laws, she was just a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Over the last 13 days, Iranian women have been reclaiming their bodily autonomy, ridding themselves of the symbols of their daily oppression. Other communities are joining them in their protests too. Amini’s killing has sparked the largest anti-regime movement in Iran since 2019. Nowhere is the gulf of ideology between the regime and the Iranian people more clear than when it comes to the issue of compulsory hijab. The violence surrounding Amini’s death encapsulates the ruling elite’s message to the people: you do not get a choice over who rules you, but you do have to bear the deadly consequences of their enforced ideology. This is the message that the Iranian people have been hearing loud and clear for decades. 

Since the Green Movement in 2009, a historic uprising sparked by opposition to the government’s vote rigging, the Islamic Republic has been weathering a crisis of legitimacy. The regime responds with brutal crackdowns, as we’ve seen in the days following Amini’s death, with dozens of people killed and an unknown number arrested. Since 2011, the leaders of the Green movement – former revolutionaries and Islamic Republic insiders who were calling for minimal reforms – were put on house arrest and protestors were severely punished under the guise of “national security”.

The Islamic Republic has since used even more authoritarian tactics; punishing dissenting voices with prison sentences and executions. Protests in November 2019 that started against the rise in fuel prices were violently suppressed, with the death toll rising to over 300 people. Families of the victims who have sought justice have been threatened by security agents. Mahsa Amini’s death reminds us Iranians that there is no recourse to justice and accountability for the victims of state violence and their families. 

Hardliners in the country have gradually monopolised the entire political system, quashing hopes that political reforms could be achieved via the ballot box. 2021, for example, saw the lowest voter turn-out in an election since the 1979 revolution, with Ibrahim Raisi, a hardliner judge who oversaw the massacre of thousands of political dissidents in 1988, elected as president.

“These brave acts of defiance by women in Iran have moved the world”

Iranian authorities maintain their monopoly on force and have shown time and again that they are willing to use deadly violence to maintain their power. On 22 September, the authorities limited access to the internet and communication apps such as WhatsApp and Instagram in an attempt to slow the momentum of the protests and hide their brutal crackdown from international media. Security agents have imprisoned women rights’ defenders, civil and political advocates, student activists and journalists, and intimidated their families. Amnesty International has raised the alarm about Iranian security forces using deadly force and live ammunition. Iran Human Rights stated that at least 76 people were killed, including four children. 

Despite these threats, the protests have continued to spread from Amini’s hometown of Saqqez in Kurdistan province to the rest of the country and the world. On Monday, teachers’ unions and university students called for a national strike and boycott of classes. 

We are about to witness if guns, batons and mass arrests can overcome a popular uprising once more. But whatever happens in the coming days or weeks, these brave acts of defiance by women in Iran have moved the world. Our fight for bodily autonomy stands at the heart of any anti-government movement. 

Amini’s death, and all the people who have been murdered and brutalised by the state, is a tragedy. It may be too soon to talk about the impact of this movement on women’s rights in Iran, but what I do know is the next time a woman in Iran defies the morality police, she will know that she is not alone, that there are millions of women who stand in solidarity with her. 

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