Women, Life, Freedom
Iranian women have always been present in national uprisings, but this time they are leading them.
On 16 September 2022 Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman from Saqqez in Iran’s Kurdistan Province, died in a Tehran hospital. Three days earlier she had been arrested by Iran’s Guidance Patrol, or ‘morality police’, for wearing her hijab ‘improperly’ and fell into a coma after she was beaten inside the police van taking her to the Vozara Detention Centre.
Crowds gathered outside the hospital in a state of shock and responded to her death by calling for accountability. Soon protests spread to other cities.
During Amini’s funeral, on 17 September, crowds gathered in Saqqez chanting the slogan ‘Women Life Freedom’, which was adopted across the country and beyond. Civil unrest eventually spread across cities and towns as well as on Iranian social media. The initial focus of the protests grew to encompass the diverse grievances of Iranian women, with many removing and ritualistically burning their hijabs in front of cheering crowds. Across the diaspora, Iranian women are cutting their hair in solidarity.
These protests are not unprecedented. They are the latest in a long tradition of struggles going back more than a century to Iran’s Constitutional Revolution which, between 1905 and 1911, established a parliament during the Qajar dynasty. Despite their marginalisation in the historical narrative of modern Iran, women have always been part of the country’s transformations. Women supporting both secular and Islamist forces formed an important segment of the uprising leading to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which ousted the Pahlavi monarchy and opened the way for the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iranian women continued demanding a role in politics and society, even when the promise of the Islamic Republic to restore their dignity was eventually translated in strictly patriarchal and Islamist terms. Shortly after the establishment of the Republic in April 1980, women took to the streets to oppose the strict dress code requiring them to cover their body and hair.
Under the laws of the Islamic Republic women were not just subjected to compulsory veiling but also gender segregation. City spaces were divided along gender lines. ‘Women only’ areas were created, while other spaces, such as football stadiums, remained off-limits. These arrangements were considered to be the pillars of the Islamic Republic: highly symbolic and non-negotiable.
Since 1980 Iranian women have sought to improve their situation by initiating protests, petitioning and mounting legal challenges. After the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), for example, war widows lobbied for custody of their children; the law stipulated that a father had guardianship of a child, which passed to the next male relative in the case of his death.
When conditions allowed, women’s organisations sought change by working with the state, for example during the tenure of a rare reformist administration under Iran’s fifth president, Mohammad Khatami. Between 2000 and 2004 the women parliamentarians of the sixth Majlis (Iran’s parliamant) adopted a policy that combined decisiveness with moderation, aware of the rigidities of the state and the intricacies of dealing with the clergy. Khatami’s term was marked by a plethora of feminist publications, campaigns and NGOs, promoting causes such as legal reform and gender equality. The One Million Signatures Campaign, founded in 2007, was a major petition that sought to dismantle discriminatory laws, inspiring similar campaigns in other countries. However, in times where working with the state became untenable, particularly with the clampdown on civil society towards the end of Khatami’s administration, women activists had no option but to disengage. The damage inflicted was devastating: many women activists were arrested and many more fled the country.
The 2022 protests cannot be seen in isolation from the waves of protest that had preceded them, such as the Green Movement (or ‘Persian Awakening’) of 2009. The largest popular mobilisation since the Iranian Revolution, it demanded (unsuccessfully) the annulment of the controversial presidential election of that year and the ousting of conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With a deteriorating economy and rampant corruption, as well as the impact of international economic sanctions, the cycles of protests have become more frequent since the Green Movement. In 2018 protests arose from public disquiet over the economic situation; in 2019 demonstrations were sparked by massive increases in fuel prices. Earlier this year people took to the streets against price hikes on staple foods. All share an underlying dissatisfaction with the unresponsiveness of the Islamic Republic to the needs and aspirations of its citizens.
Supporters of the Green Movement came from Iran’s cities and were primarily middle-class, led by reformist politicians. In contrast, later protests have primarily been leaderless without the underlying thrust of a reform agenda that characterised the Green Movement. They have mobilised poorer parts of the population, who now question the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. In every case, the government moved speedily to suppress protests, sometimes with a high death toll.
The latest protests are different. The death of a young woman from Kurdistan detained by the morality police rendered Amini a tragic figure whom everybody could rally around. In her story grievances including injustice, state repression and women’s rights all intersect. Her death has brought people from across the country together – but this time the protests are led by women.
Evidence suggests the state is poised not to show any weakness. But the messages of the protests are hard to ignore. These are the first protests where compulsory veiling – one of the pillars of the Islamic Republic – has been openly defied and where demands for women’s bodily autonomy have led to calls for the end of the Republic.
Nazanin Shahrokni is Assistant Professor of Gender and Globalisation at the London School of Economics and the author of Women in Place: The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran (University of California Press, 2020).