The women of Iran have set the country on fire politically. Why? They are outraged by the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, who died as a consequence of being detained by police for not wearing her hijab, or headscarf, according to the law. Amini died a couple days after her police detention, suffering from severe head injuries, presumably from being beaten in police custody in Tehran. Despite the police trying to cover up the death, news of Amini’s fate sent shockwaves throughout the country. Thousands of people attended Amini’s funeral in her hometown of Saqqez in the Kurdistan region, and demonstrated in front of the governor’s office demanding answers. The only answer that people received was tear gas to disperse the crowd.
Since the revolution of 1979, Iran has been governed by a particular interpretation of Islam that imposes religious practices on the population, such as women having to wear the hijab, with the threat of violence. This threat is wielded above the population by the Iranian government in the form of so-called “guidance patrols” of religious zealots acting as a so-called morality police force.
Most of the time, these morality police have inspired fear throughout the population. However, Amini’s death was one case of brutality too many, inspiring a brave and determined movement throughout Iranian society. While there have been defiant and courageous protests against the compulsory hijab in Iran over the years, there hasn’t been anything of this scale until now.
Day after day, night after night, across the country, women have continued to pour into the streets, taking their hijabs off and sometimes lighting them on fire. Men have joined the women in solidarity. Protesters have stormed government buildings and removed the portraits of the ultra-conservative “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as symbols of the oppressive order. In the capital, Tehran, thousands of people have marched through the streets chanting, “Death to the dictator!”, referring to Khamenei. In some cases, the demonstrators have stood their ground against riot police, in some cases chasing away the police. Under pressure from the demonstrators, some prominent religious leaders have spoken out against the killings and called for an abolition of the morality police.
The protests have not been without losses. At least five protesters have been reported to have lost their lives and countless have been injured. In addition, not surprisingly, there were internet blackouts as protests broke out.
We must see clearly that, whatever condemnations of Iran in favor of women’s rights have come from government leaders — such as those from the United States — are hollow, when those same leaders sit atop of a society that deprives women of their basic needs and rights at home.
Because this movement has taken hold in Iran, what might have seemed impossible a month ago, is now becoming a reality.
Like much of the world, Iran is a powder keg, ready to explode. Its population is suffering from built-up frustrations, not only from the repressive Islamic regime but also from inflation on top of the brutal economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. under both the Trump and Biden administrations.
It is far too early to tell whether this upsurge will be able to sweep away the repressive regime or even go beyond to fundamentally transform the society. However, all of us can take inspiration from courageous people in Iran who are fighting to decide their own future.