On September 13, Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian woman, was detained in Tehran by the Iranian morality police. Three days later, she died in police custody. Though officials have tried to deny claims of police brutality, Amini’s suspicious death caught the attention of the nation, prompting massive social and political upheaval in Iran. Through tear gas and rubber bullets, thousands of Iranians have flooded into the streets of major cities to protest Amini’s death. She is seen as a young martyr and a symbol of female liberty.
Police have responded violently to these demonstrations, making widespread arrests, beating protestors, and killing at least 40 people. Streets burned as protestors chanted “women, life, freedom,” and “death to the dictator.” Two teenage girls attending these protests, Sarina Esmaeilzade and Nika Shakarami, have died at the hands of the Iranian police, a testament of the everyday nature of violence against women. The Iranian government has also imposed nightly internet and app outages to try and hinder protests censoring cries for liberty.
Iranians have a long history of protest movements against the Ayatollah’s regime, so the quick and ruthless response from the Iranian government is exactly what protestors expected. But as women’s rights, political freedoms, and the dissemination of information are increasingly restricted by the Iranian government, citizens are getting closer and closer to reaching a revolutionary breaking point. The protestors, both female and male, young and old, traditionalist and reformist, represent the great diversity of grievances Iranian citizens have with the authoritarian regime. The battle cry one can hear in the streets today of “death to the dictator” suggests a call for the eradication of the government itself.
Women, in particular, feel increasingly suppressed by the Iranian authoritarian regime and its strict imposition of Sharia law. Following the election of anti-reformist President Ebrahim Raisi, the police are more strictly enforcing the decency laws against women who do not wear headscarves in public, or are “improperly dressed,” by any means. Women are therefore forced to cover their whole head of hair whenever they leave the home, regardless of personal beliefs.
Amini’s death is a violent reminder to many Iranian women that their autonomy can come at the expense of their life. Though this trade seems impossible to bargain with, many protesters have demonstrated remarkable bravery and dissent by dancing bare-headed and cutting their hair with scissors in the streets. One woman, who spoke anonymously, said, “things won’t go back to the way they were. I used to remove my headscarf in some restaurants where I knew the owners. I’m now determined to do it more often in public; it’s the least I can do after the death of Amini and the [state] violence.” Many young women, forced to operate under strict, patriarchal laws of social decency, feel that they have nothing left to lose. Even devout female muslims have joined the protests in fully covered dress, calling for bodily autonomy and an end to systematic female oppression.
Religious women’s participation in these protests indicates that these women are not protesting religion, but rather the government. While Shariah law itself does not inevitably oppress womanhood, the strict imposition of morality law—in which the government utilizes religious law to assert total authority over its followers—contradicts the freedoms of contemporary womanhood. The values of Islam itself—decency, morality, and devotion—have taken on a draconian form, punishing perceived immorality with violence and terror.
This summer, Abdolhadi Mar’ashi, a cleric in the holy city of Mashhad, resigned from his post in protest against the Iranian regime. In his letter of resignation, he writes, “our understanding of what is right and what is wrong under Islam has been limited only to the hijab.” He suggests that the Iranian government look inwards to resolve issues such as “government corruption, social justice, economic security, class disparity, drug addiction, national poverty, [and] freedom of expression.”
Mar’ashi’s letter reveals the great erosion of political freedoms and the weakened economy that many citizens are protesting. Past presidential elections, including most notably the 2021 election of current president Ebrahim Raisi, have been riddled with claims of fraud and government interference. The most prominent reformists were eliminated by the Guardian Council, leaving only seven conservative politicians on the ballot. This interference was so transparent that past and present presidents had to publicly denounce the move, though there was no effective response for reform.
Meanwhile, the people of Iran were largely unsurprised by this level of corruption; the suppression of democratic rights is just one symptom of the authoritarian power the Grand Ayatollah wields over the Iranian people. Raisi and preceding anti-reformist politicians disrupted a large number of VPNs in an attempt to disrupt Iranian’s access to western media sources and social media platforms. The few platforms that allow people to organize and hold the powers that be accountable have been systematically removed. In recent years, the ever-increasing isolationist behavior of the government has taken a toll on Iranian people, just as sanctions on the country have intensely weakened the economy.
In previous years, the Iranian government was able to use violence to quell the protests, opening fire on protestors and leaving behind dozens of casualties. Though police forces are cracking down on current protests with the same fervorous brutality, protestors are showing no signs that they will give up their cause any time soon. What we have yet to see is if the Iranian government is open to the reforms that citizens are calling for—and what will happen if they are not. This battle won’t end until one group caves, and it seems increasingly more likely that ordinary Iranians will not give up easily.