Thousands of enraged Iranians in a nationwide dissent against the Islamic clergy’s regime are holding demonstrations for justice for the murder of a Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, over the country’s abusive forced hijab dress code for women.
Mahsa Amini, 22, on 16 September was on a family trip to Iran’s capital Tehran from a liberal city of Saqez in Iran’s Kurdistan, where 10 million Kurds live.
She was detained by the notorious Morality Police (Basij para-military force) at a metro station in Tehran for not appropriately wearing a hijab (or chador in Farsi/Persian) and dragged to a centre.
The young woman died as a result of torture inflicted on her at a detention facility and the authority claimed that she died of heart failure, which her family refused to believe.
The so-called Morality Police recruited from rural Iran are Islamic vigilantes to insult to heart their dignity and detain women for violating stringent Shariah laws.
The Basij has a history to have brutally suppressed popular strife. Once again the ruthless armed group has been mobilised to quell the unrest.
In defiance, hundreds of women poured into the streets in Iran are burning their hijab and others removing their chador (headscarf) and waving in the air in busy streets and squares.
Many are cutting their hair in public, in their home and dared to post on social media as a symbol of protest, which never happened before.
The antagonism transgressed to a crossroad where protesters either insulted Iran’s supreme leader and chanted “death to the dictator”.
Nonetheless, the Kurdish woman’s death has reignited popular anger and united the dissidents and people from all walks of society, despite having different opinions.
An irate ‘unnamed woman’ removed her hijab while walking in a street in Iran posted a video on Twitter urging the Basij: “Come and arrest me….and arrest everyone campaigning for peace, freedom and human dignity.”
Iranian women are taking a huge risk and need more than expressions of solidarity, observed Yalda Zarbakhch, Head of the Farsi (Persian) service of the German news organisation Deutsche Welle (DW).
The demonstrators, especially the womenfolk must have calculated the risk factor – arrest, torture, legal harassment and intimidation of their families by the repressive regime.
Amnesty International urged that Mahsa Amini’s death must not go unpunished.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called for an investigation into the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. He also said protesting is allowed in the country but “rioting” will not be tolerated.
Despite assurance for a probe into her death, the street protests besides the demand for justice for the death of Amini are also asking to end the hegemony of the Islamic clerical ruling system.
The crackdown on the demonstrations engulfed like wildfire in more than 40 major cities and towns, including Tehran University – where the official Friday prayers (Jumma) used to be held since the revolution.
Scores of protesters were killed by riot police and hundreds of others were wounded in street battles – the number of casualties is increasing every day. A few thousand protesters were detained from all over the country, according to the rights groups.
Determined, angry and, above all, courageous women in Iran are at the forefront of the current protests and lots of Iranians have rejected the hijab dress code.
On the other hand, a critic of the Mullahs in Iran, a feminist journalist Masih Alinejad in a charged tweet says: “Iranian women [are] removing their hijab, facing guns and bullets alongside men and chanting against [the] Islamic Republic.”
Meanwhile, reformist group the Union of Islamic Iran People’s Party has called for the mandatory dress code to be repealed and appealed to allow “peaceful demonstrations”. The party remains legal but unfortunately is firmly outside the corridors of power.
For the first time, demonstrators are collectively denouncing a religious symbol of the Islamic Republic.
The latest protest coincides with the fading popularity of Ebrahim Raisi’s government which miserably failed to deliver on its promises to citizens, one year after taking office in August 2021.
Amini’s death has unleashed anger over issues including personal freedoms and economic challenges in Iran which pose an existential threat to Iran’s theocratic regime.
A recent situation report by the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah) says, these developments occurred against the backdrop of a tense domestic environment and deteriorating economic and social conditions.
Nonetheless, the recent unrest highlights the growing chasm between the government and its self-proclaimed identity which it is attempting to impose on the people through repression and society.
The ongoing unrest reflects growing popular rage and discontent, as well as a sense of deprivation and injustice, says the Rasanah study. This cycle of discontent is linked to the crisis-ridden political environment as a result of the Raisi government’s failure to deliver on promises made one year ago, both at home and abroad, political observers stated.
Iran’s bleak economic situation, runaway inflation, horrendously high gas prices and social crises explain the popular outrage which is swiftly sparked by the latest public dissent. Moreover, the elimination of subsidies, unemployment, chronic inflation, and the government’s fiscal deficit enraged the general public.
The hard-line Islamist regime of the conservative Shia Mullahs led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power, after the so-called Islamic Revolution in 1979 which ousted pro-American Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Islamic Republic’s tunnel vision policy is to “control the female body”. Whether they are Muslims or other religious and ethnic communities, the hijab was been made mandatory by the clergies in 1983 for all women.
Well, hijab means ‘curtain’ or to shut out in Arabic. Hijab, is not a religious obligation in the Quran, a divine book for the Muslims, according to verse 24:31 for modesty.
The 21st-century Muslim clergies have falsely branded hijab, niqab, burqa, chador or other headscarves as Islamic traditions and made them compulsory for women.
Renowned Bangladesh-born feminist writer in exile, Taslima Nasrin and an ex-Muslim wrote on the recent unrest in Iran: “If you encourage them not to wear burqa or hijab, and become free women who believe in women’s rights and freedom, if you encourage them to become enlightened, secular, humanist and feminist, you are really well-wishers of Muslims.”
In another development, the intermittent blackouts of the internet followed after the eruption of nationwide protests over Amini’s death.
Unfortunately, there is no private broadcast network in Iran, thus the critical voice on the internet is the “only place” where protesters can make their voices heard on social media.
Earlier, the shutdown of the internet is one of the biggest tools of the Islamist regime and was used when unrest breaks.
Exiled Iranian leader Maryam Rajavi, President of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) founded in 1981, in a tweet urged the world [leaders] to condemn the cruel [internet] censorship and provide free access #Internet4Iran.
Political observers predict that the anti-government movement will further escalate after attention has been drawn by international news organisations, Western countries and human rights organisations.
More and more people have turned their backs on the autocratic regime, its ideology and even their theocratic “Islam”.
The Iranian dissident and critics in self-exile and expats are possibly the largest community living abroad and have lent their shoulders to the uprising.
In fact, the rulers cannot and will not make any concessions on the veiling of women — abolishing the obligation to wear the hijab is tantamount to the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic.
Now that apolitical Mahsa Amini became a symbol of defiance in Iran, the Mullahs in Tehran and Qom (a haven for the Ayatollahs) are feeling the pinch in their shoes as they are facing the worst challenge of their regime. The Islamist leaders are spending sleepless nights in fear of losing their luxurious lifestyle and dominance in the region will extinguish. Despite cruel backlash by the state machinery, the movement went internationally viral.
First published in the International Affairs Review, 28 September 2022
Saleem Samad is an independent journalist and columnist based in Bangladesh, a media rights defender. Recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. Twitter: @saleemsamad