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Mahsa Jina Amini’s death sparked an ongoing feminist revolution in Iran

Women, and particularly young women, are leading an increasingly noisy revolution against Iran’s theocracy, writes Ahou Koutchesfahani

7 to 9 minute read

At the head of a protest march, a woman with her face painted in the colours of the Iranian flag holds up a photo of Mahsa Amini

On 16 September 2022, 22-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini died as a result of severe head injuries sustained when she was arrested by the so called ‘morality police’, gashte ershad, for allegedly not wearing her hijab ‘properly’. Her murder sparked protests across Iran. As well as demands for justice, her death has come to symbolise wider grievances against the Islamic Republic.

There have been nationwide protests before in 2009, 2017 and 2019’s Bloody November, but none have been as persistent and bold in their demands as today’s protests. In previous protest movements, at the behest of the government and its security apparatus, protests were brutally crushed. Protestors demanded accountability: in 1999 for student murders, for election fraud in 2009, and then in 2017 and 2019 for rising fuel prices, socio-political and economic grievances.

Each time the security arm of the Islamic Republic came down with an iron fist. In 2019 when protestors also demanded an end to the Islamic Republic the result was the most brutal crackdown in the history of the Islamic Republic’s existence. Today, the demands for the Islamic Republic to end are even louder. Unsurprisingly an even more violent government response is in place. So what is the current movement about and how is it changing Iran?

Against the patriarchal state

The current movement is an amalgamation of recent historic grievances of ordinary Iranians against years of corruption, government mismanagement, isolation from the world as well as the grave infringement on basic human rights inflicted on them by the Islamic Republic. It is this latter point specifically that has moved the country into action today. These grievances have accumulated for years and are what makes these current protests more powerful and organised.

For women, infringements of human rights are painfully experienced through a persistent policing of their bodily autonomy. Mahsa Jina’s death and the circumstances leading to it affected women and girls on a personal, corporeal, and psychological level. For decades they have been harassed, day in and day out, by the ‘morality police’, arrested, and, in some instances, tortured for not adhering to the country’s strict Islamic dress code. Mahsa Jina’s murder sparked nationwide outrage as many felt, ‘it could have been any of us’. It is no surprise, then, that this movement is a feminist call for the right to choose and for bodily autonomy.

We are witnessing an ongoing feminist revolution, in which Mahsa Jina Amini’s tragic death will be forever remembered as its spark

By bringing in the personal, this movement has successfully built unprecedented forms of collective attachment to the cause. Iranians from all walks of life, of different ethnicities, religious and other minorities are united under one common goal: an end to the Islamic Republic and an end to the violent oppression it inflicts on women.

Mahsa Jina Amini’s story is powerful because she was an ordinary person. A Kurdish woman from the north-western city of Saqqez in the Kurdistan province of Iran, she was about to start university in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan region of Iran and had been working as a cashier to save up money to fund her studies. She was visiting her uncle in Tehran when the ‘morality police’ aggressively took her away as she was walking out of a metro station with her brother and cousin. 

Following her arrest, she was hospitalised. Doctors placed her in an induced coma but the blows to her head by the police were so severe that she died three days later. The Iranian people’s angered response to her murder is being powerfully heard today.

Most of the world’s states are what feminist scholars and activists call ‘patriarchal states’. But since its inception in 1979, the control of women’s bodies has been fundamental to the Islamic Republic’s definition of itself in and outside of Iran and as a means of exerting control over its population. Hence, the 1983 forced veiling act imposed by Khomeini, which enshrined in law that women who do not adhere to covering their hair in public and to wearing long, loose manteaus to cover their bodies, will be criminalised.

While many women had fought for their right to choose to wear or not wear the hijab immediately after the Islamic Republic was formed, their calls for solidarity from the men they had supported in toppling the Shah fell on silent ears as they did not believe the hijab was their issue. This rift among revolutionaries of the late 1970s allowed the clerical establishment to enforce draconian laws on women’s bodies.

Social media

Over the past four decades, however, women have consistently sought ways to resist the policing of their bodies. Resistance has taken many forms, from the loosening of the headscarf to show strands of hair, to wearing colourful veils and shorter jackets as manteaus. Women have knowingly placed themselves in danger, risking imprisonment for challenging this draconian law; nonetheless they have persisted.

In the past eight years and with the rise of social media, Iranian women have taken their protest against this foundational tenet of the Islamic Republic — control over women’s bodies and clothing — online by posting photos and videos of themselves defying the compulsory hijab law completely, filming instances of themselves in public without a veil altogether. Many have risked imprisonment, including Vida Movahed, Sara Khodayari and others, whilst others have been forced to flee Iran for their safety.

Never in the history of the Islamic Republic’s 43-year existence have protesters been this fearless, united and organised

The difference between these women’s fate with that of Mahsa Jina Amini’s is that, while none of them should face violent arrests in the first instance, Amini was not deliberately putting herself in the face of danger. With decades of resistance by Iranian women, there have been pushbacks against the very strict rules on women’s dress in public, which mean Iranian women’s coverings today are not what the Islamic Republic had in mind as a desired dress code initially.

Nonetheless, Amini’s veil and manteau matched that of countless other young Iranian women today — she was, ultimately, veiled and was, quite simply, trying to go about her daily life. In addition, it is likely she was a victim of the ‘morality police’ arbitrarily harassing women and girls — local morality police officers have a terrible reputation and are known for making up their own guidelines on what form of hijab is deemed acceptable.

Now, in response to the death of Amini, young women are defying the rule altogether by removing their headscarves and burning them in bonfires as an act of protest against the Islamic Republic as a whole. We are witnessing an ongoing feminist revolution, in which Mahsa Jina Amini’s tragic death will be forever remembered as its spark.

Gen-Z feminism

The defiant acts of civil disobedience, led by ordinary people, have mobilised many predominantly young Iranians to join street protests and conduct school and university sit-ins. These acts have captivated a large audience and are led by Iranian Gen-Z, dahe hashtadiha, who are charting a new course for the Iran of their future. These historic scenes that are captured and shared on social media promise a women-led revolution for freedom, justice and democracy.

Once again protesters have been met with brutal force. The Islamic Republic’s security forces deny any wrongdoing in Mahsa Jina’s death and continue to kill peaceful protesters, all the while blaming their victims for their own deaths. The average age of those killed protesting is only fifteen. Despite this brutal crackdown, which on the day of writing has counted over 240 deaths and over 8,000 arrests with an unclear number of people missing, never in the history of the Islamic Republic’s 43-year existence have protesters been this fearless, united and organised.

These protests have been primarily sustained by brave Gen-Zers who are the most connected to social media and who are at the forefront, demanding change and are fighting for their human rights. Iranians who witnessed previous protests express awe and pride at this younger generation’s courage and fearlessness.

Demands for an end to the fascist Islamic Republic and acts of civil disobedience by women and girls are continuing to grow. But crucially powerful cross-sectoral forms of solidarity are also taking shape. Now, they include strikes by schoolteachers, university staff, factory workers and even petrochemical industry workers across Iran.  Furthermore, an historic transnational movement of solidarity led by Iranians in the diaspora is in effect.

Every Saturday since the protests sparked by Mahsa Jina Amini’s death started in Iran, large solidarity marches and protests have been organised by Iranians in the diaspora spanning the globe from Indonesia to Ecuador. On 22 October 2022, over 80,000 people heeded a call by volunteer organisers to gather from across Europe in Berlin for a solidarity march.

Unity has emerged from tragedy, fuelled by a feminist slogan: Jîn, Jîyan, Azadi in Kurdish, Zan, Zendegi, Azadi in Persian (woman, life, freedom). With its rich history rooted in anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist resistance, this slogan, originally created by Abdullah Öcalan, a founding member of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party PKK, has shaken the entire population of Iran, and its diaspora, to rise up and demand an end to decades of oppression under the guise of religion and for the establishment of a pluralistic, democratic state.

From Kurdistan to Baluchistan, from Tehran to Shiraz, in and outside of Iran, across genders and ages, we hear, we hope ‘Jîn, Jîyan, Azadi,’ ‘Zan, Zendegi, Azadi’.

This article first appeared in issue #238, Winter 2022, Drought and Deluge. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Ahou Koutchesfahani is a doctoral student in the War Studies Department at King’s College London

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