Finnuala Brett addresses the recent humanitarian and innately feminist crisis of the treatment of women and minorities under current Iranian regimes.
I am not a woman of Iran, but I am a woman. And in my womanhood, I can ride a bike in the streets of my town, or wear shorts in summer when it’s too hot and trousers would stick to my skin. I leave the country without a man; I have sexual autonomy; if I wish to prioritise my career I will not be deemed less than the woman I could be as a wife.
“Jin, jiyan, azadi” – “women, life, freedom” – is the chant of those who do not have these choices; those who mourn Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old woman killed at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s ‘morality police’ in Iran. Her name, and this painful cry for freedom, have been taken by the fists of Iran’s young protesters and raised high, in what has so far been almost a six-week long riot for women’s rights in a country of gendered oppression. This is not just a protest, they tell us, but a revolution: a revolution so that women might choose how to spend their lives, without dictation.
Amini was killed because she wore her hijab in, supposedly, an inappropriate fashion. The veil, usually used to represent the modesty of Muslim women, is enforced by the Islamic Republic of Iran and their interpretation of Sharia law. However, the mandatory context of this has meant that many have come to see the hijab as a tenet of oppression, and not simply one of religion. It is part of a dress code that represents strict and extensive morality laws, imposing what Iranians can do, say and wear. The morality police – Gasht-e-Ershad – a symbolic actor of Iran’s authoritarianism, disproportionately target women and minorities who they claim do not follow these laws. There have always been small acts of resistance, of course, like pulling the fabric back to show a pair of earrings or a few wisps of hair. But these resistances are being met with what many Iranians have condemned as the police’s increasingly violent treatment of young women. This is how Amini died.
It is important to understand that things have not always been this way, and that before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iranian women had relative freedom. Although the previous Shah dictatorship was known for oppressing political freedoms, it also encouraged Iranian society to adopt aspects of Western-orientated modernisation. With this came improved access to education, western dresses in shop windows: a cosmopolitan existence that made room for the expansion of women’s rights.
Khomeini’s rise to power in 1979 marked the devastating turning point away from this, and the subsequent establishment of a religious authoritarian state. Western influence was rejected, alcohol banned, the educational curriculum Islamized. Since the implementation of his regime, international human rights organisations such as the UN have been called upon to investigate the systematic and widespread oppression of political opponents.
It is undeniably women who have borne the brunt of this regime. The state’s interpretation of Sharia law extends far beyond modesty: it subjugates women in social hierarchies, culls their chances to become financially independent, and yet places disproportionate criminal responsibility onto them. The issue of forced child marriages is particularly harrowing. Law states that the legal age of marriage for girls is thirteen, and for boys fifteen – though this is a number easily lowered with a father’s intervention. A report from the National Statistical Centre (NSC) of Iran suggests that one in five marriages in Iran involve child brides, often a desperate attempt to ‘trade’ out of poverty. It is essential to consider the effects this has on the lives of young Iranian women. Pregnancies reduce women’s access to education, leaving them financially dependent on their husbands or families. The likelihood of depression and suicides increases, and, in the cases of divorce, it is majoratively the women that are left disadvantaged and often socially outcast. The disadvantage that legalised child marriage imposes only perpetuates a cycle of cultural and economic poverty.
Interestingly, before the Revolution, Iran was a notable example – especially amongst its Middle-Eastern counterparts – of inclusive and accessible education. It was, for example, one of the first countries in the region to allow women to study at University level. Over the years since 1979 however, successive leaders have continued to usher in restrictions that segregate gender in educational institutions and limit the variety of subjects women can study – an attempt, as advertised, to return to traditional Islamic values of family. Whilst women do still make up a significant proportion of students, a 2011 census revealed that only 25% went on to work professionally. Many have criticised Iran’s efforts to eliminate women from the workforce and political sphere.
Perhaps the starkest representation of these regressive shifts in women’s rights are the laws implemented by Khomeini shortly after the Revolution, revoking women’s legal say in family matters and stripping them of access to family planning. The most extreme of these was the reinstatement of the Islamic Law of Retribution in 1981, allowing the crime of adultery to be punished with death by stoning. More women are executed in Iran than in any other country. It is a gruesome record.
It is difficult to imagine existing in a society where these are the stakes that must be contended with. But Iran – and its women – have not been quietly accepting of oppression, and despite violent Police response there have been numerous and significant anti-government protests. Often these are led by the youth, and, always, there are casualties. Violent crackdowns on demonstrators resort not only to tear gas but live ammunition; detainees disappear without contact and amidst allegations of torture and sexual abuse.
The riots that have persisted since Amini’s death have been just as violent, filling the streets of all major cities, outside institutions, and even in schools. Women have been at the forefront, risking their lives daily in remarkable solidarity. They burn head coverings in bonfires, enraged, and cut their hair in defiance of the armed security forces that pen protesters into crowds. Over 200 protesters have been killed so far; thousands more have been arrested. In scale and ferocity of both sides of the conflict, these protests present one of the most significant oppositions to Iran’s regime since its establishment in 1979.
When the Old Shah banned the hijab before the 1979 Revolution, women protested; now, they protest that it is mandatory. This is about the criminalisation of the freedom to choose the hijab. Not only does it now perpetuate negative public attitudes towards the hijab and religion, but it forms a symbol of alienation against the female identity and body, and the female role in society. Women are taught to hide themselves, not just as an act of modesty, but as an act of subjugation which reflects the roles that Iran’s current ideology sees fit for them.
And whilst this revolution is not just one to protest the mandatory hijab, it remains a fitting symbol of Iran’s regime – that which is smothering the autonomy of its women. It might not appear as pressing as other persecutions Iranian women face, but this is the crux of the matter: that the most arbitrary act – a choice that should remain solely in the hands of women – is dictated. And that for this, Mahsa Amini, and innumerable other women, have died and will continue to die.
What can be done by us, as feminists in a country that might feel so far removed? Solidarity, firstly, to give Iranian women the strength to continue. The internet has been a powerful tool in fanning these flames, and as a source of vital evidence to inform the world what is happening. Countering the internet blackouts that the regime has implemented is essential, and is being called for by international human rights bodies. Secondly, we must protect our own women’s rights, and continue to fight for our own freedom, unity and equality. Iranian protesters are part of a worldwide fight for women’s rights; it is essential that we show them they are not alone.