Iranian Women Continue Their Struggle For Emancipation
With the death of Mahsa Amini shaping public opinion in support of global protests against an autocratic regime, it is important to understand the long history of the struggles of Iranian women.
By Rahma Aslam
MAHSA AMINI’S TRAGIC DEATH has sparked massive protests in Iran and across the globe which could signal the start of a larger struggle for freedom. Amini, a 22-year-old woman from the Kurdish-Iranian city of Saqqez, was taken into custody by the Gasht-e-Ershad or the Iranian morality police during her visit to Tehran on September 16th – having been arrested for wearing an “improper” hijab. The hijab is traditionally worn by some Muslim women and is seen as a key component of the Iranian dress code – with the government requiring women to wear “loose clothing” and cover their hair with headscarves as a matter of policy. While the protests may seem to nominally centre around the use of the hijab, what is being witnessed in Iran has its roots in a much longer tale of a struggle for emancipation.
Over the years the hijab has become a symbol of authoritarian theocratic rule in Iran – and a tool used for the oppression of women in the country. Three days following her arrest, Amini died after falling into a coma, with heart failure being cited as the official cause of death. Her family claims that she was healthy and did not suffer from any pre-existing conditions. While a state investigation into the cause of death is pending, many in Iran are convinced there was foul play, especially given the violent history of the morality police which has often used force to impose hijab rules.
Iranians have taken to the streets in mass protests and demonstrations calling for an end to the harsh hijab laws that have been in place since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Videos of brave women standing in front of large crowds and chopping their hair off while chanting Zen, Zendagi, Azadi – which translates to Woman, Life, Freedom – have taken the internet by storm. Over bonfires of burning hijabs, men and women alike are demanding an end to the violence perpetrated against women and seeking freedom from a despotic regime.
The demonstrations following Amini’s death have spanned over 40 cities nationally and are the biggest in Iran since the Bloody November protests in 2019. A state crack-down on protesters has led to many casualties and hundreds of arrests. Iranian authorities claim the death toll to be at 41, however the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights puts it much higher at 76. As political unrests grow, some media outlets are reporting signs of a broader revolution in the making. Slogans calling for freedom for women are intertwined with an overarching disdain for the Iranian regime, with harsher slogans like ‘death to the dictator’ slowly but surely taking centre stage. When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia in 2011, his action sparked an unprecedented uprising. If history is to be believed, Amini’s death may very well signal the beginning of a larger movement for freedom in Iran.
The protests have a certain sense of boldness and fervour. Moreover, at their core they are undeniably feminist in nature. Risking arrests, bodily harm and even death, women are at the forefront of this resistance. In a moving video clip, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian citizen who has spent time behind bars in Iran for falsified charges of spying on the state, cut her hair while listing the names of those who have died along with Mahsa Amini. Her video is a powerful reminder of the long history of women’s struggle for emancipation in Iran. It is therefore important to mention that the branding of the demonstrations by Western media outlets as “hijab protests” is disingenuous and somewhat reductionist in nature. While this perspective ties in easily with a rebuff of a regime that is deeply rooted in religious fundamentalism, it nevertheless strips the matter of its nuance and complexity. The issue of women’s oppression in Iran is multifaceted and intersectional, and inextricably rooted in culture, class, and politics, in addition to religion. The result of the oversimplification of these protests is increased calls for unilateral sanctions, which disproportionately harms the vulnerable populations of an entire country, and particularly women.
As Iranians take to the streets and across social media with demands for freedom from oppression, their resistance must be viewed in the context of a larger fight for bodily autonomy and freedom of choice. Women in Iran have been part of a four-decade long struggle, fighting for their freedom to choose and for an end to oppression. This recent wave of protests is therefore part of the larger struggle which began in the 19th century. As early as 1905, when much of the world was coming to terms with ideas of gender equality, towns and cities in Iran had formed women’s rights committees. Through waves of Islamization and secular rule, the country’s rich history is characterized by a wide-scale participation of women in the fight for freedom from intersectional forms of oppression rooted in class, religion and culture. It is also crucial to consider the many ways in which Muslim women continue to fight for their rights and freedoms from within Islamic frameworks. This reclamation of rights from within a religious perspective has become known as Islamic Feminism, and many female Iranian Muslim scholars play a key role. By focusing on the hijab, the media is disregarding a long and complex history of women’s struggle for freedom, and framing it as a reductionist narrative of the West versus Islam.
After the 1979 Revolution, the hijab became a symbol of the regime’s authority and control – and importantly, a representation of the new Islamic values which Ayatollah Khomeini promulgated. The co-opting of women’s bodies as instruments for symbolizing political ideologies is not a foreign concept. Parallels can be drawn with bans and restrictions on the hijab in countries like India and France, where politicians have justified such policy decisions to fit with respective narratives on nationalist secularism. This issue remains one of fundamental freedom and bodily autonomy, or more simply the right to choose. Women throughout history have struggled for this basic right, and if recent events surrounding reproductive rights in the USA and beyond are taken into consideration, it becomes evident that there is still a long way to go.
Instead of focusing on reductionist narratives that give rise to Islamophobic and interventionist ideas, it is essential to take a pause and listen to Iranian women and understand what they are fighting for. Now more than ever, it is imperative to support and amplify their voices. Mahsa Amini’s tragic death serves as a reminder for what women’s movements continue to struggle for and what is at stake. The widespread protests and demonstrations however, should give us hope that change is coming and women are indeed leading it.
Rahma Aslam is a Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. She is interested in social policy and its use in tackling problems of social inequality, particularly in the context of the Global South.
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