A week of protests has swept Iran, reaching scores of cities and more than half of its provinces. The images are both stirring and moving: a mother, defiantly unveiling beside young daughters; hijab-wearers standing with those consigning their scarves to the flames; women taking to the streets despite facing brutal beatings, teargas and armed police. The unrest erupted over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after her arrest by the morality police, who accused her of “inappropriate hijab”. Her family have hotly contested official claims that she died from a heart attack due to underlying conditions. Those who have previously been detained – or whose daughters, aunts or friends have been held – saw not a terrible anomaly but a systemic issue.
Protests on this scale centring women’s rights are extraordinary. Men too are joining the female-led movement. Those involved are more demographically diverse than in recent unrest. The primary demand is not an end to the hijab, but to its imposition. Iran has a long history of ruling on what women can wear: in the 1930s, prohibiting the hijab; after 1979’s revolution, making it mandatory. The details and enforcement of the compulsory dress code have varied over the years; under President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner, policing has become harsher. Yet protesters’ cries of “women, life, freedom” go beyond the initial complaint to other concerns about liberty and rights, and a broader sense of injustice – US sanctions have ravaged the economy and, as everywhere, when poverty hits, women have suffered most.
Despite some initially conciliatory gestures and statements, authorities appear to be moving towards increased repression: a familiar pattern of attempting to contain dissent, then cracking down on it. Several people have already died and with severe internet restrictions now in place, toughened rhetoric from the Revolutionary Guard, and the president’s return from the spotlight at the UN general assembly in New York, the fear is of significant escalation. The regime has repeatedly massacred its own citizens.
That knowledge darkens this moment; it does not lessen it. This outpouring of anger is remarkable, though it should not be treated as an anomaly. Women came on to the streets in 1979 to protest against the imposition of the hijab, and in subsequent decades there have been brave acts of individual and collective resistance on this and other issues affecting women. Women have often played an important role in protests. The story of repression is also a story of resilience.
But only in recent years – particularly in the aftermath of the crackdown on activism following 2009’s green movement – has the compulsory hijab and its enforcement become so openly criticised. In recent days even clerics and conservative politicians have questioned how the dress code is implemented. The regime does not want to be seen to cave; if it reins in the morality police, it is only likely to do so after a crackdown. And many believe that policing women’s bodies is not incidental to its political project, but a central part of it, helping to define it.
Since the regime portrays opposition as the work of outsiders or their stooges, grand statements from western leaders – especially those immiserating Iran – are not always helpful: principled, multilateral pressure is a better course. Pragmatic efforts to bolster internet access would be helpful. Outsiders should also focus on magnifying the voices of Iran’s courageous women. Their leaders do not listen to them. We must.