Mahsa Amini was a 22-year-old woman, arrested on September 13th, 2022 for having hair visible under her hijab. Amini fell into a coma shortly after being arrested, and three days later, on September 16th, died in police custody. Police claim that Amini died of a heart attack, but witnesses claim to have seen police beat her with a baton and bang her head on one of their vehicles. Her family reported bruising on her legs that were not there before she went into police custody, and CT scans showed a skull fracture from severe blows to her head. Despite this, Iranian police deny any involvement in her death. This has sparked protests across Iran and in other countries. Protestors are fighting against the laws in Iran requiring the “modest dress” of women, and the frequent mistreatment of women by the “morality police”. Women are removing and burning their headscarves in opposition to these laws. At least three people have died so far in the protests, but actual numbers are expected to be as high as 30 people, with protests becoming more violent and more dangerous. The United Nations Human Rights Office is demanding investigations into Amini’s death.
Protests are being attended by both men and women. Indeed, Masih Alinejad, a journalist and activist who has previously run viral campaigns against hijab laws, has said “what makes me very emotional and hopeful is that this is the first time these girls are not alone. Now men are standing with women together.” There is hope that due to the support and involvement of men in the protests the government officials might be forced to respond more reasonably. An unnamed protestor who has stopped wearing her hijab has said that “it doesn’t matter if you wear it or not, if they want to kill us, they will. If they want to arrest us, they will.” This is the common belief among protestors, as women who are dressed modestly have still been arrested for acts such as wearing lipstick or laughing too loudly in public. Regardless of how women dress or act, as Alinejad has said, “being a woman is a risk in Iran . . . when you go out, you risk your life.”
The violence shown by the “morality police” in Iran against Mahsa Amini, and women in general, is unacceptable and harmful. The ongoing protests show that women and men in Iran are no longer willing to accept the way things have been. Some protestors have turned to violence, damaging public property and throwing rocks at police vehicles; in response, security and police forces have also used violence. The violence from both sides is uncalled for and unproductive, putting the lives of all involved at risk. However, the actions of the peaceful protestors are important to make a stand against the ongoing situation in Iran, prompting an international response from nations and organizations such as the United Nations, who have called for an investigation into the death of 22 year-old-woman.
The death of Mahsa Amini comes after a long history of regulations regarding women’s dress in Iran and resulting protests against such rules. On March 7, 1979, it became mandatory for women to wear hijabs in workplaces. The following day, over 100,000 people protested this decision. In 1981, women and girls became legally required to wear modest “Islamic” clothing in public. In 1983, not wearing a hijab properly became punishable by 74 lashes. Later, up to 60 days in prison became another punishment. Women in Iran were quietly protesting for years by not properly wearing headscarves or wearing tight clothing. In 2004, the Gasht-e-Ershad, or the morality police, were formally established, to ensure the respect of Islamic morals. These are the police who detained Mahsa Amini.
The protests in Iran seem to be growing in numbers and scale. In the coming days and weeks, it will be important to watch the response from the Iranian government, how the international community continues to react, and the actions taken by protestors themselves. These events have the potential to make a major difference for the human rights of women in Iran and to have potential carryover effects into other countries where women’s rights are violated. However, these protests also carry the risk of violence and increased state oppression. Support from the United Nations, Amnesty International, and other international groups can continue to uphold the mission of the protestors, potentially providing a strong international voice to the Iranian government and allow a positive, non-violent outcome to result from the tragic, yet perhaps pivotal, event that has taken place.
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