The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back  

How Mahsa Amini’s Death Sparked Global Protests after Decades of Violent Oppression of Women in Iran

By Hannah Cox

Zan. Zendegi. Azadi. Woman, Life, Freedom” rang through the streets of Tehran in September 2022 as women burned their hijabs in defiance of the Iranian government’s violent enforcement of compulsory hijab laws and repression of women. Protests erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16th, 2022, a Kurdish woman who was detained in Tehran for allegedly not wearing her hijab appropriately and subsequently died as a result of maltreatment by the police. Protests demanding an end to the violent repression of women have expanded to calls for an end to the Islamic Republic and the removal of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What started as mostly peaceful protests have, however, been met with increasing violence and government crackdowns.  

In Iran, Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code provides that women who do not wear hijabs appropriately in public may be sentenced to ten days to two months imprisonment or a fine of five hundred to fifty thousand rials. Iranian protestors detest compulsory veiling laws, pointing out that they are degrading and discriminatory, stripping women of their bodily autonomy. Not only are the laws themselves deeply harmful, but Iranian government officials known as the “Morality Police” violently enforce these laws. They brutally shove women into police vehicles, shame them for improper dress as they endure “re-education” classes to learn about the role of the hijab in Islam, and beat them while in custody.

The Iranian government has a long history of persecuting women, altering laws that dictate what women are allowed to do with their bodies. Under pro-Western ruler Reza Shah, women were banned from wearing headscarves in an effort to modernize the country in 1936, but the succeeding Pahlavi Dynasty made the hijab compulsory in 1979. As women are now burning hijabs and cutting their hair in solidarity with protestors, the headscarf has become a symbol of female empowerment and ownership over their own bodies as they are taking off their hijabs as a message to the government that they will no longer be told what to do with their bodies.

Iranian authorities have fired metal pellets at protestors at close range, misused tear gas, and severely beaten protestors with batons leading to an estimated 378 dead, including 47 children. Among thousands of protestors who have been arrested since September 16th, as many as 20 protestors taken into custody are facing charges that carry the death penalty. Fears are mounting that the Iranian government will pursue hasty executions to instill fear in protestors as the parliament voted on November 6th to carry out punishments carrying the death penalty.

The Iranian government shut down the internet in many places, a censorship tactic they have been employing during times of civil unrest, cutting off communication lines between organizers and restricting the flow of information in and out of Iran in an attempt to censure protestors exposing the violence of the Iranian government. Not only does this make organizing more difficult, but it eliminates the potential for news coverage and the spread of pictures and videos via social media, increasing the potential for the Iranian officials to get away with further atrocities without repercussions. 

The protests do not have a single leader, making it harder for the Iranian government– which has become immensely successful at quashing rebellions– to eliminate a leader and weaken the protestors’ force. In the absence of a single leader, Iranian officials had threatened prominent celebrities and athletes, such as Iran’s World Cup soccer team, that if they refused to sing the national anthem or engaged in any form of protest, their families would be subject to “violence and torture.” These threats signaled Iran’s growing concerns regarding its perception on the world stage in the face of international condemnation and sanctions, a worry underscored by their deployment of hundreds of actors showing a false sense of national unity in the crowd for the Iranian team in Qatar.

In response to this violent crackdown, human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the United Nations have called for an end to the bloodshed inflicted by Iranian authorities. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Iranian officials and government entities involved in the death of Mahsa Amini and the violent crackdown on the anti-government protests in hopes of pressuring the Iranian government to abide by international human rights laws. The list of human rights violations perpetrated by Iranian officials includes arbitrary arrests, gender-based sexual violence, torture, excessive use of force, and enforced disappearances, according to the UN

The US has imposed sanctions including freezing the financial assets of and criminalizing American business dealings with government ministers and senior leaders of Iran’s most prominent security organizations, including the Law Enforcement Forces (the organization under which the Morality Police operates) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp. The US  has also updated its authorization for technology companies to offer secure internet access to help protestors navigate around the Iranian government’s surveillance, censorship of discourse, and attempts to curtail the spread of incriminating video footage. The EU similarly sanctioned 126 individuals and 11 entities by freezing financial assets, imposing travel bans, and banning exports to Iran that could potentially be used for internal repression and telecommunications monitorization.

The protests in Iran are monumental in that women, many of whom are young girls and university students, have taken the lead in these protests against a regime that has historically muted their voices and stripped them of their rights for centuries. These women can be seen burning hijabs, marching through the streets, and organizing despite the government’s attempts to stifle the protestors’ efforts to demand the right to choose what to do with their bodies. Solidarity protests have also erupted around the world, with women and young girls leading the way to demand autonomy for women in Iran and expressing their detest for governmental control over what a woman does with her body, a sentiment also at the forefront of American political life. 

These women and allies of the revolution have not backed down despite the violence inflicted upon them by the Iranian regime because they have learned that you don’t bargain with a violent, repressive, authoritarian regime for your rights. You demand them. 

Hannah Cox is a junior studying political science at Tufts University.

Image: Protests in Amir Kabir University in September 2022

Image Courtesy: Darafsh at Wikimedia Commons