Social media feeds have been flooded in recent days with images of women taking to the streets in Iran and burning their hijabs in a public act of defiance of government rules, and without the legal right to protest.
Five days of protests have rocked Tehran and Kurdish regions of Iran since .
Protests in Iran and around the world have erupted in anger over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran. Source: AAP / Clement Bilan
Following his death in custody, the events unfolding in Iran, particularly in the province of Kurdistan, have been described as “explosive” by academics.
But why was Ms Amini detained, what are Iran’s hijab rules and how will women face the consequences of their protests?
Who is Mahsa Amini, the woman who died in custody?
Mahsa Amini is a 22-year-old woman from the Kurdish province of Iran. She was in Tehran with her brother when she was reprimanded by Iran’s morality police – officially known as the “guidance police” or Gasht-e Ershad – for wearing the “inappropriate” hijab.
She was held for three days at Vozara Detention Center when she fell into a coma and died. Local police have denied allegations that she was beaten, saying she suffered a heart attack in custody. It is a claim that her family disputes, and her parents have publicly stated that Ms Amini was fit and healthy before her arrest.
“Based on detailed investigations, since his transfer to the vehicle and also to the place [station]there was no physical encounter with her,” a police statement read.
His death has sounded alarm bells for various human rights groups, including the United Nations, which on Wednesday heard Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi address the General Assembly for the first time. In his speech, I remained silent on the death of Mrs. Amini.
“The tragic death of Mahsa Amini and the allegations of torture and ill-treatment must be promptly, impartially and effectively investigated by an independent competent authority,” acting high commissioner Nada Al-Nashif said on Tuesday. of the United Nations for human rights, in a press release.
Are women in Iran forced to wear the hijab?
Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, all women in Iran have been legally required to wear the hijab, in accordance with the government’s interpretation of the body of Islamic law, Sharia. According to the country’s law, women’s hair and neck must be covered when wearing loose clothing.
Failure to wear the hijab in accordance with Iranian laws can lead to women being jailed, fined or physically abused by the morality police.
Shahram Akbarzadeh, research professor of Middle Eastern and Central Asian studies at Deakin University, said violence against women who “test the limits” of the hijab is not new. But the violence has escalated under the ultra-conservative government led by Mr Raisi since winning the election in 2021.
Professor Akbarzadeh said the Iranian government’s desire to impose its understanding of Sharia on a progressive society has become a “major political challenge” where women are increasingly expressing their willingness to choose how to dress.
In Islam, it is widely interpreted that Muslim women are required to wear the hijab, but it should be of their own free will. According to religion, no person or institution should force women to wear hijab.
But while Iran presents itself as a nation enshrining Islamic values in its legislation with harsh penalties, the separation between religion and politics has blurred since the 1979 revolution.
“Controlling women’s bodies is a major obsession for Islamists,” Professor Akbarzadeh said. “Because if they can control women’s bodies, that’s a good way to control society.”
A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in Istanbul. Source: Getty / AFP / Ozan Kose
Alam Saleh, senior lecturer in Iranian studies at the Australian National University, said Iran’s strict grip on the hijab mandate does not necessarily represent the values of the religion of Islam. Rather, it indicates a symbol of legitimacy and control over one’s constituents.
“For the regime, the hijab is not just a religious issue, it’s a political issue,” he said.
“[Iran] you consider it your duty to promote Islam and Islamism. Consequently, if his own people do not care about Islamic norms and values, it would undermine their political legitimacy.”
Why do women burn the hijab?
On social media, images and videos are posted of women from different provinces of Iran burning their hijab in solidarity with Ms Amini. Some women even cut strands of hair to protest against the regime’s obligation to cover up.
Professor Akbarzadeh said women in Iran are sending a clear message.
“They say they’ve had enough. How much can they take? How much blood can be shed? Enough is enough,” he said.
In Iran, there is no legal right to protest against the government. As such, these women could be fined, imprisoned or abused for their actions on the streets.
They would rather die than continue to live like this.
“At this point, they don’t really care if there’s a knock on the door in the wee hours of the morning by the security forces who identified them on social media and came to take them to jail.
“They would rather die than continue to live like this.”
According to internet monitoring organization NetBlocks, Iran is experiencing major internet disruptions, with major mobile networks shut down and Instagram and WhatsApp severely restricted since September 19.
Dr Saleh said Ms Amini’s “catastrophic” death was just one trigger for the culmination of the crises unfolding in Iran.
A woman stands on a vehicle burning her hijab to protest the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini for wearing her hijab “inappropriately”, according to the vice squad. Source: Twitter
In recent years, the Islamic Republic has been marked by economic turmoil with high unemployment rates and soaring inflation. Many Iranians blame the government for systemic corruption that is linked to the failure to implement better social and economic reforms.
“What we see here is a state against society where the state buys into an ideology that people don’t buy,” he said.
“Over the past four decades, people have been promised a better life and economy, more social and political freedom. But what we are seeing is that people are now deeply frustrated with these broken promises.
“It’s not just a demonstration, it’s not a protest. It’s an explosion that ignores the wishes of the people.”
Dr Saleh said the values the regime aims to uphold “go exactly in the opposite direction” to that of Iranian society, and called on the morality police to be “entirely dismantled”.
As Iran has been rocked by protests from citizens frustrated with the country’s socio-economic state – the most recent in 2019 when fuel prices soared and claimed 1,500 lives in the unrest – this movement is led by women.
“Women are leading this protest and this movement. This is new. And women will never lose. This should warn the regime.”
What was the reaction of the Iranian authorities?
Mr Raisi ordered an investigation into Ms Amini’s death and was reported by IRNA, state media, describing her as his “own daughter”, promising family justice.
But according to the state-affiliated Fars news agency, the protests were met with violence from security forces who responded with live ammunition, pellet guns and tear gas.
Kurdistan Governor Ismail Zarei Koosha has confirmed that three people, including a security official, have been killed in the ongoing conflicts, blaming the deaths on foreign interference and describing it as “an enemy plot”.
Human rights organization Hengaw said at least seven people had been killed in Kurdistan, the province Ms Amini is from, and 450 injured. This has not been verified by the Iranian authorities.
In a bid to ease tensions, an aide to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei visited the family to offer condolences on their behalf.
“I assured the family (…) that all institutions will take measures to defend the violated rights of Ms. Amini and that none of their rights will be ignored,” said the representative, Abdolreza Pourzahbi, according to the state-affiliated media, Tasnim. Press Agency.