A New Future for Iran in the Making
On September 16, 2022, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini was killed by Iran’s ‘morality police’. As most of the world fell into mourning, Iranians, both in Iran and in the Iranian diaspora, began the long fight for women’s freedom in Iran against the government of the Islamic Republic. Subsequent protests have erupted throughout Iran. Many have been killed, the internet has been shut down, and police are cracking down on protests, but Iranians are still fighting despite ethnic and social divisions. The fact that Iranians continue to protest in spite of government backlash distinguishes these protests from uprisings in the past, such as the Green Movement of 2009, and gives the appearance that they might result in actual change in Iran.
The protest for Iranian freedom in Boston, Massachusetts. Source: Boston Political Review associate editor Sean Young.
The morality police accused Amini of wearing her mandatory hijab incorrectly and took her into custody. Specifically, they delivered Amini to a re-education center, where Iran claims people are given lessons in modesty, forced to sign a pledge to uphold modesty laws, and then released when someone brings them correct articles of clothing according to the modesty laws. Three days after Amini was taken to the re-education center, however, she was dead, having fallen into a coma soon after being arrested. The Iranian government attributed Amini’s death to a heart attack, but her family has spoken out, saying that she had no prior heart or health issues. Further, Amini’s family stated that witnesses told Amini’s brother that “she was beaten in the van and in the police station.” An Iranian medical official also stated that Amini most likely died from “a blow to the head.” Iranian government officials denied this finding, claiming that the morality police “basically do not have the tools to beat the detainees.”
Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman killed by Iran’s morality police. Source: The Wall Street Journal
The compulsory hijab law that Amini was accused of breaking has been in place since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, although it was not officially written into law until 1983. The law states that women must cover their hair with headscarves and cover their arms and legs with loose clothing. Iranian legal code requires that those who violate this law be punished by imprisonment for up to two months or flogging up to 74 lashes. Today, in practice, women are typically detained or taken to the re-education centers, where many women are beaten – in some cases like Amini’s, to death.
The two current leaders in Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, have reacted similarly to Amini’s death and the ensuing protests. Both Khamenei and Raisi expressed sadness over the death of Amini, but they condemn the protests and continue to encourage police to crack down on protesters despite the fact that police have already killed at least 92 protesters. They also blame the West, specifically the United States and Israel, for the protests in Iran. Khamenei charged that “the rioting was planned” and “these riots and insecurities were designed by America and the Zionist regime, and their employees.” Raisi echoed these claims, labeling the protests as a failed “conspiracy” by “enemies” of Iran. Raisi also recently made an appearance at the United Nations General Assembly, where he did not address Amini or the protests. Instead, he focused on the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and other Western countries, decrying the “double standards'' he claimed Western countries have regarding human rights.
World leaders have responded to the situation in Iran with an outpouring of sadness over the death of Amini. They have called for the Iranian government to allow the protests to continue and to give a voice to the citizens of Iran. Further, world leaders have urged Iran to address the problems of women’s freedom by amending the government and legal code to give women the choice whether or not to wear the hijab. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced sanctions against Iran in a tweet on September 22. The United Nations has called for an investigation into Amini’s death and also has condemned Iran for its violent police responses to the protests. Israeli interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid also made statements condemning Iran and pointed to the justification of Salman Rushdie’s attack as an example of how Iran hates and kills “Muslims who think differently.”
The dramatic protests in the aftermath of Amini’s death, such as women cutting off their hair and burning their hijabs, have sent shockwaves across Iran and the world. While the Iranian government has shut down the country’s internet in an attempt to prevent the spread of information about Amini’s death, people in the Iranian diaspora are taking to social media platforms such as Instagram and Tik Tok to share stories of facing the morality police as a woman in Iran.
Protests have also erupted throughout the diaspora, occurring across the United States, in Turkey’s capital Istanbul, and in Paris, where many French celebrities, such as Marion Cotillard and Juliette Binoche, have cut off their hair in solidarity with Iranian women. The slogan of all these protests is “women, life, freedom.”
Protests for Iranian freedom in Los Angeles, California. Source: Los Angeles Times
A U.S. based Iranian journalist named Masih Alinejad commented that Amini’s death and the resulting protests are a “tipping point” for Iran, comparing what is happening in the country to the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This has become a popular opinion among those observing the situation in Iran, where such protests are uncommon. The last uprisings of this magnitude in Iran took place in 2009 during the Green Movement. According to a New York Times article published in September 2021, Young Iranians have been increasingly dissatisfied with the country’s current trajectory. A young Iranian man named Amir said “I can’t imagine a good future for myself or for my country. Every day, I’m thinking about leaving. And every day, I’m thinking about, if I leave my country, what will happen to my family?” He stated that only gave part of his name out of fear of backlash from the Iranian government.
These sentiments were recently echoed by Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian author who wrote the famous graphic novel Persepolis. Satrapi, in an interview with Christiane Amanpour, stated that in conversations with youth in Iran, they have told her “they do not want this system anymore, they want democracy.” Satrapi pointed out how young Iranians no longer want reforms because they know that reform will not change a dictatorship, and she went on to discuss how different the current generation is from the generation that lived in Iran during the revolution in 1979. In particular, Satrapi cited the different mindset among both men and women in Iran today surrounding women’s rights, with an overall view that women’s rights are synonymous with human rights. Satrapi’s discussions with young Iranians hint at the possibility of a potential future Iranian government that is a dramatic departure from the government currently in power.
The current protests in Iran are emblematic of a radical shift in public opinion in the Middle East in the last decade. It appears unlikely that Iran will ever revert to the way it was before events like the Arab Spring and the Green Movement. There is an unprecedented common desire for freedom and democratization in the region, a trend that has only continued to increase with time. And now, Mahsa Amini’s death has sparked a fire in the Iranian people which only strengthens current pushes for Iran to become democratic for the first time in its history. As a new CNN article has stated: “a barrier of fear has been broken in Iran.”