Shortcuts / 20 October 2022

Mahsa Amini and the Iran protests

Mahsa Amini was a 22yo Iranian woman who was arrested by the country’s morality police in mid-September for wearing her hijab too loosely. She died in custody some days later, which led to large-scale protests across Iran and the world. So in this week’s Squiz Shortcut, we take a look at what life is like for women in Iran, how these protests have been unfolding, and what might shake out in Iran’s future.

What happened to Mahsa Amini?
She was visiting her brother in the capital Tehran when Iran’s morality police arrested her. They said she was wearing her hijab too loosely so too much of her hair was showing. She was taken away in a police van, and she died in hospital days later.

What do you mean by ‘morality police’?
Their formal name is the ‘Guidance Patrol’ – they’re the religious police in Iran that patrol the streets and arrest people who violate the strict Islamic dress code set out by the country’s rulers.

Including wearing a hijab?
Yep. So all women are expected to wear a headscarf that covers their face, neck and hair – and you risk punishment if you don’t. That’s apparently what happened in Mahsa’s case.

What happened to her after the arrest?
We don’t know for sure, but other women who were detained with her say she was beaten and tortured – although Iranian authorities said she had a heart attack.

Bigger picture – what’s the deal with Iran?
Iran isn’t a country that’s on our radar much at the moment. It had a bit of time in the spotlight back in 2002 when then-US President George W Bush referred to it as being part of the “axis of evil” alongside Iraq and North Korea, saying it sponsored terrorism.

Take me back a bit before then…
Iran has been an Islamic Republic since 1979. That year saw the Iranian people overthrow a pro-Western Shah (aka the king) – he was the last Persian monarch. Replacing him was Ayatollah Khomeini.

What was his deal?
Khomeini was an Islamic scholar, and initially, there were a lot of promises of democracy after the effective dictatorship of the Shah.

But it didn’t pan out that way?
Nope – Khomeini pretty quickly started ruling with a heavy hand. Thousands of academics, liberals and people of non-Muslim faith were executed. And for women, they were forced to give up their jobs and go back to raising large families. Their lives quickly became controlled by men.

Was that when the strict dress code for women kicked in?
That’s right. It’s hard for people to picture now, but in the 1960s and 70s in Iran, women were embracing all the Western fashion – tight jeans, mini skirts, big hair-dos… In fact, the Shah had made hijabs illegal.

So in a short space of time, hijabs went from being banned to being compulsory?
Yep… And over the years, different governments in Iran have ebbed and flowed in how strictly they enforce the dress code, but this latest crackdown came just a couple of months ago.

What happened?
President Ebrahim Raisi decreed violators flouting the so-called “chastity law” would be fined – and that included anyone who posted pictures of themselves on social media without a proper head covering.

Why have these particular protests blown up?
It’s a great question. Over the past decades, there have been a handful of protests over women’s dress codes. But this one looks like it could be a tipping point.

How so?
After Mahsa’s funeral, groups of women took off their headscarves in public in solidarity. And then protests spread quickly to all corners of the country – women have posted videos of themselves setting their hijabs on fire and cutting their hair. Some of the videos show crowds loudly cheering them on and chanting.

What are they chanting?
Translated, Iranian women are calling out “woman, life, freedom”, and the other one is “death to the dictator” – a reference to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He’s been in power for 33 years now.

So it’s not the same Ayatollah from 1979?
No – it’s a bit confusing… Iran has only had 2 Supreme Leaders since 1979. We’ve just talked about Ayatollah Khomeini – the one currently in power has a similar-sounding name, Khamenei.

Gotcha. So back to the protests – what kind of people are joining in?
What’s astounding is that the women calling for “death to the oppressor” are ordinary, everyday Iranian women. There are a lot of young people, too. What experts say is these protests could be the biggest the nation has seen since the establishment of the Republic because they cut across class, gender and region. 

I imagine that’s risky…
Absolutely. The Iranian Government is responding with lethal force. A couple of the most horrific cases put down to authorities are the deaths of 16yo girls Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh – they both went missing after joining protests. Their bodies were eventually returned to their families, but reports say it was clear from their injuries they’d been beaten to death.

What was the response to that?
The government claimed the 2 girls had taken their own lives and forced their families to go onto state TV to confirm those accounts. An Iranian human rights agency estimates that 28 children have been killed in these protests and many more have been detained and beaten.

And how have Iranians reacted?
Those sorts of cases have fuelled public anger even further.

How’s the world finding out about all these stories?
That’s another great question because there’s no free press in Iran. The female reporter who broke the story of Mahsa Amini has been thrown in jail, and foreign news organisations can’t report from Iran. So the word has spread via social media.

Is the government trying to stop that?
Yep – been shutting down internet services and blocking phone signals. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and Iranians are still managing to send videos of protests via messaging apps and social media.

I’m guessing the Ayatollah is pretty cranky?
You’d be right about that. He appeared on Iranian state television recently and said the Islamic Republic was an “unshakeable tree” and that no one should dare to think they can uproot it. He’s also accused the US and Israel of masterminding the anti-regime protests.

It sounds like more than a few Iranians are unhappy with their government…
Yep – what started as a protest over hijabs and women’s rights has turned into something much bigger. There are people calling for a whole range of religious restrictions to be scrapped, and some even want a full-blown revolution to kick out the dictatorship.

Yep – analysts say it’s at the point where senior Iranian figures think the regime needs to compromise to restore order. And others say the government had to learn to understand younger generations, which make up the majority of protesters.

So what’s going to happen?
Dunno… Iran’s young people are more detached from strict political and religious ideology than their parents and grandparents have been, so this could be a real turning point. We’ll have to wait and see…

Squiz recommends:

Iranian women before and after the Islamic Revolution

The journalist who broke Mahsa Amini’s story and the price she is paying for it

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