Women-led protests unleased after the death of the 22-year-old Mahsa in the so-called “morality police” custody for not wearing full hijab, opened a new front against religion taking over the affairs of the state. Protesters are not demanding the reform of the hijab law but an end to the repressive theocracy of the Ayatollahs.
The killing of Mahsa Amini has sparked widespread anger.’ Police and protesters clash in Tehran following the death of Amini. Photograph: EPA – Mon 26 Sep 2022 16.08 BST
The formation of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979 removed conventional boundaries that separated religion from politics. Ayatollah Khomeini’s coined phrase, “the rule of the faqih (leading expert in Islamic law)”, which in practice meant his own absolute rule as the very faqih, or that of his chosen successor who strictly follows Khomeni’s footsteps, has resulted in 43 years of severe repression of human rights and state-sponsored violence against women and minorities in the name of Shiite religion. His chosen brand of religious misogyny focused on the obligatory wearing of the hijab and the creation of a brutal “morality police” to enforce it.
Some Muslim scholars disagree that wearing the hijab is a religious duty; also, wearing the hijab remains a matter of choice for around 200 million women in two Muslim majority countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In the largest Muslim majority country, Indonesia, wearing the hijabis a matter of choice.
Students of the Sharif University of Technology protesting in early October. Photograph: AP
The Ayatollahs’ regime in Iran is the only regime in the world that has made hijab mandatory in law, using its enforcement as a fetter of political control.
Each time the regime has faced or anticipated an uprising, it has let loose its “morality police” to randomly target women in public places for showing a bit of their hair outside their headscarf, beat them, humiliate them, take them to police stations, call men in their families to undertake in writing that they would ensure the woman complies with the Ayatollah’s dress code. Repeated defiance of the code leads to imprisonment.
Women have been criminally prosecuted after being detained, tortured and ill-treated for not wearing the full hijab; their lawyers have been imprisoned for defending them.
Iranian women’s chants of “Woman, Life, Freedom” during the current protests resonate the aspirations of women anywhere in the world, attracting their solidarity, heartening women and men in the region that it is possible to confront tyrannical regimes even when they hide under the cover of religion.
The demonstrations have been peaceful within the meaning of civil protests. But the regime has deployed its hated security forces – Iran Revolutionary Guard Core (IRGC) and Bassij. They have been violently beating protesters in the streets and shooting birdshots and live ammunition at their gatherings, killing hundreds of people and injuring thousands, while their leader Ali Khamenei has endorsed their brutality.
Regime forces have killed about 400 protesters in almost all the 31 provinces of Iran. The deadliest episodes have been in the south-eastern province of Baluchistan where about half of the killings have occurred, the western province of Kurdistan in which Saqqez, home to Mahsa Amili is located, and the northern province of Mazandaran. At least 40 children aged 11 to 17 are among the dead.
In addition, regime forces have carried out mass arrests of more than 15000 (some estimates are much higher) among whom are high school children.
An image from social media which is claimed to show Iranian schoolchildren expressing dissatisfaction towards the country’s leadership. Photograph: Twitter Emma Graham-Harrison and Maryam Foumani -Tue 4 Oct 2022 19.47 BST
Members of the Ayatollah’s handpicked parliament passed a motion by 227 out 290 seats on 6 November urging the regime’s judiciary to sentence protesters to death so they could be executed. Given that the judiciary is also under the influence of the Ayatollah, the outcome can be another round of mass murder of thousands of prisoners as in 1988.
Saman Yasin, a Kurdish rapper who has spoken against the Iranian regime, has been charged with ‘enmity against God’. Photograph: Handout — Fri 11 Nov 2022 UN calls for international action as regime announces public trials for protesters and Iranian lawmakers seek harsh punishment
Despite this repression, women-led mass protests have entered their ninth week throughout Iran. Protesters include university and high school students, teachers, doctors, businesspersons, workers, and others across a multitude of cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds, calling for an end to the repressive regime of the Islamic Republic. The protests are coupled with a strong, supportive campaign by the Iranian diaspora in record weekly gatherings around the world.
There is a historical significance to these protests. The 20th Century saw around its 20th year, the advent of totalitarian dictatorship and a successful spread of illiberal narratives. Initially, these narratives took the form of Stalinism, Fascism and Maoism. In the 1970s religious fundamentalism carved out a solid space for itself within these narratives, offering the enticing dictatorship of the believer.
Religious fundamentalism took roots in Pakistan under Ziaul Huq, in Iran under Khomeini, in Afghanistan under the Taliban. It spread to the rest of the world with the apparent blessing of some Western governments. Other repressive regimes adopted it as a political ruse to gain popularity; the less repressive ones partially adapted to its demands for their own survival.
Now, Iranian women in the 22nd year of the 21st Century are dismantling that religious narrative. The chants of “Woman, Life, Freedom” and “Down with the dictator”, which are among their most repeated slogans, are creating the new narrative of liberation.
Taraneh Alidoosti has vowed to remain in her homeland ‘at any price’ and support the families of those killed or arrested in the protest crackdown after the death of Mahsa Amini. Photograph: Taraneh Alidoosti/Instagram
Within the human rights discourse, too, women-led civil protests in Iran confirm the indivisibility of human rights. Dictatorial regimes in Asia and other parts of the world have usually rejected civil and political rights – such as freedom of expression and assembly, freedom from torture and unfair trials, and free and fair elections – under the pretext that they are alien to their country’s culture, or an imposition from the West, or against their religious principles, or even saying their time has not yet come.
Iran protesters are directly attacking those purported, bankrupt declarations. Their slogan ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ is a quest for civil and political rights whose repression has led to the violation of all human rights. It is also a declaration against the regime’s regional belligerency that has led to poverty under international sanctions and to underdevelopment.
This is a home-grown, libertarian movement. It highlights the beginning of a possible social transformation in Iran on par with the Renaissance.
Engaging with this movement, supporting its cause and promoting its ideals is what we as human rights defenders could do to protect it.
About the Author:
Abbas Faiz, an international human rights law expert, is currently the Maldives government’s Epecial Envoy scrutinizing the country’s criminal justice system in relation to a terror attack. He has lectured at the Human Rights Centre, School of Law, and was formerly a senior researcher at Amnesty International.