Let’s talk about… The women’s protests in Iran

‘For women, life, and freedom’ – one woman’s death leads to unprecedented protests in Iran

“For women, life, and freedom” – this is the battle cry that has been heard countless times over the past few weeks as an unprecedented wave of protests sweep Iran following the death of 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa (Zhina) Amini in police custody, a tragedy which has become a catalyst for a movement fighting for women’s rights and against corrupt policing.

Amini had travelled to Tehran (Iran’s capital) on September 13th with her family when she was arrested by morality police at a central metro station for ‘bad hijab’ (wearing her headscarf incorrectly). Two days after her arrest, Tehran police issued a statement saying that she had suffered a heart attack while in custody and had been hospitalised, with official reports claiming she had epilepsy/previous heart problems – claims her family insisted were completely false. She fell into a coma and on September 16th her death was announced.

Her injuries, including bleeding from one ear, led to speculation that Amini may have been badly beaten some time between her arrest and her hospitalisation. However, police have continued to maintain that she died of a heart attack, and that “there had been no physical contact” between the officers and Amini.

Amini’s tragic death resonated heavily with Iranian women, who took to the streets in the western city of Saqqez following her funeral, ripping off their own headscarves in solidarity. This would be the first of countless demonstrations to take place, with recent weeks seeing instance after instance of protesters gathering in droves in defiance of the Iranian regime.

It’s worth noting that Iran has seen similar movements happen before, cases where protests have been held publicly against mandatory veiling. However, for the large part, these instances were isolated (limited to certain age/class groups, etc., such as in 2009, 2017, and 2019), and in each case, they were dealt with swiftly and severely. What is happening in Iran at the moment is completely unprecedented; large-scale demonstrations held nationwide and attended by both men and women of all ages, women removing their headscarves in public at protests and during their everyday lives, women cutting their hair in public, schoolchildren cutting class to demonstrate in playgrounds and in the streets… all doing so with the risk of being punished disproportionately for their actions, the risk of being killed.

Because, despite the momentum that the movement continues to build, despite the unprecedented show of support, the ongoing protests have not been able to take place without tragedy following in their wake. In their continued efforts to diminish support for the movement, Iranian authorities have brutally cracked down on the protests, attempting to suppress them with violence. At the time of writing, Iran’s Human Rights Activists News Agency have estimated that over 200 people have been killed in or after demonstrations, a figure which includes 23 children.

Devastatingly (though due to Iran’s strict regime it’s difficult to identify those who’ve lost their lives), as the protests go on, we are seeing more and more names being added alongside Amini’s as people who’ve fallen victim to Iranian authorities as a result of fighting for their rights: 16-year-old blogger Sarina Esmailzadeh who was beat to death with batons by security forces, 17-year-old activist Nika Shakarami who was tortured, raped, and killed for her participation in the protests, 33-year-old international climber Elnaz Rekabi who competed in a tournament without a headscarf and at the time of writing, hasn’t been seen since… this list, heartbreakingly, goes on.

When you consider the 2009 protests and how – despite being attended by millions – they were ultimately quelled when authorities shot and killed a young woman named Neda Agha Soltan, an event which naturally sowed fear into people ultimately leading to the end of demonstrations, it really does highlight the incredible magnitude of courage being shown by today’s protesters, despite the brutal crackdown and loss of life at the hands of Iranian authorities. The Iranian people at the forefront of these demonstrations have displayed (and continue to) incredible bravery and resilience in fighting for their right to exercise bodily freedom and to not be killed for exercising that right.

As Iranian authorities move to restrict internet access further, and continue to crack down on the demonstrations through violence and misinformation, it is more important than ever that we seek out and listen to Iranian voices…to listen to their experiences, and to fight for what they want and need. These women deserve the freedom to decide whether or not they wish to veil, they deserve to protest and grieve for their fellow countrywomen without risking their lives – they deserve to fight for their rights without being met with lethal brutality. They deserve support. They deserve freedom. They deserve more.

“Jin, Jiyan, Azadi”: Women, life, freedom.