Women take center stage in anti-government protests rocking Iran

For Yasi, the news seemed too close to ignore: a young woman, Mahsa Amini, had died in the custody of Iran’s morality police, days after being arrested for not covering her hair modestly enough.

As protests erupted following Ms Amini’s death, 20-year-old Yasi – the first woman in her immediate family to reject the hijab – ran out into the streets, waving the thin shawl she usually wears over her blonde hair in public. , in a grudging concession to the law of the land.

“I keep thinking that Mahsa could be me; they could be my friends, my cousins,” he said in an interview from Tehran, where protests have taken place every night in front of his family’s apartment complex ever since. “You don’t know what they’re going to do to you.”

Protests across the country challenging Iran’s authoritarian leadership, now in their 10th day, have been fueled by a variety of grievances: a collapsing economy, outright corruption, a suffocating crackdown and social restrictions dictated by a handful of elderly clerics. On Monday, they showed no signs of abating, and neither did the government’s heavy-handed effort to crack down on them despite international condemnation.

But its catalyst was the death of Ms. Amini, 22, on September 16 and its connection to the hijab law, the most visible manifestation of a theocracy that makes women second to men in politics, in parenting, in the office and at home.

Throwing headscarves into bonfires, dancing bareheaded before security officers, young women have been at the forefront of these demonstrations, providing the defining images of defiance.

Iranian women had participated in protests against the clerical establishment before, but never before had they been sparks, leaders, and foot soldiers at the same time. More than two dozen have been arrested so far and several protesters have been killed.

It was a journalist, Niloufar Hamedi of Shargh, an Iranian daily, who first brought Ms. Amini’s story to light. Ms Hamedi was arrested last week and is being held in solitary confinement at Evin prison, according to her colleagues.

“I see a lot of anger and rage in young women,” said Golshan, 28, a women’s rights activist from Isfahan who has organized small groups of her friends to get together every night and chant “No hijab, no hijab.” oppression”. , just equal rights.”

On the first night of the protests, Golshan and 50 other women hugged each other to block an intersection and asked the men to join them. A man lit a fire. One by one, as the crowd cheered, the women removed their hijabs, waved them high, and threw them into the fire.

“We want to be heard,” he said. “We don’t have a leader. The beauty and strength of our movement is that each one of us here is a leader.”

Mariam, 34, an artist from the northern province of Mazandaran, said she and her friends not only burned their scarves, but also cut their long hair and shaved their heads.

“It is a statement that needs no explanation,” he said. “You can’t control me and you can’t define me with my hair.”

The women are paying for their defiance in blood. On Saturday night, riot police beat Golshan with a baton, leaving her dizzy and sore, with her neck frozen. (Like other interviewees, she insisted on being identified only by her first name to avoid retaliation.)

Two years after ultra-conservative Muslim clerics seized power in the 1979 revolution, they required headscarves to be worn by women in government offices, and then by all women and girls over the age of 9, justifying it under Shariah law. . The hijab, they proclaimed, would protect female chastity and honor.

But it has also become a soft spot for the regime, symbolizing the social restrictions that men and women alike chafe at and scoff at behind closed doors.

Iranian women have been challenging the law mandating hijabs and long, flowing robes that cover the body for decades. The women’s rights movement has also lobbied, with limited success, against laws that allowed men to divorce more easily than women, gave men sole custody of children, lifted restrictions on polygamy to men lowered the age of marriage for girls and required women to obtain their travel authorization from their husbands or fathers.

But the current protests have spread far beyond the usual ranks of activists.

Yasi’s mother, Minoo, seeing her daughter in Ms. Amini, signed an online petition of religious women calling for the abolition of the morality police and the repeal of the hijab mandate. Minoo says that she willingly wears her headscarf, but her choice should be hers, not the government’s.

“We cannot impose what we think on each other,” he said. “I am religious, but I am fed up with the hypocrisy and lies of this regime that treats us ordinary people like garbage.”

On several nights he has taken Yasi and his friends to protests in Tehran.

Nahid, 65, a retired banker, said she packed sandwiches and first aid kits for protesters every night. She said that other women who were not directly involved allowed protesters to sleep in their homes to avoid security forces and gave them sweet drinks and cakes.

Activists say the response has been made possible by decades of quiet grassroots networking, even as prominent rights advocates have been jailed or gone into exile.

Under former President Hassan Rouhani, moderate young Iranians grew accustomed to a degree of flexibility, as the morality police became less strict. Long hair snaked under increasingly loose headscarves. The makeup got heavier, the hemlines shorter. Clothes that were once restricted to dark, somber tones became chartreuse and hot pink, embroidered and appliqued.

In recent years, some women have dared to go further, removing their veils in public in restaurants and while driving, as Yasi does.

Iranian women “have never conformed to the state ideal of what the hijab should look like,” said Sussan Tahmasebi, a veteran Iranian women’s rights activist living in exile. “And now we see the rise of a younger generation who really care about their physical rights, and hijab is probably the most visible infringement of their physical rights.”

Successive governments, including Rouhani’s, periodically cracked down on hijab noncompliance with fines, arrests and verbal warnings, but hardliners were impatient to reverse the liberalizing wave. Since Ebrahim Raisi, an ultra-conservative, took office a year ago, he has systematically enforced strict social and religious rules.

In July, the president ordered all “responsible entities and institutions” to devise a strategy to intensify the application of the hijab. The violations, he said, were damaging the values ​​of the Islamic Republic and “promoting corruption.”

Iran’s chief prosecutor declared his support for barring access to government and social services, including the subway, for women who were not adequately covered. The Ministry of Guidance ordered movie theaters to stop showing women in advertisements.

The backlash to the policy came not only from the country’s secular camp, but also from religious and conservative Iranians who said it would only deepen the divide between the government and its people.

But the clerical establishment was undeterred, blaming the backlash on foreign interference. “In the history of Islamic Iran, the life of Iranian women has always been associated with chastity and hijab,” Raisi said last month.

His campaign sparked mounting tension and violence in the months leading up to Ms. Amini’s death. Cafes were closed for allowing bareheaded customers. Videos on social media showed morality cops insulting, beating and dragging women into vans to send them off for “reeducation” in proper hijab.

In a widely shared video, the mother of a woman who had been arrested threw herself in front of a moving morality police van, yelling, “My daughter is sick. I beg you not to take it.

Sapideh Rashno, a 28-year-old writer who had removed her headscarf on a bus, was caught on video in mid-July arguing with a conservatively dressed woman who reprimanded her for “dressing inappropriately”. Ms. Rashno was arrested. Two weeks later, state television broadcast an interview in which she was shown apologizing for the episode, her face bruised and her eyes surrounded by purple circles.

His case sparked a public outcry. But with the explosion of protests, the conversation has moved beyond the hijab to the system itself.

“The hijab is a symbolic thing that has brought women front and center,” said Nazli Kamvari, an Iranian-Canadian feminist author, “but it connects them to all kinds of discrimination that everyone faces.”