OpEd: How an Iranian Woman’s Death Sparked Revolutionary Feminist Backlash

Middle East expert, Prof. Nader Hashemi, on why global outrage over the killing of Mahsa Amini by Iran’s morality police for “improper hijab” has ignited a simmering reformist agenda

No one could have predicted that when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini left her home in Iran's northern Kurdistan province earlier this month to visit relatives in Tehran, she would be killed by Iran’s morality police for improperly wearing her hijab, or that her death would lead to national protests, rocking the Islamic Republic to its core while generating massive international media coverage. 

The fact that Amini's death occurred during the annual meeting of heads of state at the United Nations helped draw attention to her story, with many leaders at the General Assembly condemning her killing and declaring their support for Iranian protesters. 

While the precise timing of the protests in Iran was unpredictable, on closer examination, a societal explosion of this nature should have been expected. That these protests would focus on women's rights and freedoms also should not have been so surprising, given the sequence of events prior to this tumultuous moment that suggested there could be a national outcry in Iran directly linked to the plight of women. 

Controlling women's bodies has been a pillar of the Islamic Republic from its inception. After the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his disciples passed a draconian hijab law, in 1983, that established a new dress code for women in public. 

Reformist governments discouraged the morality police—the Gasht-e Ershad or "Guidance Patrol"—from harassing women, while hard-liners did the opposite, viewing this show of force against women as a non-negotiable principle of Iran's theocratic regime. In 2018, after a woman in Tehran was physically beaten by a police officer for "insufficient hijab," the Chief Justice of Iran, Sadegh Larijani, openly supported the use of physical violence against women. The security forces, he stated, "should not take even one step back." 

When Ebrahim Raisi became president last summer, after a patently rigged election, he vowed to step up the enforcement of the hijab law. Harassment, arrests, indictments and prison sentences of women all skyrocketed. This new crackdown has been described by the sociologist Azadeh Kian as the "Talibanization of political power under Raisi." Its antecedents, however, go back several years, in the wide-ranging attempts of Iranian hard-liners to reassert their control over a defiant society that has increasingly rejected their austere values. Iran's diplomatic missions abroad have also been affected by the country's creeping Talibanization. 

In late 2021, a new law was passed severely restricting access to abortion, contraception and voluntary sterilization services—"in direct violation of women's human rights under international law" U.N. human rights experts warned. Women have continually been barred from sporting events, part of a long-running government obsession "to go to great lengths to enforce their discriminatory and cruel ban on women attending football stadiums," as Tara Sepehri Far of Human Rights Watch said.  The chief prosecutor in Isfahan announced in 2019 that it was illegal and "un-Islamic" for women to ride bicycles in public. 

The intensified crackdown on women defying the hijab law set off an internal debate among Iranian conservatives. Abdolhadi Mar'ashi, an influential cleric in Mashhad, quit over the morality police’s behavior. "Our understanding of what is right and what is wrong under Islam has been limited only to the hijab," he wrote in his resignation letter. He questioned the disproportionate focus on women's dress as opposed to "government corruption, social justice, economic security, class disparity, drug addiction, national poverty, [and] freedom of expression." 

Jalal Rashidi Koochi, a member of parliament, weighed in by stating that the morality police "haven't made anyone observe the hijab," suggesting their repression had backfired. Even former conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a recent video, criticized the state-sanctioned wearing of the hijab, suggesting such repressive policies are "destroying the country, destroying the people and destroying the truth." 

A month and a half before Mahsa Amini was killed, her death was prefigured when a 28-year-old woman named Sepideh Rashno appeared on Iranian state television, to apologize for opposing the hijab law after a video of the writer and artist arguing with another woman on a Tehran bus went viral. 

Following her public "confession," though, it emerged that Rashno had reportedly been beaten and hospitalized for internal injuries before making the statements that aired on state television. A protest letter signed by over 1,000 Iranian citizens and civil society activists, invoking Rashno's case, protested "four decades of oppression of Iranian women," declaring that "liberation is our right, and our strength is in our banding together." 

It is these events that put women's rights at the center of the current protests in Iran. One of the ironies of the Islamic Republic is that notwithstanding its highly patriarchal nature and misogyny, the regime did heavily invest in female education, albeit not equitably. By 2001, women accounted for over 60 percent of admissions into Iranian universities. 

Inadvertently, the foundations for a feminist movement were laid in a way that Iran's clerical leaders likely now regret. "Women, life, freedom!" is one of most popular slogans on the streets of Iran today, and for very good reasons. These demands will not go away, nor will they easily be snuffed out. 

In 1979 after the revolution, there was a brief political opening in Iran. The Shah, the longstanding U.S.-backed dictator, had been toppled, and Khomeini's Islamist devotees had yet to consolidate their power. The press was suddenly (and temporarily) free, and Iranians were openly debating the future of their country. 

At this time, a banner appeared near the University of Tehran, which read: "The measure of a free society is the measure of women's freedom in that society." This statement is still as true today as it was back then, even though the Islamic Republic has tried to silence its message through repressive policies like the hijab law. The future of this proposition, and the promise of that banner years ago, are now being contested in provinces, cities and towns across Iran. 

Nader Hashemi is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an associate professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

This is an edited and abridged version of an article originally published on Democracy for the Arab World Now’s website

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