'This is more than just about the hijab': How the death of Mahsa Amini sparked a feminist revolution in Iran

Iran protests
8 min read
05 October, 2022

"Women. Life. Liberty.” 

These are the chants that echo through the streets of Iran as female protesters lead demonstrations following the death of Mahsa Amini.  The 22-year-old died in police custody after being arrested for "not wearing her hijab correctly" by Iran’s Gasht e-Ershad or the 'guidance patrol' while on her way to visit a relative in Tehran.

Authorities at first said Mahsa had died from a heart attack, but her family rejected this stating that she had been perfectly healthy and had no heart conditions.

Furthermore, leaked medical scans show fractures to Mahsa’s skull, supporting eyewitness accounts that she had been severely beaten by the morality police and had suffered a blow to the head while in custody, which would have led to a brain haemorrhage.

"Ever since the hijab was made compulsory following the Iranian Revolution in 1979... women have been carrying out acts of resistance on a daily basis, but nothing as big and widespread as the current protests"

What has ensued is an outpour of outrage and mourning, as people across the majority of Iran’s 31 provinces have taken to the streets, with videos on social media showing Iranian women cutting off their hair and burning their hijabs as a symbol of protest.

The state is trying its best to quash the demonstrations as well as restrict internet access, while protesters, including minors, have been fired upon with live ammunition, with the death toll climbing daily.

“[Mahsa’s] death has created outrage amongst all the population, but especially amongst women because she was arrested by the 'morality' police for showing some hair, and she ended up losing her life because of something so insignificant,” explains Iranian feminist Fatima.*

“The enforced hijab is already a big burden for women to bear; they have limited rights in Iran and their day-to-day activities and clothing are hindered by being constantly watched and regulated. Women are outraged that something as simple as showing a few strands of hair can cost them their freedom and even life. However, the outrage is amplified also because of years of corruption and embezzlement by the powerful, extreme inflation and poverty, joblessness, insecurity etc.”

Protesters hold aloft signs with Mahsa Amini's name on them in London's Trafalgar Square [Getty Images]
Protesters hold signs with Mahsa Amini's name on them in London's Trafalgar Square [Getty Images]

According to Iranian women rights activist and associate professor Mahya Ostovar, ever since the hijab was made compulsory following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the subsequent establishment of the Islamic Republic, women have been carrying out acts of resistance on a daily basis, but nothing as big and widespread as the current protests.

The establishment of the guidance patrol was mainly to enforce the hijab, as from day one the Islamic Republic realised that women were not going to abide by the mandatory hijab so willingly.

She also points out that Mahsa Amini is not the first woman in Iran to have been beaten, tortured, and murdered by the state for not wearing the hijab properly, but it just happens that Amini’s death went viral.

Live Story

Speaking to The New Arab Mahya says, “What happened to Mahsa is something that has been happening on a daily basis. I remember 15 years ago back in Iran the police were trying to arrest this woman in the street. I witnessed how hard they were pushing her as she was trying to resist. She was screaming. They then pushed her into the van and I heard her head bang.

"She could have been another Mahsa Amini, or there could be other Mahsa Aminis that we don’t know about. This is the one [case] in the news that really went viral, and because right now people are really fed up with the regime it has become more than just about the hijab, despite starting with that." 

Iranian artist, professor, and women’s rights activist Shahrzad Changalvaee believes that the current protests are not only a social and political revolution but also a feminist one.

“It is already a revolution – a social, a political and a feminist one. Women are in the front row and Mahsa has become a symbol of the 43 years of suppression and living under the Islamic Republic regime. I believe that it is bringing up all the patriarchal aspects of the traditional Islamic society that has been going on for decades,” she says.

Shahrzad says that Iran’s feminist movement dates back to as early as the Khojar dynasty, but while in the past it was a movement confined to Iran’s middle and upper classes, today protests such as the protests currently taking place have moved horizontally across classes.

“Now the women who have become the face and pioneer of the movement are ordinary women – women from the village, women from smaller towns, so there is an awareness that now everybody is joining.”

For over four decades now, the political landscape of Iran has been a constant toing-and-froing of rule by radicals and then reformists.

Hardliners tighten their grip on every aspect of social life in Iran, and then reformists like former Presidents Khatami and Rouhani promise the relaxation of social rules in return for votes, only for hardliners like Raisi to come back into power and rule with an iron fist once more.

"There is one thing that all politicians in Iran have in common: they use women’s bodies as a political battleground and they draw the line at the hijab"

However, whether they are a reformist or a radical, there is one thing that all politicians in Iran have in common: they use women’s bodies as a political battleground and they draw the line at the hijab.

In the past, protesting about the hijab and removing it in public in Iran has had grave consequences. On International Women’s Day in March 2019, several female activists in Tehran took their hijab off while on the subway and handed out flowers to other women.

This simple act of defiance resulted in them all being arrested and initially receiving lengthy prison sentences: Saba Kordafshari was sentenced to 24 years in prison, Yasaman Aryani and Monireh Arabshani to 16 years in prison, and Raheleh Ahmadi to four years and two months in prison.

“Both conservative and reformist presidents regard hijab as a red line for the regime,” explains Iranian women’s rights activist Elnaz Sarbar. “In 2019, during the presidency of Hassan Rohani a reformist, women who protested compulsory hijab by taking their scarves off in Tehran’s subway on March 8 were sentenced to long prison [sentences]. Since Raisi has come to power the regime has been trying to instigate more fear. More people have been executed and pressure on women has been increased.”

"We are not going to carry your flag anymore, we are not going to let our bodies be your jihad-ground"

Iran’s current President, Ebrahim Raisi, is one of Iran’s most notorious hardliners. In the ‘80s he was the youngest member of the Tehran death committee and is said to have sent as many as 3,000 people to their deaths via execution, giving him the reputation of a “mass murderer” in the country.

As head of the judiciary, he was responsible for dozens of women getting lashed, tortured in prison, and executed, and under his orders, 400 women were killed during the November 2019 uprisings.

During his current tenure as President, things have become even more draconian for women in Iran. He ordered a new “Hijab and Chastity Law” back in August of this year in which women who posted pictures without their hijab online would be “deprived of some social rights for six months to one year.” He also designated July 12 each year as a day of “Hijab and Chastity.”

Such actions are being made to counter a growing movement of women in Iran who over the years have become braver and braver in their resistance to enforced hijab.

And the current protests following the death of Mahsa are the bravest yet.

On September 28 Raisi said everyone was saddened by Mahsa's death and that he would be ordering an investigation, but he also warned that “whoever participated and ignited the chaos and riots will be held to account” – i.e. Iranian women. But according to Mahya, protesters are no longer afraid of the state.

“If you look at each campaign you can see people are becoming braver, their acts are becoming bolder, and of course, the oppression from the regime also becomes harsher. People think, ‘what is going to happen? Am I going to get killed? Ok, I don’t care anymore.’ That’s why they are on the streets. That’s the maximum thing that can happen to a person, getting killed.

"People that are 20 years old and less are out there on the street, and that’s because they don’t see any hope, they don’t see any future in the current situation and the current regime, and they don’t care anymore if it’s going to be stricter or harsher, they want something brighter for their future.”

Live Story

Shahrzad agrees that the women who are protesting at the moment in Iran are no longer afraid as they feel they have nothing left to lose.

According to her, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini turned the hijab into the flag of the Islamic Republic, a flag that was to be flown by women, giving it political significance – so much significance that the very existence of the Islamic Republic and its continuation depends on women wearing their hijabs. This is why Raisi is trying to stamp out the current protests and enforce laws such as the “Hijab and Chastity Law.”

“It comes to a point where we don’t have anything to lose and I think it is like this for a lot of women. They have been immediately utilised by this Islamic regime and what is happening now is women are saying, “we are not going to carry your flag anymore, we are not going to let our bodies be your jihad-ground.”

*Name has been changed to protect the identity

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press.

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA