Women, life, freedom: Resisting gendered state control in Iran
“Women. Life. Freedom!” Iranian women, joined by men, of all ethnicities, across the country and in over 150 cities worldwide, are raising their fists, burning their veils, and cutting their hair in mass demonstrations following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who was fatally beaten after being arrested on 13 September by the ‘morality police’ for not wearing the hijab “properly”.
In the ensuing days, over 130 people have lost their lives, at least twelve of them under the age of 18, and thousands have been arrested. To stop information from getting in or out, the authorities have restricted internet access, leaving their citizens in the dark.
Amini was not the first victim of the morality police and the regime - amongst the many others was Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman fatally shot during the 2009 election protests, whose name also became a rallying cry for protesters. However, the regime has repeatedly and brutally squashed all previous protest, and as all eyes are back on Iran, many wonder whether things will be any different this time. Especially given that these particular uprisings are larger and more far-reaching, having united different factions, ethnicities, and ideologies under the collective desire to see an end to the Islamic Republic.
''One of the ways young women are showing their defiance against the regime is by engaging in a constant battle with the “morality police” by flouting the Islamic dress code and standards laid down by the Islamic Republic and being “badly veiled”. Nevertheless, the issue at hand is much larger than a piece of cloth. As Masih Alinejad, who started the ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ movement against compulsory hijab declared, the veil is the “Berlin Wall” for the regime.''
A history of state control
To understand what is at stake, we must understand the history that has preceded these events. Women are central to this conflict because for the past century in Iran, they have been signifiers of its policies - a visual symbol at home and abroad. To this end, women in Iran have been both forcibly unveiled under Reza Shah (1878-1944) to symbolise a ‘modern Iran’, and then forcefully veiled after the Revolution (1978-79) to symbolise an Islamic state.
Despite women’s participation in the revolutionary process, one day before International Women's Day in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini called on women to comply with the religiously sanctioned Muslim dress code. The Revolutionary Council issued an edict requiring women to wear the veil in public. In protest, several thousand women took to the streets and were attacked and beaten, causing the Prime Minister at the time, Mehdi Bazargan, to proclaim that the Ayatollah’s statement had been distorted by leftist and royalist troublemakers and that there would be no compulsory veiling.
Nevertheless, by the summer of 1980, Islamic veiling was required in all government and public offices and by 1983, it had become compulsory for all women (from the age of six), including non-Muslims and foreigners. That same year, parliament passed the Islamic Punishment Law (qesas) that stipulated 74 lashes for violation of the hijab and in 1995, a note to Article 139 of the Islamic Criminal Code specified 10 to 60 days of imprisonment against those who publicly resisted the hijab.
Thus, the female body became the contested site whereupon the battle for male supremacy and honour was waged, and the patriarchal state imposed itself as the protector of women.
The veil (and by extension the women it covered) became an essential hallmark for the emerging Islamic state and served as a powerful political symbol whose enforcement was equated to the victory of the Revolution. Hence, from the beginning, the regime was concerned not only with veiling women, but veiling them “correctly”.
Badly veiled women were suspect in the eyes of the regime and perceived to be eschewing Islamic values. Women were equally punished by the state for “bad-hijab” as they were for “no-hijab”. Indeed, badly-veiled women were labelled “Western dolls” or “prostitutes” and subjected to harassment from the morality police, pasdaran (Guardians of the Revolution), paramilitary security forces, and armed members of Hezbollah. Furthermore, gender police and female vigilantes, known as Sisters of Zeinab, roamed the streets and dragged any women not in compliance with the rules to the “Centre for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,” where they would be fined or beaten for minor violations of the veiling requirements, such as wearing makeup or allowing strands of hair to show from under their veil.
A symbol of gendered repression
Unsurprisingly, the veil became symbolic of the women themselves, representing all the injustices endured by them such as segregation in schools and public spaces, being banned from nearly half the academic subjects taught at university, from participation in sports including the Olympic team, from singing and dancing in public, from holding any senior offices (such as the presidency and judgeships), and from travelling or taking jobs without their husbands’ permission. Women’s testimony in court was also judged to be worth half that of men and Retribution Laws (qesas) stipulated that the compensation paid for women’s lives would be half that of men and that women would inherit half as much as men.
Additionally, after the Revolution, the minimum age of marriage for girls was reduced from 18 to nine, and the practices of temporary marriage (sigheh) and polygamy were reinstated for men who were also given a unilateral right to divorce as well as custody of children.
Iran’s very young population, with their increased levels of education compared with previous generations (particularly amongst women in universities), as well as their exposure to the outside world and therefore alternative ideas, has meant that they are unwilling to accept the dictates of the regime. Iranians’ growing awareness of themselves as autonomous individuals has resulted in a re-evaluation of many previously held epistemic beliefs and the search for alternative modes of self-narration.
One of the ways young women are showing their defiance against the regime is by engaging in a constant battle with the “morality police” by flouting the Islamic dress code and standards laid down by the Islamic Republic and being “badly veiled”. Nevertheless, the issue at hand is much larger than a piece of cloth. As Masih Alinejad, who started the ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ movement against compulsory hijab declared, the veil is the “Berlin Wall” for the regime.
Iranian women, by taking off their veils, are engaging in a battle of wills with a regime that cannot afford to concede on this issue. The protesters, likewise, are not content with just unveiling – too great a cost has been exacted – they want to see the end of the Islamic Republic and all that it represents.
It remains to be seen how long the regime can continue arresting, torturing, and killing its citizens to cling to legitimacy by force. It won’t be the first time they have done so in the past 43 years – we can only hope that this time, the lives lost, and the dreams crushed will not be for nought and that there will be light at the end of this very dark chapter in Iran’s history.
Katy Shahandeh is a final year PhD candidate at SOAS, a research and teaching assistant. Her academic interests are Middle Eastern (with an emphasis on Iran) art, history, culture and society, and her research, based on the works of contemporary Iranian women artists, is located around issues of gender, identity and society, and informed by feminist and post-colonial theory. She has contributed to a volume published by Routledge entitled Curating as Feminist Organizing (2022).
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