Credit: Neil Webb

Iran: One year later

By Mia Williams

What does the future look like for women and young girls in Iran, one-year after the death of Mahsa Amini?

In the shadow of the one-year anniversary of Mahsa Amani’s death, Iran stands at a critical juncture in its battle for women’s rights. Last month marked one year since the 22-year-old Kurdish woman was arrested by Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating the country’s Islamic dress code, obliging women to wear a headscarf in public spaces. She subsequently died in police custody as a direct result of the injuries inflicted upon her. A year later, the eyes of the world look to the Iranian state as the oppression, and subsequent resistance, of women’s liberties persists.

Mahsa Amini’s death triggered collective anger, not only within Iran’s borders, but across the world. Protests ensued from all corners of the globe, fueled by mutual outrage at the treatment of women under the rule of the theocratic state. These protests are among the longest continuous demonstrations that have occurred since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They saw an unprecedented number of people protesting both online and on the streets in a display of solidarity, advocating for the rights of women under the Iranian regime.

The first protest took place following Mahsa Amini’s funeral in her hometown of Saqqez, where protesters marched to the Governor’s building. The movement quickly erupted throughout Iran when large groups of women displayed defiance against the government and their oppressive regulation of women’s rights. A number of female protestors removed and burned their hijabs as an act of resistance, while anti-government chants like “woman, life, freedom” and “death to the dictator” echoed across the nation.

While the demonstrations have seen involvement from various sectors of the population, the bold and courageous defiance exhibited by the Iranian youth has been prominent in videos shared across social media platforms. Iranian authorities claim those protesting Mahsa Amini’s death have an average age of just 15. The ‘TikTok generation’ of Iran have gained access to the internet through VPNs. This access has provided them with the opportunity to shape a new worldview, one that exists beyond the confines of the regime’s restrictions.

They have turned to social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Twitter to capture and disseminate the reality of the theocracy they live under. On these platforms, they have shared images, songs and poems with a defiant voice against their government, effectively raising awareness and fostering global empathy for their cause.

However, the widespread demonstrations and their calls for significant reform were met with a harsh government crackdown. Iran Human Rights reported that state security forces killed 537 protestors and Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA) detailed a further 19,400 arrests. The United Nations (UN) condemned Iran’s response to the protests, and urged the security forces to stop using “unnecessary or disproportionate force”. As the nation grappled with a rising anger, international protests emerged in unwavering solidarity, denouncing the misogynistic regime.

Among those killed in the protests were a staggering number of children and students. At least 58 children, some reportedly as young as eight, have been killed in the anti-regime protests. 16-year-old Sarina Esmailzadeh was part of the uprising that swept through Iran, she regularly uploaded videos to YouTube where she was dancing or listening to music. She also discussed women’s rights, the economic situation in Iran and her objection to the mandatory hijab. She was killed by Iranian authorities just four months after her first post. Her death serves as a reminder of the brutality of the regime and she serves as inspiration for other young activists who will continue her cause and lead these protests both on the streets and online.

One year on from Mahsa Amini’s death, and the prospects for ending the gender apartheid in Iran may appear bleak, with the resurgence of the ‘morality police’ after a 10-month hiatus, freedom seems out of reach. However, this news does not stop the defiance of protestors. In Tehran, a resident commented that “if we fear, they will behave worse and torture more of my people. As an Iranian woman, I say there’s no other option but to fight. We are not afraid of the morality police”.  This sentiment echoes throughout Iran, as on the anniversary of Amini’s tragic death protests persisted, undeterred by police presence. This serves as a testament to the unwavering courage and resilience of Iranian women in their tireless fight for autonomy and equality.

The resurgence of the morality police serves to rigorously enforce strict hijab laws, placing women’s freedom at the mercy of adherence to these laws. These regulations are often subjected to arbitrary interpretation by government officials and businesses throughout the country, further exacerbating the challenges faced by Iranian women. This persistent enforcement of the mandatory hijab starkly highlights the divide between the government and citizens within the Islamic republic. While the government contends with the challenge of meeting citizens’ basic needs, an increasingly oppressive policy prevails, coercing people into compliance, all while state authorities act with impunity, free from consequence.

Further restriction of female autonomy has surfaced in the form of the Chastity and Hijab Bill. This significantly increases the penalties, including extended prison sentences and substantial fines for women and girls who do not adhere to the mandatory dress code. Voler Türk, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, commented that the draconian bill flies in the face of international law, and that it must be shelved. The proposed bill has garnered extensive criticism for its stringent and dated provisions. UN experts have characterised the legislation as “a form of gender apartheid, as authorities appear to be governing through systemic discrimination with the intention of suppressing women and girls into total submission“.

This legislation is further facilitated by the incorporation of smart technology. The regime is directing its investments towards sophisticated smart camera systems equipped with facial recognition technology to pinpoint potential “violators”. Concerns raised by experts revolve around the government’s lack of expertise or education on how to utilise this technology. Official announcements indicate that since April 15th 2023, over one million women have received text messages cautioning them that their vehicles could be confiscated after they were identified on camera without their headscarf.

The name Mahsa Amini has since become synonymous with the Iranian government’s oppressive regime, whilst echoes of her bravery continue to inspire Iranian women who persist in their pursuit of equality. The state cannot suppress the voices of these women, and their courage is the very fabric of the ongoing movement in Iran.


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