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Iranian Women ask for ‘Life’ and ‘Freedom’

Mahsa Amini’s death in the hands of Iran’s morality police for inappropriate dress sparked mass protests across the country that have persisted for nearly two months despite a government crackdown. 

Women in Iran have been confronted with policies that instrumentalize the ‘veil’ as an oppressive patriarchal tool limiting women’s right to self-determination.

The veil has become a heated debate since Reza Shah Pahlavi issued an unveiling decree in 1936 as part of his modernization project. Narrations from that time show that compulsory unveiling forced many women to stay home because of their cultural and religious beliefs. 

During the Islamic revolution in March 1979, the government, in turn, forced all women to Islamize their appearance in public. Although over 100,000 Iranians demonstrated against forced hijab, the compulsory veiling law came to order.  

To support the idea of compulsory veiling, the state established the morality police in the early 1990s, focusing on women and their dress. Thus, currently, the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the few governments implementing compulsory hijab as a law. 

In response, women have started to demand justice and gender equality through peaceful bottom-up activism.

Now, the veil has become a tool for resistance. Women set their veils on fire and demand self-determinacy over their bodies. This strategy goes back to when Vida Movahed stood on Tehran’s Enghelab Street without a hijab in December 2017, raising her white scarf in protest of forced veiling.

Mahsa Amini was a citizen of Kurdistan, one of Iran’s most deprived and repressed regions. This matter adds a layer of complexity to this case, as Kurds are an ethnic minority in Iran. Thus, unsurprisingly, the most prominent slogan of this movement has become “Woman, Life, Freedom” or Jin Jiyan Azadi in Kurdish. The slogan was first chanted by the Kurdish Women’s Movement on International Women’s Day back in 2006. 

The three words express the movement’s mission which insists on women’s freedom of choice, dignity, and justice. The slogan refers to Mahsa’s death but literally asks for the opposite: life and the free co-existence of diverse groups in society.

The movement is not against religion. However, whenever women in Iran demand their rights, the patriarchy accuses them of acting against religion. 

Some opposition groups even claim that the protesters are nostalgic for the Pahlavi monarchy. That is not true. Instead, they ask for an end to autocratic theocracy in all its forms.

Iranian women’s simple demand for respect for all citizens’ freedom of choice reflects women’s struggles in different parts of the world: From the U.S., where abortion rights are being disputed, to some European countries where Muslim women encounter headscarf bans. The nexus between patriarchy and the violation of women’s rights is a worldwide issue.

Women in Iran have succeeded in voicing their demands globally. In this sense, they have already won. At the same time, radical and patriarchal interpretations try to dismantle the movement, and state power continues arresting and killing activists, journalists, and protestors. 

However, the women’s movement is alive and continues to strive toward its political goals.

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  1. Paidar, Parvin (2002). ‘Gender of Democracy Encounter between Feminism and Reformism in Contemporary Iran’, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development,6, pp. 239-276.
  2. Tohidi, Nayereh (2016). ‘Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements in Iran’, International Journal of Human Rights, 13 (24), pp. 75– 90.
  3. Mahdi, Ali Akbar (2004). ‘The Iranian Women’s Movement: A Century-Long Struggle’, The Muslim World, 94 (4), pp. 427–448.
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