The story of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was killed by Iran’s morality police for improperly wearing her hijab, has gone global. No one could have predicted when she left her home in Iran’s northern Kurdistan province earlier this month to visit relatives in Tehran 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 various 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. While this law has existed ever since, its rigid application has ebbed and flowed for the past 40 years. 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. [Continue reading…]