Protesters block a road in Tehran during a demonstration October 1 over the death of Mahsa Amini, who died after being arrested for a dress code violation. File Photo by EPA-EFE
Nov. 7 (UPI) — The hijab has been a symbol of Iranian oppression for decades and the recent death of a young woman arrested over the dress code has sparked a level of open defiance — and maybe the beginning of a new revolution — that could topple the theocratic regime, Iranian activists say.
Since Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, was killed in police custody in Tehran on Sept. 16, the streets of Iran have been flooded with protesters. The scene is reminiscent of previous mass demonstrations, including those in 2019. But activists say this is different.
Nazanin Asadi is a member of Osyan, meaning “Rebellion,” which was founded as an underground feminist organization in Tehran 12 years ago by university students.
Speaking via Zoom from Helsinki, Finland, where she now lives, Asadi, 32, told UPI the 2019 protests, which resulted in hundreds, possibly thousands, dead in the subsequent government crackdown, was sparked by economics. The new protest is personal — to the regime and to those in the streets.
“This time is different because it started from women about women’s issues,” which is “tied up to the theocracy regime, to the existence of the Islamic Republic,” she said. “This is completely different.”
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, a political organization, estimates that more than 200 cities in all 31 provinces are participating, with people targeting their anger directly at the regime of Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, who has led the country since 1989.
“Death to dictator, death to Khamenei,” is one slogan people have been quoted as saying by NCRI. “We will fight, we will die, we will take back our Iran,” is another.
Videos shared online show women and girls walking defiantly through the streets with their heads uncovered, young boys and girls knocking turbans off the heads of clerics and fires in streets literally fueled by discarded hijab.
The women-led protests persist despite the bloody government crackdown that has killed more than 300 people, including 41 minors, according to estimates from Oslo-based Iran Human Rights organization.
Amini, who was visiting Tehran from her home in Saqqez in the northwestern Kurdistan Province, was arrested by Iran’s Guidance Patrol on Sept. 13, accused of violating the nation’s draconian hijab laws. She fell into a coma at the Vozara Detention Center, then died. Credible reports say state police beat her about the head while in their custody. The regime says she died of a heart attack.
Asadi said she had been detained by the Guidance Patrol over her attire three times, once at the same city center where Amini was arrested.
Like Amini, she was a visitor to Tehran. She was in her early 20s and was shopping for books and other school supplies when she was detained.
“They stopped me and said I didn’t wear [my hijab] properly because I had a red dress, it was a bit short and my hair was a bit out,” she said.
Dressed in black chadors, the female officers of the Guidance Patrol told her to get into a vehicle. When she didn’t initially comply, male officers threatened to use force.
“I didn’t resist. I just went,” she said.
She was taken to a Guidance Patrol police station, where she was informed on the proper attire before she was released.
Nowadays, she said, women resist.
Amini was killed amid a surge in Guidance Patrol police action. Following her death, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Office said in a statement, “The morality police have expanded street patrols, subjecting women perceived to be wearing ‘loose hijab’ to verbal and physical harassment and arrest.”
The office said it has received “numerous, and verified, videos of violent treatment of women, including slapping women across the face, beating them with batons and throwing them into police vans.”
The moral crackdown on women is a reflection of the regime’s weakness, activists say.
Arman, a 25-year-old university student in central Iran, is a resistance unit member of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, a controversial but strong opposition group, and has participated in anti-regime actions in the country.
Speaking to UPI from Iran prior to the outbreak of the current protests on the condition of anonymity, Arman said the regime’s influence and power in the country was at an all-time low and continuing to drop.
“But as we all know, the weaker the regime gets, the more violent it gets, as well,” with the regime’s first and primary target always being women, who have been at the forefront of protests going back years, he said.
“And that is completely natural, because women have been the main point of oppression of the regime from years ago until now,” he said. “And they cannot tolerate this any more.”
Hijab as symbol
Iran’s modern history is marked by protests surrounding the hijab.
During protests that led to the ousting of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, some women donned head scarfs as an expression of their opposition to the Western-backed monarch, who had banned the hijab in 1936.
Then following the fall of the shah and the rise of Ruhollah Khomeini, the head scarf became a symbol of oppression, as one of his first orders on becoming Iran’s spiritual leader was to mandate it be worn.
Seemingly to his surprise, the decree sparked mass protests.
On March 8, 1979, International Women’s Day, the women of Tehran took to the streets in opposition.
Mitra Khorram was a 17-year-old high school student who had recently joined a feminist organization when the protest erupted.
She recalls thousands of people, mostly women, taking to the streets under the slogan that they didn’t help to usher in revolution to go backward. Men also participated, she said, but in much fewer numbers, acting mainly as guards to protect protesters from attacks by ultra Islamic groups.
“I was afraid, of course, but it was not my first time to see this because even during those protests of the anti-shah regime, we faced guns, we faced people getting shot in front of us. So we know what is violence and what is governmental violence — we knew that,” she said.
The protests lasted six days, and attracted the attention of famed American feminist Kate Millett, who flew to Tehran to participate, and Simon de Beauvoir, who had sponsored a group of French women’s rights leaders to join in the effort.
The New York Times reported at the time that on March 10, 15,000 protesters participated in a sit-in outside the Palace of Justice and read a list of eight demands, including the right to choose their own attire, equal civil rights with men and no discrimination in political, social and economic rights.
The proposed law was rescinded. Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani had walked back Khomeini’s comments, telling the Ettela’at newspaper on March 11, “The Islamic hijab [represents] character and grace, but there’s no compulsion about it.”
Khorram, a current supporter of the Communist Party of Iran, explained Khomeini’s reversal was due to his government being new and unestablished. It would not be long before the law resurfaced, though. The hijab became mandatory in 1983 under punishment of fines, imprisonment or 74 lashes.
“I was super sad because we were fighting and our goal was freedom and emancipation of women and of everyone in Iran, and we had these big goals for future society, and then we faced this counter revolution and we could understand, we could feel this failure is not only going to stop here,” she said. “We knew that it’s a start, a start of oppression in many ways and in very horrible ways.”
She described the hijab law as the Islamic Republic’s first infringement against the rights of its people and the hijab itself as a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism, suppression and enslavement.
“This was the first attack but then they continued attacking all kinds of freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of expression — all kinds of freedom,” she said.
Decades of oppression
What followed was what she called “the black decade” of the 1980s, during which political freedom was squelched and opposition leaders were arrested and executed.
“The sadness was through the whole society,” she said.
In the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Iran came under something of a reformist movement in which politicians urged change from within Islamic government. Khorram said this had the effect of silencing the people, with the “revolutionary gears” starting to turn in the late 2010s, when Iran began to experience an increase in protests, some that bordered on uprisings.
Asadi said today’s protest is a continuation of the one from 1979, but for decades it was muted and conducted more on an individual level. About five years ago, women began to literally take a stand upon utility boxes and and other raised platforms in public, posing like statues with their hijab in their hands.
She explained that though much smaller than the protest of today, it shook the whole society, showing that Iranian women have “great potential to explode … because they’ve been forced to wear this for 40 years now.”
Sobhan, a 20-year-old university student and a MEK resistance unit member, spoke to UPI from Iran a month before the current protests erupted.
Under the condition of anonymity, he explained that the government of Iran has always tried to spread hopelessness among the people to make them feel impotent to bring about change.
“But Iran’s society right now is like a powder keg,” he said in August. “They all want this regime to go. So the regime uses suppression, imposes restrictions in order to take away the hope of the people.
“Through torture and executions, it tries to spread fear among the people. But in reality, Iran is currently like a powder keg. All it needs is a spark to explode.”
Khorram said the main difference between her protest of 1979 and today’s is the 44 years of oppression of women in between.
“We didn’t have that experience,” she said. “Now they know. They experienced this for decades and now they know what it means.
“People are shouting against the whole regime. It’s not any more about reforms or this or that law. It’s about the whole regime because they noticed and they know now what is the crucial role of hijab. It is not only a cover, it’s not only about the scarf, it’s the core of the Islamic Republic.”
A new revolution
Asadi described the protest as the start of revolution after the Iranian people had their first one stolen from them when Khomeini replaced the shah.
She said she sees three possible outcomes for the current protests: That the protesters will succeed and overthrow the government; that the regime will suppress the movement; or other forces will once again steal their revolution.
Khorram agreed that the protest was the start of a revolution, and she, too, worries over the future of her home country, which she left more than 20 years ago.
Based on her experience, she is concerned about what will replace the Islamic Republic.
“I am the generation who experienced 1979,” she said. “I was fighting against the dictatorship and I saw another dictatorship come into power.
“I want an actual revolution, an actual revolution that eliminates all forms of oppression of women. So I think my fight continues, even after overthrowing the regime,” she said.