Her Name Was Mahsa Amini
On September 16th 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, died after being arrested for “improperly” wearing her hijab. She was arrested three days prior to her death in Tehran, was placed in a detention centre and was beaten into a coma and died from her catastrophic injuries.
The Iranian government insists that she suffered from a heart attack, but official reports suggest that she died from a skull fracture after being hit repeatedly in the head.
Iran and the world have witnessed an uprising of protests in support of Mahsa Amini and of other women who are treated as though they should belong to the government rather than themselves. Iranian women have begun burning their hijabs and cutting their hair in public, which has become viral on social media, to emphasise that the government does not own or control them. Iran attempted to limit these protests in Tehran and Kurdistan by blocking access to the internet and social media although this failed rapidly.
A panel of United Nations human rights experts declared “we strongly condemn the use of physical violence against women and the denial of fundamental human dignity when enforcing compulsory hijab policies ordained by State authorities”. The UN experts clearly highlight that the murder of a young woman based on her wearing her hijab too loosely, according to the Iranian authorities, constitutes physical violence and a violation of her fundamental right to human dignity. Such an infringement should be condemned appropriately, hence the protests that arose following Mahsa Amini’s murder.
According to the director of Iran Human Rights, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, people are ‘fed up with the regime. […] Not only do they take away people’s civil and political rights, but they also interfere in people’s most private aspects of life, like what you wear”. It seems that Iranians (and not just women), are fed up with the oppressive regime which is currently operational in Iran, and they are urgently seeking fundamental rights. Such a request from the Iranian population seems incredibly surprising for witnesses around the world, who benefit from a (mostly) fair and consistent application of fundamental rights, especially in the Western world these days.
Although these protests were spurred on by the murder of Mahsa Amini, they have now developed to more than women’s rights and eradicating hijab laws; Iranian citizens are now campaigning against the harsh reality of the authoritarian regime that they are witnessing and have been living under for decades. Following the protests that began in Iran and quickly spread to the rest of the world, countless other women in Iran have gone missing or died. This begs the question as to when Iran will take measures and action instead of releasing statements about the dreadful situation that is unfolding before our eyes.
In order to do so, it is important to locate Iran and the journey that women have undertaken or experienced in this country relative to their rights since 1979, marking the end of the Islamic Revolution.
The evolution of women’s rights in Iran
For women, the first ten years of the Islamic Revolution saw a return of the “compulsory veiling, ban on women singers, exclusion from political power, economic marginalization, and – adding insult to injury – the return of unilateral divorce, polygamy, and temporary marriage”. Cosmetics were also banned; if a woman was seen failing to respect this rule, her lipstick was removed by razor blade. The previous Shah’s Family Protection Law 1967 and 1973 was repealed, which had previously raised the age of marriage from 9 to 15 and entitled women to a right to divorce. The new family code instead lowered the age of marriage back to 9 years old and excluded women from some professions and some studies. Over the decades, the situation improved for Iranian women. As such, “a paradoxical outcome of Islamization in Iran has been a kind of quiet revolt by women and the emergence of what may be called a feminist pre-movement”. Women began to occupy an integral part of Iranian society, whereby their votes were crucial for the election of President Khatami in 1997 and in 2001 and helped create a majority reformist Parliament in 2000.
Since 2014, women have become increasingly defiant and rebellious in terms of wearing a hijab following social media campaigns supporting a more tolerant regime. The regime became increasingly tolerant regarding the modesty enforcement laws with former President Hassan Rouhani, who denounced the morality police for being too aggressive and in 2017, the head of the force made a pledge to stop arresting women on grounds of modesty law violations. In June 2021, President Ebrahim Raisi took office and tragically undid all the progress that had previously been achieved relating to women’s rights in Iran; he ordered the morality police to toughen up once more, restricting women’s rights to a similar level than they were at before and reinstating the hijab.
Nowadays, regarding the authoritarian nature of Iran, the legal framework is highly unfavourable to women and minorities, to such an extent that Iran’s laws allow “systematic discrimination on the basis of gender and religion”.
Women and girls’ treatment in Iran in the 21st century
According to Javaid Rehman, the Special Rapporteur about human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, “one of the most concerning issues in Iran today when it comes to the rights of women and girls is the issue of child marriage”. The rapporteur suggested raising the age of marriage given that it currently stands at 13. The report highlighted other problematic areas in terms of the laws in Iran, such as that of domestic violence.
Considering the insufficient protection afforded to victims of domestic violence, Rehman alleges that the anti-violence bill before parliament is a positive step in terms of introducing some protective measures but does not go far enough. Rehman “urge[s] for further improvements to the bill before it is enforced and to extend support services for women and children who experience domestic violence”. In Iran, men have more rights than women, and Muslims have more rights than non-Muslims.
According to Moghadam, “women in Iran are in a pre-movement phase, without the large public mobilisations and independent organisations needed to constitute a social movement. […] In time, the contradictions between women’s legal status and their social reality and aspirations, along with the blocked opportunities for employment and economic independence, could trigger a wider movement”. As tragic as Mahsa Amini’s attack and death were, and although this is still a very shocking and sensitive event, it seems that the global outrage that followed the event has finally shed light on the discriminatory, sexist and very strict regime that women are under in Iran and looking wider, all Iranian citizens living under the strict authoritarian regime in place currently.
 Women’s Voices Now, Mahsa Amini’s Death: What You Need To Know, https://www.womensvoicesnow.org/mahsa-amini?gclid=CjwKCAjw79iaBhAJEiwAPYwoCLwsJmHKuIA2c6l5DIDR7_uKQiCFhHJ6AKEQN-HqFT5aJeonJN0dixoC01QQAvD_BwE> Accessed on 24th October 2022.  United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Iran: UN experts demand accountability for death of Mahsa Amini, call for end to violence against women < https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/09/iran-un-experts-demand-accountability-death-mahsa-amini-call-end-violence> Accessed on 24th October 2022.  TIME, What to Know about the Iranian Protests Over Mahsa Amini’s Death, < https://time.com/6216513/mahsa-amini-iran-protests-police/> Accessed on 24th October 2022.  Example: UN Women, UN Women statement on the death of Mahsa Amini, < https://www.unwomen.org/en/news-stories/statement/2022/09/un-women-statement-on-the-death-of-mahsa-amini> Accessed on 24th October 2022.  Valentine M. Moghadam, Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Legal Status, Social Positions and Collective Action.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  DW News, My Stealthy Freedom: Fighting Iran’s hijab rules, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K50JASjt3X0> Accessed on 24thOctober 2022.  TIME, What to Know about the Iranian Protests Over Mahsa Amini’s Death, < https://time.com/6216513/mahsa-amini-iran-protests-police/> Accessed on 24th October 2022.  BBC News, Iran Ebrahim Raisi: The hardline cleric who became president, < https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-57421235> Accessed on 24th October 2022.  Valentine M. Moghadam, Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Legal Status, Social Positions and Collective Action.  United Nations Human Rights Council, Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, January 2021.  United Nations Human Rights Council, Iran: Women and girls treated as second class citizens, reforms urgently needed, says UN expert, < https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2021/03/iran-women-and-girls-treated-second-class-citizens-reforms-urgently-needed> Accessed on 24th October 2022.  Palais des Nations, Mandates of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions ; the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran ; the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment ; the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, AL IRN 25/2020, 3rd November 2020.  Valentine M. Moghadam, Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Legal Status, Social Positions and Collective Action.