In Iran, powerful protests against the government are being led by women.
If you haven’t been paying attention to the protests in Iran that are being led by women, this is your sign to start. Mahsa Amini, who was 22 years old, died while in police custody last week. This led to protests all over the country. Amini was taken into custody by Iran’s infamous morality police because she was wearing a “improper hijab.” She was in a coma for three days before police said she died of a heart attack. But witnesses say that officers beat Amini in a police van after they arrested her, and a source from the hospital told Iran International that Amini was already unconscious when she got to the hospital because she had been hit in the head “multiple times.” This anonymous source says that her death was caused by damage to her brain.
Amini’s death is by no means an isolated event. It’s the latest crime to come out of a crisis of impunity that has been made worse by state-sponsored violence. Every day, more people are killed as Iran’s authoritarian government tries to stop the protests. But you can’t understand how important these rallies are in a vacuum. Instead, they are the next step in a struggle for freedom that has been going on for decades. The deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Jasmin Ramsey, called them “the biggest challenge to the Islamic Republic of Iran we’ve seen in years.”
Glamour asked Ramsey and Dr. Assal Rad, the research director at the National Iranian American Council, for their thoughts on what’s going on and what might happen next.
Glamour: At least 80 cities are now taking part in the protests. What do protesters try to accomplish?
Dr. Assal Rad, who is the National Iranian American Council’s director of research: In some ways, these protests are a direct response to the brutal killing of Mahsa Amini and the fact that she should have never been detained because of her hijab. This is why women have been on the front lines and the issue of mandatory hijab has taken center stage. In this way, protesters want freedom, especially for women to be able to choose what they want to wear.
But not everyone who is demonstrating has the same goals. Some protesters want to get rid of this system, which is why many of the chants, like “Death to the dictator,” have been about the supreme leader. In the end, these protests should be seen as part of Iran’s century-long fight for freedom and democracy, which started with the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 and is still going on today as Iranians keep asking for a government that represents their needs and wants.
Why do Iranian women choose to show defiance by cutting their hair and setting fire to their hijabs?
Rad: Control is at the heart of Iran’s hijab laws and other restrictions on women and society as a whole. Controlling women’s bodies is a key part of patriarchy. By cutting their hair and burning their hijabs, Iranian women are taking back control over their own bodies and clothing. At the same time, these acts of defiance are important because they go beyond the issue of wearing a hijab. The protests show that people have serious problems with the system as a whole, which oppresses its people, is corrupt, and doesn’t meet the basic needs of the people of Iran.
The Iranian government is doing everything it can to stop these protests. What kind of strategies have they used so far? How do you think their reaction will get worse?
Jasmin Ramsey, the Center for Human Rights in Iran’s deputy director: The UN has said that the Iranian government’s use of “lethal force” is wrong. Videos show heavily armed state security forces with guns and batons fighting with protesters and using tear gas guns and armored water cannon trucks to stop the protests. Because the government has shut down, slowed down, or cut off internet and phone access in different parts of the country, information about deaths, injuries, and arbitrary arrests has only been trickling out. At least dozens of people have been killed, and a lot more have been arrested. Based on how many people died in previous protests and how many armed state security forces are stationed on streets all over Iran, we at the Center for Human Rights in Iran think that these numbers will go up by a lot.
What has it been like for you as an Iranian-American woman to see this movement led by women?
Ramsey: After the revolution, the compulsory hijab was put in place in Tehran. My mother helped set up one of the first big protests against it. I admire all the women in Iran and around the world who have risked arrest or death just to show their hair in public or protest for justice and basic rights, like they are doing today. I worry a lot about the protesters as well. Women are taking off their hijabs, cutting their hair, and even dancing in public. Men and women are standing together demanding justice and freedom. But the violent force that is being used to put an end to the protests is already making it hard for people to be brave and want change.
What do we not talk about? What does the conversation lack?
Rad: I think that what is often missing from the conversation is a sense of how complicated Iranian politics and society are. There’s no doubt that the Iranian government is to blame for a system that lets this kind of violence and repression happen without anyone being held accountable. But over the past few years, things have gotten worse for ordinary Iranians in every way.
As for the specific problems that are driving this movement forward, they include the fact that Iranian authorities have increased restrictions and repressive measures even though Iranians have been calling for reforms for decades, the widespread corruption in the system that has not been fixed by any of the previous administrations, and the increased crackdown on any kind of dissent. These problems are made worse by the fact that Iranians have been hurt by their economy, which has been hurt by sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic, and bad management and corruption.
Diplomacy supporters have said for years that these policies would hurt regular Iranians and give more power to the worst and most abusive forces in the country. Most of what you said has happened.
This moment came after years of trouble. Tell me about the situation that is causing these protests.
Ramsey: These protests are part of Iran’s protest movement, which has been going on for the past six years and is focused on social and political change. People from all walks of life, including college students, retirees, teachers, laborers, and mothers whose children were killed because of state repression, have put everything on the line to demand justice and change. Not long before these protests, a major crackdown that also targeted religious minorities rounded up and arrested or jailed a number of important members of civil society. This is on top of all the political prisoners in Iran’s jails who are rarely talked about outside the country. To figure out why people are so angry on the streets of Iran right now, we need to look at the situation. So many people feel let down by a government that only cares about staying in power, no matter what it costs the country. They seem to be willing to put everything on the line to show how angry they are and demand justice and change.
What do you hope for and fear most about what might happen next?
Rad: I don’t like making predictions because these times of change in history are inherently hard to predict. But if we look at what has happened in the region in the past few decades, my biggest fear is that something will happen that starts a civil war or a war with other countries, as some hawks in the US have been pushing for years. I hope more than anything that the Iranian government stops using violence against protesters, listens to the people of Iran, and holds Amini’s killers responsible for their terrible actions.
How can we help people who protest? And, more generally, what can we do to help end Iran’s system of impunity?
Rad: Of course, it’s important to show our support through vigils, social media, and helping spread the messages coming from inside Iran. This can encourage Iranians to know that the rest of the world is behind them. In the US, we can take steps to make sure that sanctions don’t accidentally make it harder for Iranians to use the internet, even though the Iranian government is trying to cut them off from the rest of the world. Noam Chomsky has said that holding ourselves accountable is much easier than holding other countries accountable. However, if we want to promote human rights and accountability in Iran, we must also be consistent in how we talk about and apply rules of law.
Iran should be held responsible for its severe violations of human rights, but accountability only works when it is applied in the same way everywhere. Human rights issues are often turned into political issues in the United States. We can’t do whatever we want and let our friends do the same thing and expect to have a fair way of holding people accountable. All of this doesn’t mean that Iranian officials are less responsible; they are, without a doubt, fully responsible for their own bad actions. Even if other people violate people’s rights, this doesn’t change who is responsible. It just makes it harder for the international community to find ways to make sure accountability exists. In the end, it will be up to the people of Iran to figure out how to fix the unfair system of impunity in their country and how to guide the future of their country. More than anyone else, we should listen to and pay attention to what people inside Iran have to say.