Unveiled: A feminist uprising in Iran

On the 13th September 2022, 22-year old Mahsa Amini was stopped in the streets of Tehran by the morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab inappropriately. There was nothing extraordinary about this. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, policing and criminalisation of women for immodesty are commonplace. However, three days after the Kurdish woman’s detention, news of her death in custody surfaced, marking the onset of a feminist uprising in Iran.


Women in Iran had been actively wearing the hijab for years, but it was not always made compulsory by law. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Iranian Revolution and later became supreme leader of Iran introduced the compulsory hijab. With his anti-western foreign policy and strict political conservatism, female bodies became conveniently politicised. However, due to the increasingly tyrannical nature of the theocratic government, many remained silent in fear of national disunity, coming right out of a cultural revolution. Meanwhile, Iranian authorities heavily cracked down on forces and discourses that could potentially threaten the legitimacy of the government – unveiled women are subject to punishment of up to 74 lashes. The abolishment of mandatory veiling eventually vanished from any political discussion. 


Videos of protestors burning their head scarfs and confrontations with the police circulated like wildfire on social media, sparking international outrage. The protests resonated heavily with the all too relevant #MeToo movement and recent protests against the anti-abortion bill. The protest is a feminist outrage through and through, and extends way beyond simple concerns of the hijab. The subjectivity of what constitutes ‘inappropriate’ attire projects vividly how the fate of women is contingent on the whims of patriarchal control. 


Iranian women have been protesting to abolish mandatory hijabs since it was first established. The 2022 protests, however, distinguish itself from past efforts by its unprecedented scale. The death of Mahsa Amini unleashed national fury. It was the ordinariness of her circumstances and the pointlessness of her death that struck a chord with women all over Iran, in addition to the growing disillusionment towards Iranian authorities. Nationwide protests broke out on the streets against the brutality and injustice inflicted upon the female population. When the public spoke out against decades of bodily oppression, Iranian authorities responded with further repression. According to a leaked document obtained by Amnesty International, authorities plan to systematically suppress protests with armed forces. With this in mind, while Mahsa Amini allegedly died due to pre-existing medical conditions, it is fair to speculate that she died at the hands of the police. 


While the West condemns Iranian authorities for their subjugation and brutality, we should also perhaps consider Western complicity in the oppression of Muslim women. Islamic veils have been increasingly becoming a topic of contention, especially after 9/11 and its Islamophobic aftermath. For instance, veiled women have been heavily scrutinised by airport security; France introduced a ban on face coverings such as niqabs and the burqa: while this does not apply to the hijab, a ban like this stripped away the bodily autonomy of many Muslim women and could be interpreted as lightly veiled Islamophobia. As the fire of Mahsa Amini’s life extinguishes, another flame ignites in the form of a feminist revolution. At times of potential change such as this, it is important to not only educate and inform ourselves, if not take action, but also to reflect on our privilege.


Image: Artin Bakhan on Unsplash

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