After the 22-year-old Kurdish woman died in police custody, protests have erupted in Iran with thousands taking to the streets, burning their hijabs and cutting their hair
“I felt extreme and insoluble pain and misery.” These are the words of just one Iranian woman who spoke to Dazed about the ongoing protests currently engulfing Iran, all in the name of Mahsa Amini. The 22-year-old Kurdish woman – also known as Jina Amini, which was her Kurdish name – was visiting Tehran with her brother when she found herself being arrested by the country’s morality police for supposedly breaking the law that requires women to wear a hijab and loose-fitting clothing. Amini was then taken to a “re-education” centre, where she was allegedly beaten by officers and fell into a coma. After three days in hospital, she passed away on September 16, 2022.
Iranian officials have since claimed that Amini died after suffering a “heart attack”, releasing CCTV footage of Amini collapsing in custody. But her father has spoken out about this narrative, saying that his daughter had no pre-existing health conditions. Speaking to a local Iranian newspaper, Amjad Amini added: “The video they showed from the detention centre was also edited. Why didn’t they show the footage when they took my daughter out of the van? Why didn’t they show what happened in the corridors of the detention centre? It was psychologically stressful for her and it is the police that are responsible for this disaster.”
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has observed strict mandatory dress codes, especially for women, that come with punitive punishments, including prison and flogging. The morality police “mostly detain women, young and old, and from all walks of life, and sometimes even religious women who normally observe the hijab,” says Negar Mortazav, a journalist, political commentator and host of the Iran Podcast.
She tells Dazed that the majority of Iranians don’t actually support these mandatory hijab laws and the violent enforcement of a religious belief. “We are now seeing many religious Iranians, some hijab women too, saying that this is against their beliefs and is immoral, to violently force someone to wear Islamic attire using the police force,” she explains.
The sheer numbers on the streets seem to attest to this. Amini’s death has caused widespread outrage across Iran, with thousands of people taking to the streets for the fifth day in a row, risking their lives to speak out against this violence. According to Amnesty International, Iranian authorities have been using tear gas, water cannons, and beatings with batons to disperse protesters. During these protests, nine people have reportedly been killed, including a 16-year-old boy who was shot dead when security forces opened fire on protesters.
Video footage circulating on social media shows huge crowds marching through streets chanting: “No to the headscarf, no to the turban, yes to freedom and equality!” and “Woman, Life, Freedom.” Women were also recorded taking off their hijabs and burning them as an act of defiance, as well as people cutting their hair as a form of protest. And the cutting of hair has spread right around the world as a symbol of solidarity. On TikTok alone, the #mahsaamini hashtag has amassed 149.6 million views and counting.
Unprecedented scenes in Iran: woman sits on top of utility box and cuts her hair in main square in Kerman to protest death of Mahsa Amini after her arrest by the morality police. People clap their hands and chant “Death to the dictator.” #مهسا_امینیpic.twitter.com/2oyuKV80Ac— Golnaz Esfandiari (@GEsfandiari) September 20, 2022
The brave people of Mazandaran, my birthplace dancing for the freedom they deserve.— Masih Alinejad 🏳️ (@AlinejadMasih) September 20, 2022
I am crying by watching women burning their headscarves.#Mahsa_Amin got killed because of this headscarf but she became a turning point for Iranian women and a tipping point for the regime. pic.twitter.com/vnDsYCjHBR
One anonymous young woman, based in Iran, tells Dazed why she chose to cut her hair: “I felt frustrated and desperate and didn’t want the name of one of my compatriots to become just another hashtag on social media, so I demonstrated my dissidence through my hair... I kind of had a feeling that it would go viral but definitely not to this extent. I’m really proud to be a part of it, and of my fellow Iranians for speaking out and staying defiant.”
She adds that she is worried about the Iranian government restricting their communications and shutting down social media platforms. At the time of writing, Iran is being subjected to the most severe internet restrictions since the November 2019 protests. Twitter and Facebook have been restricted for some years, but access to Instagram and Whatsapp has been shut down in the country this week (September 21).
Another anonymous 25-year-old Iranian, based in New York, also cut their hair as a way of being part of the protests from miles away. “At the start of the movement, I didn’t sympathise with the hair-cutting, as I don’t have a gender-identifying connection with my hair. But after a couple of days, I realised it can be a way for me to show that I’m a part of the ongoing protests. I don’t live in Iran now, so there isn't much hands-on contribution I can make.” They add that they hoped the viral videos will encourage others to act and show the Iranian people they’re not alone: “every time I see myself in a mirror or touch my head I remember the movement, and remember my people.”
This isn’t the first time that Iranian women have spoken out about the mandatory dress code either. In 2014, political journalist and activist Masih Alinejad launched an online protest campaign titled “My Stealthy Freedom”, which saw women sharing photos and videos of themselves publicly breaking the hijab laws. The campaign has since launched a number of initiatives and its social media platforms have more than seven million followers, with around 80 per cent of these inside Iran.
When asked if the ongoing protests could have the potential to see real change for women’s rights in Iran, Mortazav says, “Amini’s tragic death is a wake-up call to the religious and conservative communities that this violent harassment of women is being done in their name and in the name of their beliefs. And with the various online campaigns and hashtags, I do think a national conversation has started on this issue and I hope it will be a turning point and lead to change.”
@nn_abd Spread our voice💔 #iranianlivesmatter #iran #mahsaamini #womanrights #humanrights #freedom #middleeasternlifematters #news #heartbraking #iranprotests@humanrightswatch @unicef @unicefsouthasia ♬ Ta Hamishe - Sina Sae