Hijab on fire: that’s why Iranian women protest Mahsa Amini’s death

Social media feeds have been flooded in recent days with images of women taking to the streets in Iran and burning their hijabs in a public act of defiance of government rules, and without the legal right to protest.
Since then, five days of protests have rocked Tehran and the Kurdish regions of Iran .
A crowd in Turkey protests in support of Mahsa Amini.

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in Turkey to support the young Kurdish woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by the Islamic Republic’s moral police. sources: Getty / Ozan Kose

After his death in detention, the events taking place in Iran, particularly in the province of Kurdistan, have been described as “explosive” by academics.

But why was Ms. Amini arrested in the first place, what are the Iranian rules on hijab and how will women deal with the consequences of their protests?

Who is Mahsa Amini, the woman who died in detention?

Mahsa Amini is a 22-year-old woman from the Kurdish province of Iran. She was in Tehran with her brother when she was reprimanded by the Iranian Morality Police – formally known as “Orientation Police” or Gasht-e Ershad – for her “improper” use of the hijab.

She was detained for three days in the Vozara Detention Center when she fell into a coma and died. Local police denied the allegations that she was beaten, claiming she suffered a heart attack while in detention. It is a claim that her family is contesting and her parents have publicly stated that Ms. Amini was fit and healthy prior to her arrest.

“Based on detailed investigations, from his transfer to the vehicle and also on the spot [station]there was no physical encounter with her, “a police statement said.
His death has raised the alarm of various human rights groups, including the United Nations, who heard Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the General Assembly for the first time on Wednesday. In his speech about him, he kept silent about the death of Mrs. Amini.

“Mahsa Amini’s tragic death and allegations of torture and ill-treatment must be promptly, impartially and effectively investigated by an independent competent authority,” Nada Al-Nashif, the United Nations High Commissioner for interim human rights.

Are women in Iran forced to wear hijab?

Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, all women in Iran have been legally obligated to wear hijab in adherence to the government’s interpretation of the Islamic legislature, the Sharia. According to the law of the country, women’s hair and neck must be covered while wearing loose clothing.
Failure to use the hijab in accordance with Iranian laws can end up with women in prison, fined or physically abused by the moral police.

Research professor of Middle East and Central Asian studies at Deakin University, Shahram Akbarzadeh, said violence against women who “challenge the borders” of the hijab is nothing new. But the violence has escalated under the ultra-conservative government led by Raisi since his electoral victory in 2021.

Professor Akbarzadeh said the Iranian government’s desire to impose its understanding of Sharia on a progressive society has become a “major political challenge” in which women are increasingly expressing their willingness to choose how to dress.
In Islam, it is widely interpreted that Muslim women should wear the hijab, but it should be of their own free will. According to religion, no person or institution should force women to wear the hijab.
But as Iran calls itself a nation that encompasses Islamic values ​​in its legislation with harsh sanctions, the separation between religion and politics has become blurred since the 1979 revolution.
“The control of women’s bodies is a great obsession for Islamists,” said Professor Akbarzadeh. “Because if they can control women’s bodies, it’s a good way to control society.”
Alam Saleh, a lecturer in Iranian Studies at the Australian National University, said that Iran’s tight grip on the mandate of the hijab does not necessarily represent the values ​​of the religion of Islam. Rather, it indicates a symbol of legitimacy and control over its constituents.
“For the regime, the hijab is not just a religious issue, it is a political issue,” he said.

“[Iran] considers it his duty to promote Islam and Islam. Consequently, if its own people do not care about Islamic norms and values, it would undermine their political legitimacy. “

Why do women burn hijab?

Images and videos are posted on social media of women in various provinces of Iran burning their hijab in solidarity with Ms. Amini. Some women even cut locks of hair to protest the regime’s obligation to cover up.

Professor Akbarzadeh said women in Iran are sending a clear message.
“They say they’ve had enough. How much can they take? How much blood can be shed? That’s enough,” he said.

There is no legal right in Iran to protest the government. As such, these women could be fined, imprisoned or mistreated for their actions on the streets.

They would rather die than continue to live like this.

Shahram Akbarzadeh

“At this point, they don’t care if they knock on the door early in the morning from the security forces who identified them on social media and came to take them to jail.
“They would rather die than continue living like this.”
According to internet monitoring organization NetBlocks, Iran is experiencing severe internet outages, with the shutdown of major mobile networks and severely restricted Instagram and WhatsApp since September 19.

Dr. Saleh said that Ms. Amini’s “catastrophic” death was simply the trigger for the culmination of crises in Iran.

A woman stands in a vehicle that burns her hijab.  People applaud

A woman stands in a vehicle burning her hijab in protest against the death of Mahsa Amini in custody for wearing her hijab in an “improper” manner, according to the moral police. sources: Twitter

In recent years, the Islamic Republic has been marked by economic turmoil with high unemployment rates and skyrocketing inflation. Many Iranians blame the government for systemic corruption which is a link to the failure to implement better social and economic reforms.

“What we see here is a state versus society where the state adheres to an ideology that people don’t buy,” he said.
“Over the past four decades people have been promised a better life and a better economy, more social and physical freedom. But what we see is that people are now deeply frustrated by these broken promises.
“It is not just a demonstration, it is not a protest. It is an explosion that ignores the wishes of the people.”
Dr. Saleh said the values ​​the regime aims to uphold “move in exactly the opposite direction” from Iranian society and called on the morality police to be “completely dismantled”.
While Iran has been rocked by protests from citizens frustrated by the country’s socioeconomic status – most recently in 2019, when fuel prices soared and left 1,500 dead in the riots – this movement is led by women.

“Women are leading this protest and this movement. This is new. And women will never lose. This should warn the regime.”

What was the reaction of the Iranian authorities?

Mr. Raisi ordered an investigation into Ms. Amini’s death and was reported by IRNA, a state news bulletin, to describe her as his “own daughter,” promising justice to her family.
But according to the state-affiliated Fars news agency, the protests were met with violence from security forces who reacted with live bullets, pellet guns and tear gas.
Kurdistan Governor Ismail Zarei Koosha confirmed that three people, including a security official, have been killed in the ongoing conflicts, blaming the deaths for foreign interference and describing it as “an enemy conspiracy”.
Human rights organization Hengaw said at least seven people were killed in Kurdistan and 450 injured, the province where Ms. Amini comes from. This has not been verified by the Iranian authorities.
In an effort to ease tensions, an aide to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei visited the family to offer condolences on his behalf.
“I assured the family … that all institutions will act to defend Ms. Amini’s violated rights and none of their rights will be ignored,” said the representative, Abdolreza Pourzahbi, according to the state-affiliated media, Tasnim news agency.

With AFP