Iran protests are defining moment for women and freedom despite government’s deadly response
- Mahsa Amini’s death has reignited long-suppressed anger among Iranians over issues including the dress code for women and repression of individual rights
- While the government is unlikely to make gestures of accommodation, the protests underline a fundamental change, with Iranians more willing to fight for their rights
Breaking local laws and religious mandates, many Iranian women have cut off their hair and removed as well as burned their hijabs. Female protesters have also been seen dancing near large bonfires to the applause of crowds chanting “woman, life, freedom”.
Videos posted online have showed women in Tehran shouting “death to the dictator”– a chant often used in reference to the supreme leader – while others screamed “justice, liberty, no to mandatory hijab”.
In an attempt to block the social media networks that protesters have widely relied on to express dissent and rally support, authorities have disrupted access to the internet. According to web monitoring firm Net Blocks, people in Iran are experiencing “rolling blackouts” and “widespread internet platform restrictions”, with WhatsApp, Instagram and Skype blocked.
Yet, Iranians are standing firm and continuing with the demonstrations despite the president’s warning and the authorities’ escalation of their crackdown. The Twitter account of one activist continued to show videos of protesters in Tehran’s western Sattarkhan district gathered at a square and chanting, “don’t be afraid, we are all in this together” late on Saturday.
Another video from the same evening showcased a woman defiantly swinging her headscarf above her head as she walked in the middle of a Tehran street. Footage on social media showed demonstrations in Mazandaran and Gilan provinces and Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan province, despite a heavy police presence.
It remains to be seen how the Iranian government will react to the continuing protests in the coming days.
The strength of the outpouring of anger should serve as a wake-up call for the Iranian government, making it realise it must be more responsive to the legitimate grievances of the population. It is perhaps time for the Iranian authorities to begin listening to the needs and concerns of the protesters.
Protests in 2019 were sparked by an increase in fuel prices and rapidly spread across the country, becoming Iran’s worst unrest since the 1979 revolution, with demonstrators calling for the downfall of the country’ leaders. They were met with a ferocious response from the authorities, including the reported use of live ammunition, resulting in hundreds of deaths.
Women have also challenged the country’s strict dress code and rules governing social behaviour in the past. The “Girls of Revolution Street” protests over the hijab in Tehran in 2017 were quashed with arrests by the government. In 2019, a 29-year-old woman set herself on fire after she was arrested for trying to sneak into a men’s soccer match. Iran has since allowed women to attend football matches, though they are sequestered in certain areas.
With neither side showing signs of backing down, this is a critical and unpredictable moment for the country. Yet, even if the protests are put down in the days to come, something fundamental has changed in Iran with its citizens becoming more willing to fight for their rights and freedoms and to speak out against the government.
Akanksha Khullar is an independent scholar working on gender issues