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Beyond the veil: Minority women in Iran are calling for change

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The bastion of patriarchy has long been defended by systems of discrimination and impunity in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The recent death of one woman and the collective trauma it has triggered amongst the Iranian people may bring it tumbling down.

On 16 September of this year, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini – also known by her Kurdish name Jina Amini – died in custody on 16 September, after she was arrested and detained by Iran’s morality police for apparently revealing some of her hair in public.

A Kurdish phrase was chanted at Mahsa’s funeral, ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi’, meaning ‘women, life, freedom’. These words, already central to Kurdish grassroot movements for many years, have reverberated across the country to now become the slogan of a wider civil society movement in which people are risking their lives to protest for their rights. Mahsa has not only become a symbol for Kurdish women, but her death has come to represent the deeply entrenched  discrimination of Iranian women collectively, as well as the systematic oppression of entire minority communities in Iran.

In recent years, Iranian women have faced increased violence, abuse and harassment for the way they wear a headscarf. These pressures intensified after the introduction of a National Hijab and Chastity Day this year, when Iran’s dress-code law was reinforced with new restrictions. In contrast, before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women in Iran were subjected to a complete ban on the headscarf. Some younger activists at the time wore head coverings in protest, as a symbol of their political opposition to the monarchy.

Today, the Iranian women cutting their hair and burning their headscarves in protest are sending a clear message that resonates with the activism of Iranian women throughout history: no state authority should dictate women’s choices, bodily autonomy, or their freedom of religion or belief.

Discrimination against women in Iran extends far beyond the politics of the veil. Women face barriers to accessing basic rights in areas including employment, marriage, and participation in public and political life. These restrictions are often harsher for minority women, partly because their home provinces are some of the country’s poorest and most marginalised – an example of the structural discrimination they face on the basis of their ethnic or religious identity.

The protests we are currently seeing in Iran are the latest in a series of both widespread and localised demonstrations that have taken place since 2017. For years, people across the country have been demanding an end to human rights abuses, corruption, environmental degradation, and impunity. Time and time again, the state has used excessive violence to stifle free expression, activism or dissent, particularly in ethnically dominated provinces such as Kurdistan, Baluchistan, and Khuzestan, where Arabs, Kurds and Baluchis have been at the forefront of demonstrations.

Today’s protests are no different. We are witnessing violent attacks, arbitrary arrests, harassment, detentions, torture and killings of activists, lawyers, journalists, students and others. This is taking place across Iran with one of the most severe instances occurring in Zahedan, Baluchistan. On 30 September, state forces fired indiscriminate shots at crowds gathering for Friday prayer and to protest the rape of a Baluch girl by a member of the security forces. On this day and in this one town, over 80 people are estimated to have been massacred and hundreds injured. The day has devastatingly become known in Iran as ‘bloody Friday’.

Once again, a disproportionate number of minority women are being targeted by state enforcement officers, including an escalation of official surveillance and intimidation, and the use of sexual and gender-based violence.

But the people of Iran are not backing down. Why?

There is, without a doubt, deep frustration and anger that have accumulated from decades of socio-economic and political grievances in the country at large. Yet the seemingly distinguishing factor of this movement from the ones before it is the recognition that women’s rights are deeply intertwined with these issues.

Women’s demands are not secondary here, they are at the forefront. Yet we must recognise that this protest began with Kurdish women in Saqez and Sanandaj and that minorities are speaking up from their unique positions. In calling for change for women, we must remember to also amplify voices of minority women too. Peaceful and functioning societies cannot be built without protection of those most marginalised.

There is a sense of unity and collaboration with the people of Iran that is seemingly growing with every attack and attempt to stifle it. While this is a characteristic of the movement’s strength, history suggests that the authorities may only increase the crackdown and deepen repression as demonstrations continue.

But right now, the world is watching. Mahsa and others like her will not be forgotten and the past month cannot be erased.

There is no going back.

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Photo: Mahsa Amini, 22, passed away in hospital after being arrested by morality police for her alleged improper hijab and being taken to a detention centre on 16 September 2022. Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Live News.

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