Mahsa Amini, 22, did not deserve to die. Women across Iran are burning their headscarves and baring their heads in protest after Amini died in police custody over an alleged violation of the country’s strict religious dress code. There were reports that police beat Amini’s head with a baton and banged her head against one of their vehicles, Acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif said. Amini lay in a coma for three days before succumbing to her injuries.
The protests have led to a massive crackdown. Three protesters were shot dead by security forces in Urmia, Piranshahr and Kermanshah. This news stands in sharp contrast to the news published by Iran’s state news agency, the Islamic Republic News Agency, which reported that “Iranian people demonstrated on Sunday to protest recent unrest and to support law enforcement forces and values honored by religion and the Islamic Revolution.”
Are Iranians now protesting against the protestors in support of the regime? There is no way to know for sure. It is difficult to verify any of the news emerging from Iran as the regime has cut off internet access and has likely flooded the internet with its own propaganda.
The current protests by women against the morality police, the enforcement of laws over the hijab, and against the regime in general, are not new. Iranian citizens have publicly expressed their views before – and not without massive risk to their own lives.
In 2014, Iranian women began sharing photos and videos of themselves publicly flouting the hijab laws as part of an online protest campaign called “My Stealthy Freedom”. It has since inspired other movements, including “White Wednesdays” and “Girls of Revolution Street.” Those protests ended without fanfare and did not succeed in introducing any major changes, but they inspired other activists to maintain the fight against the regime.
Now, according to Iranian government-run media reports, police have also arrested those responsible for planning riots. And London-based media site Iran International reports that although security forces have killed more than 75 protesters (according to Norway-based Iran Human Rights group), the killings have not reached the horrific level of November 2019, when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reportedly authorized unrestricted use of military weapons, killing at least 1,500 protesters.
But while the protesters appear to be demanding change or even the downfall of the regime, it is unlikely this will happen. According to senior columnist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, “these protests are not likely to bring down the current regime, unlike the 1979 protests that overthrew the Shah.” In Al-Rashed’s view, the regime today, while more violent, is “still standing.” However, Al-Rashed believes that while the regime is “far from collapsing,” it is ”crumbling piece by piece.”
Surely, today’s protestors hope this is the case and any signs of weakness on the part of the regime will possibly encourage further protests in the hope the regime will fall. On the flipside, if the regime acts with a heavy hand, it will either quell the protests or lead to even further protest.
The western world appears nonplussed and seems to want to stay out of Iran’s business. Since the hijab is often seen as a “women’s choice” and a “sign of respect”, the western world doesn’t seem to understand that the hijab is in fact a sign of submission and control. Human rights defenders such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali have long argued that the hijab is a sign of oppression – not freedom.
Even more shocking of course, is CNN’s Christiane Amanpour’s desire to interview Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. While she did rightfully refuse to comply with his demand that she don a headscarf for the interview, the question remains why she was so eager to interview him in the first place. CNN and Amanpour should have notified Raisi that they were cancelling the interview in protest of the regime and its heavy-handed treatment of Iran’s citizens. CNN blew a terrific and unique opportunity to demonstrate western resolve against autocratic regimes like Iran.
The silence of progressive leaders in America such as US Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib should be concerning for those who work to highlight the plight of Iranian citizens. Yes, these lawmakers have paid lip service to the cause, but shouldn’t they be doing more? Iran is suppressing protests, gunning down protestors, targeting women and minorities, and using violence to stop what it sees as a direct threat to the regime, but American leaders who are often outspoken on human rights and women’s rights especially, are now largely silent.
While New York Congresswoman AOC did post a comment on Twitter in support of the rioters, she received push back in the comments, one of which told her to “stop projecting your feminist biases upon what is a national struggle for the Iranian people. Stop appropriating Iran for your Woke agenda & liberation theology.” Not to say that this criticism is warranted, but it does represent the feelings of some people who seem to believe American lawmakers and those of other western countries can be doing more to confront Iran over its abusive policies and violent reactions to public protests.
Today, with or without support from the west, protestors are chanting in the streets – not about hijab or the heavy-handed morality police – but about their disenchantment with Iran’s leadership. Today, a large portion of the Iranian public desires regime change. But the only way they can bring this about is to remain resilient and maintain a presence on the streets until the regime capitulates. Short of this, nothing will change.