On September 16th, the world was rocked by the death of a 22-year-old Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini. She was arrested by the morality police because her hijab was not covering her hair properly; once taken to a re-education center, she suffered a “heart attack,” fell into a coma, and was later pronounced dead. Iranian government claims that she died of natural causes, but her family stated that she had no pre-existing health conditions to induce a heart attack. Therefore, they believe that foul play was involved.
Iran is a theocracy, but has not been the case for long. Iran used to have a Shah, a type of royalty, before the rapid shift of power to a theocracy with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This new government undid many progressive laws, including the Family Protection Act of 1975 which allowed women to have expanded rights in marriages.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with a theocracy, when living by the rules of said religion is no longer a choice, it loses its ethical value. For instance, students of Boston College attend a religious school and therefore live in a religious community where Mass is offered, but not a requirement. This allows the school to be inclusive for non-religious or non-Catholic people. Students at BC can take what they wish to from the religious aspects of the school. This is the ideal theocracy: a looming force that promotes general goodness (the core value of almost all religions), but allows for the practice or non-practice of said religion to be completely personal.
That was not the case for Mahsa Amini. She did not receive the privilege of taking what she wanted from the theocracy. Even members of the morality police have expressed discomfort with their role in policing the public to conform with Sharia law. An anonymous morality police officer told the BBC that “the reason we are working for the morality police is to protect women. Because if they do not dress properly, then men could get provoked and harm them.” Not only is that reasoning rooted in sexism, blaming women for the violence perpetrated against them, but it also ignores the blatant contradiction: the purpose of the morality police is to control women and enforce Iranian law, not to protect them. The same officer admitted that their supervisors would get upset if they did not arrest enough people like Mahsa Amini.
After Mahsa Amini’s death, protests erupted all over the world, including in Iran, Paris, Canada, and the UK. These protesters have not been treated kindly, seeing as there have been 35 deaths confirmed by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, and 1,200 arrested, including 17 journalists. Much like the January 6th riot at the U.S. Capitol, the Iranian military has asked the public to help identify protesters. The Iranian government is also restricting Internet access until the protests subside to prevent people from organizing further. The UN requested an independent investigation of Amini’s death and asked that the Iranian government not use “disproportionate force” on the protesters.
It is no secret that women in Iran have multiple restrictions in place to ensure they comply with Sharia law. However, Iranian women have never been silent about their distaste for the restrictions. As soon as Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the first supreme leader of Iran, mandated hijabs for women in 1979, women began to protest. Not long after in 1983, women were punished with 74 lashes or 60 days in prison for wearing a hijab improperly. Masha Amini’s death reminds us that the struggle for Iranian women to regain control over their bodies is nowhere close to being done. At her funeral, women removed their hijabs in protest, some women even burning them.
Islam itself is not an oppressive religion, and many Muslim women have begun attempting to expose the true meaning of the Qur'an. While the prophet Muhammed was alive, women were given roles as leaders, scholars, and military personnel. Women were allowed to own property and could vote in political affairs, therefore, it is clear that Muhammad and the text of the Qur'an did not intend for Islam to result in the oppression of women. Many Muslim scholars argue that the text has been misinterpreted to excuse the oppression of women. The practice of wearing a hijab and modest clothing is meant to please God, as well as meant to be a personal decision, as stated in the Qur'an: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256).
Oftentimes, people from the West only hear about Middle Eastern women in the context of religious oppression, and therefore associate that with Islam itself. Just because people interpret and enforce a religion a certain way does not mean that all followers of that religion agree. As such, it does not mean that women who choose to wear hijabs are being forced into submission, and it also does not mean that Muslim women who choose to not wear hijabs are improper or deviant.
With all of this history in mind, what makes these protests different? Some believe that the youth population of Iran is going to make an impact like no movement ever before. One woman who attended the protests told the BBC, “When they did this, it reminded me of the time people started taking the Berlin wall down, it's that moment. What makes me very emotional and hopeful is that this is the first time these girls are not alone. Now men are standing with women together." To many, this feels like a true revolution for a chance at a new beginning. People are not only demanding that their supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, be put to death, but they are also calling for an end to the Islamic republic.
It is currently difficult to say how this situation will play out, and given the history of regimes that have risen and fallen, it feels extremely unlikely that a radical regime change will happen without violence. At this point, a non-violent transition is essentially a moot point given the violence already committed by the Iranian government. The Iranian republic could continue to cut their citizens off from social media and isolate them until they comply, but CNN believes this will end with force, with threats from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or with forced division. If the Iranian government can convince their supporters that the protesters are foreign agents trying to destroy their theocracy, they may be able to get enough people to rally around them. Hopes appear to be high for Iranian citizens, however, and there may be a real possibility for change. If the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was able to transform the entire governmental structure of Iran, it is something that can be done again. The question is, by what means?