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Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

“Woman, Life, Freedom” A Contextualization of the Iranian Protests

Written by: Helen Kurvits

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the University of Auckland and draws on views of Iranian-Kiwi senior lecturer Farzaneh Haghighi, who participated in Iran’s 2009 Green Movement and gives insights on Iran in this piece.

Mahsa Amini

The killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September 2022 has led to widespread protests and tragic bloodshed in Iran. The young woman was arrested by Iran’s so-called morality police for “improperly wearing her headscarf”, according to the police report. She was assaulted by several officers and died in custody. The backdrop of the arrest is that women in Iran are legally obligated to cover their hair and Amini was arrested for revealing too much of hers. Shortly after,‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ has become the slogan of a movement placing women’s rights at its core. According to Iranian-born University of Auckland lecturer Farzaneh Haghighi, the movement centres on the right to live and not advocating for separatism within Iran nor an attack on Islam or the hijab.

Economics in the Background

The majority of Iran’s 85 million people are struggling. Besides the strict political regime, the economic conditions in Iran have worsened for years. In 2021, inflation stood at 43 per cent, the unemployment rate at a little over 11 per cent. Between 2012 and 2019, the GDP of Iran decreased a staggering 55% and 38% of the population remains below the poverty line. The US-led sanctions imposed on Iran are causing its currency to lose value. The UN has even stated that the US sanctions in place violate Iranians’ right to health. This leaves Iranians in a precarious situation: Ordinary Iranians suffer from outside sanctions and domestic political oppression.

2022 was a Sequel, not a Beginning

The use of excessive violence by the state against protesters is not novel in Iran. This becomes apparent when examining the history of protests and political activism in contemporary Iran. In 2009, the Green Movement arose in response to election fraud and brought about mass demonstrations. As many of the protesters wore shades of green that were associated with the opposition candidate’s campaign, the name stuck with the demonstrations. However, these protests were violently suppressed, leaving at least 71 dead and over 10,000 arrested. Eight year on, the protests of 2017 in reaction to high food prices brought mostly young, working poor, or unemployed Iranians to the streets. Once again, the response of the state led to 25 deaths and 3,700 arrests. Another two years later, in 2019, during protests following rocketing fuel prices, up to 225 protesters and bystanders were killed, according to Amnesty International and 7,000 arrested. While painful, reciting these numbers is crucial for understanding the context in which Iranian women are taking to the streets yet again in 2022/23.

Iranian Feminism

According to the assessment of Farzaneh Haghighi, the roots of the Iranian feminist movement lie in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911. Women participated in political actions by establishing associations, joining protests, and supporting strikes. Several women’s organisations were founded during the time, such as the Women’s Freedom Association. As time passed, women started to advocate for educational and employment rights and for the reform of marital and divorce laws. A notable figure of the feminist movement in Iran is the mezzo-soprano Ghamar-ol-Molouk Vaziri. The Queen of Persian music, as she later became known, was the first woman to sing highly charged political songs in public. She repeatedly performed on stage without a veil and not covering her hair.

Previous Protests and Imprisonments

Those protesting are facing severe threats to their lives. Journalist and activist Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, founder of the ‘One Million Signatures Campaign’ that aimed to change discriminatory laws against women in Iran, was sent to prison for three years in 2007 accused of threatening national security. In 2019, a women’s rights activist Baherah Hedayat was arrested over a Tweet announcing she would attend the mourning for the victims of the Flight 752 that was shot down in January 2020 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Baherah Hedayat is still in prison. A human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has represented various imprisoned political and human right activists including Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, had been arrested several times. In 2018, she was charged with espionage and sentenced to 38 years in prison. In 2022, Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi broke the mandatory hijab laws of the Islamic regime by competing without a headscarf in South Korea. While Rekabi later said the headscarf had inadvertently fallen off, many remain sceptical of her claims. She is now under home arrest in Iran.

History: Repeat

Once again, the widespread protests have led to tragic bloodshed in Iran. It has been estimated that the death toll amongst protesters had exceeded 320 by November 2022, This number includes at least 40 children. The UN has called on Iranian authorities to release those detained after peacefully demonstrating against the government. Security forces have used unlawful force by severely beating people, misusing tear gas, firing live ammunition and metal pellets at protesters at close range. It has been reported by Iranian human rights activists that women detained in anti-government protests have been sexually and physically abused by the Iranian authorities.

Feminist at Heart

The courage and determination of Iranian women and men who are redefining what non-violent democratic resistance means are the foundation of the movement of today. These collective movements in public spaces in Iran are met with oppression as public spaces are policed. Nevertheless, the protests should not be understood as a singular event within a country but reflective of a larger phenomenon and history. ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’  fights for the right to determine one’s own destiny beyond political ideologies and for the authority of women over their own bodies.

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