Illustration by Dina Mobaraki

Zan, Zendegi, Azadi — Iran Protests As The World Watches

The killing of Mahsa Zhina Amini, allegedly carried out by Iran’s morality police, sparked outrage domestically and internationally.

Sep 26, 2022

Tehran, Isfahan, Karaj, Mashhad, Rasht, Saqqes and Sanandaj domestically, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Lebanon, Turkey, Canada and the United States. These are just some of the places that have witnessed protests after 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Zhina Amini, was allegedly lethally abused by Iran’s “Guidance Patrol”, commonly known as the “morality police”, which caused her death three days later in Kasra Hospital.
Accused of wearing “unsuitable attire”, wearing her hijab improperly and stepping out of the house in tight trousers, Amini was allegedly beaten by the patrol in the van on her way to a detention center and declared brain dead upon her arrival to the hospital.
In response to the protests, access to the internet has been severely restricted in the country, with reported disruptions to Whatsapp and Instagram services too. According to Amnesty International, a government crackdown on demonstrations has so far led to the death of at least 52 people, with hundreds injured. Reportedly, many artists, activists, demonstrators and students have also been detained by state authorities.
The Context
According to Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code, women are legally not allowed to appear in public without wearing a hijab. However, it is up for debate whether the police have a right to arrest citizens under this rule without an official court warrant. Both international organizations, such as the UN Human Rights Office, and domestic officials, such as two of the most senior Ayatollahs in Iran have criticized the “morality police'', who impose arbitrary punishments on women who they claim wear the hijab loosely.
Amini’s death is highly publicized, but it is not an incident without its precursors and forebodings. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has received abundant evidence of expanding street patrols by Iranian morality police, who target women allegedly wearing a “loose hijab” with verbal and physical abuse. The harassment includes slapping women, beating them with batons and throwing them into police vans.
“The authorities must stop targeting, harassing, and detaining women who do not abide by the hijab rules,” said Nada Al-Nashif, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She called for repealing all laws and regulations that impose the mandatory hijab, which actively takes away the choice of women to practice their beliefs as they wish.
Local and Global Reactions
Amini’s death has incited international outcry from both governmental agencies, human rights activists and feminist associations. The hashtag #MahsaAmini began trending on Twitter, with reportedly more than two million mentions. The governments of the US and France have publicly condemned the abuse of human rights leading to Amini’s death. Agencies such as Acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Activists News Agency and Amnesty Iran began moblizing and calling for impartial, prompt and transparent investigations as well as accessible justice procedures for Amini’s family.
On the other hand, Iranian authorities reacted by cracking down on demonstrators and shutting down internet access on Sept. 23 in parts of Tehran and Kurdistan to curb the ever louder protests. Denying allegations over violent abuse and claiming Amini died of a pre-existing medical condition, Iranian authorities have released no footage or witness accounts from her time in detention; their claims of Amini’s previous conditions of diabetes, epilepsy and a previous brain tumor operation were debunked by her family, who argued that Amini was in perfect health.
“She did not have epilepsy, nor heart disease … The video they showed from the detention center was also edited … Why didn’t they show the footage when they took my daughter out of the van? Why didn’t they show what happened in the corridors of the detention center? It was psychologically stressful for her and it is the police that are responsible for this disaster,” said Amini’s father to Ham-Mihan newspaper.
The police responded to the outrage and accusations against them. “Cowardly accusations have been leveled against the police, which we will defer to the day of judgment, but is it possible to shut down the society’s security?” asked Brigadier-General Hossein Rahimi, Tehran’s police chief, during a press conference on Monday, Sept. 19.
Besides taking action on the judiciary and parliament, President Ebrahim Raisi has ordered an investigation and called Amini’s family on Sunday, Sept 18, promising results. “Your daughter is like my own daughter,” said President Ebrahim Raisi to Amini’s family.
In another conference, President Raisi argued that Iran must "deal decisively with those who oppose the country's security and tranquility", according to state media.
The Iranian state TV has reported at least 35 deaths among clashes between protesters and the police. On Thursday, Sept 22, reports shed light on protesters torching police stations and vehicles across the country, with women resorting to the streets and the internet, burning their headscarves and cutting their hair. The situation continues to gain momentum as mass protests broke out across the world, including locations such as Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Lebanon, Turkey, Canada and the United States.
On the other hand, while international support for justice remains crucial and relevant, some have pointed out that western rallies for economically sanctioning Iran for failing to defend the rights of women may be problematic. Many activists argued that global sanctions to punish a repressive state for its repression, especially from the U.S., have never worked.
Journalist Hoda Katebi of LA Times, for instance, reminds: “As the economy has been squeezed and ordinary people suffer, the Revolutionary Guards and others connected to the government have seized an even bigger share of the national economy, concentrating wealth in their hands.” She further adds, “To support their cause, we need to demand an immediate lifting of sanctions … so that they can continue to rise up against oppression in all forms.”
For some activists, such calls for sanctions may highlight the imperialist obsession of the west with “unveiling” oppressed women of the illiberal global south, while conveniently ignoring the west’s homegrown bigotry and oppression of women who choose to veil, like the discrimination of women wearing the hijab in the U.S. itself, than actually amplifying the voices of Iranian communities as they fight for their liberation.
Iran’s History of Feminist Resistance
It is clear that these protests are a watershed moment in Iran’s recent political history. Yet, as cries of “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” (“Woman, Life, Liberation,” a slogan with Kurdish origins, perhaps a rightful tribute to Amini’s own roots), echo in Tehran and across the world, commentators, historians and activists emphasize the ways in which feminist resistance is deeply interwoven with the social and political fabric of the nation.
“From the very beginning of the revolution in 1979, women were at the forefront. They were walking shoulder to shoulder with men in front of tanks and guns, and they were seeking a different kind of government, an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist government,” Negar Mottahedeh, a professor of gender and feminist studies at Duke University, explained to a reporter at Vox.
“It’s really important to focus on women’s resistance and resilience inside of Iran, and not see them as victims,” says Sussan Tahmasebi, executive director of the human rights organization, Femena. “Iranian women — even though they deal with a lot of discriminatory laws, structural and legal discrimination — they have always taken every opportunity to advance their lives.”
Protestors across Iran and the Iranian diaspora, through chants such as “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi'' and “Marg Bar Setamgar, Che Shah Bashe Che Rahbar” (Death to the dictator, whether they are a king or a mullah), are organizing against a repressive police state that has used religion to violently crack down on resistance and opposition in the past. Protestors condemn both the glorification of pre-1979 Iran under the Shah’s royal dictatorship as well as post-1979 Iran, an Islamic republic. Women adorning hijabs stand and dance in solidarity with women as they fling their hijabs into a fire, singing “Don’t be afraid, we are all together”.
Huma Umar is Editor-in-Chief. Zhiyu Lindy Luo is Senior News Editor. Email them at
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