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Protests raging across Iran show ‘solidarity’ and anger against regime, Northeastern experts say

Photos of Mahsa Amini, who died in Iran in police custody following her detention for allegedly breaking hijab rules, are displayed amid candles at a rally in Lisbon on September 23, 2022. AP photo by Jorge Castellanos

Protests sparked in Iran by the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in police custody have united the Iranian society, Northeastern University experts say, but the loud outcry will probably not bring any immediate change by the Islamist regime. 

“The very fact that there is so much solidarity with this young woman from Kurdistan and so much anger towards the regime because of her is really a sign of both political maturity of Iranian society and the depth and extent of their grievances toward the regime,” says Valentine Moghadam, professor of sociology and international affairs at Northeastern and the director of the Middle East Studies Program.

Headshot of Valentine Moghadam.
Valentine Moghadam, professor of sociology and international affairs and the director of the Middle East Studies Program, says that current protests in Iran are extraordinary because they have united people across classes, genders and religious groups. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

What is extraordinary and impressive about these protests, she says, is that they are cross-religion, cross-gender and cross-class. Men are supporting women on the streets; Shia muslims (the majority of the population) are protesting in solidarity with Kurds, who are usually Sunni muslims.

Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman from the western city of Saqez, was visiting Tehran with her family when she was stopped on Sept. 13 by the Guidance Patrol, a special unit that enforces Iran’s obligatory Islamic dress codes. 

Amini was detained for allegedly violating the country’s hijab rules. An hour later, she was hospitalized after losing consciousness in the Guidance Patrol’s custody and died in a hospital on Sept. 16. An eyewitness told Iran International, a London-based news channel, that Amini complained she had been hit on the head before she fell unconscious on the ground at the detention center.

“It is a tragedy compounded on a tragedy, because she was actually from a more conservative part of the country,” says Moghadam, who was brought up in Iran and in 2021 co-authored an article on women in Iranian Kurdistan in Gender and Society journal with two sociologists from University of Kurdistan.

Hijabs became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of 9 after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when a secular authoritarian monarchy was replaced with an Islamist theocracy.

According to the law, women should cover all their hair with a headscarf and wear clothes that cover most of their skin, Moghadam says. Although Iranian women are not required to wear a niqab, a facial veil that leaves the area around the eyes uncovered, or burka, a one-piece veil that covers the face and body, with a mesh screen to see through, it is recommended that they wear a chador, a full-body cloak, but it is not enforced, Moghadam says. 

In a photo taken hours before her arrest, Amini is seen wearing a long-sleeved black garment with her hair slightly visible underneath a black scarf, according to Iran International.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who exerts ideological and political control in the country, predictably expressed regret over the death of Amini, Moghadam says, but both officials reiterated the police’s version that she had underlying health conditions and died of a heart attack.

In response to Amini’s death protests broke out on Sept. 17 and have spread to more than 40 cities, towns and villages across Iran over the next 10 nights. At least 76 protesters were killed by security forces as of Monday, according to Norway-based Iran Human Rights organization. 

Women are protesting against arbitrary and random arrests, harassment and attacks that they suffer from morality police and male volunteer vigilantes, Moghadam says. They want more choices and more mobility, she says.

Headshot of Nazanin Bani Amerian.
Nazanin Bani Amerian, postdoctoral teaching associate in the Communication Studies department at Northeastern, says that Iranian women don’t want to be what the government wants them to be and they suffer a lot of violence and beatings because of that. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The authorities allow beating of women on the streets during the protests, says Nazanin Bani Amerian, postdoctoral teaching associate in the Communication Studies department at Northeastern, because women don’t want to be what the government wants them to be. They want to know what happened to Amini and to see those who killed her held accountable, she says.

Amerian, who was born and grew up in Tehran, says she was not surprised that Amini was arrested for how she was dressed.

“This is not something that we were shocked about because this happened to each and every woman who is living in Iran,” she says. “But I was sad and angry, and disappointed, and worried for each and every one of my family members, friends and Iranian people and Iranian women, who instead of having their own life have to struggle with basic human rights.”

Protesters are also motivated by poor economic conditions, the mismanagement of government, and privileges that only certain groups of the population get, Moghadam says.  

The current protests are a result of a gradual movement among the two young generations of the Islamic Republic who have reached the limit of acceptance of the state of affairs in the country, she says. They are weary of the government’s mismanagement of resources amid the U.S. sanctions.

Within their families, Iranian women are quite emancipated, Moghadam says. A large proportion of women graduate from high schools and receive university education. Modern Iranian women marry later and have fewer children.

“Educational attainment has changed their aspirations, their outlook, their behavior, their mode of dress,” she says.

Iranians are highly connected to the internet and able to see what is going on elsewhere in the world. Many young people are able to travel within the region or to the U.S. and Europe for studies, she says.

“That also enhances their grievances, and especially the grievances of young women about the restrictions,” Moghadam says.

Over the years Iranian women have gradually started to deliberately defy the authorities, often going outdoors with most of their hair showing, she says, because the morality police cannot arrest everyone. In July, the Iranian president ordered stricter enforcement of hijab and chastity laws for women, introducing a new list of restrictions on how women can dress.

But women are not only restricted in what they can wear. Other parts of their lives are controlled as well, Moghadam says, from interactions in public, especially with young men, to dancing or singing in public to riding a bike.

Without permission from their father or a close male relative, they cannot get married or leave the country, Amerian says.

A woman needs to prove that her husband is abusive, mentally ill or an addict to get a court’s permission to divorce, while a man can simply declare verbally that he is divorcing his wife. If a woman’s reason for divorce is not found sufficiently justifiable, she might obtain a divorce by forfeiting her mehrieh, or mahr, the money or property that the groom was required to provide to the bride upon marriage according to their marriage contract, Moghadam says.

Underage children stay in custody of their mother after a divorce only until they are 2 years old for boys and 7 years old for girls. After that the custody is transferred to their father.

It is difficult for Iranian women to find employment. About 35% of women work in civil service, Moghadam says, but the large private sector is not women-friendly.

There are very few women in leadership or in government positions, Amerian says. Not a single woman was allowed to run for a president in the last 40 years. 

Since women constitute almost half of the population, by oppressing women the government takes away any power from half of the society, Amerian says. The government gives men the power to own women, she says, which is why Iranian women experience a lot of violence and beatings. 

The current protests will probably not bring immediate change, Moghadam says, and it is difficult to speculate whether they will have any mid-term or long-term consequences. But even if the protests are repressed, she says, people won’t stop protesting in Iran in the future. 

“I don’t think Iran is going to be the same after this,” Amerian says.

After the 2009 “Green” protests against a rigged presidential election were suppressed, there was disappointment and silence, she says. But now everybody can see that the Iranian society is alive, she says, and men and women are chanting shoulder to shoulder “Women, Life, Freedom.”

“Men of this generation I think realize, if you want to live a normal life, we have to be equal,” Amerian says.

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