SHE was a Kurd who was visiting relatives in the Iranian capital, Tehran. Mahsa Amini (also known as Jina) was walking around town when she was arrested by the vice squad for not wearing a hijab under Iranian law. No one knows what happened when she was taken to the center where authorities are giving “education” on the right hijab. When Amini’s family next saw her, she was dead.
A photo circulating on the internet showed the 22-year-old before her arrest; another showed her attached to various tubes, blood oozing from her ear. Even in the photo, her body looks lifeless. A woman who was also arrested reportedly said Amini had complained about being beaten by the police. The state released a short CCTV clip purporting to show Amini’s collapse.
A wave of protests has broken out in Iran. The protests, which began in Tehran, have spread to cities and towns in most Iranian provinces. Led largely by young people, they have involved a variety of social classes and ethnicities. There are a number of issues that have caused simmering discontent in Iran – not least the appalling state of Iran’s economy, which has faced international sanctions for years, and corruption in the bureaucracy. Also sobering for many were examples of how uncompromisingly some Iranian leaders give in to their nepotistic tendencies.
All of these factors form the simmering backdrop to the current protests. The focus is on the fight over the hijab – for which Mahsa Amini was arrested and probably killed in custody. Iran’s ruling clergy consider hijab compulsory for all Muslim women. It’s a convenient belief, because at a time when politics from the United States to everywhere else is mostly about performance, imposing the hijab is also excellent political theater. Like the reinstated Afghan Taliban in Kabul, Iran’s conservative circles can look to the women in their country’s public spaces and get an instant power boost over their own power. Similarly, anti-Islamic politicians from power-hungry parties like Marine le Pen’s National Rally in France and Narendra Modi’s BJP in India want to ban the wearing of the headscarf and appeal to an ignorant and self-serving version of secularism or Hindutva supremacy.
No state, whether Iranian or Saudi, French or Indian, has the right to tell women what to wear.
The truth is much simpler: no state, be it Iranian or Saudi, French or Indian or any other, has the right to tell women what to wear. At its core, the struggle over the hijab shows how eagerly male-dominated state apparatuses use their power to force women to do one thing or another. In some countries, power is signaled by forcing women to wear the hijab, in others by forcing them to remove it. In both cases, the point is to order women to do this or that.
That is why it is so encouraging to see Iranian women leading these protests. Many have cut their hair or burned their headscarves, even as the Iranian authorities use deadly force to suppress their gatherings. After bearing the brunt of debasing the Iranian state and being treated as subhuman, dragged into vans and arrested at the slightest “provocation” by an increasingly repressive morality police, they have had enough. So they have marched, even though the danger to their lives and the overall cost are enormous. The state recently announced that at least 41 protesters and police officers had been killed, but the number is likely to be much higher as Iran has vowed to deal “firmly” with the protesters.
Here in Pakistan women know something about oppression and patriarchal control. Video from the streets of Tehran shows a bearded, middle-aged man on a motorcycle nearly poking his face through the window of a neighboring car while yelling and yelling at the women inside for their inappropriate hijab. He verbally abuses and tries to intimidate her, and doesn’t stop until the traffic around her forces him to move. Any Pakistani woman who can drive or has spent time on the road would not be surprised by a similar move.
In the last decade, motorists, motorcyclists, grocery store clerks, restaurant owners, absolutely everyone in the public domain have become the experts on how Pakistani women should and shouldn’t be dressed. In these cases it is always the women who have to defend themselves because angry men in Pakistan have all the rights. “Mera jism meri marzi” is at the heart of the Pakistani women’s movement and is reflected in Iran.
It is precisely for this reason that Pakistani women have an important role to play as allies in Iranian women’s struggle against physical control by the state. Although Western feminists are happy to step in in white-majority countries, Iranian women rightly turn down these offers because they spoil the local and grassroots struggle in a country where half the population is simply fed up with the repressive status quo. When white and Western feminists engage, it’s not about the fight, it’s about the rescue and how Iranian, Pakistani or Somali women are being “saved” by the “real” feminists who are also the white feminists.
Although the internet has been blocked in many parts of Iran, many tweets, images, and slogans about those with VPN servers still surface. Pakistani feminists must make it their mission to amplify the voices of Iranian women who are fighting and protesting and showing the world what true feminist courage really means.
The author is a lawyer and teaches constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, September 28, 2022