Twenty-two-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini was recently allegedly dragged through the streets and thrown into a police van by Iran’s Guardian Patrols, often known as the morality police, on the charges of wearing improper hijab in public.Later reports revealed that, while in custody, she was brutally beaten and her head was banged against a wall almost a dozen times because she refused to remain silent while the police rebuked her for refusing to comply with the country’s misogynistic compulsory hijab laws. She was finally taken to hospital, where she succumbed to her injuries. Iranian police have denied beating Mahsa, asserting that her death was due to a heart condition. Her family unequivocally deny that she suffered from any pre-existing medical conditions.
Wearing a headscarf is compulsory in the theocratic Iranian state. Women who are caught without “proper” hijab risk being fined, arrested and imprisoned for up to two months. There have been many accounts of women subjected to violence while in police custody. President Ebrahim Raisi has publicly asked Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi to lead an investigation into Mahsa Amini’s death and even two of Iran’s senior ayatollahs have called the morality police “illegal” and “un-Islamic.” Yet, despite all this, hardly any of those who brutalise women in the name of religious morality have been held accountable for their actions. The concern of the president and ayatollahs may not be genuine, in any case, but simply part of the regime’s increasingly desperate attempts at image management, as part of a campaign to persuade western leaders to lift the sanctions imposed on the country.
The morality police have long been an effective tool of religious zealots, so outraged by women’s clothing choices that they are willing to enforce their rules through violence in public places across Iran. During the current unrest, there have been many reports that police are deploying pepper spray and even shooting at peaceful protesters. Iranian citizens have been denied access to the internet in order to stop them from broadcasting videos of police brutality against civilians on their social media accounts.
While Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has condemned the killing of Mahsa Amini, only two months ago, he defended the morality police, saying that women who dress “immodestly” should be punished, while his representatives urged Iran’s Guardian Patrols to make public places “unsafe” for women who are “improperly veiled.”
To add insult to injury, only a few days after Amini was tortured and killed for failing to comply with hijab laws, western journalist Lesley Stahl interviewed Iran’s president on a talk show, while wearing hijab. Those of us who live in the west enjoy the benefits of a free society that empowers us to make independent choices. It is gut-wrenching to see a free American woman choosing to wear hijab—a symbol of women’s oppression—to appease a representative of a misogynistic regime that forces women to cover themselves from head to toe and even kills them if they do not comply. By wearing hijab, Stahl is helping to legitimise the oppression of millions of women.
Women in Iran are rightly angry and Amini’s tragic death has become a tipping point. Her funeral has spurred Iranians to demonstrate their fury at the brutal theocratic regime under which they live. Iranian women have been publicly removing their hijabs, cutting their hair, demanding the abolition of the morality police and of the laws that mandate hijab and chanting “death to the dictator,” at the risk of arousing the wrath of the Islamic republic’s morality police—at the risk of their lives.
So, will this horrific tragedy prove a turning point? Will the protestors succeed in forcing the regime to stop these misogynistic practices? This is unclear.
The hijab has been compulsory for women in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Women have been protesting against hijab laws by removing their veils in public places for years. These protests have been peaceful and symbolic, but they have always been met with heavy crackdowns and violence on the part of the theocratic regime.
This is not the first and will not be the last time an innocent woman is killed in the name of religious morality, unless the religious orthodoxies that deprive women of their rights and autonomy are repudiated once and for all. This isn’t just about an individual country or a single regime. This is the result of an ideology that derives its legitimacy from a theology that subjugates women. Societies that base their morals on religious orthodoxies of this kind never treat their women humanely.
We will never be able to make a difference, never be able to eliminate the discrimination and violence that many women of Muslim heritage currently endure in silence until the concept of religious modesty is first challenged and then discarded. It is essential to scrutinise and debunk the religious teachings behind hijab, teachings that both overtly and covertly perpetuate violence against women. This will require a revolution of ideas.
But revolutionary change of this kind seems unlikely when even women who live in free western societies feel unable to voice their concerns about hijab. Every time a woman is tortured or killed in the name of religious morality, there is an outpouring of condemnation from across the political spectrum in the west—but when western women dare to speak out against religious modesty, they are branded bigots and Islamophobes.
This is the height of hypocrisy.
We cannot turn a blind eye to the plight of these oppressed women and still have a legitimate claim to be the torchbearers of the Enlightenment. Women who live under constant surveillance in theocracies cannot protest against the regimes under which they live, unless they are ready to lose everything. They need the support of free western women. But, sadly, the international response to the events like those in Iran has demonstrated far too little solidarity with these courageous women who are being subjected to violence for demanding their basic human rights. Instead, Hijab Day has been given the status of an international celebration.
How many innocent young people must be tortured and killed before we acknowledge the menace of religious misogyny?
The courageous Iranian women have become a symbol of resistance around the world. But too many of us remain silent spectators in the face of religious misogyny. And, as long as we fail to call it out, we are complicit in the murder of Mahsa Amini and in the merciless oppression and brutality to which so many women are subjected in the name of Islam.