Mahsa Amini was a 22-year-old woman from the Kurdistan region of Iran who was arrested by Iran’s morality police–also known as Guidance Control–after they accused her of wearing her hijab improperly. She was detained by police on September 13, 2022, and was taken by police in Tehran to a “re-education center.” Amini died on September 16, 2022, after she fell into a coma. While police said that Amini had suffered a heart attack, her family denied that Amini had any heart problems. Her father, who said she had bruises on her legs, is holding the police responsible for her death.
In the wake of Amini’s death, protests sparked immediately. During her funeral in her hometown Saqez, protests erupted, with security forces firing tear gas amid the demonstration. These protests spread to Sanandaj, the provincial capital of Kurdistan, where women began to remove their headscarves in opposition.
Across the provinces of Iran, women have been at the forefront, protesting Iran’s government and in honor of women’s rights. Amid weeks of demonstrations, protestors have chanted powerful statements amid the unrest. “Woman, Life, Freedom,” “Woman, Life, Liberty,” “We want regime change,” and more, demanding more freedoms.
Protest rooted in history
One thousand years ago, Persian poet Ferdowsi wrote Shahnameh (“The Book of Kings”), a long epic poem that is now the national epic of Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. Throughout the verses of the poem, Ferdowsi tells stories of the kings in Persia, and several times throughout the epic, hair-cutting serves as a means of mourning and protesting injustice. One thousand years later, this practice continues as pain, mourning, and injustice endure.
After the Iranian Revolution, on March 7, 1979, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini mandated that all women wear a veil. Protests following Khomeini’s decree started the following day on March 8, 1979, which marked International Women’s Day, with thousands of women joining to protest this new law. On this day in Tehran, a women’s march was intended to take place. However, the march turned into a protest that spanned six days.
“So women flooded the streets for six days straight, where they were met with violence and branded as traitors, counter-revolutionaries, bourgeois, pro-imperialist stooges, or even prostitutes,” Donya Ziaee explained to CBC. “But they succeeded in forcing the religious leadership to retreat from their position on the veil — even if their victory would be short-lived.”
From 1941 to 1979, there was no official mandate for women’s attire, including headscarves. However, following the days of protests in 1979, there was a short-lived lift on the mandate.
But by the early 1980s, wearing a hijab was required for women in government and public offices. By 1983, it became mandatory for all women to wear a hijab in public regardless of their religion or if they were foreigners visiting Iran.
The current-day protest
History remains cyclical, and the protests today mirror past demonstrations centuries ago or even in recent years and decades. For weeks on end, the death of Amini has sparked widespread protests across Iran while garnering support around the globe to call out gender inequalities and the history of violence against women in the country in support of women’s rights.
Though large protests have dwindled amid the violence against protestors leading to several deaths, these demonstrations, unlike past protests, brought together people from various backgrounds – men and men, middle-class and working-class, young and old. In addition, while these demonstrations have involved verbal opposition across various cities and provinces within the country, women across Iran–as well as globally–have taken a historical cue by cutting their hair and burning their headscarves as a form of protest.’
Several of these instances have taken place over the previous weeks, with powerful images circulating across news sources showcasing each woman’s bravery, much like the tales of mourning told in Shahnameh, a woman mourning over the loss of a family member who died amid protests cut her hair off while kneeling by her brother’s coffin. Portrayed in videos and photos, women have been captured waving their headscarves, burning their hijabs in the street, and cutting their hair in public as a sign of protest.
“The most important protest they (Iranian women) are doing right now is taking off their scarves and burning them,” a young woman in Tehran told AP News. “This is a women’s movement, and men support them in the backline.”
Across the globe, many countries have shown their solidarity with Iran amid this period of political unrest. United States President Joe Biden shared his support for Iranian women in a statement before September’s U.N. General Assembly, writing, “And today, we stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.” Several French actors, including Marion Cotillard and Juliette Binoche, participated in the protest from afar, sharing a video cutting off the locks of their hair with the simple yet powerful declaration, “For freedom.”