Protesting For The Freedom To Choose - Report on ‘Voices of Women in Iran’
Mahsa Amini was arrested in Iran's capital Tehran for allegedly violating Iran's strict hijab rule requiring women to “properly” cover themselves, and died in police custody on September 16 , 2022. Sparked by her death, ongoing protests have been spreading all over Iran under the slogan "Women, Life, Freedom". On January 22, 2023, Peace Boat conducted a special event on women’s rights and the current protests in Iran with a peace scholar from Tehran, and Takahashi Kazuo, professor of International Politics from Tokyo.
Providing a historical backdrop, Mr. Takahashi gave a brief overview of Iran’s rich history and current issues, highlighting the diversity of the country in terms of language, ethnicity, and customs. Mr. Takahashi explained that although the current protests in Iran are unique in character, “the Iranian people have demanded reforms several times before and under the Islamic Republic. I think this protest is a continuation of those demands”.
Prof. Takahashi Kazuo gave an introduction to Iran's history and international relations
Segueing from Mr. Takahashi’s historical overview, the main speaker from Iran explained how the current legal system in Iran regulates and restricts women’s rights. While highlighting that the situation in Iran is part of a larger global issue of patriarchy, “the gender gap in Iran is real", she said. “There is gender-based violence and discrimination in our society, culturally and legally”. Traditional cultural values expect women to be submissive to decisions of their fathers and husbands and not to engage in important social and political issues. “In gender-based culture, all power belongs to men”, our guest explained, “while laws support these cultural aspects and define strict dress code for women, unequal marriage and inheritance rights. For example, women are not issued motorcycle licenses and are not allowed to enter sport stadiums”. Aggravating women’s frustration with their limited and unequal rights is the fact that women in Iran tend to be well-educated, and therefore very much aware of Iran’s gender disparities, the speaker added.
Hijab - a political issue
Continuing, the speaker explained that wearing a hijab has long been an issue of dispute in Iran, going back to 1936, when Reza Shah of Iran issued a decree banning women from wearing a hijab. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the new Islamic legal system made it compulsory for all women to cover their hair in public. The Iranian Morality Police has the legal authorization to arrest women who are not “properly” dressed in public, in many cases followed by harassment and assault in custody, which has led to numerous women’s activities against their restricted rights and police violence.
The largest protests in Iran, targeting political and economic corruption and injustice, erupted in 2009, 2017 and 2019. Before September 2022, several incidents and violence by the Morality Police had already raised public anger. Following the violent death of Mahsa Amini, this culminated in protests in more than 150 cities and 140 universities throughout the country. “That was the last straw in an already angry society where the official narratives are not credible anymore," the Iranian guest speaker said.
She explained that a hijab, which remains compulsory in Iran despite the recent public protests and excessive police violence, is “a political flag of the state, a part of its political identity, which the state will not give up easily.” The Hijab is a visible identification of the Islamic state of Iran and women’s status under Islamic law. Many in Iran find that wearing a hijab should be a personal issue of cultural and religious identity, not made compulsory. “There is no hostility between people who support and do not support wearing hijab. Women with hijab also participate in the demonstrations. We are all only against forcing it”, she clarified.
On a question from the participants if the women's protests are part of a new feminist movement in Iran, our guest highlighted that “although not all cultural and legal discrimination is addressed, women’s rights have become a focal point now, discussed by everyone, in families, communities and society. Something in society has changed and there is no turning back”.
It is a question of huge concern in Iran how the protests will continue and if the government will take even more violent measures to stop the overall demand for systematic change. Mr. Takahashi commented that “calls for more economic sanctions or the use of force against Iran in some of the international media is dangerous. I am glad to hear that according to our main speaker, the Iranian people do not want such radicalism.”
Sharing her belief that the main focus of attention should be on “gender equality and human rights in our own contexts”, our Iranian guest emphasized that “although the government's repression is harsh, the Iranian people want a peaceful resolution. The protest movement is led by the Iranian people, who are making their own choices and trying to make a difference."