Iran. History of a regime of oppression 

What is happening in Iran these days? And what is the historical matrix of the protests?

After having collected her platinum blonde hair in a bun, she fixes the hairstyle and then the glasses. A few meters from her, the camera shows the Iranian police deployed. The girl is called Hadees Najafi and the images shown in the video seem to portray a simple, silly, and meaningless gesture, which takes on a radically opposite value in today’s Iran. Recently a 23-year-old girl tying her hair – her hair down and not covered by a veil – and heading towards the ongoing protest becomes the symbol of a generation in struggle. A gesture of war against a system founded on the repression of any progressive or revolutionary thrust, of which she herself will remain a victim. Indeed, the protagonist of this video – shared online in recent weeks – is killed within the demonstration. The police fired 6 gunshots at her: in the chest, in the neck and in the face.

In the last weeks, the Iranian political system of oppressing women – of which the veil represents both a religious and a political symbol – has been at the center of national protests and international debate. The riots began following the violent killing of a 22-year-old girl, Mahsa Amini. On the evening of September 13, Mahsha is transferred to the hospital in a semi-conscious state. On September 16, her death is announced. According to the official version released by the regime, the girl died in a coma after multiple cardiac arrests. However, the family’s version, later confirmed by various eyewitnesses, tells a different story. The girl was at the subway station with her brother when she was abruptly arrested and taken away by the Iranian morality police because of her improperly worn hijab. After only two hours of detention, she was taken to the hospital.

The death of this young girl is the directory expression of a context of violent oppression of women’s rights and freedoms.

Since the white revolution of 1963 – Iranian reform and modernization program – with which women won the right to vote, the hope for an equal and fairer legislative path for women saw the light under the Pahlavi dynasty. The country’s modernization policy introduced – in addition to the right to vote – fairer policies on the issue of divorce and some limitations on the phenomenon of polygamy – which has always been a unilateral phenomenon granted only to men. Subsequently, the legal age for marriage was raised to 18 and in 1977 abortion was regulated. Only two years after this important historical milestone, in 1979 the progressive path was interrupted with the proclamation of the Islamic Republic and the Iranian Revolution took place. 

The new political and religious power immediately expressed its opposition to the modernization and westernization of the country carried out by the previous dynasty and in a few years the regime canceled all female conquests. Some of the most important reforms launched:

  • Denial of access to higher education, 
  • Prohibition of work without the consent of the husband, 
  • Abrogation of the laws protecting women in case of polygamy (from that day in case of adultery the woman was sentenced to death),
  • Reestablishment of the age of consent at 9 years old,
  • Changes of the divorce law (in case of divorce, decided only by the man, the custody of the children was denied to the woman). 

Any woman’s freedom was placed in the hands of men. Together with the discriminatory laws for women, the regime ordered persecution and convictions against homosexuals and against any behavior deemed non-compliant with shari’a law.

The regime responded to any attempt of women’s emancipation, student uprisings and any manifestation of a progressive drive with repression. To ensure compliance with Islamic law, the morality police was established in 2000, a body of law enforcement to patrol the streets and make sure that the appearance of women was consistent with the Islamic principles. On September 13, the morality police arrested Mahsa Amini and her death prompted thousands of women and men to take to the streets – strictly without the hijab – and to challenge the regime.

It is not the first time that the country has tried to reverse the conservative direction, quite the opposite. Throughout the country’s contemporary history there have been many protests and attempts at revolution – all quickly stopped by police repression. For example, in 2005 with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there was yet another tightening of repression against a more modern and progressive interpretation of Islamic law. Every revolutionary movement or spark of rebellion was violently silenced with a series of roundups and arrests against the civilian population. The repression itself  became the protagonist of the student revolt movements of 2009 and subsequently in occasion of  the anniversary of the Islamic revolution, in 2019. But challenging the regime in Iran has always meant   violent repression and has therefore always led to silence.

Unlike the regime’s history of oppression, this time the repression is not enough, and it does not stop the revolt. The protests are part of a larger plan for Iranian freedom. The many people who took to the streets, men and women without veils, express the desire which is now widespread throughout the entire country for equality and democracy. The protests no longer concern only the killing of a young girl but question the founding principles of the Islamic republic.