One year has passed since the brutal death of 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police after she was arrested on charges of not wearing her hijab, or Islamic headscarf, properly.
What happened after the death of Amini has been unprecedented in Iran.
Her death sparked months of protests against the country’s clerical rulers, and Iranians from all regions and ethnic, sectarian, age, and class groups participated in mass demonstrations.
The most noticeable role was played by young women and schoolgirls in classrooms and playgrounds across the country, who chanted against the highest authorities in the country from Iran’s supreme leader to its morality police.
The authorities responded with a brutal crackdown. More than 22,000 people were detained and hundreds were killed in violent clashes with the security forces, most of them young men.
The 2022 demonstrations were different from any others Iran has witnessed in recent years, as they were not protests against the results of elections between two candidates who support the regime, as happened in the 2009 protests.
They were also not protests against rising energy prices, inflation, unemployment, or power outages, as happened in 2017 and 2019. The 2022 protests were exclusively in support of women’s right to express themselves and their right to choose what they wear.
Chants to overthrow the regime echoed alongside chants about women, life, and freedom, and the protests eventually became an international movement.
They were the largest protests in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 against the backdrop of women’s rights. What was striking was the tremendous support that Iranian women received from Iranian men, who participated extensively in the protests.
The demonstrations eventually died down, but not before they had brought profound changes in Iranian society.
“We can talk about a before and after Mahsa Amini. Her death radically changed the dynamics between the Iranian regime and the millennial generation,” a former Iranian official who previously worked for former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami’s government and currently resides in Britain told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Today, about 20 per cent of Iranian women, especially in large cities, walk in the streets without a head covering. This means that hundreds of thousands of women everyday are challenging the idea of the compulsory hijab,” he said.
“Social media sites are full of videos of women of all ages going about their daily lives without a head covering. The morality police cannot arrest these huge numbers of women. Men in the streets sympathise with women as well, and therefore we are facing a new reality.”
“The supreme leader and the government of President Ebrahim Raisi would like to turn back the clock, but they do not know how because we are facing a watershed moment,” he added.
This defining moment has been described by the Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi as “the first Feminist Revolution in the world.”
Ebadi, currently residing in Britain, believes that the Iranian women’s struggle will eventually lead to a democratic and secular system in Iran.
The fact that a year after Amini’s death the mandatory head covering law is still in place, the morality police have resumed patrolling the streets, and the authorities are seeking to stiffen the penalties for violating the head covering law to up to 10 years in prison shows the fear and stubbornness of the Iranian regime.
“Conservatives in Iran consider the compulsory hijab to be a matter of life or death for the current regime. The hijab has been part of the Iranian Constitution since the 1979 Revolution, and it is one of the pillars of the ‘Guardianship of the Jurist’ system,” the former Iranian official said.
“Some conservatives and clerics in Iran believe that changing the constitution to remove the compulsory hijab would mean the beginning of the end of the 1979 regime.”
The Iranian regime ignored the first anniversary of Amini’s death by focusing on a prisoner-exchange deal with Washington with Qatari mediation.
Among the released prisoners is Siamak Namazi, 51, an Iranian-American businessman who was detained in Iran in 2015. Emad Sharqi, 59, an Iranian-American businessman who was detained in Iran in 2016, and Morad Tahbaz, 67, a British-American conservationist who was detained in Iran in 2018, were also released.
The prisoner-exchange deal was part of a broader agreement between the US and Iran to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian funds that had been blocked in South Korea due to US sanctions.
“Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home,” US President Joe Biden said on Monday in a statement released as the plane carrying the group from Tehran landed in Doha.
Biden urged Americans not to travel to Iran and demanded more information on what had happened to Bob Levinson, an American who went missing some years ago.
The successful negotiations brought Biden praise from Democrats and the families of the freed prisoners, but heat from Republicans, who accused Biden of weakness and submitting to Iran’s blackmail by effectively giving Tehran the green light to arrest more Iranian-American citizens and forcing Washington to release Iranian funds.
Former president Donald Trump, currently the lead Republican challenger in the polls for the 2024 presidential elections in the US, called it an “absolutely ridiculous” deal. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Biden of “rewarding and incentivising Tehran’s bad behaviour.”
Iran’s hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, who is in New York to attend the UN General Assembly this week, suggested on Monday that the exchange could be “a step in the direction of humanitarian action between us and America.”
“It can help in building trust,” Raisi told journalists.
The Iranian president seeks to use the General Assembly meetings to hold talks with Middle Eastern leaders and European and Asian officials to show that Iran is not isolated.
Talks are planned with officials from Saudi Arabia and the other five Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on the sidelines of the UN meetings.
There is talk of Raisi addressing the US Council on Foreign Relations, a prominent think-tank in New York. Senior Iranian officials and their US counterparts will be holding direct talks during Raisi’s visit. On the agenda are issues including the supply of Iranian combat drones to Russia, the growing tension in the Gulf between Iran and the US, sanctions on Tehran, and the Iranian nuclear programme.
The Iranian diplomatic activities could open the door to the Biden administration and the Raisi government reviving the nuclear deal. Biden was the vice-president of former US president Barack Obama when the nuclear deal was reached in 2015 before former president Trump exited it in 2018.
The possibility of resuming the nuclear agreement and the exchange of prisoners between Washington and Tehran this week led to an easing of the pressure on the Iranian currency, the riyal.
This is good news for the Iranian president, who has been able to achieve several breakthroughs in foreign relations, most notably the restoration of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran, joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation of Eurasian countries, and inviting Iran to join the BRICS alliance.
Raisi’s New York visit will test his ability to change the narrative on the first anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death. His best hope is for the international powers to engage with his government during a volatile time.
Even so, he may return to Iran to find that the silent social revolution underway in the country constitutes the greatest challenge to his government as Iranian women increasingly go out unveiled despite the risk of being fined or jailed.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly