Mahsa Amini has become a potent symbol for women in Iran

The death last week of a 22-year-old woman who had been arrested by Tehran’s morality police for allegedly failing to properly observe the hijab has dealt new wounds to a deeply scarred nation.

Iran — which has already suffered the killings of young protesters demanding more freedom from the regime — has been plunged into intolerable grief by the loss of Mahsa Amini, and is now in national mourning. The final photograph of her, comatose in a hospital bed just days before she died, are all too resonant a reminder of the dangers facing Iranian women.

She was not a political activist and had no record of speaking out against social and political restrictions, as many ordinary Iranians do on social media. In her last picture shortly before her arrest, Amini, who grew up in a traditional, religious family in the northwestern Kurdish town of Saqqez, looked like a typical happy girl visiting Tehran with her family. She was preparing to start university this month. Her long black coat and a black scarf, which revealed only a bit of her hair, did not even violate the rules of the Islamic Republic.

The tragedy of her death could now prove costly for the regime, which has overstretched its enforcement of the Islamic dress code in an effort to hold back the tide of secular modernity.

Women who have peacefully and consistently pushed against boundaries for the past four decades — and who dare to walk in the streets and eat in restaurants with their head scarves on their shoulders — are now questioning why they should tolerate religious laws at all. After Amini’s death, women took to the streets for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution, burning their scarves to protest the compulsory hijab in towns and cities across the country.

Amini’s family allege she was beaten up between being forced into a morality police van and her transfer to a remedial class on the necessity of Islamic covering. The police showed CCTV videos to prove she walked out of the van and into the class apparently unharmed.

Lack of trust, however, is deep-rooted, and it is people’s perceptions that have prevailed. I asked a few women who had been taken to the infamous Vozara — the morality police centre in Tehran — whether they had witnessed physical and verbal violence being used against women. They said yes. Those who resist arrest or shout out at the police put themselves at risk of punishment, they said.

Since Iran’s hardliners have tightened their grip on power and intensified their crackdown on women’s clothing over the past year, more women are experiencing Vozara. This is breeding even more hatred among women and their families. A friend who was sent to Vozara a couple of times this year has vowed to join protesters for the first time, regardless of the cost.

Everybody is aware that this week’s street protests will not succeed in overturning the hijab obligation, but people are now emboldened to speak out against harsh enforcement.

For the time being, the authorities are being careful. Hardly any senior politicians have defended Amini’s arrest. President Ebrahim Raisi promised investigations, saying she felt like his “own daughter”. Senior figures across the political spectrum have conspicuously failed to endorse the Ershad patrols — the morality police surveillance teams now nicknamed death traps. Some conservative and hardline members of parliament even believe that apprehending women in the street should end for good.

Increasingly, women are drawing support from men and religious factions who are now sympathetic to their campaign. One 46-year-old mother who was arrested in the street and taken to Vozara last month told me she had been horrified to overhear her 24-year-old son discussing plans with his friends to set morality police vans on fire in protest at Amini’s death. Ali Karimi, a former football star, said on Instagram that Iran’s next opposition leader would be a woman.

Since her death, Amini has become a figurehead for civil disobedience. Others include Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old woman shot dead in central Tehran during the 2009 unrest and Sahar Khodayari, 29, who set herself on fire in 2019 after being sentenced to imprisonment for dressing up as a man in order to be allowed into a football stadium.

At Amini’s funeral on Saturday, women took off their headscarves in solidarity. On her grave was the simple message: “You won’t die. Your name will become a code name”.

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