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Has Iran changed 1 year after the death of Jina Mahsa Amini?

Shabnam von Hein
September 15, 2023

The death of a young Kurdish-Iranian woman last year in police custody sparked nationwide protests against Iran's ruling regime, followed by an ongoing deadly crackdown. A year later, Iranian women remain defiant.

A woman stands atop a car in front in Iran
A protest movement over the pasrt year has defied the Islamic Republic's strict rules for womenImage: UGC/AFP

Ahead of the first anniversary of Jina Mahsa Amini's death on September 16, her family wrote on Instagram that they intended to mourn at Amini's grave site.

Amini's relatives, like any grieving family, want to hold a religious and traditional funeral service for their beloved daughter, the statement added.

However, since last year, Iranian authorities have closely surveilled Amini's family. In recent days, armed forces have been deployed around the family's home in the city of Saqqez, according to reports. 

Iranian authorities are not only watching Amini's family. They also monitor many cemeteries where people killed in protests have been laid to rest. Iranian authorities want to prevent crowds, claiming protests could break out.

Exact figures are difficult to obtain, but according to independent human rights organizations, police forces in Iran have killed at least 527 protesters, including 17 minors, during protests between September 16, 2022, and the end of January 2023. Families of people killed during demonstrations are under enormous pressure.

"We have never seen this kind of widespread arrest and detention of victims' family members before," human rights activist Shiva Nazar Ahari told DW.

Ahari is a member of the Iranian Committee for Human Rights. She has been arrested repeatedly over the past decades and imprisoned for several years. She has lived in Slovenia since October 2018.

"So far, more than 40 relatives of the victims have been arrested. And the number of arrests is increasing every day," Ahari says.

"Political and social activists are either in jail, being interrogated or threatened. It may be that these methods temporarily prevent further protests."

Iran's largest protest movement in decades

Jina Mahsa Amini was arrested last year during a trip to Tehran, the Iranian capital, and taken to a police station, allegedly for not wearing her headscarf appropriately. In Iran, women are strictly required to wear headscarves in public.

Iran tightens control of women's dress code

A few hours later, Amini was taken lifeless from police custody to the hospital. Three days later, on September 16, she was officially declared dead.

The mass protest movement began with Amini's funeral in her hometown of Saqqez, located in a Kurdish region in western Iran, and quickly spread throughout the country.

The participants, mostly young women, removed their headscarves under the motto: "Woman, Life, Freedom."

These widespread rallies developed into the largest and longest-running protest movement since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The ruling regime responded with massive repression and violence.

Headscarf a symbol of systematic oppression

Human rights activist Ahari is convinced that these protests have permanently changed political and social relations in Iranian society.

One of the most significant changes concerns Iranian women taking liberties with their appearance in public.

Despite the threat of stricter punitive measures such as fines, many women refuse to wear the mandatory headscarf.

They see the headscarf as a symbol of systematic oppression and humiliation and no longer wish to bow to the rules associated with it.

Since the Islamic Revolution, the image of women has played an essential role in state ideology. A woman without a hijab is seen as a symbol of a permissive Western lifestyle and is considered by conservative forces to be a cultural attack against Islamic culture.

The image of women propagated by the political system is someone who not only wears the hijab but submits and subordinates herself.

Iranian women have been discriminated against for several decades in Iran. This is also confirmed by the World Economic Forum Foundation's (WEF) 2022 Gender Gap Report, with Iran ranking 143 out of 146 countries.

The WEF examines gender equality in business, education, health and politics. Women's political participation, in particular, also plays a crucial role in this ranking.

Iran's rulers fight the population

"We are dealing with a progressive movement that will bear fruit in the long term," said internationally renowned Iranian sculptor Barbad Golshiri, who now lives in Paris.

As the son of the contemporary writer Houshang Golshiri, the sculptor is well-connected in the Iranian cultural and art scene.

"The 'Woman, Life, Freedom' movement is just leading to a cultural revolution from the lowest layer of society. It challenges values that the despots have been trying to impose on their society from above since the 1980s," Golshiri told DW.

At that time, during Iran's Islamic Revolution, the country's rulers had Islamized the education system, forced women to wear headscarves in public, and exiled or arrested independent cultural figures and academics. In the late 1980s, political prisoners were executed en masse.

"The political system now wants to intimidate society using the methods of the 1980s," Golshiri said. He refers to methods like the recent mass imprisonment of protesters, death sentences against political prisoners, and the dismissal of critical scholars from educational institutions.

Iran's parliament approved a controversial law on August 22 imposing harsher penalties for disobeying the Islamic dress code.

These include up to 15 years in prison for multiple violations. The publication of photos of women without headscarves on the Internet is also punishable. In addition, there are plans to ban women from leaving the country. The judiciary has threatened to close supermarkets, restaurants or museums that allow women without headscarves to enter.

In contrast, religiously observant women are to be better protected under the law. Anyone who insults veiled women will be put behind bars for six months and receive 74 lashes. In this way, Iran's rulers try to drive a wedge into the population.

Demands for secularization in Iran

Old dogmas are being challenged by the protest movement that emerged a year ago, which also traces its roots to the global women's rights movement, Golshiri said.

A Woman Life Freedom march in London
Protests around the world, like this one in London, show solidarity with Iran's women's movementImage: Justin Ng/Avalon/picture alliance/Photoshot

The death of Jina Mahsa Amini was also felt by Iranians abroad. In October 2022, for example, exiled Iranians in Germany organized a solidarity rally in Berlin.

According to police estimates, around 80,000 people took part in the protest. As a sign of recognition, Iranian opposition activists were represented on the podiums instead of government representatives for the first time at the Munich Security Conference in February 2023.

"Forming an opposition inside Iran is very difficult because of the repression by the security forces. Many expected or hoped that big names and personalities among the exiled Iranians would form an opposition," said Arash Azizi, a Middle East expert at New York University.

"There was a lot of disappointment when some personalities went their separate ways again after briefly joining forces."

Among exiled Iranians, agreement seems to be very difficult. They are ultimately preoccupied with themselves. In my opinion, the decisive force for change in Iran itself lies with the many courageous people who are currently behind bars. Only they can make it happen."

Edited by: John Silk

Brutal cost of protest in Iran

This article has been translated from German.