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Opinion: Iran's mullahs are afraid of women

Yalda Zarbakhch
Yalda Zarbakhch
September 23, 2022

Massive protests sparked by a young Iranian woman's death are shaking the foundations of the Islamic Republic. Iranian women are taking a huge risk and need more than expressions of solidarity, says Yalda Zarbakhch.

Montage of eight screenshots of Iranian women cutting off their long hair.
Iranian women are publicly cutting off their hair to protest the death of Mahsa Amini

They have been demonstrating for days, all across the country. Determined, angry and, above all, courageous. Women in Iran are at the forefront of the current protests.

This is not new. Women have played a key role in all the protest movements of the past 40 years, including the Green Movement of 2009 and the last major nationwide protests in November 2019, which went on for several weeks before being brutally suppressed.

Immediately after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, women were vocal in demonstrating against the requirement to wear a headscarf, which was introduced under the new Islamic constitution. They were not successful and were forced to submit to the Islamic dress code. Compliance has been enforced ever since by Iran's so-called morality police.

Daily fight for skin and hair

But the women continued to fight, on a daily basis, for every centimeter of skin and hair. Arrests and humiliations notwithstanding, over the years, headscarves slipped further and further back, clothes became tighter, faces wore more makeup: in short, women became more visible again.

Headshot of Yalda Zarbakhch
Yalda Zarbakhch is the head of DW's Persian ServiceImage: DW/Privat

This minimal right to self-determination is an achievement of Iranian women — and a threat to the Islamic rulers. That is because it challenges something on which the whole system of the Islamic Republic is based: control of the female body.

So it is that even innocent young women like the entirely apolitical Mahsa Amini seem to scare the morality police. And this is also why outrage at the 22-year-old's death has united people from all walks of society, who hold a range of different views. She has become a symbol of the protest movement. Everyone can identify with her, because it could just as easily have happened to any other woman; there is hardly a single woman in Iran who has not had a humiliating and violent encounter with the morality police.

Iranian activist Daniela Zeperi on protests

Protests taking on new dimensions

Yet the scenes we are seeing this time are quite new in form. Women are protesting entirely without hijabs, or are burning their headscarves in public. They are demonstratively cutting off their hair and shouting "Down with the Islamic Republic" or "Death to the dictator!"

The demonstrators' anger and determination is greater than it was in the protests of previous years. They are standing up to the security forces and sometimes even manage to drive away the police who attack them. People in Iran have less and less to lose. In 2009, the protests were more about freedom and reform — within the system. In 2018-19, they were in response to the bleak economic situation, runaway inflation and horrendously high gas prices. Some slogans at that time were already directed against the clerical leadership and the Islamic Republic.

But there is a whole new dimension to what we are seeing now. Demonstrators are tearing down posters of the revolutionary leaders Khamenei and Khomeini, burning them, and loudly demanding the fall of the entire political system. More and more people have turned their backs on the regime, its ideology and even Islam as a whole. And this is now true even of people from more traditional classes of society.

Women protesting risk their freedom and lives: Azadeh Pourzand, PhD researcher SOAS

The regime strikes back

Initial reports indicate that the regime in Tehran has already severely restricted internet access. The experience of the last big wave of protests in 2019 tells us that this does not bode well. Then, too, the internet was suppressed and partly shut down altogether.

With the international public excluded, a brutal crackdown was initiated against the demonstrators. Several hundred people are believed to have been shot and killed, and countless others arrested.

Now, too, such actions loom again. More than 20 people, including children and teenagers, have already been killed. Protesters are being beaten and arrested in their homes.

Turning point or bloody crackdown

There is a compelling reason behind the mullahs' harsh actions. This is a turning point for Iran's civilian population. For the first time, demonstrators are openly and collectively denouncing a religious symbol of the Islamic Republic. The veiling of women is one of its most important foundations. The rulers cannot and will not make any concessions on this — because abolishing the obligation to wear the hijab would be tantamount to the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic.

However, unless the West and the international community put pressure on the Iranian government, it will ultimately have free rein to brutally and bloodily suppress these protests, too. Mere expressions of solidarity will not be enough. Even if it comes to reviving the issue of the nuclear deal, Iran must be held accountable on these matters.

The United States is leading the way. It has already sanctioned the morality police. The German government has a duty to do the same.

People in Iran — women, above all — are taking a huge risk right now. Their courage needs to be recognized by us. Their voices must be heard. And the risk must pay off.

This article has been translated from German

Yalda Zarbakhch
Yalda Zarbakhch Head of DW Persian@yaldina