Gen Z Are Now at the Forefront of a Revolution in Iran

iran protests iran hijab mahsa amini iran internet

If you’ve been online at all in the past few weeks, you’ll no doubt have seen clips of mass civil unrest in Iran. Recently, videos of schoolgirls in the country throwing off their hijabs and waving them in the air in protest against the government have begun circulating.

It’s the latest event in the huge waves of protest that have swept through the Middle Eastern nation in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last month.

In videos posted to social media, schoolgirls in the city of Karaj, a suburb to the west of the capital Tehran, removed a government education official from their school by chanting “shame on you” and pelting him with water bottles until he left.

Other protests by schoolgirls were also reported in the northern cities of Saqez and Sanandaj as well as Tehran and the southern city of Shiraz.

BBC Journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh has written that “Iran’s Generation Z is leading an unprecedented social movement in the Middle East these days and the outside world barely seems to know about it. It’s hard to put into context just how unprecedented these scenes are in Iran.”

These are the largest anti-government protests the country has seen since the vast protests of 2019. The highly conservative nation, led by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has enforced strict morality laws governing social relations and dress codes since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Music, alcohol, and sex outside of marriage are all illegal in the country. Needless to say, so is the right to protest against the government.

That hasn’t stopped thousands of people from taking to the streets in recent weeks in protests bordering on revolution. The size and scope of the unrest are hard to gauge, however, after almost three weeks, they don’t appear to be slowing down and, indeed, appear to be spreading.

Cars have been burnt, hundreds of arrests have been made, and chants of “death to the dictator” have been heard across at least 51 cities.

The NGO Iran Human Rights has said that the current death toll in this wave of protests stands at 154 people, 63 of them having been killed in protests held last Friday. The group has said that these figures cover at least 17 of Iran’s 31 provinces.

In response to the unrest, the Iranian government has shut down the internet, making access to reliable information from within difficult to access. Still, protesters and journalists have been managing to spread videos of the demonstrations online.

Iran’s President, Ebrahim Raisi has called for national unity, acknowledging that the Republic has “weaknesses and shortcomings” but has blamed the death of Amini on foreign agents attempting to sow discord in the country. The Ayatollah made similar remarks on Monday, claiming, without evidence, that protests were being incited by the United States and Israel.

What Happened to Mahsa Amini?

Mahsa Amini was a 22-year-old Kurdish woman from the northwestern city of Saqez. As she stepped off a train in Tehran, on a visit to her brother, she was confronted by Iran’s “morality police” for improperly wearing her hijab and her trousers being too tight.

She was taken to Vozara morality detention centre where her family was told she would undergo an education class and be released an hour later. Two hours following, she was taken to Kasra Hospital and, two days later, died in the intensive care unit.

Her cousin and those at the centre claim she was tortured in the van. Her family’s lawyer has said that he has been informed by medical professionals she was beaten to death in custody.

Iranian officials claim she simply had a heart attack, although her family has refuted their claims and stated that she had no prior medical conditions that might cause this.

Iran introduced mandatory dress codes for women in 1979 while mandatory hijab, head-coverings that conceal the chest, neck, and hair, was introduced in 1983. Women who are not dressed in accordance with the law face “whipping of up to 74 lashes.”

In the past decade, younger women have expressed their dislike of the rulings, which has resulted in Iran’s morality police undertaking violent “re-education” campaigns.

Khamenei said in 2020 that “improperly veiled women should be made to feel unsafe,” a message that was used by authorities to justify further repression.

The majority of Iranians do not support the mandatory wearing of religious clothing and believe that individuals should be able to make their own decisions when it comes to clothing. According to an independent survey in 2020, 72% of the population oppose mandatory hijab.

Is This an Anti-Hijab Protest?

The fact that Amini was killed for improperly wearing a hijab is highly symbolic in Iran. Protests have flared up throughout the country over the laws ever since their implementation. However, the current protests are not yet quite as large as recent political upheavals like the 2009 ‘Green Movement’ or the 2019 protests over fuel prices.

With hundreds of young women defying the current morality laws, young people do appear to be paving the way for change. Similar events in the past have however resulted in even harsher crackdowns, so it remains to be seen whether this one will bring about lasting change.

It’s easy, because it plays into prejudicial Western narratives about the “repressive” nature of Islam, to claim that these are anti-hijab protests – but the reality is far more nuanced than that.

Hoda Katebi, an Iranian-American journalist has stated that “Iranian women on the ground are fighting for the right to choice and the right to freedom across the board”.

“This is beyond just women’s rights, it’s about state violence. Making this about Islam and making this about Muslims would actually isolate the millions of Iranian women in Iran and around the world who are Muslim, who wear the hijab, who don’t wear the hijab, who are also in solidarity or on the frontlines of these protests”.

Katebi, who wears the hijab herself, further stated that “what we’re seeing is actually women rising up and burning symbols of the state that have been historically enforced on their bodies”.

Viewing a secular struggle for human rights and independence of choice — to wear or not wear the hijab — through the prism of religion is probably missing the point. Indeed, it’s a narrative that the Iranian government itself has pursued in an effort to delegitimize the protests and paint them as “anti-revolutionary.”

Women have often been at the forefront of political movements in Iran. What we’re seeing now is the next generation picking up that thread and continuing the fight for equality that Iranians have been struggling with for decades.

Related: How to Support Your Muslim Friends During the Islamic Month of Ramadan

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