FOR several months, Iran has been rocked by unprecedented protests, sparked by the death on Sept 16 of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who had been accosted by the Islamic Republic’s morality police for ‘improper’ hijab. Though the authorities claimed her death in custody was due to a pre-existing medical condition, the victim’s family did not buy this explanation and demanded transparency. In the wake of the tragedy, Iran has witnessed demonstrations, at times violent, across its length and breadth, crossing communal and ethnic boundaries. As per official figures, over 300 people have died in the unrest, including protesters and security personnel attacked by violent demonstrators in what the Iranian establishment has termed ‘riots’. However, sensing that coming down with a heavy hand is not working, it appears that Tehran’s clerical government is applying a less confrontational approach to quelling the strife. As per the prosecutor general, the morality police had been “shut down”, at least temporarily. Moreover, President Ebrahim Raisi has also signalled that “flexibility” can be shown regarding Iran’s strict post-revolution hijab laws.
Beyond the immediate spark igniting the protests — the Mahsa Amini tragedy — there are several factors behind the sustained demonstrations. These include calls for greater social freedoms, particularly for women, ethnic grievances, as well as Iran’s dire economic situation, made worse by Western sanctions, which has made ordinary Iranians’ lives miserable. While the Iranian establishment may blame the West for stoking the recent unrest — Joe Biden’s promise that “we’re gonna free Iran” certainly raised eyebrows in Tehran — the fact is that the country’s rulers need to look into the core domestic issues fuelling the protests. The morality police’s suspension is a good first step, but the state should go further and drop the stringent restrictions governing women’s dress. While it is wrong for others — for example, many European states — to restrict the hijab, it is also not right for states to force women to wear the veil. Women must have the freedom to dress as they want.
Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2022