Iran’s Protest Movement is a Feminist Uprising
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Iran’s Protest Movement is a Feminist Uprising

It is my belief that the protest movement that has swept Iran since Sep. 16 is a feminist uprising.

It all started with the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman who was detained for wearing what was termed “improper hijab” — i.e., failure to adequately comply with Iran’s mandatory head-covering requirement for women. She was taken into custody on Sep. 13 by the Gashte Ershad (Guidance Patrol), a law enforcement agency known commonly to English speakers as Iran’s morality police. Three days later, she died in the hospital.

Officials stated that Amini’s death was attributable to a pre-existing health condition. But her family disputes this claim, based in part on the accounts of other women who were detained alongside her, provoking widespread public anger.

In this piece, I will explore Iran’s controversial recent history of compulsory hijab policies, the circumstances surrounding arrests such as Amini’s, and other examples of systemic violations of women’s rights under Iran’s legal system.

The Rise of Iran’s Hijab Requirement

Following Iran’s 1979 revolution,* it became a top national priority to make everything Islamic. Islamists were not the only faction who participated in the revolution, but they were presumably the most powerful one, and thus the one that took the power. Just days after taking power in the revolution’s aftermath, Ayatollah Khomeini began discussing a compulsory hijab order. While many women chose to wear hijab at the time, this wasn’t true for all. Thus the policy discussions led to widespread demonstrations, including famously on International Women’s Day — March 8, 1979. As a result of the uproar, the policy discussion was walked back, and the authorities announced they had merely meant to invite women to don hijab.

But less than two years later, the penal code was amended to impose the hijab requirement.

Presently, hijab is dealt with in Article 638 of the penal code, which pertains to haram — acts or omissions that are forbidden under Islamic law and are thus punishable in the afterlife. The Article states in relevant part: “Women who appear in public without prescribed Islamic dress (hejab-e-shar’i), shall be sentenced to either imprisonment of between 10 days and 2 months, or a fine of between 50,000 and 500,000 rials.”

Article 36 of the Iranian constitution states: “The passing and execution of a sentence must be only by a competent court and in accordance with law,” but over time, various police forces have come to enforce the hijab requirement in the courts’ stead.

Most recently, this responsibility seems to have fallen to the Gashte Ershad. These officers will position themselves in public spaces, and if they see a woman with so-called improper hijab, they will confront her, and either require her to adjust her clothing for increased modesty, or take her to headquarters to wait until a family member can bring a more appropriate clothing item. Though such detentions don’t in themselves create criminal records, the humiliation, fear, and threat of familial involvement they create serve as powerful deterrents. Accordingly, the legal justifications underlying this process have long been subject to questions, and reports link the practice to the heightened risk of such psychiatric conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as to domestic violence in relatively conservative households.

The Last Straw After Years of Discrimination

For a variety of reasons, the public seems largely to have sided with Amini’s family and witness accounts of her mistreatment while in police custody over the official cause-of-death reports.

First, medical reports claiming she died of an underlying condition were generated by organs of the judicial system and medical examiners’ offices that fall under the governing authorities’ control. Their true commitment to justice and truth have often been called into question given Iran’s history of coverups, show trials, and seemingly biased prosecutorial decisions.

In addition, Amini’s death may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it was not an isolated incident. The women of Iran have faced a barrage of discriminatory acts and human rights violations over the years, spurring them to fight for equality through education, awareness raising, lobbying, political action, civil society initiatives, media outlets, social media, and any other potentially conducive settings.

One example of an inequality that advocates fought to remedy was an unofficial ban on women watching men’s football. Though there was no official legal ban to this extent, women were until very recently routinely denied access to men’s football stadiums based on the idea that male-dominated environments were unsuitable for them. It took years of effort for women to regain the right to enjoy the sport.

Another example can be found in Iran’s system of punitive rewards. Dieh is an Islamic institution and a form of punishment whereby a perpetrator of certain crimes is required to pay a specific sum to their victims. Under Islam, and as subsequently enacted in Iran’s penal code, women were eligible to receive half the dieh men were. In the past, this was justified by the assertion that men were the primary breadwinners, but this is no longer a universal truth. Thus this inequality has attracted fervent opposition over the years. In May 2019, the General Board of the Supreme Court decreed that dieh payments should be equal for all Iranians. Notably, this decision was not codified, and it’s not a perfect fix. Specifically, the government — not the perpetrator — is responsible for making up the missing half of a woman’s dieh payment. Still, this was a half-step in the right direction.

Many battles remain to be fought. Virgins are still unauthorized to marry without the consent of their father or a court. Married women face enormous legal hurdles if they wish to seek a divorce. Husbands can legally ban their wives from working. A married woman cannot obtain a passport without her husband’s permission, and the latter can legally prohibit his wife from going abroad. And while these issues remain unresolved, Iranian rights advocates have found myriad creative ways to resist them, often paying considerable prices to do so.

What is unfolding today in the streets of Iran is a feminist uprising. Women and men alike are demanding equality, even in the face of opposition from the government and more conservative pockets of society.

Widespread support for gender equality can be seen across the country, in cities big and small. Beyond the protests, the Gashte Ershad has remained visibly absent as many women have begun appearing publicly without hijab.

This is indisputable evidence that as a society our mindsets are changing. There is no looking back now. Sometimes, laws are crafted to guide people along certain paths and to spawn changes for better. But sometimes laws fail to keep pace with the people they seek to govern, requiring decisive policy changes. This is where Iranians are now and I am hopeful.

*NB: All hyperlinks were selected and added by JURIST Legal News, not by the author.

Elaheh Pooyandeh was born in Iran and is currently residing in Tehran. She has a LL.M in international law from Shahid Beheshti University (Tehran) and a Master’s degree in Peace, Conflict, and Development Studies from the University of Bradford. Her areas of work and interest include peace education, chemical weapons disarmament, sustainable development, and gender equality.

Suggested citation: Elaheh Pooyandeh, Iran’s Protest Movement is a Feminist Uprising, JURIST – Academic Commentary, October 26, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/10/elaheh-pooyandeh-iran-feminist-movement/.


This article was prepared for publication by Ingrid Burke-Friedman, JURIST Features Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org


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