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Source: FT

Mar 20, 2024

Will the hijab protests finally bring change to Iran?

Mahsa Jina Amini’s death at the hands of the morality police unleashed an uprising — but will it unseat the regime?

By Sanam Vakil

In September 2022, a wave of protests spread across Iran in reaction to the death of a young Kurdish girl named Mahsa Jina Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police. Over the next few months, these protests gained steam, drawing out diverse constituencies from more than 100 cities and universities across the Islamic Republic in what would become known as the “Women, life, freedom” protests.  

Mahsa’s death inspired Kurds, Iran’s Balochi ethnic minority, students, school girls, labourers, celebrities, artists, teachers — and particularly women — to take to the streets rallying against the mandatory wearing of the hijab, injustice and continued political repression. 

The Iranian political establishment’s response to this widespread challenge was — as it has always been — a graduated and violent crackdown against protesters and society at large, while also blaming western powers for inciting unrest.

Communication blackouts and heightened surveillance followed. Then thousands were arrested, detained and tortured, many were maimed and attacked, more than 550 people were killed, young school girls were hospitalised from exposure to toxic gas attacks, eight people have been executed and many sentenced to long prison terms.

A UN fact-finding mission recently concluded that the crimes uncovered indeed amount to “crimes against humanity.”

Iranian women protest — without hijabs covering their heads — during nationwide outcry at the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in the custody of Iran’s morality police © Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images

Grammy award-winning Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour, whose song “Baraye” (“For”) became the anthem of the 2022-23 “Women Life Freedom” protests, is among those who were recently sentenced to three years in jail. Hajipour’s lyrics were drawn from the aspirational tweets of ordinary Iranians wanting basics — “ . . . for dancing in the streets . . . for this polluted air . . . for imprisoned intellectual elites and for freedom” — and went viral during the nationwide protests.

His story is emblematic of the heroic sacrifice of countless Iranians who have had their lives and livelihoods devastated by the harsh hand of a brutal regime.  With authoritarianism on the rise around the world, the protests drew significant international attention, stimulating renewed hopes that the Iranian state would give way to demands from women and broader society for social and political change.

The bigger unspoken aspiration is that such moderation will lead to an ideological softening of the Islamic Republic and a shift in its advancing nuclear programme, its anti-American posture and support for proxy groups across the Middle East that would have significant impact. Both books claim that political or revolutionary change in Iran is inevitable — although impossible to predict Two new books pay tribute to the 2022-23 protest movement: What Iranians Want by historian Arash Azizi, and the multi-authored Women, Life, Freedom, a collection of stories, in graphic novel style, edited by Marjane Satrapi.

Satrapi, author of the acclaimed autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis (2000), provides a vivid visualisation of the protests and subsequent government crackdown. Azizi, meanwhile, takes a wider lens to show that Iranians have long been protesting in favour of reform. Both books claim that political or revolutionary change in Iran is inevitable, although impossible to predict.

What Iranians Want takes a historical approach, shedding light on the layers of the country’s diverse protest movement which, since the 1979 Iranian revolution, has been rooted in formal activism, organised campaigns, boycotts and ordinary daily resistance. Moving beyond the traditional approach of reviewing the past rounds of protests — the 1999 student movement, 2009 Green Movement, and 2017 and 2019 economic protests — Azizi’s thematic lens provides the reader with an accessible and comprehensive overlay of popular activism led by everyday heroes who languish in Iran’s jails or fill its cemeteries. Each chapter takes on a protest theme — ranging from peace, women’s rights, labour issues, the environment, freedom of religion and expression, and Afghan refugees — to weave together the history of these movements, the public aspirations behind them and the repressive government response.

“But ideologues don’t make revolutions. Ordinary people do,” writes Azizi, a US-based historian. Iran’s recent protest movements, he argues, are part of a new revolution in the making — one that he is hopeful about, but requires an understanding of history and co-operative action to build upon past sacrifices.  Each theme is given personal expression through the names and stories of the heroes and martyrs of 45 years of protest and beyond. Some are well known, such as the 2023 Nobel peace prize winner Narges Mohammadi and Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, both jailed for their longtime civic activism.

Others include Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani, arrested for environmental activism in 2018, as well as Sahar Khodayari, who self-immolated to protest against the banning of women from stadiums, and Ali Nejati a labour leader. Azizi also devotes space to Nika Shahkarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh, both of whom were killed by security forces in 2022.   In contrast, Satrapi’s collection provides a mix of perspectives regarding Iranian resistance and government crackdowns.

Through bold visualisation of protests and political repression, Satrapi (who lives in Paris) and her co-collaborators Farid Vahidi, Abbas Milani and Jean-Pierre Perrin aim to inspire audiences both inside and outside Iran and to reinforce solidarity with those in the country. While only bootleg copies will make it to Iran, theirs is a vivid and painful testimony of the deep popular frustration percolating across Iran and the underlying hope that accompanies it.  

In this fluent translation by Una Dimitrijevic, illustrations contributed by 17 artists add colour to vignettes that describe events around Mahsa Amini’s death and the protests that followed. Like Azizi, they too highlight the role of everyday heroes as protesters and prisoners. Moreover, they visualise how the “Women Life Freedom” slogan was inspired by Kurdish activism, which views the dignity and inclusion of women as essential to broader freedom. Although the 1979 revolution brought a reversal of women’s rights in Iran, Iranian women remain highly educated and despite exclusionary government policy, they are active across society.

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