Conflict Alerts # 556, 29 September 2022
In the news
The death of a 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini on 13 September while under detention by Iran’s morality police has sparked nationwide protests. The demonstrations targeted the strict hijab rules enforced by the government.
A heavy public backlash was observed, with ongoing protests the past fortnight claiming more than 71 lives, including security personnel. Hundreds of people, including journalists, have been arrested or detained.
Visuals of women burning their hijab and cutting their hair have flooded social media. Iran’s government has responded by banning the internet, especially WhatsApp, Instagram, and other social media, pledging “decisive action without leniency against the core instigators of the riots.”
On 23 September, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met President Ebrahim Raisi to raise concerns about the investigation and excessive use of force against the protesters. The international community, including the UN and Amnesty International, has called for a criminal investigation and a fair probe into the death of Mahsa Amini.
On 25 September, Iran’s government summoned the British and Norwegian envoys to protest their ‘hostile reporting and interference’ in Iran’s affairs. President Raisi also cancelled an interview with an American CNN reporter because she refused to wear a hijab during the interview. Iran’s protesters have garnered widespread support in the international community. The protests in Iran have received support from the diaspora based in the US, UK, Norway, Turkey, France, and more.
Issues at large
First, strong anti-hijab sentiments. Hijab and loose tunic over clothes became strictly mandatory for women in Iran only after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Protests on a smaller scale erupted in 2017, and the then leader Hassan Rouhani relaxed the Hijab mandate in certain areas. However, the current conservative hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi brought back strict enforcement of the dress code which has resulted in strong protests, especially led by women.
Second, internet censorship. The Iranian government has restricted access to the internet to prevent people from using it mobilise protests. However, the US has stepped forward to assist the people in their peaceful protests by imposing sanctions on the morality police and providing means to bypass internet shutdowns. To that end, billionaire Elon Musk has offered Starlink, a satellite network operated by SpaceX, to help people access the internet.
Third, state-sponsored counter-protests. Supporters of the current regime have gathered in large numbers in the form of state-sponsored pushback to change the existing narrative. They claim the ‘rioters’ have engaged in anti-religious acts by burning the Quran and the national flag. They have also denounced the intervention of foreign powers like the US, claiming the protests are ‘seditionist’ fuelled by external forces intervening in Iran’s domestic affairs.
Fourth, momentum for the feminist movement. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 set back the progress made by women by at least 5 decades. Since then, the feminist movement has struggled to make progress with conservative leaders enforcing strict Islamic law. Moments of relaxation have been observed with predecessor Hassan Rouhani reining in the Moral Police. The current protests are a culmination of decades of oppression and pose a challenge to the regime. Women in Iran are not just challenging the hijab mandate, but the culture of treating women as second-class citizens.
First, the interplay of religion and moral policing. The protests which started out by demanding justice for Amini have turned into questioning the institutions set up by the government that enforce strict Islamic laws. The extent to which the government has gone to uphold its social-religious and oppressive practices has caused widespread dissatisfaction. The death of Amini has triggered the fundamental question of the need for moral and religious policing in an age when the country’s feminist movement is stronger than ever.
Second, impact of protests. Iranian bureaucracy is adamant about enforcing the hijab as a mandate; there are very few officials under Khameini’s rule that have opposed the veil. If the government gives in to the hijab row, then there will be popular demand to update various other aspects of the Islamic law that are repressive in nature. As a result, the government is putting a lot of effort into denying Amini’s death as the fault of the police and changing the narrative to condemn the violent riots and undue foreign influence. In the short term, the government is likely to provide selective relaxations to quell the civil unrest but it is unlikely that any substantial institutional changes will come about.