Iranian Unrest: The Burning of the Hijab


Women in Iran are burning their hijabs and baring their hair, at the same time that crowds of outraged people are taking to the streets of many cities. This has generated scenes of violence never before seen in the Islamic Republic.

These protests are motivated by the death of Mahsa Amini (an Iranian Kurdish national, who was visiting Tehran) on September 16. The world has witnessed her passing due to the hands of the morality police, who arrested her for not wearing the hijab correctly and showing strands of hair sticking out of it.

The Severity of the Protests

The two key questions are (1) whether the situation is as serious as the images of the security forces make it appear and (2) whether the Iranian regime is at risk of imminent revolution. In the short term, the answer is no, but in the long run the answer is much more nuanced. 

The apparent loss of control of the street by the Iranian law enforcement is a mirage. The explanation that the protests are taking place with much more freedom of action lies in the strength of the protests even amidst the repressive force of Iranian police.

Quite simply, the president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, was at the United Nations General Assembly session when the riots began, and to have repressed them with total force would have caused a bloodbath. This display of violence would have dealt a serious diplomatic blow to the Iranian government. 

Indeed, the level of outrage against the conservative government of Raisi is unprecedented. But due to the president being at the UN General Assembly session, a reduced number of casualties have taken place. 

Regarding whether there is a risk of a revolution, the answer is negative for the short term. All in all, the Raisi government lacks popular legitimacy due to the rigged elections in 2021. An electoral minority now controls all the levels of the state. They have the presidency, the parliament, and the rest of the institutions that control Iranian politics (Supreme Leader, Revolutionary Guards, Council of Guardians, etc).

The Hijab is Like the “Berlin Wall”

Raisi came into government believing that his policies would redirect the country’s situation. On the one hand, he would improve the economic situation and social assistance which would attract the support of popular sectors. On the other hand, he would increase moral repression as an instrument to keep the most reformist sectors at bay. However, the economic situation is getting worse. 

Raisi issued the anti-sin decree in July, which would strictly enforce the moral dress code and steer Iranians away from sedition and foreign influence. He believed it would cause the decline of the current political regime, however, the moral repression is further alienating the popular legitimacy of the regime and dividing the conservative camp itself.

Raisi had planned moral control and strict enforcement of the dress code for a dual purpose. Firstly, he wanted to divert public attention from (1) the serious economic problems in Iran, and (2) the political impasse that his rigged electoral victory implied. Secondly, he thought surveillance over wearing the hijab would function as a weapon for greater social control.

Unequivocally, the time has come when women have lost their fear of living without apologizing for being a woman. The world, via platforms such as social media and in-person protests, is expressing such desire. For an open democracy, the recognition of human rights and proper stability in Iran is necessary. 

Featured Image by: Associated Press, Francisco Seco

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