Mahsa Amini, 22, is a new icon who gave her life in defense of Iranian women's freedom, exposed the inhuman conditions they face in a society that still lives in darkness, and became evidence to the closed-minded approach of Iranian police in dealing with citizens.
This is a crisis confronting the Iranian state in the aftermath of the death of Mahsa Amini after she was arrested in mid-September (2022), by the so-called "Morality Police" in Tehran under the "application of the compulsory hijab laws." These laws were enacted after the revolution in 1979 that was dubbed “Islamic,” but in essence was the complete opposite of that description. How is it possible to pass legislation requiring all women, regardless of nationality or religious beliefs, to wear a headscarf that covers the head and neck?
This incident has added fuel to the fire of growing rage, not only among Iranian women over their tragic situation, but also among the majority of Iranian society, particularly youth groups of both sexes who are fed up. They are living under suffocating conditions and incur huge losses to serve a group of mullahs that still wield power under flimsy pretexts reminiscent of mediaeval ages. As if these mullahs were given divine permission to rule a people who were once known for their intellect, knowledge, and civilization, but today, they are begging for food and struggling to meet their basic needs. This is shown by the ongoing protests inside Iran sometimes over the deteriorating standards of living and other times over the lack of water.
This report examines one aspect of the tragic reality experienced by Iranian women under the "Morality Police.” While the term suggests positive connotations on a verbal level, police practices on the ground have demonstrated inhuman brutality. The Iranian regime customarily coins slogans and uses attractive terms to deceive the simple people, in order to cover its abuses and violations. Perhaps the term “Morality Police” is one of these slogans or terms.
Here, the tragedy of Iranian women can be presented in two pivotal points. The first is related to the role of the Morality Police and its transgressions, the second is related to domestic and international reactions to Amini’s death.
AN IRANIAN TOOL TO STRANGLE FREEDOM
As authoritarian or autocratic regimes attempt to dominate the resources of their homelands and lives of their citizens, they use various tools that can be political, religious, security, media, educational, cultural, economic, etc. All of these tools are used to influence people’s lives, out of fear that the citizens will deviate from the boundaries drawn by these regimes which can signal their downfall and the trial of its leaders, as shown in the historical record of similar regimes.
Perhaps what has happened in Tehran since the 1979 coup did not deviate from this approach. The mullahs quickly imposed a package of repressive measures to curb thought and lifestyles, and to impose their own perspective on state institutions and society.
One of these tools was the establishment of a specialized police known as the "Morality Police," which monitors the extent to which citizens adhere to strict dress and behavior codes. They would conduct "guidance patrols" in Iranian streets, where they arrest and punish women. For example, if a woman appears in public wearing a dress that is unlike the Iranian chador or a full covering, she will face consequences. Young men are not also exempt from reprimanding by these cops if their clothing is not satisfactory, in their opinion.
Anyone who violates their "code of conduct" risks being dragged into a "Guidance Patrol" car and taken to a "corrective institution," where he/she will be taught how to be a good citizen. Otherwise, they will face imprisonment or a fine, according to the prevailing standards of the ruling mullahs.
Needless to say, the role of Morality Police inspired a group of young information programmers to develop an Android application that allows Iranians to avoid these officers. Gershad is an application that mainly relies on the GPS service. When a young Iranian user a checkpoint of "Guidance Patrol," all he/she needs to do it to report its location. As more reporters send the patrol’s location, the app would fix it on the map and thus other app users can avoid passing there and change their route. If fewer reports are sent about a certain patrol location, the app will gradually remove it because those routes are constantly changing.
The Iranian authorities were able to block the application 24 hours after its release due to their strict and extensive control over the Internet. But the speed with which Iranian citizens interacted with the app, prompting the government to ban it within one day, reflects a public rejection of the state's curbs on freedoms. Rather, the concept of this application prompted citizens to respond to what happened by publishing satirical tweets like: "While the rest of the world develops applications to locate police in order to benefit from their protection, we (Iranians) develop applications to protect ourselves from police." Another user wrote: "How desperate must we (Iranians) be to develop an app to avoid the police on the street because of our fear of them?"
Such criticism condemns the Iranian police, given the fact that they are the regime's most used tool to repress citizens, and condemn the regime that has become bankrupt in the eyes of its citizens and has lost its political legitimacy.
In addition to the foregoing, there is another dimension to consider about the role the police in general and the Morality Police in particular. Morals represent a system of values that guides individual behavior without the need for a police force to force them to abide by these values. When these values turn into legal rules they need to be enforced by police.
Here, the Iranian state must review the inhuman models that it is trying to impose on society under flashy slogans that are not helpful any more in an open world. When a country speaks about censoring the Internet, it is referring to a capability that no longer exists. In fact, young people frequently use proxy servers to circumvent the ban imposed by authorities on social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and others. This proves that the world has become closer than the mullahs of Tehran imagine. They still believe they can isolate their society, as they did when they overthrew the government and took over the country in the late 1970s. They ignore how things have changed and the world has developed.
AMINI’S TRAGEDY: MASSIVE DOMESTIC OUTCRY AND FEEBLE INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
The tragedy of Mahsa Amini was not the first of its kind, and it will not be the last. Arrests, assaults, and daily violations against Iranian women are common in the Morality Police records. The Iranian police statement attempted to deny responsibility for the murder, stating that: "Amini was stopped with others in the hall to give them explanations and directions about the dress to be worn, and although there was no physical contact between the officers and Amini, she suddenly fainted while she was with others."
In an attempt to clear the policemen of criminal responsibility for her murder, state television broadcast images of the victim falling to the ground in a large hall full of women while arguing with an official about her dress. Her father, however, denied this: "Those who say she had previous diseases are lying," Amjad Amini says.
"Mahsa did not have epilepsy or heart disease," he said, casting doubt on the authenticity of the video released by the police, saying: "It was cut up, why did they not publish the segment when she was being led from the police car to custody? What exactly happened there? They traumatized her and then the disaster happened."
This was backed up by a wave of widespread opposition from Iranian citizens in general, and Iranian women in particular. Saeed Dehghan, a prominent Iranian lawyer, described Amini's death on Twitter as "murder and a blow to the head that fractured the base of her skull."
Hadi Ghaemi, the head of Iran's Center for Human Rights, blamed the Iranian government, saying: "The Iranian government is to blame as she was arrested under the state's oppressive and discriminatory veil law and died in custody."
Crowds of students at Tehran and Mashhad universities, on the other hand, organized vigils against the Iranian authorities, holding banners condemning the suppression of freedoms and violence against women and chanting, "Freedom - Women - Life."
After the burial ceremony, there were clashes between police and protesters in Sanandaj, the center of Kurdistan province and the birthplace of Amini. They chanted "Death to the dictator" in reference to the Iranian leader, Ali Khamenei. They also dropped a large banner bearing the image of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force who was killed in an American strike in early 2020.
The protests have grown and intensified to the point that many people have died as a result of the increasing violence used by Iranian police against protesters. These developments open the door to the potential consequences and implications for the Iranian political situation, given the obscurity surrounding the health of the Iranian leader Ali Khamenei. His lack of interaction with such events, despite the gravity of their consequences, reveals that the mullahs' regime is currently facing an intertwined crisis.
Opposition Kurdish parties have also called for general strikes in Kurdish cities in the west of the country. In the meantime, Iranian women launched a "Challenge" campaign on social media to burn headscarves, with some even posting videos.
In the same context, many Iranian filmmakers, artists, athletes, politicians, and religious leaders vented their rage on social media. Mohammad Khatami, former Iranian president and reformist movement leader, urged authorities to "stop acts that violate the law, logic, and Sharia and bring the perpetrators of the incident to justice."
He also called on the National Trust Party (Etemad Melli), led by reformist leader Mehdi Karroubi, to pass legislation to end the forced veil. The Iranian Film Actors Syndicate also issued a statement demanding that the hijab-enforcing police patrols be discontinued.
Asghar Farhadi, who won two Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, wrote, "Mahsa is more alive today than we are because we are sleeping and not reacting to this never-ending cruelty. We are complicit in this heinous crime."
Several Iranian newspapers with reformist tendencies also condemned the Iranian authorities' approach. The Aftab newspaper referred to the shock caused by the incident throughout the country. "People were shocked and angry because of what happened with Mahsa Amini," Etemad newspaper wrote, noting that "the nation has repeatedly noticed the violence of the Morality Police."
Jomhouri Eslami newspaper also warned of what it described as the "social division" caused by the violent behavior of police officers, and the economic newspaper Asia published on its front page a photo of the victim's grave with the headline: "Dear Mahsa... Your name will become a symbol."
On a global scale, reactions were more akin to lip service. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, expressed his regret over the authorities' behavior in Amini case and stressed that the incident is indicative of widespread violations of human rights in Iran. He also called for a United Nations resolution condemning the country's forced veil law. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to US President Joe Biden also tweeted: "We are deeply concerned by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was reportedly beaten in custody by Iran’s Morality Police. Her death is unforgivable. We will continue to hold Iranian officials accountable for such human right abuses.”
Amnesty International also called for “a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding Amini's suspicious death, including reported torture and other abuses in custody…Three days before her death, the so-called Morality Police in Tehran arbitrarily arrested her while the enforcing abusive compulsory veiling laws. All individuals and officials involved must be brought to justice.”
Nevertheless, meetings and negotiations with the Iranian side regarding the nuclear deal are still ongoing, as if what is happening inside Iran has no effect on the stances taken by the European and American parties who are currently engaged in the negotiation rounds. This is a significant indication that issue of human rights raised by Western countries (the United States and its allies) is completely politicized. It is used to achieve the interests of these parties, regardless of the situation of human rights.
A question is raised about Western inaction in face of this heinous crime committed by the Iranian police in broad daylight without any concern for the consequences. The Iranian regime undoubtedly knows how to manage their interests with the West separately from human rights, which is at the forefront when the West addresses the regional countries.
Therefore, Tehran did not pay much attention to the international criticism as much as it feared the escalating internal outcry. It tried to contain the crisis fearing it would worsen and expand. To start with, President Ibrahim Raisi called Amini’s family confirming, according to a presidential statement, that "your daughter is like my daughter." He also promised that he would "follow up the investigation until the circumstances of the case were clarified." The Iranian Vice President for Women Affairs, Ensieh Khazali, also stated that "she had a direct contact with the girl's parents to offer condolences and to assure them of a serious follow-up to the issue until all aspects of the incident are clarified." In addition, the Speaker of the Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf announced the formation of a fact-finding committee, saying "I assigned the Internal Affairs Committee to investigate the circumstances of Amini's death."
In conclusion, despite its depiction of the bleak situation of Iranian women, Mahasa Amini’s death is an opportunity for the Iranian society in general, and Iranian youth in particular, to take an ongoing stance rather than a momentary reaction that can fade within few days, until a similar crime is repeated. If the incident gains a temporary momentum which will then fade away, the situation will worsen and get more complicated, and the grip of the Iranian state and its repressive apparatus will tighten on the Iranian people.
The people should instead benefit from everyone's acknowledgement that there are shortcomings and violations. As explicitly stated by Iran newspaper on September 19, 2022: "Amini's death was bitter and sad, and it left us bitter. Yes, there are undeniable flaws and shortcomings in this regard that should not be overlooked." It is vital to raise the demands for reconsidering the package of laws restricting freedoms in general, and the freedoms of Iranian women in particular.
Will this moment help the Iranian society improve their situation, protect their rights, and regain their liberties?