Huge bravery of Sepideh Rashno, Mahsa Amini and Nika Shakarami against state restrictions on women’s freedoms may be catalyst for change
In July, a video began circulating online of an altercation between two women on a Tehran bus. One, in full hijab, attacks the other, a 28-year-old called Sepideh Rashno, for not wearing a hijab, mandated under Iranian law and punishable with a fine or even prison.
In the weeks leading up to the incident, footage of similar episodes had been spreading with increased frequency online, evidence of the growing pressure being exerted on women by the regime. But this particular video went viral, and led to Rashno being arrested, abused and forced into making an apology on state television.
For a few weeks, Rashno was the face of a crackdown on women’s freedom in Iran that has intensified, sometimes violently, in the last year. Her arrest was “a turning point for many women who had been resisting the morality police and fighting the mandatory hijab and slowly pushing the limits of what the state considered proper attire, and slowly but gradually making progress in pushing those limits,” says Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian journalist and political analyst.
“But this was a reminder of the state’s violent enforcement of the mandatory hijab on women. It was seen as a message to those who resist the state’s mandatory dress code. But it had the opposite effect, and anger and fury that had been slowly building up over decades eventually exploded with the subsequent death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police,” she says.
When news broke that the 22-year-old had died after being arrested for wearing her headscarf “improperly”, protests that began outside the hospital where she died spread across Iran within a week. Women burned their headscarves and cut their hair, leading the protests in which thousands of Iranians demanded the end of Ayatollah Khamenei’s rule and chanted Amini’s name.
“The horrific murder of Mahsa exposed the brutal reality of life under the Islamic republic,” says Kasra Aarabi, the Iran programme lead at the Tony Blair Institute, the former British prime minister’s thinktank. Mortazavi says: “And you can see that these protests – triggered by what happened to Mahsa – are distinctively anti-regime.”
Aarabi asserts that women have previously participated in protests in Iran. “However, this time, the goal is a complete regime change rather than reform. Because the Islamic Republic’s mandatory hijab is more than just a simple piece of clothing. It’s one of the fundamental tenets of this regime’s ideology.
The sight of schoolgirls shooing off police from school grounds or hanging signs that read “woman, life, freedom” in classrooms is one of the protests’ most striking images. For any woman to do this, but particularly for young girls who risk being arrested, being expelled from school, or even dying when participating in these protests, takes enormous courage and bravery, according to Mortazavi.
Nika Shakarami, a 16-year-old whose passing has been clouded in misinformation, is one of the hundreds of protesters who have reportedly been killed by state security during these demonstrations. Her family reported receiving threats for disclosing her death, and confusing and conflicting details about how and when she had died emerged.
Prior to her phone going dead, Nika claimed to be fleeing security personnel, according to her mother, who later told journalists that she had received a call from her. When her family went in search of her at hospitals and police stations, they were informed that no one by that name was there. While this was going on, videos of her singing and acting silly were circulated all over the world.
In order to convince her mother that Nika was the dead body in the picture, the police showed her images taken nine days later. Her cheeks had fractures. Her molars were fractured. Her skull was dented, and she had taken a significant blow to the back of it, according to her mother.
The Iranian government says Nika was thrown from the top of a building and died and that it is a criminal matter and has nothing to do with the protests and security forces. In her burial certificate, obtained by BBC Persian, the cause of death is stated as multiple blows caused by a hard object.
“This has been part of the regime’s playbook in previous crackdowns of mass protests where security forces commit brutal violence against protesters, while denying that violence and those who are killed by it. It happened in 2009 with the state trying to deny that Neda Agha-Soltan and other protesters were killed by security forces, it happened again in 2019.”
The state has always made an effort to fabricate alternate stories and coerce families into believing and repeating them. In the most recent instance, state officials lied for three days about a Ukrainian plane that had been shot down by the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps). Iranians have gradually lost faith in the government as a result of repeated challenges and refutations of these alternative narratives.
Prof. Ali Ansari, an expert in Middle Eastern history, claims that schoolgirls defying the hijab or yelling “Basij get lost!” from school buildings presents a “huge dilemma” for the regime even though young protesters are still being killed and detained by security personnel. “What will they do with them? They are unable to shoot a group of schoolgirls.
According to Aarabi, the Islamic Republic has used schools for the past 43 years to spread its extreme ideology and to brainwash the next generation into supporting the government. The schoolgirls who are protesting are demonstrating that “it has completely failed.”
Aarabi claims that what is happening right now is the “beginning of the end of the regime.”