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Elaheh Pooyandeh: Woman, Life, Freedom – In memory of Mahsa Amini – Part 2

Elaheh Pooyandeh

TFF Associate

September 26, 2022

In Part 1, we explored the history of compulsory hijab in Iran and related incidents up to September 2022 when the name Mahsa (Zhina) Amini was heard for the first time by ordinary Iranians. On September 13th, 2022, a story was leaked to social media. A young Kurd woman, Mahsa Amini only 22 years old from Saghez who was in Tehran for vacation with the family, was transferred to the Kasra hospital (which is a few minutes from the Gashte Ershad HQ in Vozara street). A few hours before, she had been arrested and separated from her teenage brother by Gashte Ershad – often called the ‘Moral Police’ in the West but – see Part 1 – why I do not use that term – when she was leaving the Taleghani subway station and forced into a van.

This ignited a fire that is still burning. Mahsa’s family (or as they called her Zhina) did not stay quiet, and the story spread fast. They claimed that Mahsa was forcefully taken after the police officers used pepper spray on her brother who was resisting her arrest. That’s when the social media storm began. People were wondering what can lead to a healthy young girl ending up in a coma in just a few hours.

Soon, the Fars News Agency, known for its governmental policies and fake news, claimed that Mahsa had “pre-existing conditions” and her hospitalization had nothing to do with her arrest. However, the citizens’ sense of doubt was very significant on social media, and people were so outraged that this claim from this infamous government-affiliated media only strengthened the suspicion that she had been beaten while in custody.

In an effort to rule out the beating, some other media and people with similar political views to those of Fars claimed that she was scared and her health problem was a result of anxiety. However, this made the case even worse. Now the question was: “Should the police be this scary to citizens?”

The next day, a photo of her in the hospital bed was leaked with clear signs of bruising around her eyes and bleeding from the ear which, as many doctors explained on social media, could only be a sign of severe concussion. This was denied by the police, followed by publishing a 90 seconds video of closed-circuit cameras (without sounds to prove she was alone when she passed out.

The first 60 seconds cover her entrance to the Vozara HQ. Although Mahsa was in the building for hours, the film was cut short (to be suitable for public sharing as they claimed) and in it, it was visible that Mahsa enters the building and sits down. You can see the passage of time as the light and people change in some future frames. Then a police officer calls her, Mahsa goes to her, she takes Mahsa’s dress (apparently to say it is not appropriate) and leaves. Mahsa stands for a second, puts her head in her hands, leans on the chair and then falls. The last 30 seconds is a short overview of the medical team arriving and transferring her outside of the building.

Unlike what the police had hoped, the video just added fuel to the anger and disgust. Seeing her clothes which were fully appropriate raised questions even among those who believe in Gashte Ershad. Police claimed that she had changed her clothes before the video, but this is not the procedure of Gashte Ershad, and this claim was rejected by the public. The video reminded many women of the humiliation and fear they had experienced and made it tangible for those who had not experienced it.

In addition, it raised so many questions such as why the whole video including the body cams of the arresting officers were not included in the video. The police chief replied that although the officers had to be equipped with body cams, they had not been in this case. Mahsa’s father later disclosed in interviews with many newspapers and media that other arrested women who were in the van had called him to tell him that Mahsa’s head was forcefully hit against the van while it was moving toward Vozara HQ.

He also emphasized that Mahsa was completely healthy, but he had seen bruises on her calves and neck in a quick peek before the burial. Therefore, many concluded that these testimonies were correct and the police are refusing to accept the responsibility of its personnel.

On Friday afternoon, September 16th, Niloufar Hamedi, a journalist published a photo of Mahsa’s parents crying in the Kasra Hospital as Mahsa had passed away. That’s when the social media storm began.

People who had not yet received a clear and trustworthy story of what had happened to Mahsa were furious and frustrated, and the first protests automatically happened in front of the hospital without any planning or organization. Police and security forces were sent in large numbers to either scatter or to arrest. Some women’s rights activists were arrested, and the news was spreading fast.

Mahsa’s body was very quickly and hastily transferred to the medical examiner’s office for autopsy and immediately after sent to Saghez for burial – all done in less than 12 hours. Her family announced that the funeral would be held on Saturday at 10 am. As Mahsa’s father later said in interviews, the security forces had planned to bury her as soon as her body arrived to avoid the gathering of people. However, they faced the family’s resistance, and the funeral was held in the presence of thousands of people from the city. Her body was not fully shown to the family, and they never got the chance to fully examine the signs of bruises.

As journalist Elahe Mohammadi reported, Mahsa’s father asked the people during the funeral to not to leave them alone for the next days as they are experiencing pressure from the government to be silent.

People chanted “Woman, Life, Freedom” in Kurdish during that day and its Farsi translation became the most symbolic chant of this movement (1). A picture by Elahe Mohammadi from Mahsa’s grave was published in which a note on her grave could be read: “Dear Zhina, you won’t die. Your name will be a Code.” This term also became symbolic as people started protesting in cities around the country.

Sunday the 16th of September, was also Arbaeen, an important Shia occasion which marks the 40th day after Ashura, the day that Imam Hossein was martyred. In Shia, Imam Hossein is known for resisting oppression and fighting for people’s rights, and therefore some religious groups joined the people demanding answers to the case of Mahsa and emphasising that they are following Imam Hossein’s path.

However, this event also paved the way for the government to claim that this tension and out-of-proportion reaction to Mahsa’s death was an excuse for certain opposition groups to overshadow the successful Arbaeen event. It should be said that days before, thousands of Iranians had travelled to Karbala, many on foot, to visit Imam Hossein’s shrine.

This event is one of few that has been held bigger and bigger in scale and using government media and budget each year. However, this time, the government’s media efforts could not quell the social media storm. The Farsi Hashtag of Mahsa’s name (2) became the number one in trending and still continues to be the only topic on social media in Iran.

By the time of writing this piece, this hashtag has been used more than 100 million times on Twitter which, considering all the Internet restrictions (that will be explained later) is phenomenal and an all-time Twitter record. Interviews with Mahsa’s family, any response from officials, all kinds of legal, social and medical aspects have been inspected in detail.

Inconsistencies of the official narrative of the event were being challenged or debunked seconds after they were published, and therefore that narrative kept changing. The Kasra hospital claimed in an Instagram story that Mahsa was brain dead when she arrived, but they can’t disclose any more information due to confidentiality regulations. The story was removed quickly, but screenshots were already circulating throughout social media, with even more questions about how a young completely healthy woman can end up brain dead in such a short period of time.

The official response to Mahsa’s death has been anything but sufficient or believable. The Fars News Agency claimed that Mahsa had had brain surgery when she was a child and was suffering from epilepsy and diabetes. A few days later, Fars published some brain CT scans and other documents from a medical file to confirm its theory but was faced with questions about how it had access to medical files even before the results of the medical examination were published (3).

This story was denied by her family. The supreme leader paid no direct attention to Mahsa’s death or the protests that had already started during his speech on the 17th. On September 18, Raisi called the family and announced that he has initiated a full investigation of the events leading to Mahsa’s death.

However, this response was, in no way, enough to calm the people because during the last few years, several investigations have been initiated by the state following tragedies of various kinds, but none has resulted in tangible outcomes or even a published report. A few examples were the shooting down the civilian flight PS752 in 2020 or the collapse of Metropole mall in Abadan just a few months ago. However, Raisi’s call slightly changed the approach of other officials. Other media including Fars interviewed Mahsa’s father, and later Qalibaf, the head of Iran’s parliament, said that the issue will be fully investigated. Likewise, the head of the Judiciary, Ejei, also promised to follow up on the case to the full extent. None of these and other statements were received well or believed by the majority due to many previous cases of wrongful doing or corruption which had gone cold.

The outrage that had started on social media, turned into protests starting in the western provinces (mostly Kurd Sunni (4) population) and soon spreading to other cities. People of Tehran came to the streets on the 20th for the first time. From the first day and Mahsa’s funeral, many women took off their scarves, some burning it in the streets. Many other cut their hair off in the streets or in front of the cameras and videos have been shared in solidarity with Mahsa and her family. Many women are now sharing their pictures or stories of going out for daily tasks without head scarves. There are even videos of women, sitting or standing alone in front of the anti-riot police without hijabs while the police are not taking action against them.

The protests soon spread to the universities. Students who were just starting their school year after two years of online education organized rallies chanting inside universities around the country. Many celebrities used their social media to support the movement and ask for the elimination of the compulsory hijab. As an example, two actresses published their pictures without hijabs which most probably means they will not be allowed to play in movies anymore. Many smaller or conservative cities in which citizens had not joined any protests since the revolution are now dealing with people in the streets who demand change.

However, at this point, the demands of the people cannot be clearly defined. The protests started after Mahsa’s death as an objection to the compulsory hijab but have now turned into more than that as time has passed. Many are chanting for a more democratic regime. Some videos of burning Iran’s flag or the Quran have been published although many people believe these are planned by the government to justify the use of force as they have done so before.

In the absence of any political leader of the movement (5), identifying specific demands proves to be difficult. The inability and disinterest of the government to understand the demands when the protests began and to meet them caused a crisis that it is still trying to deal with. So far, the only reaction to the protests has been resorting to police and the use of force.

Further, other than the primary promises of clarifying what happened to Mahsa, all state officials’ reactions have been limited to warning the protesters and threatening them with legal and police action.

There is no exact number of casualties available, however, it is estimated that by now more than 50 people have been killed by the police (mostly shot), hundreds or more injured or beaten. Widespread use of tear gas by the police has been reported. The new wave of arrests started soon and probably thousands have been arrested (and might face torture and deprived of access to a lawyer). Many university students were arrested either at home, at universities or in dormitories. The list also includes some journalists (like Niloufar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, both previously mentioned) and activists who had been arrested and imprisoned in the past.

The other response of the government has been to impose severe restrictions on Internet access. Apps such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Zoom and Telegram were filtered for years meaning they were accessible only by using a VPN. Instagram, WhatsApp, LinkedIn and Skype were soon added to the list (6).

The Internet was fully shut down in the country for a few hours especially for mobile data each day, slowed down significantly in other hours, and VPNs hardly work since the 21st, and this is still going on (7). Such measures were taken in the past during the unrest on a bigger scale. However, unlike many other unrests including in 2009 and 2019, the supreme leader has not reacted to the events, especially since a Friday prayer has passed which is usually the time that he would announce his policies on the topic.

Governmentally organized rallies in support of the compulsory hijab were held on Friday, a typical action but not with the big numbers expected and no media coverage since social media are still dominated by Mahsa Amini. Many major universities announced their first week of classes will be online, a measure which seems to aim at preventing university students’ protests.

In reaction to this event, rallies have been organized abroad to express solidarity and support for theIranian people. Many foreign officials and celebrities have done so as well (8). In addition, hacker collectives such as Anonymous have declared war on the Iranian government and have hacked many sites and published some data. The extent of damage caused by this to the state, the country and people in general and in the long-term could be serious and have unexpected consequences. Therefore, it’s a dangerous form of support.

What now? I cannot speculate on all the outcomes of the protests. I sadly expect many more deaths and imprisonment. There are now voices demanding strikes from Bazar (9) and universities, and such events are fully possible.

However, in my opinion, even if the demonstrations and protests stop today, there has been a major change in Iran. Before Mahsa, every day, you could see a few women dropping their head scarfs from time to time. But from now on, I believe a threshold is passed, and there is no returning. Compulsory hijab and Gashte Ersahd are never going to be like before Mahsa. And every day, there will be more women without hijab in the streets. Most likely, the law will not change soon, but it will be ignored.

I see a kind of solidarity among the people that I have never seen before on this topic or maybe even any other political issue in the last couple of years. The groups supporting this right to choose is not limited to people who don’t believe in hijab, but many religious people who respect others’ right and are looking forward to a peaceful co-existence.

Discrimination against women in Iran was never limited to their right to choose what to wear, but this was the most manifest issue and the one that caused the most resistance. Just this year, Iranian women entered football stadiums after years of struggle, and it seems that it is soon to be followed by another right. This can be a turning point in history, a movement ignited by calling for women’s rights and dignity.

There are always some who try to reclaim what people of Iran have done. There are many opportunists out there. Both Iranians (like Masih Alinejad, the so-called journalist; Maryam Rajavi – head of the MEK terrorist group or Mohammadreza Pahlavi, son of Reza Shah and the self-appointed Crown Prince) and non-Iranians like some politicians who like to use this opportunity to dehumanize Iranians even more and use it to put more sanctions, more political isolation and economic pressure on Iran.

Undoubtedly, this is a dangerous terrain for Iranian people to navigate.

My recommendations on what you can do to support this movement are mere suggestions. With internet restrictions in Iran, you can be the people’s voice. Please don’t let some Iranians who are living off of spreading hate or some foreign governments claim the movement.

Please don’t use this movement to spread hate for Muslims. We are fighting for freedom, for every woman’s right to full autonomy on what she wants to do with her life and her body. So please look around. How are women being discriminated in your community? Please do something about that.

And finally, please remember that the path to women having the right to what to wear did not start with Mahsa. Maybe it started on December 2017 when Vida Movahed climbed an electricity box in Enqelab (10) Street and held her white scarf on a stick for 40 minutes in silence before she was arrested or other girls who followed her in the coming days and have been called Enqelab girls since then. Maybe by many more who gradually changed the acceptable hijab norms and limits during the years or maybe by Dr Homa Darabi who set herself on fire in Tajrish Square – in February 1994 in objection to the compulsory hijab.

In fact, this has been a long path that many women, with or without the hijab, have walked on for a century and they are now reaching their destination. So please spread the word about Mahsa, but let the Iranian women lead. This is their right, their movement and Mahsa is their code.

Notes

(1) This Kurdish term was first used by Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurdish political prisoner and founding member of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey and was used by Kurds before, though never widely known. I believe that the term was re-defined during this movement in Iran and would be an inspiration for many more women’s rights acts.

(2) مهسا_امینی

(3) The reports were expected to be published by the medical examiner after two weeks, however a report was read during a parliament session just after a few days which rejected any use of force against Mahsa. This time inconsistency also caused suspicions. In addition, facts have come into light during the last few years of real autopsy reports of some other cases who had died in police custody such as Sattar Beheshti, proving the first report about his death was forged to hide the fact that he was beaten.

(4) The fact that Mahsa was a Kurd and Sunni is noteworthy. Being a minority was never brought up in public discourse, and the solidarity of people with her family was regardless of this statue which is a strong indication of national Iranian identity.

(5) Since political parties were not directly involved in organizing protests and have been severely weakened in the last weeks due to pressure, imprisonment and loss of social capital.

(6) Discussion about a nationalised Internet, a kind of national intranet, has been going on in the country for months. These developments were the excuse needed to implement many of its measures.

(7) In an economy already weakened by sanctions and poverty and with inflation increasing, the internet shutdown and protests have led to financial costs.

(8) As an example, the United States added Gashte Ershad officials to the sanction lists and waived the trading of the internet equipment from the sanctions.

(9) Bazar or Grand Bazar is the traditional main trading system of the country which can control many businesses through syndicates and financial influence. Their strike played a very important role in 1979 revolution.

(10) Engelab means revolution.

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