The hijab and chastity law, issued not long after Ebrahim Raisi’s government took office, has led to increasing repression in Iran. In particular, this law mandates the use of facial recognition technology to identify those who do not comply with the so-called “proper hijab,” thus restricting the public movements of Iranian women. The death of a young Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini—who was stopped and detained by the Iranian morality police in Tehran before she slipped into a coma and died under mysterious circumstances—has stoked anger among women in Iran. Some Iranian women have launched a social media campaign against “forced hijab,” showing them cutting their hair and burning their headscarves.
As a result, some members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Parliament)—such as the representative from Chabahar, Moinuddin Saeedi—have called for an end to these types of patrols because their violent policy has led women to hate the hijab and avoid wearing it. They point out that there is no religious or legal basis that legitimizes this kind of monitoring. The Raisi government’s iron grip on Iranian society aims to send both domestic and foreign messages. At home, the regime wants to impose more repressive laws that restrict the movement of opponents and prevent the continuation of protests. Abroad, the regime seeks to emphasize that, despite foreign pressures, it is still able to tighten its control at home.
Overall, however, this has led to further pressure on Iranian society, especially for women, who bear the brunt of this extremism. The widespread women’s protests that have followed the death of Mahsa Amini are trying to stress that these policies will be counterproductive and that religious extremism will only result in rebellion and the desire to do what is forbidden.
The death of a young Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, and the subsequent women’s protests against the Iranian regime’s treatment of women are expected to have negative effects on Iran, as seen in the following:
1. Widening gap between the state and society: The escalating protests in Iran could widen the already increasing gulf between the state and society, as seen in the chanting of slogans critical of the Iranian regime’s top leadership, such as “death to the dictator” and “death to Khamenei.” The protests have turned violent, forcing the Revolutionary Guard’s security forces to use tear gas on citizens and water cannons to disperse the demonstrators, and even to resort to firing live ammunition. The regime has also cut off internet service to limit opportunities to organize protests in various cities, but ultimately this has been unsuccessful.
Such events are sure to have a negative impact on the activities of civil society organizations concerned with women’s issues in Iran, and women’s growing rejection of the Raisi government’s policies may result in a kind of weakening of the social ties that strengthen the relationship between the various pillars of society.
2. Growing opposition to the government: Despite mounting resentment in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Guidance Patrol, Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi defended the work of such patrols, calling them a “legal measure.” He also called on the conservative newspaper, Kayhan, affiliated with the Supreme Leader, to counter the demonstrations and their organizers on social media in order to prevent their spread.
The government’s negative reactions have met major popular resistance in Iranian society. Some have pointed out the need to focus on more important issues, like the economy and bringing down high rates of unemployment and inflation. According to some protestors, the police should focus on preventing and tracking attacks, thefts, and rising crime rates in Iran, rather than the undefined phenomenon of “improper hijabs.”
Many others note that such treatment is not expected to positively influence these issues, but will lead to the complete opposite result in most, if not all, cases
3. Loss of sympathy in international public opinion: Despite Iran’s efforts to attract the support of a segment of world public opinion in its favor—especially after the economic sanctions imposed by the former Donald Trump administration and the mounting calls to help Iran address the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic—such social issues may lead to an increase in Iran’s profile of human rights violations and demands for more international pressure on Iran.
Significant aspects of this appeared in a group of Iranian activists living in Washington who organized a demonstration in front of the office of the Interests Section of Iran. Several human rights activists in Vancouver, Canada, also called for a march in front of the art gallery in that city, and a similar march was organized in the German capital, Berlin. President Ebrahim Raisi may face demonstrations against him during his visit to New York to participate in the UN General Assembly meetings.
All of this coincided with some human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, demanding the Iranian regime be held accountable for these crimes committed against its people.
4. Erosion of the popularity of the regime in Iran: The death of the Kurdish-Iranian young woman, Mahsa Amini, angered Kurdish political parties in Iran. Political parties and civil activists in Iranian Kurdistan called for a general strike in protest against the arbitrary policies of the wilayat al-faqih system. In the long run, this could lead to the renewal of the Kurds’ separatist tendencies.
In turn, the reaction of elites in Iran to this incident shows that they are following an old playbook for handling crises, based not on examining the basic roots of a crisis, but on providing superficial explanations that worsen the problem in the long run.
For example, right-wing newspaper Kayhan noted that the incident was a natural result of secular reformist policies, and that reformist leaders, such as former President Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani’s vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, are “happy” about such incidents because they highlight the failure of the conservatives and their inability to govern Iran.
This type of explanation, which insists on skirting the truth as much as possible and ignoring the root causes of the crisis, could heighten resentment within Iranian society and bring about negative results for the government and the regime.
Finally, crises within all levels of Iranian society are expected to increase in the coming period, especially in conjunction with the faltering Vienna talks and their negative impacts on the Iranian economy, and in parallel with the tightening grip on society, and especially on women. This contributes to the ongoing popular tension that may exacerbate the challenges facing the current regime.