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  • Writer's pictureMahsa Forghani

Zan, Zendegi, Azadi: The Current Crisis in Iran

Residents in London, England rally in support of Iranian protesters (Neil Webb/Unsplash)

For people worldwide, 1979 carries memories of hostage crises, nuclear accidents, and Soviet invasions. For the people of Iran, 1979 marked the year everything changed. The 54-year-old Pahlavi Dynasty, led at the time by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, fell to the new Islamic Republic. Under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a theocracy guided by Islam was established, and life was undoubtedly no longer the same. Cut to September 13, 2022, 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini was arrested by Iran’s morality police (implemented by the new regime) for allegedly wearing her mandatory hijab improperly. Three days later, she died in police custody, her family reporting that she was severely beaten. Her death was the tipping point for the Iranian public to express their discontent with the regime and its treatment of citizens, particularly women, who have been subject to strict laws following the new regime’s implementation. People all over the country — and now, all over the world — gather in the streets with a rallying cry: “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi.” Women, life, freedom.

Citizens’ Response

The death of Mahsa Amini marked what many consider the breaking point for the Iranian public and their tolerance of the current theocratic regime. Her name, which has been turned into a hashtag with immense popularity, is now a manifestation of feelings of discontent against the government and its morality police. The current protests in Iran mirror those that occurred in 1979, when the regime was first implemented. In March of 1979, following the defeat of the Pahlavi Dynasty, women took the streets of Iran’s capital, Tehran, in waves. They sought to protest the onslaught of laws put in place by the new government that markedly dictated their choice of clothing, made hijabs mandatory, and above all, existed to reinforce centuries-old patriarchal values. Before the death of Amini, the UN reported disturbing levels of child marriages in Iran, instances of domestic violence, and human rights violations against women. Amini’s death and the protests that followed use these reports as evidence that something needed to change.

It is also important to note that the success of these protests is owed, in part, to Mahsa’s Kurdish background. The Iranian government neglects her real name, Jina, due to its non-Persian origins. But the fact is that the first protests against Iranian morality police using her name as their martyr began with Kurdish women taking their hijabs off during her funeral, engaging in chants of “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi,” the Kurdish translation of “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi.” The sad reality is that the media’s neglect to mention Amini’s Kurdish identity reflects how the Iranian government overlooks Kurds, another grievance of the Iranian public against their government.

However, the women’s rights movements that have sparked as a result of Mahsa Amini’s death have not been contained to Iran singularly. Beginning in the Middle East and North Africa, and eventually spreading around the world, these protests have given women in various regions a voice to speak out against the discrimination they face. Tunisian, Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, and other women of diverse backgrounds took to the streets to burn their hijabs, cut their hair, and engage in chants of “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” translated into their respective languages. In Afghanistan, women announced their support of Iranians fighting their regime and began to protest both in solidarity with Iran and against the injustices they face as a result of the Taliban and its attacks on women.

The Government’s Response

In the wake of mass protests, the government and police have played an enormously consequential role. To the government, the demonstrations are displays of dissent, and many lawmakers have expressed disapproval. In an open letter signed by a majority of the Iranian Parliament, these lawmakers stated that protesters should be punished and taught a “good lesson” against questioning the authority of the regime. As this recent wave of outcries is the largest in many years, the government has pledged to a “no leniency” policy. As of December, more than 450 people were reported dead by Iranian security forces, at least 60 of whom were children. A vast amount of these protesters live in Kurdish regions of Iran, where acts of civil disobedience are the most widespread following the death of Amini. The charges on which these individuals are detained and/or killed are defined as enmity against God, corruption, and armed rebellion. However, the lack of due process concerns many. Iranian human rights activists report inhumane methods used by the government to extract information and subdue uprisings, stating that those detained are not given access to lawyers, are often tortured, and much more. Protesters such as Mohammad Ghobadlou, Mahan Sadrat, and Mehdi Karami were sentenced to death after families reported that they were either denied access to lawyers or told their lawyers could not appear in court. 27-year-old Mehran Samak was reportedly shot in the head on sight by Iranian police while participating in celebrations after the Iranian national football team was eliminated from the FIFA World Cup. Like many other Iranians, Samak had been hoping for their team to lose in the global sporting event as a display of protest.

The Global Response

Immediately following the murder of Mahsa Amini, the scope and magnitude of dissents in the country led to worldwide recognition. Five days after her death, President Joe Biden spoke to the UN General Assembly, stating, “We stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.” The U.S. Treasury Department also authorized aid to be sent to Iranians to maneuver government censorship. Elon Musk, for example, sent Starlink receivers to Iran to provide citizens with backup internet in the wake of immense government crackdowns. In addition, the nations in the political forum G7 released a joint statement condemning the actions of the Iranian government and morality police, with many more political leaders following suit. In mid-December, the UN, in a landmark decision, voted to expel Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women, citing the recent concerns surrounding Mahsa Amini’s death. This decision was met with mixed reactions as various human rights groups condoned the decision and encouraged more actions to be taken in solidarity with Iranian women. However, while the majority of voters in the UN agreed with this decision, several nations voted against Iran’s expulsion. Iran’s representative at the UN, Zahra Ershadi, stated that the vote was a reflection of the UN’s tendencies towards “exclusivity, supremacy, unilateralism, international bullying, and intimidation,” Chinese officials claimed that the expulsion set a bitter precedent, and Mexico’s deputy ambassador stated that removing Iran from the Commission would likely do little to change the current state of women’s rights in the country. Nevertheless, the vote proved pre-existing relationships between Iran and other nations succinctly and allowed more action to be taken by, pointedly, the U.S. and its allies.

Meanwhile, citizens worldwide have taken to the streets to show their support for Iranian women. Protests in Istanbul, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Paris, London, and more have demonstrated how vast this movement has become. Fabienne El-Khoury, a member of the French feminist group Osez le Féminisme, told a reporter, “Internet access has been limited in Iran, so we have a role to play in relaying the messages of Iranian men and women here and amplifying their actions.” As previously mentioned, many Middle Eastern and North African countries are also expressing their sentiments by protesting Mahsa Amini’s death in addition to their own oppressive governments.

It is also hard to ignore the importance of social media in spreading the message of the struggle for women’s rights in Iran. On Twitter, the use of hashtags allowed German actors to spread compiled videos of them cutting their hair to spread awareness about the injustices in Iran. Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi has also taken to Twitter to inform others of ways they can support the movement. The #MahsaAmini hashtag broke records due to its vast usage and allowed Mahsa Amini’s story to reach millions worldwide. TikTok and Instagram users have also spread the word about the movement, posting videos of themselves cutting their hair and disseminating information about protests. The deaths of Jina Mahsa Amini and protestors alike are now being used as fuel for a generation seeking change and a new wave of activists who hope to change the world.



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