In recent weeks, Iranians have taken to the streets in large numbers to protest the death of Jina (Mahsa) Amini, a Kurdish-Iranian woman who died at the hands of Iran’s morality police. Protestors are honoring the lives lost to state brutality forces and challenging socio-political systems that enable the violent enforcement of laws that no longer serve the interests of Iranian citizens. Iranian police forces have responded violently to Iranian women on the front line of protests who are chanting: “Zan. Zindigi. Azadi” — the Farsi version of a Kurdish motto that translates to “Women, Life, Freedom.” For the last month, their protests have been met with physical brutality, mass imprisonment and unjust surveillance that suppress their revolutionary efforts. Despite the ever-present threat of imprisonment and violence at the hands of the state, Iranians are continuing to protest. Workers are striking, children aren’t showing up for school and women across the nation are relentlessly chanting “Zan. Zindigi. Azadi” — knowing that those may be the last words they ever utter.
Zan. Zindigi. Azadi.
Iranian women have been denied these seemingly simple demands for life and freedom for nearly a century. The desire to live freely and uphold bodily autonomy has persisted across generations of Iranian women who have lived under various socio-political systems that enforce violent control on their citizens. In the past 70 years, Iranians have been controlled by several regimes that have utilized state-sanctioned violence to monopolize every aspect of their citizens’ lives. Through American intervention efforts, the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty and the current rule of the Islamic Republic, a century of Iranians have experienced regime after regime of state brutality promising to somehow correct the state brutality that preceded it.
The American role in the current state of Iranian affairs dates back to 1953, when a CIA coup overthrew Iran’s democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mosaddegh. This coup was part of an American effort to reinstate the monarchy in Iran; by seating Shah Reza Pahlavi on the throne, Iranians fell under the rule of a U.S.-backed royal dictatorship. Under the influence of American puppeteers, the Pahlavis measured success through a western lens, putting great emphasis on urbanizing the nation. Urbanization efforts were hailed as signs of progress and economic recovery, but the failures of these efforts were transparent. Under the Shah, a large portion of Iranians living in rural areas lacked access to education and health care. This was a consequence of the Shah’s repression of rural lifestyles that accompanied his censure of many traditional aspects of Iranian culture. In an effort to suppress opposition to modernization efforts, traditional symbols of Islam were criminalized — particularly hijab. Kashfe Hijab was the movement to ban women in Iran from being veiled, and it encompassed the broader efforts of the Shah to control women under the guise of liberating them. It is clear that Iranian women have long been familiar with the administration of oppressive forces dictating their right to choose.
After a long period of civil unrest under the Pahlavi dynasty, Iranians began to revolt. Critics of the Pahlavi regime — including veiled women, inhabitants of rural Iran, Shiite Iranians and Marxist groups like Iran’s Tudeh Party — sought to conquer the oppressive rule of the Pahlavi dynasty, and its unwavering allegiance to the West. Unsurprisingly, protestors were met with brutal forces that imprisoned revolutionaries, restricted efforts for liberation and committed violence against civilians — all repressive tactics that have been maintained by the current regime.
Despite efforts to suppress opposition, insurgence under the Shah continued to increase. This was made possible by the mass mobilization of Shiite Iranians, inspired by the work of Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini, who had been exiled by the Pahlavis, became the catalyst for the Islamic revolution upon his return to the country in 1979. After the Shah was overthrown, he became the supreme leader of the newly founded Islamic Republic.
Khomeini’s victory restored hope for many Iranians — who viewed the Islamic revolution as a means for liberation — while prompting many others to flee the country. Alas, it wasn’t long before the promises made to the 1979 revolutionaries were broken. The Shah’s implementation of state brutality was quickly reconstructed to serve the Islamic Republic’s vision for the homogenization of Iran. In either direction of homogenization, women have been disproportionately scrutinized and subjected to violent law enforcement.
The fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty only momentarily silenced cries for liberation. Iranians quickly became governed by authoritarian forces under a new guise. In many ways, the Islamic Republic established a socio-political system that would mimic the Shah’s efforts to homogenize the nation, while directly opposing the Shah’s vision for homogenization. This is epitomized by the republic’s hijab mandate, which prompted people to assemble in protest, chanting the slogan: “In the dawn of freedom there is an absence of freedom.” These women, advocating for the right to choose, were echoing the same cries of veiled women living under the Pahlavi dynasty’s 1936 Kashfe Hijab mandate. The newly formed republic began to target the autonomy of Iranian women in a new, but familiar, way.
Unsurprisingly, Iranians currently protesting the death of Jina Amini are being met with the same violent forces that killed her. Protestors are being subjected to heavy surveillance, police violence and unfair imprisonment. Current and past political protestors are being held in Evin Prison, which was founded toward the end of the Pahlavi era and maintained under the Islamic Republic. As the goals of each government seemingly changed, Evin Prison serves as a tangible symbol for the longstanding and remaining state brutality and tyrannical justice system that has been present since the Pahlavi era.
The Shah set the precedent for using Evin Prison to unjustly imprison political prisoners and subject them to torturous, inhumane living conditions. Ironically, Evin Prison became occupied by those who were involved with the Pahlavi regime after 1979, but the prison population soon broadened to include anyone opposing the Islamic Republic.
Recent protests against the morality police have resulted in mass imprisonment, making Evin Prison even more crowded than it already was. With the capacity for imprisonment being exceeded, the needs and safety of prisoners are being further neglected, and prison guards are becoming strangers to accountability. On Oct. 15, fires broke out at Evin Prison, and prisoners were left helpless in overfilled cells with fumes circulating around them. Authorities reported eight prisoners dead, and 61 injured. The protestors storming the area to demand help for their loved ones were met with no sympathy from the government. And the perpetrators of the state brutality that has enabled prisoners to be subjected to these conditions were met with no accountability.
This incident at Evin Prison exemplifies how severely isolated Iranians are. The past century of political unrest in Iran has proven that state brutality cannot conquer itself in new forms. In order to defeat this cycle, power has to be returned to the people, which cannot happen as long as the government is restricting people’s expression.
In order to start developing a holistic response to the cries for life and freedom, we must consider the role that United States sanctions have played in escalating these cries and enabling the government to exercise absolute monopoly over its citizens. For decades, economic inflation — due to sanctions — has made it difficult for people to access food, water, shelter and health care. In a vicious cycle of sorts, these conditions have furthered how severely isolated Iranians are from the world, and how susceptible they are to authoritarian control. A long-term solution to these issues remains unclear, but lessons from history should teach us what hasn’t worked, and what isn’t in the interest of the Iranian people — particularly sanctions and military intervention. We must recognize that the consequences of actions that are currently being advocated for have been seen, and have not brought about any semblance of liberation.
Women essentially serve as a litmus test of sorts for Iranian liberation. As regimes have come and gone, the rights given to women have been molded to fit various narratives of homogenization, be it that women are veiled or unveiled. The past century of injustice and violent law enforcement in Iran has made one thing abundantly clear: we cannot envision a free Iran without autonomy for its women.
This contributor chose to be anonymous for safety reasons.