• Anna Shapiro

Mahsa Amini: Gendered Oppression and the Media’s Responsibility

In the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death, Western media must avoid reductive attitudes towards the oppression suffered by the women of Iran and instead seek to represent their struggle for gender equality as part of a global fight for freedom from intersecting forms of oppression.


Mahsa (Zhina) Amini was a 22-year-old woman from Iran’s north-western Kurdish town of Saqqez. She was visiting Tehran on the 13th of September when she was arrested by the morality police for improperly wearing the hijab, which has been mandatory for Iranian women since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Amini died in hospital 3 days later, having fallen into a coma at Tehran’s infamous Vozara Detention Centre.


Iranian authorities claim that Amini died from a heart problem she suffered while in custody. In response, Amini’s family assert that she was in perfect health and, with the support of eye-witness claims, insist that she was severely beaten while in morality police custody and died as a result of her injuries. Medical reports validate these assertions, revealing that she was brain-dead upon her arrival at hospital and that her death was caused by a skull fracture sustained by blows to the head. Should these reports and details prove to be true upon further investigation, it is undeniable that the treatment Amini suffered in her last waking hours was a violation of her fundamental human rights, situating her case within the global epidemic of gender-based violence.


Amini’s death has sparked protests across Iran: in recent weeks thousands of men and women have taken to the streets in all of the nation’s 31 provinces, demanding accountability for Amini’s death and opposing the regime’s systematic oppression of women. In a direct affront to freedom of expression, these peaceful protests have been met with excessive violence by state forces that has resulted in numerous arrests, injuries, and deaths (according to Iran Human Rights, over 75 protesters were killed, as of the 29th of September).


The international response to Amini’s death has also been widespread, with demonstrations breaking out across major European cities and extensive coverage in the news and on social networking sites. However, such coverage (especially that found on social media) has at times suffered from being overly reductive, simplifying a complex socio-political context and consequently misrepresenting what it is people are protesting to potentially harmful ends.


In particular, Western media attention to the issue has been dominated by the compulsory hijab laws that enabled Amini’s arrest. The internet is awash with images of protesting women shaving their heads and burning their head scarves, and such images are complemented by the sharing of quotes such as: “did you know that letting your hair blow in the wind is a crime in Iran?” However, nuanced explanations accompanying such posts detailing how these acts challenge the Islamic regime are rare. Thus, they risk being interpreted as protests against the core religious tenets of Islam itself and fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment.


This narrow focus on the hijab also ignores the complex intersection of issues that contribute to the oppression of Iranian women. Iranian journalists, for example, have stressed the significance of ethnic marginalisation, asserting that Amini’s Kurdish identity cannot be ignored in contemplation of her death. Another factor bolstering the regime’s control over women are the poor economic conditions resulting from tough Western sanctions. In recent years these sanctions have had a negative impact on society’s most vulnerable groups (women, the working-class, and ethnic minorities) by enabling the government to monopolise forms of communication and impose even harsher restrictions on the population.


Failing to represent such complexities thus not only contributes to the homogenisation of Iranian women, but also risks generating counterproductive outcomes. Indeed, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for further sanctions on Iran, misunderstanding (or ignoring) their historically devastating impact. In reducing Amini’s death and its aftermath to the issue of the compulsory hijab and failing to account for intersectional complexity, the Western media risks worsening the very conditions protesters are opposing.


That these conditions extend beyond the issue of the compulsory hijab is evident in the recent treatment of female protesters. There are extensive reports of the morality police beating, starving, and threatening peacefully protesting Iranian women with rape. These acts clearly situate the protesters’ concern with and symbolic use of headscarves as part of a larger fight for bodily autonomy and freedom from oppression.


To comprehend the complexity of this situation, these protests must thus be contextualised within the larger struggle for women’s rights in Iran. The women’s movement began 150 years ago when Tahreh Quarrat-al-Ayn was killed for demanding to join men in social activism. Since then, activists have consistently worked to challenge discrimination against women in Iran, with over 100,000 people taking to the streets on International Women’s Day in 1979 to protest the new regime’s restrictions on women’s rights to work, divorce, travel, and dress how they please. These protests in the wake of Amini’s death are a part of this historical fight for equality in Iran: the lawful right to choose whether or not to wear the hijab is just one desired outcome.


The Iranian people’s struggle for gender equality can and must be understood as part of the struggle for freedom from gendered oppressions everywhere. Just like the women fighting for their reproductive rights in the USA, the right to free speech in Saudi Arabia, and the right to be safe from gender-based violence around the world, the women of Iran are fighting for their sovereignty and freedom. By looking beyond the restrictive laws on women’s dress to understand and account for the complex intersectional issues that contribute to the oppression of Iranian women, we can understand the fight for the choice to wear a hijab as part of a global fight for gender equality. This will allow for the establishment of solidarity across religious and national borders, consequently aiding and amplifying the voices of those in Iran fighting for their rights.


Since Amini’s death, people across Iran have been chanting: “zan, zendegi, azadi”. This slogan foregrounds what it is the people of Iran are fighting for: “woman, life, freedom”.

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