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Iranians dream no more of religion — they dream of freedom and are ready to pay the price to make it come true

The feminist revolution of Iran has moved beyond the issues of hijab and the morality police. They are more concerned with violence by other agents of the state

Kurdish women activists hold headscarfs and a portrait of Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, with Arabic that reads, "The woman is life, don't kill the life," during a protest against her death in Iran, at Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. (AP)

On December 3, Iran’s Attorney General, Mohammad Javad Montazeri, held a meeting with journalists, during which he announced that the country’s government had abolished the morality police. But Montazeri’s statement was neither approved nor denied by President Ibrahim Raisi or any other member of the Iranian government. The Iranian government’s silence on this important remark has perplexed observers, especially after the state television said that the government was not backing down on the mandatory hijab law. It is not clear if the Iranian authorities are planning to minimise the significance of Montazeri’s remarks or trying to appease protesters who are still clashing with security forces.

It’s now well known that the protests after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police have posed the biggest challenge Iran’s theocratic regime has experienced in decades. The dissenters are more concerned with the 459 protesters, including 64 minors, who have been killed by Iranian security forces since the beginning of the protests rather than the fate of the morality police.

The morality police is no longer the main problem of Iranian women, who have proved to be strong agents of social change. They are at the vanguard of a movement against a regime founded on institutionalised gender apartheid. For the first time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the world is dealing with a feminist revolution in the Middle East – an uprising that has a vast network of supporters and popular groups inside and outside Iran. Perhaps, this is also because Iranian women have been trying to regain the civic rights they had earned during the first and second Pahlavi regimes – the right to divorce and the right to not wear a hijab.

The Islamic hijab was strictly enforced immediately after the Revolution of 1979 when the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, decreed that women should observe Islamic dress codes. Despite a protest by Iranian women on March 8, 1979, wearing the Islamic hijab became a legal requirement in 1983. From that day on — unlike in many other Islamic countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East — the hijab was considered a symbol of oppression by many Iranian women.

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Today, the feminist revolution of Iran has moved beyond the issues of hijab and the morality police. Iranians are now asking for a regime change and democracy. That Iranian citizens — especially the younger generation of women — find themselves at the heart of the social changes taking place in the country, shows the ability of feminism in Iran to embrace several forms of dissidence. Even if women’s rights are rejected by the country’s theocratic regime, most Iranians have little doubt that these rights are indispensable to the principle of liberty. Despite 44 years of theocratic rule, feminism has become a key part of the social life of ordinary Iranians. The civic gestures that have been part of the process of the feminisation of the Iranian public sphere have become a powerful counter-current to the concept of divine sovereignty that regards the faqih (currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) as the ruler of the Shi’ite community. Increasingly, divine sovereignty in Iran has been less about religion than political theology.

At the same time, feminism has found its place in the social networks and political action of Iranian civil society. The two conflicting conceptions of Iranianness are hallmarks of the country’s society today.

The women’s revolt in Iran represents an interesting case of a feminist revolution, especially in an Islamic state. That is why any debate about the political future of Iran must necessarily engage with the womens’ rights issue.

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The morality police is off the agenda of the urban protests in Iran. But the problem of violence against women, which has now turned into severe violations of human rights, hasn’t gone away. Statements such as those of Montazeri shine a light on the weaknesses of the Iranian regime in finding a solution to its legitimacy crisis. Iranians dream no more of religion –- they dream of freedom and are ready to pay the price to make it come true.

The writer is Director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Nonviolence and Peace at OP Jindal Global University

First published on: 06-12-2022 at 16:23 IST
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