Zan, Zidegi, Azadi (‘women, life, freedom’) is the central slogan of the ongoing women-led protests that have shaken Iran and captured the world’s attention. The slogan emerged from the Kurdish freedom movement and has been taken up by Iranian protestors. It is a call for the reclamation of women’s bodily autonomy, an issue at the core of the current movement.
The women-led protests started after Masha Amini, died in police custody. Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian, was arrested during a visit to Tehran by the morality police for violating ‘hijab’ laws. She was sent to a ‘re-education’ camp and later died. The images of Amini’s brutalised body went viral and triggered widespread protests led by women. Women are removing their headscarves (hijab) in public and cutting off their hair in a bold defiance of a law that requires mandatory head covering. The protests, the largest since the 2009 Green movement, have been met by a brutal crackdown by the authorities, and several media sources have reported deaths.
Women’s Bodies as Battlegrounds
Contestations over women’s bodily autonomy are not new in Iran’s history. The politicization of the hijab (and women’s bodies) started with Reza Shah Pahlavi – the father of the deposed Shah, who banned wearing the veil in public. Women who veiled faced harassment in public. The law was abolished a few years later as it was unpopular with devout women and the general public, but it had cemented the hijab (and by extension women’s bodies) as an ideological battleground. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, veiled women came to symbolise national identity for the new regime, and hijab-wearing was made compulsory. This proved unpopular with women, and there were major protests led by women in post-revolutionary Iran. Compulsory veiling was written into law in 1983 but has remained contested, with the regular emergence of protest movements.
Women-led protests and state backlash
Recent protests in Iran have seen numerous strategies by women defying the state’s control over their bodies: the cutting of hair in public, the making of bonfires with headscarves, the singing and dancing in the streets; all of which change how women’s bodies are imagined and presented in public. This is not unique to Iran. Similar strategies of performing songs and dances, defying gender norms and state regulations in creative and unruly ways to claim public space and demand change are used by the Aurat March protestors to draw attention to bodily integrity issues and the Hazara women protestors in Pakistan. Anti-sexual harassment protestors at Egyptian universities used performance to draw attention to claim women’s right to say ‘no’, and the Shaheen Bagh protestors in Delhi used sit-ins and public performance to draw attention to citizenship rights.
All of these women-led protests are facing backlash from their country’s regimes, who continually attempt to discredit them and delegitimise their claims. State security forces and police have harassed and detained protestors and their allies. Given the high levels of state surveillance in these contexts acts of protests carry grave, even life-threatening, risks for the protestors, their families, and their allies.
A leaderless movement and change
As with many other women-led protests, the Iranian protests are leaderless, showing a model of distributed leadership, which enables the sustainability of the movement in the face of state clampdown. The widespread support from many men and across society is another sign of hope for Iranian women.
Time will tell whether this will be a turning point for renegotiating women’s rights in Iran, and if the wide-scale support for the women-led protests will trigger positive change. What we do know, and are seeing, is that the protestors will face severe repression. The state has implemented a social media block in an attempt to contain the protest. In the meantime, those of us that support Iranian women’s right to bodily autonomy need to find effective ways of showing our solidarity, so the protestors know they are not alone. We need to avoid exceptionalism and Islamophobic narratives that position Iran’s gender politics as static and uniquely repressive.
Backlash against women’s bodily autonomy is rising in many contexts at the moment, and it will take a collective effort, to resist it.