On September 16, 2022, the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody drew the attention of the world to Tehran, Iran’s capital. The incident sparked demonstrations across the nation as people marched in the streets to protest against police brutality and state suppression. Mahsa had been a victim of body-policing three days earlier when she was detained by members of Iran’s Guidance Patrol (morality police) that is charged with the responsibility of enforcing compliance to the country’s dress code. This incident purportedly led to a cardiac arrest and the death of the young lady. The protests have resulted in confrontations between the police and demonstrators with several lives reportedly lost in the past four months. Many others have been injured or arrested in the capital, as well as other major cities such as Esfahan, Bushehr and Shiraz. In his reaction, the president of the country reportedly maintained that the protests have been violent and initiated by the West to undermine the republic’s security. The reaction of the president reiterates the habit of politicizing sensitive issues, through which state actors create external loci of control for self-culpable issues that undermine the welfare of their citizens. Within a broader spectrum, the death of Mahsa has again spotlighted the entanglements of religion, gender, state brutality, unfounded criticism of the new media and censorship in politics as the Iranian government sought to save face by delimiting the circulation of information about the protests. These entanglements thus constituted the thematic for discussions during the meeting of the Africanist Scholars’ Forum that took place on December 16, 2022.
We keenly observed how Iranian women have taken to the streets to resist the policing of their bodies by publicly removing and burning their headscarves, while also demanding for freedom from state repression. Such gestures of defiance against state policies that are endangering their lives have garnered the support of male Iranians, as the protests transmuted from the demand for the protection of women’s rights to regime change for good governance. The prevention of women from realizing their potentials within the social and economic sectors of their countries, mostly under the guise of religious tenets, is not peculiar to Iran. Since its return to government in Afghanistan, women have increasingly been excluded by the Taliban from having gainful employment, quality education, and political participation; even as there are some restrictions to their freedom of movement. One of the adverse effects of such restrictions is the deprivation of quality living conditions for these women and their dependents, aside from undermining efforts at assuaging endemic hunger and poverty creating humanitarian emergencies. This is particularly true for countries in which women are major players in the disbursement of humanitarian aid. The exclusion of women from socioeconomic and political life of a society, we submit, also has broad implications of undermining the sustenance of developmental endeavors in such a society.
We join our voices with those condemning the intentionality of effacing the shrinking civic space through acts of violent suppression by the Iranian state and its agents. Before Mahsa’s death, resistance to assaults by the morality police had been carried out via the social media, with the hashtag #notothecompulsoryhijab. This subsequently resulted in heavy state censorship of activities within the social media. Following from this, we reiterate that there is an emerging trend of zero tolerance for dissidence by regimes that have lost legitimacy among their citizens owing to misrule. As is the case with the Iranian protests, the inability to account for the number of casualties, especially fatalities, due to a restricted operating environment for the media, only serves to validate that there is the ploy by the regime to cover up heinous crimes by state agents, including those of mass atrocities. As at the end of November 2022, the Human Rights Activists in Iran contested the over 300 deaths admission by an Iranian state official – Gen Amir Ali Hajizadeh, while putting the figures at about 511 deaths; of which 451 were protesters and 60 were state agents. The lack of accountability for lives is a violation of the sacrosanct nature of human life, and it is largely due to the lack of civilian oversight over government excesses.
The news that the morality police has been disbanded based on comments by the Attorney General of Iran, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, has generated a lot of controversies; with major indications that although this may signal a disposition to trading concessions by the regime, that arm of the police is still in force. The resilience of the protesters to continue pressing home their demands in the face of police brutality, however, goes to show that the repressive approach by the state cannot yield sustainable management of the current crises. For one, the Iranian diaspora – especially in North America and Europe – are determined to sustain the momentum of highlighting the challenges of women suppression, political exclusion, voyeurism, economic hardship and corruption bedeviling the country. The regime would thus have to revise its strategy of engagement with the protesters to create the needed legitimacy in restoring a stable polity.
The rights of women as equal stakeholders within the state must be respected, especially within ethnically and religiously diverse contexts. As the Iranian protests reflect, the struggle for entrenching affirmative action entails the collaboration of the male population, especially considering the broad and intersecting nature of the challenges of marginalization against women.
It is important to mention the significant role of religious leaders, especially within theocratic polities, in ensuring the right interpretation of religious tenets; so as to prelude the weaponization of religion in the protection of elite interests. Religions should thus be interpreted and practiced along the lines of peace, justice and fairness towards which they are projected.
The violent responses to peaceful protests by the state and its agents must be averted as a matter of priority. There is the need to devise rules of engagement between state agents and civilian protesters. Governments must thus concede to making structural changes in line with the demands of the people for better living conditions; as opposed to incurring avoidable fatalities that would ultimately become commemorative symbols for sustaining grievances within their polities.