At the start of October, more than 50,000 people gathered for a demonstration in Richmond Hill, Ont., in tandem with similar protests around the world. Flags fluttered in the breeze, people clutched handmade signs and hundreds of voices chanted.
The demonstrators took to the streets in solidarity with ongoing protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year old woman who died in police custody on September 16, after being arrested by Iran’s morality police in Tehran for wearing an “improper hijab.” Photos of her body and witness accounts indicate she had been beaten by police following her arrest. Amini was Kurdish, a large minority ethnic group of stateless people that has historically been discriminated against under Iran’s government, the Islamic Republic. This extends to their names; Kurdish names are often banned from use. Among the 10 million-strong Kurdish community in Iran, Amini is recognized by her Kurdish name, Jina.
In the days following Amini’s death, protests began in her home province of Kurdistan, spreading to cities across Iran and sparking a movement of global solidarity. The women-led effort calls for an end to Iran’s compulsory hijab laws.
Mandatory dress codes for women in Iran have been wielded as a means of control for decades. In 1936, then-monarch Reza Pahlavi instituted a ban on veils and headscarves that prevented women from appearing in public while wearing hijab. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, women were put under legislation that controlled their attire in the opposite direction. Wearing hijab became mandatory in 1983, and a range of restrictions on women’s rights in marriage, divorce, child custody and employment were enforced, despite the protest of thousands of women. Since then, women in Iran have faced strict social and legal restrictions, including criminal punishment, for wearing the hijab in a way deemed “improper”—in other words, showing too much hair or insufficiently covering the neck.
Protesters have braved a brutal response from Iranian authorities, facing what Human Rights Watch has called “excessive and lethal force.” Online, videos have circulated of security forces using rifles and handguns on demonstrators. At the time of publication, human rights organizations have estimated a civilian death toll of more than 200 people, including 32 minors.
Names of other young women killed during the protests in Iran have been a rallying cry around the world. The family of a 16-year-old protester Nika Shakarami was called to retrieve her body from a mortuary days after she disappeared following a protest on September 20. The same week, Hadis Najafi, a 23-year-old TikToker, was shot and killed while protesting.
The protests in Iran are a youth-led movement; the average age of most detained protestors is reportedly 15. As attention spreads globally, young people on social media are getting involved, even oceans away.
“This is a process that has just started,” says Dr. Minoo Derayeh, an associate professor at York University specializing in gender, religion and human rights, with a focus on Iran. She says that the sustained power of this movement indicates a long-term shift powered by the people within the country. “If not this year, it will be next year because they are continuing this movement. It doesn’t happen right away,” she says. “The change must come from within, and it will come from within.”
Why we need to recognize the current movement’s Kurdish roots
As the movement grows, members of the Kurdish community stress the importance of highlighting the roots of the protests.
“While all women are forced to abide by the patriarchal and religious codes and restrictions of the regime, women at the margins of the Islamic regime in Iran are up against additional layers of violence,” says Dr. Dilar Dirik, a research fellow at the University of Oxford, specializing in the Kurdish women’s movement. In Iran, Kurdish people face both ethnic and religious discrimination.
“Many aspects of their identity and existence are under attack, their bodily and political autonomy is targeted,” Dirik says. Targeting Kurdish women serves as an intimidation tactic, preventing others from organizing against the government’s oppression. “This is particularly so because women in all parts of Kurdistan, and especially more so in the last decades, have historically played leading roles in the resistance against state violence.”
“During this regime and the prior ones, the Iranian state heavily prohibited the Kurdish language, culture and identity,” says Naren Briar, a Kurdish-American advocate and artist who focuses on the experiences of ethnic and religious minorities. She says that the erasure of the Kurdish role in the current movement even stretches to Amini’s name. “While the world addresses her as Mahsa, the tombstone on her grave read Jina.”
In fact, the phrase that has been used to embody the current protests in Iran and then carried worldwide is a Kurdish one: “jin, jiyan, azadi,” or “women, life, freedom.”
“The famous phrase was born with a Kurdish and ideological essence,” says Briar. “It’s certainly wonderful to see the phrase translated into Persian [as ‘zan, zendegi, azadi’]. Global solidarity should prevail, but not at the erasure of its Kurdish inception.”
The untold history of Iranian women’s activism
Iranian women have long played an active role in resistance movements, says Derayeh, though their history and impact is often overlooked. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the revolt of women was so effective that it took several years for the government to fully enact the compulsory hijab. And in 2017, in a quiet foreshadowing of the current protests, a woman named Vida Movahed went viral after an image of her removing her hijab and waving it in the air circulated online. That image sparked a movement of other Iranian women doing the same, despite Movahed’s immediate arrest.
Still, the youth leading today’s protests do not know anything but the Islamic Republic’s regime, says Derayeh. “What they see is unemployment, lack of freedom, huge inflation, insults on the street by the guards.” It was this pressure, she says, that built up and led to such a powerful movement. “Kids on the streets there resonate with Mahsa. They see themselves in Mahsa.”
Derayeh refers to a previous wave of mass protests in Iran, the Green Movement of 2009—a series of pro-democracy demonstrations that erupted in response to electoral fraud—as some of the largest protests in Iran until now. The power of the current movement comes from how it has united groups from differing backgrounds in pursuit of a shared purpose, beyond more partisan politics, she says.
Iran’s protests are about freedom, above all
Unfortunately, in some cases, others around the world have co-opted the messaging of the protests to advance external ideas or agendas. Case in point: A recent column in the Toronto Star in which the writer used critique of the Iranian government’s compulsory hijab laws to insult Muslim women who choose to wear coverings in North America. (It was later edited after publication for not meeting the paper’s editorial standards.)
Derayeh refers to videos of women in Iran, some wearing hijab and some without hijab, protesting side by side. “I wholeheartedly respect all those Muslim women and also Jewish women who choose to veil themselves. It’s their choice,” she says. “And with the same token, I respect all those women, Muslim and non-Muslim, that choose not to.”
Together, she says the protesters are pushing back against a regime that has imposed a political version of religion that “shook the foundation of freedom of choice.”
“There is one goal, and the goal is freedom.”