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#MahsaAmini One Year Later.

  • Essay
  • Sep 18 2023
  • Mohammad Salemy
    is an independent Berlin-based artist, critic and curator from Canada. He holds a BFA from Emily Carr University and an MA in Critical Curatorial Studies from the University of British Columbia. Together with Patrick Schabus, he forms the artist collective Alphabet Collection. Salemy is the Organizer at The New Centre for Research & Practice.


Mahsa (Kurdish: Žina) Amini’s murder a year ago and the ongoing revolution it inspired in Iran have been the direct result of the Iranian women's transgenerationally accumulated grievances against the power and control the Iranian state has assumed over their bodies since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. It is an asymmetrical fight between an inclusive form of feminist secularism and a contemporary variant of political Islam uninterested and unable to evolve in order to reflect social transformations that have taken place in the country over the last four decades. 

However, as local and specific as it appears at first glance, the Woman, Life, Freedom (WLF) Revolution needs to be seen within the broader tapestry of Middle Eastern women’s fight against ingrained patriarchal norms enforced through the alliance between local traditional cultures and political Islam — a contemporary form of political backlash and cultural war waged against progress and emancipation in the Middle East. The movement, consisting mostly of very young women, is the direct consequence of 40-plus years of sexual and gender apartheid in the country.

The policing of women’s dress has historically underscored more than the application of the so-called “Islamic law”. It highlights how hijabs and women’s bodies serve as a litmus test for the Islamic Republic’s grasp on power, its governance of individual liberties, and its quest for ideological consistency. Thus, exploring the events following Mahsa Amini’s demise is not just a matter of looking back at a year of protest and struggle, but a future-oriented probe into the dynamics that might dictate the trajectory of the Islamic Republic and its eventual demise.


Before Mahsa

As a political slogan, “woman, life, freedom” originates from the Kurdish women’s movement, in the wider context of the struggle for Kurdish autonomy and rights in the Middle East. By integrating gender equality into a national liberation movement, WLF captures the fact that women’s liberation is integral to achieving freedom itself. This slogan was already known in Turkey in the early 2000s, but it gained widespread recognition during the Syrian Civil War. Particularly, the resistance against ISIS in Rojava, and the pivotal role of women-led Kurdish militias including the YPG, brought it to the forefront. It’s important to understand that, while Kurdish minorities exist in several nations, and that Mahsa Amini was, herself, Kurdish, the slogan, subtly exposing political Islam’s inherent hostility towards women's rights and freedoms, has become a universal rallying point not only for Kurds and Iranians, but also for others in the region who have been fighting for equal rights.


September 2022 

Mahsa Amini was arrested in Tehran on September 13 by agents of Iran’s morality police and accused of improperly wearing the hijab. Initial reports suggested that after her detention, she would be released following notification. However, while still in custody, she was hospitalized and she subsequently passed away. Officials claimed that the cause of her death was not physical and mental abuse, but a heart attack that led to a coma. What sparked the initial protests was the public’s contestation of the cause of death itself. 

Mahsa’s funeral in the Kurdish city of Saqqez was virtually the ground zero of the revolt. Shouts of “Beloved Žina [Mahsa], you will not die quickly!” transformed into demands for a general strike, and for the death of the Iranian dictator, the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Later, protests flared across the country, with participants facing intense street-level repression, media censorship, and internet blackouts meant to hamper their coordination. Anonymous, the global hacktivist group, intervened by assisting protesters in circumventing censorship. They took down Ali Khamenei’s official website, and also publicized the personal information of judges from Iran’s Supreme Court. 

Back in Iran, as protests broadened to encompass various grievances, state retaliation intensified. Iconic videos and photographs circulated of women defiantly burning their hijabs and cutting their hair. In a tragic event in Zahedan on September 30th, following an outcry over the sexual assault of a 15-year-old Baluch girl by the chief of police, citizens demanding justice were attacked from helicopters during Friday prayers, marking one of the regime’s harshest responses to WLF protests. The attacks caused hundreds of deaths and injuries.

On September 28th, people from the Iranian diaspora started mobilizing their outrage through demonstrations in support of the protestors, such as in Berlin in front of the Brandenburg gate, which saw a gathering more than 1800 people.


October 2022

In October, protests erupted globally, spanning countries including Canada, England, New Zealand, the United States, France, Italy, Korea, Sweden, and Switzerland.

The protest against the Iranian regime in Berlin on October 22 was joined by thousands of Iranians who were amongst an estimated 80,000 people, the largest of several protests in cities around the world showing solidarity with protesters in Iran.

In Iran, artists dyed public fountains with red color to protest against police repression. Simultaneously, the actresses Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert followed by hundreds of other women from around the world in joining the campaign initiated in Iran by protesters by cutting their hair in a gesture of rage and solidarity. At the Guggenheim Museum in New York, a group of anonymous artists staged a protest attempting to draw the attention of the art world to Iran’s ongoing protests. This involved placing 12 banners with Amini’s portrait in the museum.

Ali Khamenei issued his first public statement in response to the unfolding events in October. Notably, he emphasized three main points: firstly, he viewed the protests as a scheme orchestrated by foreign adversaries — a stance also shared by President Ebrahim Raisi. Secondly, he asserted that the Kurdish and Baluch communities were predominantly in favor of the Islamic Republic. Lastly, he contended that the acts of burning Qurans and hijabs couldn’t be interpreted as spontaneous reactions.

Following the disappearance of a 16-year-old protester, Nika Shakarami, in Tehran in October, Iranian schoolgirls launched a wave of protests. They resisted the entry of government officials into their schools, and were photographed making gestures of dissent against Khamenei. University protests were also prominent during this time and they were harshly repressed by the authorities. 

The Iranian government attempted to connect a suspicious terrorist attack at the Shah Cheragh shrine in Shiraz, carried out by the Islamic State, to the protestors. This narrative was further advanced by Hossein Salami, the head of the Revolutionary Guard, vowing to quell the “riots,” a pronouncement that ignited further protest.


November 2022

Funerals and memorial ceremonies became focal points of further protests, serving as direct responses to police brutality. Additionally, accusations began to surface against the regime, alleging the use of gas poisoning targeting schoolgirls in various provinces of Iran.

As the streets became increasingly more dangerous for protests, universities, particularly art schools, became the new epicenter of protests in Iran. As a result, Tehran Art University and Sharif University were heavily targeted by the security forces in spite of the outrage and international support for students offered by artists from around the world. As a result, repression became even more intensified at universities, with classes being canceled to prevent students from gathering. 

Coinciding with the anniversary of the “Bloody Aban” protests, which had resulted in massacres in several cities in November 2019, a surge of demonstrations and strikes erupted throughout the country, some facing the most severe repression from the government to date. Additionally, November signified a shift in the regime’s approach to the protests, as Iran’s Revolutionary Courts began enforcing judicial processes to sentence participants to death and long prison terms. 


December 2022

By December 26th, the protests had grown into one of the most significant protest movements since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Taraneh Alidoosti, a well-known Iranian actress, was arrested after condemning the execution of a young protester and publishing a photo of herself without a hijab.

Asghar Farhadi, who directed Alidoosti in the Oscar-winning film The Salesman, wrote on Instagram: “If showing support like Taranech has done is a crime, then tens of millions of people of this land are criminals.”

Overall, the greatest achievement of the protest movement was that, for the first time, Iranians from different backgrounds were not only standing up for women’s rights, but they were doing so by frankly questioning the religious underpinning of cultural oppression and political repression that had previously been protected through a polite reluctance to connect social maladies to Islamic ideology. What aided this new form of cultural militancy was the support it was receiving from religious women who, despite wearing hijab as a personal choice, were joining the protest to support women’s right to control their bodies.

“Turban throwing” became a protest method practiced widely during the uprising to belittle the Islamic Republic system and the Shi’ite clergy (mullahs) and express disgust towards them. This act involves throwing a turban off the heads of the clergy, filming it, and sharing the image on social media.

Ironically, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the first to speak out against “corrupt mullahs” during the 1960s, calling for their turbans to be removed. After more than forty years of humiliation by a political system legitimized by religious institutions, protestors were finally finding creative ways to restore dignity to those seeking secularism by breaking religious taboos. 

January 2023

A demonstration drawing over 10,000 participants was held in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg in solidarity with Iranian women. This took place around the same time the US Congress passed a resolution condemning Iran’s human rights violations. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, alongside Amnesty International UK Chief Executive Sacha Deshmukh, were among the speakers at a rally in Trafalgar Square that was staged in solidarity with protesters in Iran.

February 2023

Responding to the execution of Mohammad Mehdi Karami and Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini, a wave of protests take place in Khuzestan in western Iran.  


March 2023

The Alliance For Democracy And Freedom, an organization that brings together monarchists, republicans, and activists from different political backgrounds, released their “Mahsa Amini Charter,” a call for a unified front against the Islamic Republic to establish a secular democratic system, and to be implemented after a referendum. 

For the first time since the hospitalization of schoolgirls across multiple provinces in November due to intoxication, the government addressed the incidents. They denied any responsibility for the attacks, and refrained from sharing information with independent bodies. UNESCO criticized the government’s stance and called for comprehensive investigations into the poisonings. 

While there were reports of decreasing tensions in most provinces, Sistan and Baluchestan — where Kurdish and Baluch minorities are concentrated — still have regular protests involving hundreds of people. 


April 2023

Hamed Esmaeilion, an opposition figure representing the families of victims of the Ukraine Airlines flight that was shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards in January 2020, and who is supported widely by feminists, leftists, and socialists, left the Alliance For Democracy and Freedom because of what he called the usage of “undemocratic methods” by some within the alliance. According to Esmaeilion, positions attributed to the former Shah son Reza Pahlavi were reportedly the reason for his resignation a month after the release of the “Mahsa Amini Charter.” 

The policing of hijab laws reportedly was reintensified during this period with the installation of cameras in multiple cities.


May 2023

Authorities initiated a crackdown on businesses run by women not wearing the hijab. There were also reports of citizens confronting women without head coverings on the streets and sharing these incidents on social media. Following more executions in May, a fresh wave of protests began.


June 2023

In response to the re-imposition of a strict dress code, Iranian art school students initiated a sit-in protest expressing their vehement opposition. Facing violent repercussions, arrests, threats of suspension, and even death threats, this movement gained significant traction online, as thousands echoed the students’ sentiments by posting “no” on their social media accounts. Further amplifying the resistance, students from multiple universities across the country penned open letters, backing the Tehran art students in their stance against the dress mandate.

Conflicts between government officials and Kurdish groups became more intense during this time, resulting in the death of at least one Iranian official. 


July 2023

The morality police announced a new campaign pushing women again to wear the hijab, and strengthening the enforcement of this policy, a move criticized by people such as the former president Mohammad Khatami, who says that these new restrictions could bring even more social tension in Iran. 


August 2023

Further intensifying the enforcement of hijab dress code, President Raisi stated that “the removal of the hijab will definitely come to an end,” reiterating the newly announced position by the morality police in July. 


The future of the Islamic Republic

Nearly a year has passed since the first days of the WLF revolt, and even though the Islamic Republic has yet to give way to a democratic system, the social transformations caused by the protests are undeniable. They signal a positive feedback loop where women’s struggle for freedom is not merely an accessory but constituting the central motif for mobilization against the regime. Everyday, thousands of brave women defy the hijab laws and venture into public spaces dressing as they wish. 

On the global stage, Iran has been forced to make compromises with both the West (i.e. the USA and its European allies) while reestablishing diplomatic relations with its regional rival Saudi Arabia, which has a history of funding opposition political groups and media. 


What needs to be done locally

At this juncture, it's essential for the political wing of the WLF movement to redirect its focus and prioritize its core demands, rather than relying solely on the intervention of the international community and the existing opposition abroad.The movement’s demands need to be clear, directly addressing the nation’s leadership rather than the Western or opposition leaders :

A). The initiation of a referendum supervised by global monitors to determine the nature of a new political system for the country;

B). The establishment of a constitutional assembly, elected transparently. This assembly should reference the 1906 and 1979 constitutions as foundational texts, and craft a fresh democratic constitution for Iran. The cultural success of the WLF movement has to do with its political limits, that it is not solely a leftist or socialist or even a purely secular movement but made up of a coalition that even includes conservative Muslims, nationalists and royalists. This is why ideas about the new constitution should be adaptable, leaving room for a democratic navigation between an updated Islamic Republic, a constitutional monarchy, or ideally, a secular democratic republic with social democratic characteristics. 

C). Participation in these elections should extend to every Iranian, encompassing members of the diaspora.

D). As we lay the groundwork for revamping Iran’s political framework, it will be paramount to introduce a truth and reconciliation process along the way. Such a mechanism would enable various segments of Iranian society to come to terms with the country’s tumultuous past. It would pave the way for a consensus on how diverse ideological and religious groups can coexist and engage with each other in a nation as multifaceted as Iran and how a synthetic but common understanding of the past can help the country move to the future.


Beyond Iran

The impact of Mahsa Amini's death is deeply intertwined with the future trajectory of Iran, but its significance stretches far beyond national borders. Although the protests that arose in the wake of her demise primarily addressed specific local concerns within the Islamic Republic, they broke beyond these boundaries. They challenge the global community to re-examine the existing narratives about the relationship between religion and political power in the Middle East.

However, the ensuing globalization of the movement cannot be depicted as frictionless: the international feminist movement has a history of swiftly identifying and rallying against gender-based injustices. However, in the case of the Iranian women’s movement — which prominently opposed the state-enforced Islamic dress code — there were hesitations. The WLF movement's perceived anti-religious stance, combined with concerns about being branded Islamophobic, and the reticence of the American media and government to fully endorse it, has meant that the campaign did not realize its full potential. Nevertheless, the triumphs of Iranian women against the impositions of political Islam can potentially pave the way for change, not just in Iran, or in Muslim-majority countries, but anywhere in the world where women grapple with patriarchy specific to their cultural and religious context.

Mahsa Amini's name has come to shed light on the ongoing erosion of civil liberties that disproportionately impact women across the globe. The refusal to simply forget her name, or to stop rallying under it, is a sign of a deeper desire on the part of the Iranian people, and of people from all over the world, to transcend their local grievances and to articulate an intersectional perspective towards religious and political powers on a global scale. 




    Stll from Dream of Silk (2003) by Nahid Rezai.



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