Mahsa Amini was visiting the nation’s capital from her hometown of Saqqez in Iran’s Kurdistan province. On Tuesday afternoon, after exiting a metro station in midtown Tehran, she was forced into a van that belonged to Gasht e Ershad or the “guidance patrol.” The patrols enforce the women’s dress code that has been law in the Islamic Republic since 1979.
The 22-year-old was taken to the infamous “Vozara detention center,” where along with other women deemed in violation of the compulsory hijab, or head covering, she was to be lectured on her “indecent” appearance. She mysteriously passed away. The police then released the edited CCTV footage. This footage shows Amini falling to the floor, before finally collapsing on the back of a chair. Amini was transferred to hospital and died without ever waking up from her coma.
There has been no clear explanation for Amini’s death. But neither is there any confidence that the authorities can be trusted to provide one – anxious as they quickly appeared to be to do so, as people took to the streets in rage around Tehran and at her funeral in Saqqez, where protestors were dispersed with teargas and force, something that’s happened in the past. This country represents the untold story of the hundreds of Iranians who have been killed or disappeared over the past few decades.
In Amini’s case, some witnesses suggest she suffered a heart-attack in detention. Others – familiar with the violent manhandling common among the morality police–cite the possibility of impact or use of force in the van. Her family denies the government contention that Amini suffered from “pre-existing conditions” that prompted a stroke. In an Instagram post, Kasra hospital published that she had been declared brain dead upon her arrival.
But the details of her death are perhaps secondary to another point: Another irrevocable loss serves as yet another example of the Iranian regime’s perpetual disregard for the safety, security, and well-being of its citizens—especially its youth.
Over and over, the Islamic Republic’s obscured investigations, convoluted narratives, and relentless denials of wrong-doing have erased every ounce of trust left among 83 million citizens who live life in an ever-present state of moral disillusionment, religious apathy and financial despair. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has directed the Minister of Interior to oversee a thorough investigation into Amini’s death. But it was Raisi‘s government that ordered heightened vigilance by the morality police over the past few months.
Anyone who has had any encounter with this force knows the trembling one feels by the sight of a so-called “Fati (short for Fatimah) Commandos” — a colloquial post-revolution term used by generations of Iranians to refer to the female officers of this sordid establishment. Their long black veil, crude nature, and insolent tone reflect the dramatic gap between millions of ordinary Iranian citizens and an enduring minority that’s clutching to power by any means and measures at hand.
The unmatched terror that I experienced in my first encounter with them when I was a teenager will remain an etched memory. As a teenager, I was wearing a light lipstick and blush on the walk with my girlfriend to an outdoor sporting complex in Tehran. Fearing possible arrest, my 16-year old boyfriend was following us. Within a matter of seconds, two women officers stopped our path to question us about our relationship. The boy was oblivious to my anxiety and I denied it. My girlfriend and me were let go by them, but he asked to remain behind. He used his tennis equipment as an excuse to try and get out of the situation.
It is difficult to remember many details from that day. But nearly 20 years later the cold sweat against my shivering body, my girlfriend’s colorless face, and the boy’s anxious voice remain, an ever-present trauma.
Far from building pillars of virtue and morality, the “morality police” has over the span of decades done nothing but to harbor hatred, propagate deceit and rouse wide-spread resentment toward Islam. In late August, the government announced its plans to implement monetary fines to those breaking “hijab rules” in public — a move that further underscored the duplicity of the system and its never-ending ploys to make money in the name of religion and virtue.
There are many Iranian women who believe wholeheartedly in the virtues of hijabs. However, they detest the forced enforcement of this regime’s violent and archaic policies. Millions of Iranian women would be happy to lose their scarves in an instant. More long for freedom.
The continuing outcry in Iran (including weekend protests in Tehran and ongoing unrest in Amini’s hometown) is about more than grief, or how loosely one wears a scarf. The rage of the people reflects a deeply rooted fatigue and anger toward a system that’s embedded in hypocrisy, corruption, and medieval practices toward its citizens.
Just days before Amini’s death, reports emerged that the son of Iran’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs has set up a company to sell virtual private networks (VPN) in Canada. VPNs have long been used by millions of Iranians to bypass online filters and the regime’s stringent, and indeed increasing efforts to control the internet, accusations that of course the government has denied.
The internet, of course, provides at least a virtual “escape” for the millions of Iranian youth deprived of most basic opportunities by brazen domestic corruption, mismanagement, embezzlement, nepotism, and international sanctions. Many of the children of former and current government officials have fled the country and now live in comfort and sometimes travel abroad. A society that has forced religious beliefs onto people for forty years has seen it struggle with prostitution, sex trafficking, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as corruption. Today, in a country where its moral police uproot people’s lives on a daily basis, you freely see pimps and prostitutes roam around in restaurants and streets across the country.
It isn’t just about the headscarves. It has been futile to try to influence change by encouraging Iranian girls and women, both male and female, to get rid of their headscarves. This was often done in the West to avoid being repressed by an oppressive regime.
However, an effective way to undermine this oppressive apparatus is to find ways to pursue policies that help differentiate between the country’s ordinary citizens and the governing establishment, and to bolster cultural and commercial engagements with its vibrant youth — the country’s most potent asset — and to help them find ways to connect with the rest of the world in order to grow, to thrive, and to build the civil and political tools they need to one day soon break away.
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