زن، زندگی، آزادی
Zan. Zindagi. Azadi.
Woman. Life. Freedom.
Time and again, the authoritarian regimes and resulting violence remind us that women and gender-diverse individuals around the world do not own their bodies. It would be an understatement to say that the situation in Iran is alarming and concerns the entire world after the recent brutal murder of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, and the violence against women in the name of “morality”. The murder by the “morality police” of Amini led to a wave of protests within the country where countless women and allies took to the streets to peacefully demand their right to life and freedom.
The law that surveils women’s clothing, including making headscarves mandatory in the country, also gives the so-called morality police the unfettered powers to enforce the law within the country. Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman in Tehran was a victim of this enforcement when she was brutally beaten for allegedly not wearing the headscarf correctly, which landed her in the hospital where she went into coma and eventually died. Vague sexist laws drafted by authoritarian leaders rob women of their bodily autonomy, and the result is grave violations of human rights, disproportionate violence against already marginalised individuals, internet shutdowns, and increased surveillance on individuals through invasive technology, as seen in Iran and many other places around the world where status quo is challenged.
Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran who enjoys unfettered decision making authority since 1989, did not comment on the ongoing unprecedented protests against the killing of Amini in his recent speech on the 42nd anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Iran on September 21.
More Violence In Response To Protests Against Violence
The brutality projected in the murder of Amini by the morality police escalated into further state-backed attacks and violence in the country as many women took to streets peacefully protesting with chants of “Zan. Zindagi. Azadi” (Woman. Life. Freedom). These attacks have resulted in more people, mostly young women, being brutally beaten, and some being killed by the state, for demanding safety and basic right to bodily autonomy. The murder of Amini by the morality police in Iran because she allegedly did not wear the mandatory hijab or headscarf correctly, is an indication of just how dispensable women’s lives are considered that they are killed over a piece of cloth.
Just the existence of morality police with a sole purpose of policing women’s clothing, and indoctrination of hijab in Iran points towards its government’s and society’s intentions to control, confine and force women into submission of regressive policies and practices. The extent of this control is brutal and does not spare children of this policing either, so much so that Iran imposes compulsory hijab on children as young as 9 years of age. These policies are grounded in patriarchal notions that many societies are built upon that thrive on oppression of already marginalised persons. Historically and institutionally, this is how authoritarian leaders have gained and maintained their power: by forcing people to blindly follow their ideologies without question.
Earlier in September 2022, the current regime also shared plans to install facial recognition enabled surveillance cameras on public transport in attempts to police and impose strict dress codes for women in the country. Not only this, a new decree was signed by the president in August this year to make the “hijab and chastity law” stricter and included surveillance of women on social media as well. According to this decree, not only the women who were found to be violating the law will be fined, but those working in the government will be fired from the job if they violated the rules on social media and in offline spaces. Since the signing of the decree, women deemed in violation of the law have been barred from entering public spaces like government offices, banks and public transports.
The murder of Amini by the morality police is an indication of just how dispensable women’s lives are considered that they are killed over a piece of cloth.
Since the protests erupted, the Iranian armed forces have attacked the protestors while actively trying to disperse them by force, leading to the killing of at least 36 people. The use of violence to intimidate and discourage protests and kill protestors is a direct violation of Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which Iran is a signatory of, and Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), that grants everyone the right to peaceful assembly and association. In addition, the 2020 UNSR report on Rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, states, “United Nations bodies have adopted several resolutions, guidelines and recommendations to address the specific threats faced by women when they exercise their public freedoms, including their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and called for their protection.” Whereas, the UN General Assembly Resolution adopted in December 2013 calls for the member states to ensure women human rights defenders can participate in peaceful protests and that states should ensure that, “no one is subject to excessive or indiscriminate use of force, arbitrary arrest or detention, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, enforced disappearance, abuse of criminal and civil proceedings or threats of such acts."
Iran is just one example of blatant violation of international treaties and resolutions, and how authoritarian leaders make policies and decisions about women’s bodies essentially taking away their freedoms: stripping them of their bodily autonomy by passing and forcefully implementing laws that restrict their self-expression and their right to choose.
We see that countries around the world are attempting to control women by doing politics over the agency they have on their own bodies, and legislating draconian policies to suit their narratives and those of the majority. Where Iran is literally killing women for not wearing hijab, we see how the Indian government is imposing a ban on hijab, and harassing Muslim women in the country to remove their headscarves before entering public spaces.
The contrast in how women are treated in these instances just for making a choice about their preferred clothing, points at the issue that goes beyond a matter of a cloth, and is in fact about women’s right to choose and to make their own decisions. These attempts to confine and restrict women’s agency according to certain populist narratives and regressive politics are archaic and have no space in the world anymore.
In all of this, it is also important to acknowledge and understand that morality is perhaps the most subjective of ideas that the governments base their draconian policies on. The ideal of what constitutes morality not only differs for each person, but must not be criminalised or legalised through legal instruments. One person’s idea of morality could be another person’s idea of immorality, and vice versa, and governments should refrain from politicising personal choices.
Internet shutdown and restricting speech
Iran has a long history of controlling and criminalising freedom of speech in the country. The decades old trend of censorship has also been translated to online spaces with banning social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, whereas the country also banned the end-to-end encrypted messaging app Signal in 2021, in an attempt to control dissent from spreading. The ban remains in place to this date resulting in creating issues for the protesters to connect with each other, mobilise and share on-ground details on the internet. The country also suspended the few social media apps working in the country, including WhatsApp, Instagram and Skype, since the beginning of the protests, and has also shut down internet and mobile services to bar protesters from accessing and sharing information. In addition, the government is also attempting to censor artistic freedoms of individuals highlighting the state of oppression in the country by censoring the internet and arresting the artists.
Shervin Hajipour the singer of the mega hit song which used people’s comments with #Mahsa_Amini’s hashtag in Farsi(#مهسا_امینی), got arrested by security forces & his video is deleted from his account#مهسا_امینی been tweeted more than 153 million times
— Sima Sabet | سیما ثابت (@Sima_Sabet) September 29, 2022
In 2016, the UN passed a resolution declaring internet shutdowns a violation of people’s fundamental human rights. It was further affirmed in 2021 with the Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, in which the international body re-emphasised that restrictions to internet access violate on the right of individuals to express themselves through the Internet which is a violation of international human rights laws. The report also states, “The Special Rapporteur underscores the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole."
Access to the internet is not a luxury anymore, rather it enables people to demand and exercise other fundamental human rights. It is perhaps the primary tool that lets people around the world demand justice from their governments and support from the international community. Suspending the internet is not just a violation of the right to access it, but also the direct violation and denial of basic human rights, impacting the lives of the people affected by it.
However, where suspension of online services impacts individuals across the board, its implications remain severe for women and marginalised groups who are constantly oppressed within and outside of the online spaces. The Internet provides them a space to have their voices heard which are otherwise silenced. It has particularly been fundamental in social justice movements across the world, enabling individuals to mobilise and demand change.
The Internet has also become the primary source of communication and news because of its quick borderless nature. It has been established over the years, thanks to the constant communication and internet blackouts by the governments across the geographies, that these suspensions promote misinformation and disinformation, especially during political unrest, leading to further confusion and chaos in the lack of credible information and sources, and cuts them off from the entire world.
The internet is not merely a tool for communication, but also enables people to stay safe in times of instability. So cutting people off the rest of the world during chaos also violates their right to life as these blanket suspensions discount the fact that the internet is important for information like education, employment, healthcare and many other aspects that the blackouts do not take into account. So when online spaces are barred from being accessed, the impact on those already oppressed is not just mere inconvenience, it’s life threatening. One example of this is Pakistan, where when the government suspended the internet in the peripheries during the war against terror in the country. It led to women losing whatever minimal access to digital devices they had along with their limited access to healthcare which was further exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic when hospitals were closed and people moved to telehealth for immediate support. In the absence of the internet and digital devices, many women had died as a result of lack of medical assistance.
What’s happening in Iran right now is just a reflection of how the governments have disregarded citizens’ wellbeing and their need to be connected to the internet for information other than just the political conversation in the country. The trend of censorship, much like the human rights violations, are part of Iran’s repressive and authoritarian regime that thrives on silencing criticism of the state, its policies and its officials.
In its January 2022 resolution on the human rights situation in Iran, the United Nations’ General Assembly called attention and strongly urged Iran “to end violations of the rights to freedom of expression and of opinion, both online and offline, which includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information, and to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, including through practices such as disrupting communications through Internet shutdowns, or measures to unlawfully or arbitrarily block or take down media websites and social networks, and other widespread restrictions on Internet access or dissemination of information online.”
As UN experts recently expressed, “disruptions to the internet are usually part of a larger effort to stifle the free expression and association of the Iranian population, and to curtail ongoing protests. State mandated internet disruptions cannot be justified under any circumstances.”
Where the state is killing the people demanding basic bodily rights in Iran, it is also violating their right to free speech, right to access information and the most fundamental right to live. As a protester told BBC, “We are worried that the world will forget about Iran as soon as the regime shuts down the internet - which is already happening.”
Need for international solidarity and outrage
The violence that we are witnessing in Iran is unprecedented, not just for Iranian women’s rights movement but also because of how citizens are challenging the decades old government of the sitting ruler, Ali Khameni, who has enjoyed absolute power over the country since 1989.
These incidents warrant international attention and outrage against the state-led oppression targeting women and gender-diverse people everywhere in the world, and solidarity to the protesters, victims and survivors of state brutality. It must also act as a call for the international human rights bodies to demand their member states to stop oppression and attacks against protestors, and to adhere to their international agreements of upholding individuals’ rights to be connected to the internet as well as their human rights to freedom of expression, privacy, association and assembly, and their right to life.
Bodily autonomy is at the core of being an individual, and every person must have control over their choices which are independent of societal or legislative control. This is why we must also fully stand for Iranian women’s and gender-diverse individuals’ right to choose and full control over their decisions, bodies, clothing, self-expression, free speech and choices.