Date October 4, 2022
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In conversation, scholars discuss the global significance of protests in Iran

In an event hosted by academic centers at Brown and Columbia universities, researchers discussed how protests in Iran connect with a long freedom struggle and relate to the global fight for women’s bodily autonomy.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On Sept. 13, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, was visiting relatives in Tehran when members of the Guidance Control, Iran’s morality police, pulled her from a train station and arrested her for defying the country’s mandatory hijab law. Amini was brought to a nearby hospital in a coma and died three days later. Iranian police deny any wrongdoing and say Amini had a heart attack and seizure; eyewitnesses, meanwhile, claim police severely beat her.

In the weeks since, thousands of Iranians of all ages, genders and religions have participated in nightly protests to decry the young woman’s death and the mandatory hijab policy, attracting international attention in the news and across social media. Their protest activity isn’t low-risk: the nonprofit organization Iran Human Rights estimates that close to 100 have been killed in the unrest, and more than 1,200 have been arrested.

One scholar of the Middle East argues the protests aren’t just about supporting women’s bodily autonomy — they’re also about challenging the very foundation of the Islamic republic.

“The main demand of this uprising is for an end to the Islamic republic, [which] has been in place for more than four decades,” said Manijeh Nasrabadi, an assistant professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at Barnard College and Columbia University. “There is an overwhelming rejection from wide sections of the society of a system that is really not working — it’s not working economically, it’s not working socially, it’s not working politically. And the violent death of Mahsa Amini… resonated with the destruction of so many lives — the destruction of hope for the future, the sense that your life is viable, the sense that you can live in a way that you can thrive.”

Nasrabadi spoke in a Tuesday, Oct. 4, virtual conversation co-hosted by Brown University’s Center for Middle East Studies and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs in partnership with Columbia’s Middle East Institute. The talk, called “Iran Protests: Gender, Body Politics and Authoritarianism,” also featured commentary from Nadje Al-Ali, director of the CMES at Brown, and Kathryn Spellman Poots, an associate professor at Aga Khan University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations.

Nasrabadi explained that today’s protests are the latest in a long-running freedom struggle in Iran, beginning with the 1979 coup d’etat that overthrew the shah and established an Islamic republic. Amid that revolution, thousands of women took to the streets of Tehran to protest state control over women’s bodies. At the time, Nasrabadi said, many dismissed the women’s demands as a “side issue” that could wait until after the establishment of a republic. The topic is only now rising to prominence again in conjunction with government crackdowns that have given Iranians less latitude to speak and assemble freely.

“[These women] rightly understood that the imposition of this kind of state control over women’s bodies was part of a broader anti-democratic turn that would see the curtailment of many rights,” Nasrabadi said. Forty years later, “the era of reform is over… now we have the unprecedented reality that there’s a massive widespread uprising [where] women’s bodily autonomy is a lightning rod for all these desires for freedom.”

In high school classrooms, Poots said, Iranian girls are removing their mandatory hijabs and posting lyrics to resistance songs on chalkboards. In city streets, Al-Ali mentioned, women are burning their hijabs in celebratory bonfires. And throughout the country, Al-Ali added, Amini’s death is striking up important conversations about the connections between the Iranian government’s policing of women’s bodies and its use of excessive force against Kurds and other ethnic minorities who flout laws or challenge the status quo.

The international attention Iran’s protests have gained, the three scholars agreed, could lead to a massive, cross-border feminist movement that could advance conversations about bodily autonomy worldwide. While in previous years Americans may have struggled to relate to the plight of Iranian women, Nasrabadi said, many now feel their freedom is in jeopardy following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which had established the right to seek an abortion.

“Instead of a discourse of the ‘liberated Western woman’ who is supposed to save or help the ‘oppressed Muslim woman’… Iranian women are leading the way,” she said. “This is potentially a moment where we can come together as peers in distinct but linked struggles and break down hierarchies that have gotten in the way of building international feminist solidarity for some time.”

Both Nasrabadi and Al-Ali encouraged viewers to sign statements of solidarity with protesting Iranians, to raise awareness of unfolding events in Tehran and beyond with friends and on social media, and to celebrate the bravery of Iranian women and men who are putting their lives on the line to make their voices heard.

“I’m inspired and hopeful,” Al-Ali said. “This is a time where we all need to step up and be in solidarity and [make] connections [and] move beyond our comfort zones.”


Editor's note: Al-Ali shared more thoughts on the protests in Iran on a special bonus episode of the Watson Institute podcast Trending Globally, released on Friday, Oct. 7.