'They May Kill Me but I Won't Wear Hijab Again': Iranian Women Fight for Freedom

What started out as women seeking justice for Mahsa Amini has now become a fight against the current regime.

5 min read

"My heart would start beating fast and I would start sweating whenever I spotted chador-clad women on the subway. I knew they were the morality police, just by looking at their shoes," Nergis, a 21-year-old Tehran resident, tells The Quint.

"Everyone's out there to stifle our voices. We've been in an open prison since childhood. Why should we live like criminals," she asks.

For days now, Nergis has joined the hundreds of women and men protesting against the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at Keshavarz Boulevard in Iran's capital.

Popular among university students, Keshavarz Boulevard has been the go-to spot for some of the largest anti-government protests over the years. On the evening of 20 September, to show solidarity with the women across the country and to seek justice for Mahsa, women students burned their headscarves.

The Iranian Police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons to "punish" the protesters. Nergis was one of the victims.

But despite the crackdown on the protesters, anti-government demonstrations continued for the seventh consecutive day on Thursday, 22 September.


'I Was Beaten With Batons'

Nergis arrived at the protest site at around 6 pm on 20 September and joined the crowd chanting, "Death to Khamenei," verbally attacking Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Soon afterward, she recalls, the riot police surrounded the protesters and released tear gas to disperse them.

"An hour after the protest started, the police shot at us. They used tear gas and chased us on motorcycles. They shot me with rubber bullets and beat me with batons. Even after this violence, the chants of 'death to Khamenei' only got louder and louder," says Nergis.

When the police chased them away, some took cover in a park nearby.

In a country like Iran, where a social media post could land you in prison or worse, protesting and chanting death to the Supreme Leader are rare occurrences.

For years, Iranian women have had to marry against their will, keep mum about domestic violence, and adhere to the regime's dress code. Has the simmering anger and yearning for freedom pushed Iranian women to a "point of no return?"

Nergis says, "Mahsa's death has fuelled our fight for freedom. I always protested on social media, but now we've reached a point of no return. We have no fear."

"My body is in pain after the police beat me with batons yesterday. I hardly slept and had to cover my bruises from my family. Yet, I am on my way to Keshavarz Boulevard to call for an end to Khamenei's dictatorship. This time, we won't back down. They can't kill all of us."
Nergis told The Quint

'Hijab a Symbol of Oppression': Chants From Tehran

Witnesses confirmed to The Quint that the riot police were patrolling the streets of Tehran until the early hours of 21 September and have been following protesters home. When protesters regrouped that evening, they again held up black scarves and chanted:

"Hijab is a symbol of oppression."

Nergis revealed that the riot police once again shot at and beat some of the protesters on their heads. They had gathered at Keshavarz Boulevard as well as other Tehran landmarks like Valiasr Square, Enghelab Square, and Vasal Street.

"Today, the number of protesters was five times more, and so was the oppressive regime's police. More brutal than yesterday," Nergis adds.


The Impact of Mahsa's Death

Twenty-two-year-old Mahsa, who is an ethnic Kurdish woman, died "suspiciously" after slipping into a coma on 16 September. She, along with several others, was detained by Iran's morality police – Gasht-e Ershad – on 13 September. Mahsa's death shook the country. It has brought together supporters of the Iranian regime, as well as young Iranians, who have been fighting for their freedom of choice.

On 19 September, the protests turned deadly after three protesters were confirmed dead. Although Iranian officials deny opening fire on protesters, deeming the deaths suspicious, one of the protesters, Mehjabin, a medical professional, told The Quint:

"They did open fire. They opened fire on protesters in Mahsa's hometown Saqez, too. With the way they beat up protesters with batons last night in Tehran and in Mashhad, the number of dead protesters will only rise in the coming days."

'Cannot Be a Mute Spectator Anymore'

Mehjabin is a 46-year-old midwife and a mother of two sons. A native of Isfahan, one of the most conservative cities in the country, Mehjabin had followed the regime's strict hijab rules ever since she was a little girl.

Having moved to Tehran post her wedding in 2007, she noticed that although the women in the capital enjoyed certain liberties, hardliners enforced strict rules on them.

"Young girls in Iran wore loose headscarves and knee-length robes with trousers. I often thought they had so much freedom. But in the past decade, the rules got stricter. They were not only forced by families to obey them but also feared the rude morality policewomen. They would humiliate and beat up girls for wearing bright colours on the train. I can't be a mute spectator anymore. The deaths of men and women in the 2019 uprising broke my faith in the regime. Mahsa's death is just the final nail in the coffin."
Mehjabin, a medical professional

In November 2019, protests erupted across various cities in Iran against the gasoline price hike. According to Amnesty International, at least 304 people were killed.

Government vehicles were torched and millions protested. The country has been on the edge since the uprising, as reports of human rights abuses gained attention across the world. Women activists and critics of the regime have been imprisoned or had to flee.


Protests Spread to Mashhad, Home to World's Largest Mosque

Since Mahsa's death, protests have spread from the capital across Iran, including two of the holiest cities of the country – Mashhad and Qom. The former is home to the Imam Reza holy shrine (mausoleum) and the world's largest mosque. It is also the birthplace of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Qom, known as Iran's Vatican, is the second-holiest city in the country.

Women and men have confronted the police in these cities and protested by burning headscarves. In Sari, a large group took over the town hall and tore down pictures of Iran's first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

Women in Iran have been forced to follow a mandatory hijab code since the Iranian revolution of 1979. For over four decades, Iranian women have had to either follow the rules or be imprisoned.

After four decades, on 5 July 2022, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi ordered the enforcement of the hijab and chastity law, which requires women to not only cover their heads but also their shoulders and necks.

"I call it the Talibanisation of the Iranian society. Iranian girls are educated and we won't back down. We always dressed modestly, but this new order has just unleashed a new hell on our women. We will burn this regime down, along with our hijabs," says Nergis.

(The author is an independent journalist based out of Paris. An alumna of University College Dublin, she writes about international conflict and war.)

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