On September 16th, 2022, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in a hospital in Tehran. She had been arrested by Iran’s notorious morality police for not wearing her hijab. She was allegedly severely beaten by authorities during her transfer to a detention centre, violence that the police deny. 

What came next were protests, the likes of which have not been seen in the country since 2009. Even the Iranian men’s team at the World Cup in Qatar took a stand by refusing to sing the country’s national anthem at their opening game. They had to end their silent protest due to threats being made against their families back home. 

Fans booed the anthem, and a flag displaying the words “Women, Life, Freedom” flew as a mark of support for the ongoing campaign sparked by Mahsa Amini’s death.

Global Gender Gap 

While Iran is the focus of much of the current uproar over women’s rights, the whole world has a big problem with gender inequality. In the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, the Philippines ranked first in Southeast Asia in 19th place, with Singapore next at 49th and PDR Lao third in 53rd place. Iran was 143rd out of 146 countries in 2021. 

The report looks at four main areas: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. Iceland, Finland and Norway held the top three spots, with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Afghanistan following behind Iran to complete the list. 

In Southeast Asia, improvements were seen in Singapore, Timor-Leste and Vietnam. Still, things have worsened a little in the Philippines, PDR Lao, and Thailand. With Malaysia ranking lowest in the region at 103rd, despite an increase in their score, there is still a long way to go to improve women’s rights for many countries in SEA and in many parts of the world.  

Are Women’s Rights Going Backwards? 

Iranian women had more rights in the 1970s than now, and globally, there has been reduced funding for women’s healthcare. In the Russian parliament, a vote to decriminalise domestic violence where it does not cause “substantial bodily harm” saw 380 people vote in favour and only 3 against! 

These worrying trends feel as if the rights that women fought so hard for are being stripped away, with people very rightly feeling angry about it. The Iranian protests resulted from years of frustration and were triggered by an incredibly tragic event. It has seen women stand up on a massive scale to say enough is enough

A Women-Led Revolution 

For decades, Iran has been ruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Prior to this regime, Iran was considered a relatively progressive country, with older members of the population remembering when veiling their hair was a personal choice. Political activism was not punished with excessive force either. 

While protests highlighting the regime’s shortcomings are nothing new, this is the first one where women are at the centre of the movement, seeking an end to violence, discrimination, and lack of bodily autonomy

The Right To Bodily Autonomy

Iranian-American assistant professor of women and gender studies Marie Ranjbar explained these protests are unprecedented but parallel to other movements in Western countries related to the policing of women’s bodies, specifically the recently overturned Roe vs Wade

The issue goes further than the right to choose whether to wear a hijab or not, and the focus shouldn’t be a debate on Muslim culture and clothing. Nor should we mentally close the doors on this as an Iranian-only problem. 

In France, face coverings have been illegal in public since 2011, and there have been talks in India about banning the hijab. In Hungary, abortion laws have been tightened. Since April 2022 in Turkmenistan, there have been various restrictions on what women can and cannot wear, do, or seek treatment for, including bans on certain beauty services and forbidding women to sit in the front seat of private cars. 

We are seeing a global trend of Women’s rights being taken away and increasing gender discrimination and violence.

What Can You Do To Help? 

Talk about it. 

Take the focus off religious dress and move the conversation towards what’s really happening: restricting Women from having bodily autonomy and facing violence if they dare protest. 

Amplify Iranian voices on social media by following and sharing content with the hashtags #OpIran, #MahsaAmini, and #HadisNajafi. 

If you are lucky to be in a democratic country, look into the policies of the parties you vote for. If you live in a country with the freedom to peacefully protest, then do so. 

And if you wish to support the women in Iran, consider supporting humanitarian causes such as Iran Human Rights and Amnesty Iran.

All women deserve the right to bodily autonomy, just like our male counterparts have. Don’t let Mahsa Amini’s death be for nothing.