Women hold up images of Mahsa Amini, outside the UN offices in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq. Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images
Women cutting their hair among the crowds, hijabs being waved in the air, headscarves being burned. It’s young women in Iran who have been front and centre during mass anti-regime protests which are about to enter their fourth week.“It was like a war,” one female student in her 20s told VICE World News in a secure phone interview.The woman, who studies in Tehran, has been to some of the protests since the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old who was allegedly arrested for wearing the hijab improperly in public.
Iran has a strict dress code that includes covering the hair fully and wearing loose fitting clothes. The country’s morality police patrol public areas to make sure this is enforced.“Every time I ran to avoid arrest, I’d smell tear gas, my vision was blocked, and I had sore eyes and a sore throat after,” the student VICE World News spoke to said. We are not naming her for security reasons.She said she has been having nightmares over what she has seen during the protests, “I continually heard shots being fired and people yelling that they had been beaten.”She said she felt “alive” by being amongst other protesters fighting for freedom for women but still feels anger towards the government’s “inhumane” restrictions.
She wears the hijab out of choice and wanted to protest for women to have the same ability not to wear it.“Iranian women have been deprived of their fundamental rights for years,” she said.“I cannot tolerate the violence and the monster-like behaviour of the regime.”Another woman studying in Tehran, whose name is also being kept anonymous for security reasons, said the hijab law that these protests have highlighted to the world is “barely scratching the surface”.“The hijab rule was really just a window into all of this, to show how women [in Iran] are not allowed to do anything outside the watchful eyes of their husbands or the patriarch,” she told us in a video interview.
“Women, if they’re married, don't get to leave the country unless their husband allows it. They don't get to study if their husband doesn't allow it.”“All of these are rules of the country,” she said. “They're not simply a cultural thing.“Iranian police claimed Amini suffered from a heart attack but her family alleged officers abused and beat her.The second student we spoke to from Tehran pointed out that Amini is not the first woman to be attacked in this way; there have been other women before her.
In 2007, Zahra Bani Yaghoub was arrested by the morality police and later died in custody. Officials say she took her own life but her family accuse the police of murdering her.The student said she is tired of hearing the same “excuses” from the regime.“The whole morality police thing is a very stressful thing for all women,” she said.“My roommates have been arrested before and it's just horrible. The way you’re taken, like a little girl who has no understanding of what's good for her. And then they drag you and humiliate you and then they release you.”In the last few weeks, police presence has increased.“There are pretty much police officers anywhere I look. But they're not there for the hijab law, they're there to immediately stop the protests,” the student said.
“Many of them have their weapons out, their guns and batons. There are also these vans on the streets, ready to take protesters to jail immediately.”She says she comes from a conservative family. She grew up not knowing that wearing the hijab was a law in the country. Now, in her 20s, she says if she had a choice she wouldn’t wear it.Both women we spoke to want better for the future, and want these protests to lead to change.
“We're a Muslim country, many people choose to wear the hijab. I'm happy they can do what they want to but there are also many, many other people who have had this right taken away from them,” said the second student.“I want the women of Iran to be able to choose their lives, not just their garments.”