Widespread protests have rocked Iran since the death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini on September 16.
“Iranian women are rising up to demand freedom: Are we listening?” asked Iranian American writer and community organizer Hoda Katebi in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times today.
Since the death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022- while in the custody of Iran’s “morality police”- protests, marches and demonstrations have swept Iran. At least 35 people have already been killed during the protests, according to Iranian state media reports. Some international media outlets estimate the death toll to be much higher.
As of today, Iran’s notoriously brutal regime is showing danger signs of an imminent crackdown, including choking internet access within the country and preventing Iranians from using social media. Hundreds of people have already been arrested. Some, including prominent Iranian journalists and activists, appear to have been arrested preemptively.
“The army is ready to defend the security and interests of the Iranian nation against the conspiracies of the enemies,” the Iranian army threatened in an ominous statement released yesterday. “The army personnel fully support their comrades in the police forces and are ready to deal with the various plots of the enemies.”
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi made several similar statements Thursday, alluding to a coming crack-down on what he deemed, “acts of chaos”.
Back in July, it was President Raisi himself who ordered Iran’s morality police to do more to punish violators of hijab laws he said were responsible for, “corruption in Islamic society.”
In spite of the loss of internet access, Iranian activists have still managed to release what they claim is evidence of Iranian police forces firing on unarmed protestors. Footage from the huge protests and reports from eyewitnesses have been flooding the internet and news media outlets.
According to Iranian authorities, Amini died of a heart attack while in police custody; an Iranian medical official has ruled Amini’s death the result of a head injury.
Mahsa Amini was arrested for a dress code violation- “improper hijab”. Iran’s so-called morality police have the authority to arrest any women they deem improperly dressed or judge to be wearing, “bad makeup”.
Amini’s death in police custody has raised a number of thorny questions for Western powers, not least of which is the role technology is increasingly playing in potential human rights violations.
In recent years, everything from controversial “report blasphemy” apps- a charge which can carry the death penalty in some places- to apps designed to track and prevent adult female relatives from fleeing the country, have brought fresh weight to the new balance between morality and technology.
During this particular conflict, Facebook/Meta has already been accused by Iranian activists of colluding with the Iranian government to repress speech on its platform, WhatsApp. The company has since denied the accusation.
The Iranian morality police recently announced they would begin using facial-recognition software to enforce the dress code more widely and punish all women who deviate from it.
“Iranian authorities plan to use facial recognition to enforce new hijab law,” announced The Guardian on September 5, 2022. “Government says it will use technology on public transport in crackdown on women’s dress.”
In addition to investing in facial-recognition technology, the Iranian government has also been exploring biometric identity cards. These cards carry information like fingerprints, facial images and iris scans. Eventually, they are likely to carry unique DNA data as well.
“A large chunk of the Iranian population is now in this national biometric data bank, as many public services are becoming dependent on biometric IDs,” researcher Azadeh Akbari told The Guardian. “So the government has access to all the faces; they know where people come from and they can easily find them. A person in a viral video can be identified in seconds.”
“By doing that, the government proves a point: ‘Don’t think that a small thing happening on a bus somewhere is going to be forgotten. We know who you are and we will find you and then you will have to suffer the consequences’”, Akbari added.
While the Iranian government has the guns, and the technological advantage, the Iranian people most certainly have the numbers. This isn’t the first time the killing of a woman by Iranian authorities has sparked outrage. The shooting death of Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009 inspired a powerful movement for freedom from repression and tyranny.
During the protests which followed, many Iranians were killed and the demonstrations were eventually quashed by Iran’s iron-fisted regime.
As many have noted, these activities by the Iranian government are less about enforced morality and more about control over a terrorized and repressed populace.
After all, forced adherence to the tenets of any faith isn’t faith; it is coercion, contrition under direct threat of mortal peril.
“The Islam I grew up in taught me that faith is a choice,” as Hoda Katebi wrote for the LA Times. “What I see on Iran’s streets today- mandatory hijab being maintained at gunpoint- could not be further from what the government claims to represent.”
“This is not about Islam or enforcing ‘morality’ but about enforcing state power,” continued Katebi succinctly. “The 1979 Revolution began as a cry for freedom from a foreign-backed monarchy, but religious slogans and symbols were quickly co-opted to build and maintain another repressive state.”
“The protestors are now demanding that the original promises of the revolution- freedom, independence, social justice- be fulfilled,” finished Katebi.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)