Jin, Jiyan, Azadi: The fight for female autonomy in Iran at Tufts

Across Tufts’ campus, printouts with the words “woman, life, freedom” written in bold, black uppercase are taped to surfaces everywhere—from the windows that lie in the entrance of Carmichael Dining Hall to the mailbox near the crosswalk that leads to the Joyce Cummings Center. A tiny fist emerges from the letter “w” in woman, and, under those three words, “#mahsaamini” is written in a smaller font. 

The posters are an attempt by Tufts students to shed light on the death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman detained by Iran’s morality police on September 13 for her “inappropriate attire” at the Shahid Haghani Expressway in Tehran, Iran’s capital. Three days later, Mahsa died in the intensive care unit of the Kasra Hospital. While an Iranian state coroner alleged that Mahsa died from an underlying illness, her family and much of Iran has instead held the police responsible for her death.

Since Mahsa’s death, protests have erupted across Iran. They started off as a lone spark at Mahsa’s funeral in Saquez, her hometown in Kurdistan. The sparks grew into a raging fire, moving across Kurdistan and through major universities in Tehran, Rasht, and beyond, where women could be seen removing their headscarves in powerful acts of defiance as chants of “death to the dictator” overwhelmed the streets. Although protestors were unarmed and practicing peaceful protest, they were met with violence, and even death, at the hands of the Revolutionary Guards. As of October 4, the Iran Human Rights group has put the death toll at 154 people across Iran.  

Historical context is essential in order to truly understand the cultural significance of the hijab, as well as the growing protests in Iran. Neda Moridpour, an Iranian artist, organizer, and professor at the School of Museum and Fine Arts at Tufts, wrote to the Tufts Observer, “The scarves women set on fire are their demand for an end to a history of various states’ regulation of their appearance—be it mandatory unveiling (Westernization) or compulsory hijab (Islamization).” Moridpour’s comment offers a unique perspective on the evolution of the hijab’s symbolism in Iran. Throughout Iran’s history, the Iranian government has made hijabs either banned or mandatory at different points in time.

According to Moridpour, under Reza Shah’s reign in the late 1930s, unveiling represented the westernization of Iran. Now, under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s reign in the present, the hijab has transformed into a representation of an absolutist Islamized republic.

This is reflected in Iran’s morality police, which was established in 2005 as a way of upholding Islamic morals and laws on what constitutes “proper” dress. Each president has decided the degree to which these laws are enforced; the incumbent President Raisi, known as a hardliner, has instituted several measures to keep women under a tight grip. Over the summer, surveillance cameras were installed across the country to assist in identifying unveiled women, and a prison sentence was introduced for all women who opposed hijab-wearing.  

These protests represent the desire of women to be freed from a singular definition of the hijab and to have the bodily autonomy to decide whether or not they wish to be veiled. As more and more women set their hijabs ablaze, the veil has also begun to embody the gap between the wants of the Iranian people and what the Iranian government is providing.  

Reverberations from the Iran protests have been felt around the world, including at Tufts. Following Mahsa’s death, the Tufts Persian Student Association (PSA) worked to increase awareness and knowledge surrounding current events in Iran. The PSA held a “Day of Action for Solidarity with Iranian Women” in the Joyce Cummings Center on September 29. According to an anonymous member of the PSA, “The room was filled with the sound of dozens of keyboards clacking emails to senators and representatives asking them to speak out.” Tufts students were ultimately able to convince Michelle Wu’s staff to attend a rally at Boston Common on October 1, the Global Day of Action, and deliver her statement of solidarity publically to thousands.

In a written statement to the Observer, sophomore and PSA member Tara Samimi said, “At the protest [in the Boston Common], a representative for Michelle Wu came out and made a statement of solidarity which we felt was a partial win… To see thousands of people show up, Iranian or not, to stand together and amplify the voices of the women in Iran who are being silenced, was very moving.”

While the solidarity shown by Wu’s office was inspiring, many Iranians are still wondering whether these protests will actually amount to change. An anonymous member of the Iranian Community in the greater Boston area said, “For many students with family and friends in Iran, this is a deeply emotional issue. Just scrolling through the news and hearing about more young people, just like us, who were killed in protests, fills many with rage but also fuels our advocacy efforts… The extreme police violence that killed Mahsa could have happened to… our mothers, sisters, or anyone who dares to be a woman.” It seems as though the simple act of being a girl in Iran is one of bravery, one that requires being daring. Being a girl in Iran represents a radical existence. 

Following the protests and the spread of videos on TikTok and other social media platforms documenting the spiraling of events, Iranian authorities have curbed access to Instagram and WhatsApp—functionally staging an internet blackout

Countless people have gone missing after participating in protests. Mahsa is a name we know, but for every death that garners international attention, there exist countless nameless faces that have been kidnapped, arrested, or killed. Four days after Mahsa’s death, Nika Shakarami, a 16-year-old Iranian teenage girl, disappeared in Tehran during protests. Nika was last seen being chased off by security forces. Soon after, her phone was turned off. Ten days later, her family learned of her death. 

Niloofar Hamedi, the reporter who broke the news on the death of Mahsa Amini, was arrested just a few days after she posted a photo of Mahsa Amini’s parents hugging each other in a Tehran hospital where Mahsa was lying in a coma. Hamedi’s Twitter account was also suspended. The aforementioned member of the Iranian community said, “Nearly everyone in Iran has by now experienced the loss of a friend or family member to the regime’s extreme violence. This grief and [lack of a] sense of agency have united the Iranian people across provinces, subcultures, and even [the] political spectrum.” 

Moridpour shared a similar sentiment, “We are witnessing the most inclusive feminist movement created and led by women to give voice to women from all ethnicities and religious backgrounds in Iran. The world needs to know about what’s happening in Iran, condemn the government’s violent attacks/arrests, learn from this movement, stand in solidarity with people, and be their voice. Woman, Life, Freedom.” These protests illustrate the Iranian people’s courage as they stand up for the creation of an intersectional movement against an oppressive regime. 

Moridpour also said she has “asked the Tufts community to show their support and solidarity by signing a letter that calls on Tufts University’s Administration to stand in solidarity with the people in Iran.” Other schools in the Boston area, such as the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law, have made statements of solidarity with the people of Iran. Many believe Tufts should also begin using its platform as a large university by making a similar statement standing with the women and allies who are currently putting their lives on the line to speak out for women across Iran. 

Iran is facing a cultural awakening, and, as the same anonymous member of the PSA shared, “We need Tufts University to affirm that they prioritize women’s rights to autonomy now more than ever.”