The death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iran following her arrest by the “morality police” has sparked widespread protests across the country, with women taking a prominent role in demonstrating against their unequal treatment in the country. The Iranian regime, led by Ayatollah Khamenei, has responded with deadly violence.
Since Amini’s death on 16 September, precipitated by her arrest for not wearing the hijab correctly, at least 185 people, including at least 19 children, have been killed in the nationwide protests across Iran, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). The deaths of several young women involved in the protests has led to a growing chorus of outrage, both within the country and internationally.
Among the dead is Sarina Esmailzadeh, a 16-year-old girl who was killed following protests on 22 September in Mehrshahr, just outside Tehran, reportedly due to repeated baton blows by security forces. Authorities have aired “so-called” confessions by alleged family members stating that her death was suicide, which have been called into question.
Nika Shakarami (right) has also died, allegedly at the hands of the Iranian security forces, after she was pictured burning her hijab. The 17-year-old disappeared for nine days before her badly beaten body was identified by her family in a morgue.
Women human rights defenders and journalists are being targeted. Femena reports that women’s rights activist Narges Hosseini, one of the “Girls of Revolution Street”, who protested back in 2017 and 2018 about the compulsory hijab, was arrested on 22 September in Kashan in central Iran. Four years ago, she spent three months in prison on charges of “encouraging prostitution” and “non-observance of hijab”.
CHRI has also reported on the arrest of Niloufar Hamedi, a well-known journalist who first revealed the circumstances surrounding Mahsa Amini’s death that same say. Hamedi has been placed in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison.
Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraeei, an Index contributor who was only released from prison in May 2022 after being imprisoned in 2014 on charges of insulting the Supreme Leader and spreading propaganda against the state, has also been rearrested.
On 9 October, teenage girls in the city of Arak, southwest of capital Tehran, marched in protest chanting “death to the dictator”, before they were fired on with rubber bullets and tear gas by riot police.
Protests have also sprung up at universities across the country. Shots were fired indiscriminately by security forces at a protest at Tehran’s Sharif University on 8 October, according to CHRI. Students at the city’s University of Art held a demonstration on 10 October where they congregated to spell out the word “blood”. The same day, female students at the Polytechnic University chanted, “Tell my mother she no longer has a daughter” – a shocking reference to the fate that could befall the students for daring to protest.
Students of Amir Kabir university protest against the hijab. Photo: Darafsh Kaviyani
There are signs that support for the protests is spreading more widely. Oil workers in Iran, including port workers in Asaluyeh and refinery workers in Abadan, are striking in support of the protests. This could be significant as such protests have not been seen since the 1979 revolution.
The city of Sanandaj in Kurdistan has become the frontline of the protests and the regime has cracked down brutally, leading some to call the city a “war zone”. The CHRI reports that at least four people have been killed and more than 100 injured on 9 October. The government has deployed forces from outside the region in the city.
News that has emerged from Iran has made it out despite widespread internet and mobile network shutdowns in the country. NetBlocks has reported that the internet national mobile disruptions were in place once again and the internet had been cut in Sanandaj. Speaking to an Index correspondent over the phone from his home city of Sari in the north of Iran, the censored musician Mehdi Rajabian said: “It has become very difficult for me to access the free internet and the speeds of the platforms are very slow and blocked. I have to connect with a filter breaker and many times the filter breakers don’t work. Our communication is very slow.”
Such restrictions mean that the number of those killed, injured or detained is likely to be much higher.
There are signs that Iranians are increasingly looking to virtual private networks (VPNs) to help them circumvent the country’s internet broad censorship. Research by the VPN tracker Top10VPN.com shows that downloads of VPNs in Iran were 30 times higher at the end of September than in the previous 28 days and that demand for the services remains significantly heightened.
CHRI’s executive director Hadi Ghaemi feels that the situation is likely to worsen as Khamenei’s rule comes under growing pressure.
“The ruthless killings of civilians by security forces in Kurdistan Province, on the heels of the massacre in Baluchestan Province, are likely preludes to severe state violence to come,” said Ghaemi in a statement about the protests.
He said, “World leaders must move beyond statements of condemnation to collective action through an international front signalling to the government in Iran that the international community will not look the other way and conduct business as usual while it slaughters unarmed civilians.”
In response, Khamenei has said foreign states are responsible for driving the women’s protests. With support growing fast, he may soon no longer be able to lay the blame outside Iran’s borders.
Acrassicauda concert at The Roxy in Hollywood, 10 June 2010. Credit: Flickr / Bruce Martin
Underground music scenes have begun sprouting up in many countries around the world in the last few years, where previously no such thing existed. These movements have managed, in many cases, to continue despite a continuing trend of censorship in the arts and government repression. Whether it be punks in Indonesia rebelling against Sharia law or hip-hop artists in Mumbai rapping about independence from Britain, people all over the world are fighting for their right to artistic freedom. Here are a few cities around the world where musicians refused to be silenced.
Even after social activist and creator of The Second Floor, a cafe that promotes discussion, performance and art, Sabeen Mahmud was murdered by armed motorcyclists in Karachi in April 2015, the experimental and electronic music culture has continued to grow. Refusing to be intimidated into silence, artists like Sheryal Hyatt, who records as Dalt Wisney and founded Pakistan’s first DIY netlabel, Mooshy Moo, and the producing pair of Bilal Nasir Khan and Haamid Rahim, who created the electronic label and collective Forever South, are challenging conventional ideas about the music culture in Karachi.
Punk music is one of the ultimate forms of expressing disdain for a system of oppression, so it comes as no surprise that so many youths in Indonesia have embraced the genre with a passion. The punk scene, which grew exponentially following the 2004 tsunami when a great many lost family members and help from the government was less than forthcoming. The hostility and discrimination against the punk subculture came to a head in 2012 when police rounded up 64 youths at a concert, arrested them and took them to a nearby detention centre to have their mohawk hairstyles forcibly shaved. Despite this, bands like Cryptical Death continue to promote their scene and pen songs about resisting repressive government figures.
The vitality of punk music is also present in Burma, where musicians have been advocating for human rights through fast-paced music since around 2007. No U Turn and the Rebel Riot are popular punk groups that routinely rail against a government that they feel is repressive and unjust. No U Turn sounds like a resurrection of Bad Religion-meets-Naked Raygun with a blend of biting lyrics and punishing speed.
Indian hip-hop pioneers have been appearing more and more in the last 10 years, with Abhishek Dhusia, aka ACE, forming Mumbai’s Finest, the city’s first rap crew, and Swadesi, another local group whose work they think represents feelings and ideals of many young people in the city. Swadesi, in particular, advocates for social justice within their band’s mission, with working for NGOs and organising events being an important element of their group.
Musicians in Iraq have faced a variety of oppressive control, ranging from young people being stoned to death by Shi’ite militants for wearing western-style “emo” clothes and haircuts to Acrassicauda, a popular heavy-metal band from Baghdad, receiving death threats from Islamic militants. Acrassicauda had to flee the country a few years after the USA invaded Iraq, going first to Syria and then to the USA, where they were given refugee status and from where they now continue to make music. They have hopes of touring the Middle East soon but have no idea when they will be able to return to Iraq.
Index on Censorship has teamed up with the producers of an award-winning documentary about Mali’s musicians, They Will Have To Kill Us First, to create the Music in Exile Fund to support musicians facing censorship globally. You can donate here, or give £10 by texting “BAND61 £10” to 70070.
Religious freedom and religious radicalism which leads to extremism has become an increasingly difficult balancing act in the digital age where presenting religious superiority through fear and “terror” is possible both locally and internationally at internet speeds.
The ongoing series of beheading videos released by the Islamic State and the showcase of kidnapped school girls by Nigeria’s Boko Haram on YouTube are both examples that test the extent to which the UN Convention of Human Rights can protect religious freedoms. According to a report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Egypt’s Youth Ministry are targeting young atheists vocal on social media about the dangers of religion. In Saudi Arabia, Raef Badawi was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2013 and received 600 lashes for discussing other versions of Islam, besides Wahhabism, online.
Article 18 of the Convention states that the “right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. The interpretation of “practice” is a grey area – especially when the idea of violence as a form of punishment can be understood differently across various cultures. Is it right to criticise societies operating under Sharia law that include amputation as punishment, ‘hadd’ offences that include theft, and stoning for committing adultery?
Religious extremism should not only be questioned under the categories of violence or social unrest. Earlier this month, religious preservation in India has led to the banning of a Bollywood film scene deemed ‘un-Islamic’ in values. The actress in question was from Pakistan, and sentenced to 26 years in prison for acting out a marriage scene depicting the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter. In Russia, the state has banned the publication of Jehovah’s Witness material as the views are considered extremist.
In an environment where religious freedom is tested under different laws and cultures, where do you draw the line on international grounds to foster positive forms of belief?
The women of Egypt played a huge role in the uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. They were on the frontlines, standing shoulder to shoulder with men in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.” Their participation in the eighteen-day mass protests raised hopes for greater inclusion of women in the decision-making process and an end to the gender discriminatory policies of the past.
However since the January 25 2011 revolution Egyptian women’s voices have been drowned out, and the “new Egypt” continues to marginalise women.
Today, as the country’s new constitution is being written, hopes are fading that Egypt’s new governing code will guarantee full and equal participation of women, and there are growing concerns that women may even lose rights gained in recent years.
Egyptian women celebrate the one year anniversary of the country’s revolution in Cairo. Amr Abdel-Hadi | Demotix