Normalization of Violence Against Women in Iran
By Nassim Mehran
At the time when this text was written, the protests in Iran, with women on the frontline chanting “Woman, Life, Freedom”, were erupting, bringing together people of different social and political strata, unified in solidarity against the state’s systematic oppression of women and the killing of Mahsa Amini by the so-called Morality Police.
On 14 September, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, was caught by the Morality Police (the compulsory-hijab enforcement police, officially called the ‘Guidance Patrol’) on the charge of improper hijab. From Saqqez, a city in Kurdistan-Iran, Mahsa and her family were visiting their aunt in Tehran. That day, together with her brother, Kiarash, they went out to explore the city. However, according to Kiarash, the officers detained Mahsa immediately after they exited a metro station without further explanation or consideration of the fact that they were unfamiliar with the city. A few hours later, Mahsa was in a coma in a hospital; she passed away the next day without her family having the right to see her. Although the Iranian government proclaimed a heart attack as the cause of her death, the medical evidence, and the informal testimony of other women, who were arrested at the same time as Mahsa, indicate brutal physical assault by the officers, which caused severe brain damage. In the public opinion, her death is considered state femicide and provoked a nationwide outbreak of political unrest and protests.
For Iranians living under the fundamentalist state’s structural oppression of women in Iran during the last 43 years, the murder of Mahsa is not an exceptional incident. On the contrary, it resurrects the collective trauma, the collective suffering, and the tangible lived experiences of suppression to which every woman is subjected daily. Every person knows that this can happen at any moment to any woman, no matter if she is a daughter, a sister, a mother, a family member, or a friend.
Following the 1979 revolution, constitutional amendments were based on the amalgamation of an ultraconservative Islamist ideology with the already existing foundations of patriarchy in society. As a result, a rigid gender-based disciplinary system was formed, adversely influencing the rights of women and non-binary people. Within this ideology, all elements of gender diversity are flattened, and the legal and judiciary paradigms are conceptualized based on a strict binary model of male and female, suppressing any diverse sexual and gender identities into ‘designated-as’ cisgender woman or cisgender man. Since then, the system has been based on the absolute denial of the existence of non-binary people. The Transgender people are forced to go through sex and gender reassignment surgery. Consequently, performing a trans or non-binary identity has been impermissible, criminalized, and severely punished. For example, in his public talk at Columbia University on 24 September 2007, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president of Iran, said, “there are no homosexual people in Iran”. Yet, in a recent case, two lesbians, Zahra Sedighi and Elham Chobdar, were sentenced to death on the charge of being apostates.
The discourse around ‘designated-as’ women’s social position has been the core of the theological dispute between conservative hardliners and moderate Islamists. However, none of these theoretical approaches question the first premise of Islamist ideology based on a binary social model in which women’s bodies are propelled along multiscale depoliticization and relegated to a social position subordinate to men.
Within the law, it became institutionalized for ‘designated-as’ women to be subject to lifelong control over their bodies and in everyday practices in the public sphere as well as in the space of the family and in private; at the same time that they should be obedient to the state’s ideological framework, they also live a life subordinate to males within the family. Thus, Iranian cities were spatially reconstituted and reshaped based on the radical dichotomy of the public (state) versus the private (family) to embody the idea of Islamist citizenship in contrast to Western societies.
The enforcement of Islamist ethics and dress codes (including the compulsory hijab and banning women from singing), together with the implementation of surveillance systems in public spaces, extended the patriarchal control over ‘designated-as’ women’s bodies from communities – including the family, partnerships, and/or ethnic groups – to everyday living spaces, from the private sphere to public realms, and from home to the streets. The slightest resistance to the imposed boundaries of this ideological institution can result in different modes of violence. The discriminatory system reduces the lifeworld of ‘designated-as’ women to their biology and imposes multifold despotism on them. On the one hand, their rights are restrained legally and administratively, and, on the other hand, they are suppressed by hostile materiality and power structures in everydayness and their existence is severely confined in all living spaces.
Violence against ‘designated-as’ women can range from psychological and emotional violence – for example, restricting women’s rights in everyday social and political spaces – to physical violence. At the community and family level, the incorporation of Sharia law in the constitution has reproduced and intensified male authoritarianism. A female body, soon after birth, is subject to the hegemony of the father or other men acting as guardians. After marriage, the husband takes possession of the female body. In this context, based on the law, all societal rights of women can be negated by male decisions. This includes the right to education, work, travel, socializing, marriage, child custody, divorce, choosing their own style of dress and lifestyle, emergency and medical interventions and abortion, and general freedom.
While the government gave the right of divorce only to the husband, they also revitalized the right to polygamy for men, on the one hand, and the punishment of stoning for women who have extramarital affairs, on the other hand. Even honor killing and femicide can be justified in the Islamist judicial framework and legal constellations. In a very recent case of femicide, after beheading Mona (Gazal) Haidari at home, her husband walked down a street of one of the busiest neighborhoods in Ahvaz, a city in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, with a proud victory smile and carrying Mona’s head in one hand and a cleaver in the other. This unleashed public outrage. However, a few months later, Mona’s killer was released with the consent of Mona’s father, the next-of-kin who has the right to (dis)charge for retaliation.
To enforce the discriminatory regimes of control and forced vailing as well as Islamist dress and behavior codes in public and semi-public spaces, mechanisms of street-level surveillance, such as paramilitary groups like the Morality Police, have been implemented. The Morality Police can appear in any part of the city, including streets, parks, workspaces, public administrative offices, universities, schools, medical centers, organizations, cafes, and restaurants, among others. Women experience arrest, physical violence, imprisonment, fines, and the loss of access to university and work positions for wearing inappropriate hijabs or for being accompanied by men who are not their legal relatives (e.g., male friends or romantic partners).
In addition to the Morality Police, various informal teams of young people called ‘Ordering the Right and Forbidding the Wrong’ have been established in the cities. While wearing civilian clothing, they have the right to approach women and verbally admonish them about their appearance. A few weeks ago, footage of a verbal conflict between Sepideh Rashno, a 28-year-old artist, writer, and editor from Tehran, and an agent of the female vice patrol was posted on social media, indicating that she resisted following the command to adjust her hijab. In the next days, Sepideh was arrested and later appeared with a bruised face on national TV, (forcibly) confessing that she is affiliated with hostile groups abroad and that she aimed to disturb the social order.
Taking advantage of new technologies, traffic cameras are used to check the hijab of women while they are in cars. In case a woman does not comply with the regulations, the owner of the car will receive an SMS, referring them to the Morality Police. If the warning is ignored, the owner can be fined or, in some cases, the car might be seized from the owner.
In addition, social segregation is enforced and normalized through gender-based partitioning of public spaces, such as mosques, schools, parks, public transport, libraries, and sport salons, among others. Women are banned entirely from entering stadiums. Moreover, clerics occasionally impose sanctions on specific activities and places; for instance, three months ago, they ordered the closure of women’s waxing salons in the ‘Holy City’ of Mashhad. During the year 2021 alone, forced hijab wearing caused the death of two women workers whose veils got stuck in factory machines.
Hence, violence permeates both policy and practice in everyday life and has gradually become normalized. Nevertheless, the understanding of violence against women in Iran is limited if one illustrates women as a homogenous group. The frequent occurrence of femicide and honor killings – ultimate forms of violence that exterminates life – in particular geographical places or communities indicates the role of contextual features and the intersectionality of varying demographic and social factors; violence is intensified through overlapping misogynistic legal frameworks and structural discrimination at the intersections of classism, ableism, and racism.
On a global level, there is firm political determination and feminist activism toward the elimination of violence against women (VAW). Iran, however, is reluctant to abide by the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), considering it contrary to the ideology of the state. In this context, there is no formal support in Iran for fighting violence against women, neither at the legal and administrative levels nor in organizational and institutional settings, including the education, social, and medical systems. The prospects of any possibility for criticism and improvement died out with the dramatic decreasing of women’s engagement in policy making and the eradication of feminist intellectual spaces and activism.
Meanwhile, what is represented in the international community as the status of human rights in Iran is mainly under the influence of Islamic Republic delegates. Therefore, the global perspectives and discourses on the violation of women’s rights in Iran barely go beyond imposing compulsory hijab in public spaces. This is despite the fact that forcibly veiling women is only the most visible form of violence against women.
Disappointedly, to some extent the forced hijab is considered a cultural ‘norm’ in academic and political spaces beyond the Iranian border, particularly in Western feminist spaces. Decolonial and post-colonial feminist discourses mainly reduce ‘coloniality’ to the North-South dichotomy. Within this, there is a lack of recognition for the multiscale reproduction of coloniality and regimes of power over women and marginalized bodies in the Global South, particularly in countries with Islamist governments, like Iran and Afghanistan. The killing of Mahsa Amini demonstrated solidarity between Muslim women of different Islamic cultures in the MENA region; however, the silence of Western academics and activists is deafening. This happens while there is also no reflection on the absence of the subjectivity of Iranian women from different social strata as well as on the struggles and the political agenda of Iranian feminists within international feminist movements. In addition, political negotiations, collaborations, and agreements with the Iranian government and Iranian companies are mainly based on economic relations and barely involve any framework that prioritizes and ensures anti-discrimination policies.
Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and after 43 years of resistance and fighting against different modes of violence, Iranian women today have not been given any safe ‘official’ space, inside and outside Iran, to represent and express their demands and struggles for gender equality and political participation. Now, once again, freedom-seeking Iranians are on the streets, fighting to liberate their bodies from systematic suppression, claiming “Women, Life, Freedom”.
This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from the Foundation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
 The examples mentioned in this text only represent a few cases to make the social and political condition more perceptible.
 ‘Designated-as’ woman refers to individuals who are forcibly designated as cisgender women by the state, even if they are trans or non-binary. During their lives, the ‘designated-as’ women must socialize as women and abide by gender roles that are defined for women.
 See: Der Spiegel, “Iran verurteilt laut Menschenrechtsorganisationen zwei LGBT-Aktivistinnen zum Tode”, 5 September 2022, https://www.spiegel.de/ausland/iran-verurteilt-laut-menschenrechtsorganisationen-zwei-lgbt-aktivistinnen-zum-tode-a-aa594ad1-1ae8-41fc-a818-4543ce266a6f.
 See: Mostafa Salem and Ramin Mostaghim, “Iranian husband beheads teenage wife, authorities say, shocking the country”, CNN, 9 February 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/02/09/middleeast/iran-teenage-wife-beheaded-intl/index.html.
 See: Rosie Swash, “Arrests and TV confessions as Iran cracks down on women’s ‘improper’ clothing”, The Guardian, 23 August 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/aug/23/arrests-and-tv-confessions-as-iran-cracks-down-on-women-improper-clothing-hijab.
Nassim Mehran holds a Ph.D. in urban sociology. She is a researcher and lecturer at Charité University of Berlin, focusing on social inequality and spatial justice in Iran and Germany.
Citation: Nassim Mehran, Normalization of Violence Against Women in Iran, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 26.09.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/41104