One month has passed since mass anti-government protests broke out across Iran in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody. Dozens of protesters have since been killed, and hundreds arrested, including children.
Despite the government’s crackdown on protesters, chants of "woman, life, freedom" can still be heard across Iran.
As in previous protests over the last two decades, Iranians can also be heard chanting "We don't want the Islamic Republic".
IranWire spoke to Sedigheh Vasmaghi, a lawyer, Islamologist and analyst of political and social affairs, about the current situation in Iran, how it reached this point, and what the authorities are saying.
Vasmaghi highlighted the Iranian authorities’ repression of women and said the only solution is for the government to accept the people's demands. She called for a referendum or the mass resignation of officials.
She also believes the Islamic Republic’s current officials will not find a way to talk to the Iranian people or face the consequences for the crimes and atrocities they have committed over the past four decades.
As a scholar of Islam and a political activist, you always wore the full hijab. But in recent interviews this has changed. How come? Do you think this movement will have a lasting impact?
For perhaps more than twenty years, I have always opposed the mandatory hijab in my writing and in interviews. I’ve always said the hijab proposed by the Islamic Republic has no religious basis - it is not even based on Sharia or traditional Iranian law.
Over the past year, the situation has become more extreme, and the government has tried to impose further restrictions on women. I felt that society, and women in particular, can no longer stand all the pressure, humiliation, and insults.
The government has been targeting women’s dignity, honor and independence for the past 44 years. After the death of Mahsa Amini, I wrote that her death means the death of the compulsory hijab in the Islamic Republic.
The extremism of the Islamic Republic’s attitudes towards women, as symbolized by the mandatory hijab, became so intense that not only women but also many men started to oppose it. I’ve always protested with my words – but this time I decided to protest with my actions, too. A piece of cloth on a woman’s head has no religious value.
Religious officials and some influential voices have increasingly been saying that women who do not wear the hijab are exposing themselves. Where does this thought come from?
This claim has no religious basis whatsoever. It comes from either a lack of education or a misunderstanding. It’s simply not true or historically accurate.
The strict rules on wearing the hijab have only been introduced by the Islamic Republic. These head coverings did not exist in the early days of Islam. The Quran does not mention it.
Iran’s religious officials believe that everyone in the West is exposing themselves. They have a misguided view of women, and believe women have a responsibility to maintain society’s chastity by wearing strict clothes. This opinion is wrong.
After Amini’s death, women have been protesting by burning the hijab and cutting their hair. Many view these protests as a response to the historic repression of women.
Women have been oppressed and discriminated against throughout history. Over time, we’ve seen their struggle for equal rights. Women in Iran have been under pressure from patriarchal tradition and culture since 1079. With the establishment of theocratic rule, patriarchal religion increased its pressure on women - in particular by imposing anti-feminist laws and religious justifications and propaganda.
Women have been oppressed based on tradition, religion and political power. Together, these three issues have enabled discrimination against women. The Islamic Republic imposed the mandatory hijab to put pressure on women. It has become a symbol of humiliation and threat, and a violation of our independence.
The Islamic Republic had never heard the voice of protest until society, and women in particular, reached breaking point. Women stood up against a model that is not suitable for the modern day and has its roots in the age of slavery.
It’s clear that people across society are suffering and everyone is tired of this government. Something important has changed. The historical struggle of women has reached a critical point.
What do you think the impact will be on other Islamic societies around the world?
It’s true that the global community is interconnected. We cannot deny the influence of societies on one another - especially societies that have many things in common. Islamic societies have a common view of women and women's rights. This common view has given women a common sense of oppression and a desire to fight together.
You said women rebelled against a discriminatory system. Are we witnessing a revolution or is this just the start of one?
Currently, I see our society experiencing a revolution. Every revolution starts by rebelling against oppression and injustice.
But it’s not just women protesting, and the focus isn’t only on the mandatory hijab. The slogans being chanted are about the system itself. This is because all parts of society feel they cannot live with under these policies which go against the interests of the public. People see the current system as a barrier between themselves and how they want to live.
Government officials and even the Basij are now talking about entering "dialogue". But are we in a position for dialogue?
It’s strange. Over the past few decades, different part of the society have raised their demands and talked about the need for dialogue.
Millions of protesters demanded the annulment of the election results in 2009. Students stood up and protested the banning of the Salam newspaper in 1999. It’s long been clear the government is willing to suppress its people, but it is not willing to listen to their demands.
Now they are saying they want to talk. How much can people trust those who have never talked or listened before?
As a protesting citizen, I’m eager for a historical dialogue to take place. People need to talk about the oppression and atrocities, and those who died in the streets, and the arrests and executions. But I don’t think the officials are telling the truth. I don't think they intend to talk.
The dialogue you’re talking about is to clarify the truth and get justice.
Yes. In my opinion, this is what the people and the protesters expect. We won’t accept any explanation from the government other than clarifying the truth.
Let's talk about [Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Khamenei's position. When he spoke publicly, he paraded in front of the police and then, as usual, called the Iranian people ignorant and put the blame on Israel and America. Some viewed this as a retreat, while others read it as his usual behavior. What’s your analysis?
Khamenei has always insulted protesters and believed the protests were orchestrated by foreign powers. This is an insult to the well-informed people who are protesting.
I consider those protesting to be the ones who are smarter, more aware and more willing to take risks to defend their rights and their country. Society will never move forward without the actions of these people.
Insulting these people is unacceptable when you consider the problems the government is responsible for. Either it shows the leadership is out of touch with reality, or it’s a political trick to supress the protests.
This behavior cannot be justified. It shows how weak the government is if they admit that foreign powers have so much influence in Iran that they can easily bring millions of protesters to the streets.
I think it’s unlikely the Islamic Republic’s rulers will change their minds.
Many young people have been arrested, and some killed, during the course of the recent protests. Do you consider the Islamic Republic a child-killing government? Is this justified in Islam?
There is no justification for killing any human being in any religion. Iranian people who live in Iran have more authority to judge the situation than anyone else. People live in hardship. Are there fewer poor people in Iran compared to the past? Has unemployment and inflation decreased? What positive change has taken place? With all this national wealth, poverty has spread day by day.
There was and is a belief in the Islamic Republic that maintaining the status quo is one of the government’s obligations. This belief has no religious basis. How can they use religion to say that the preservation of the government is more important than the preservation of the property, security, life and dignity of the people?
This cannot be justified and only benefits those in power. In my opinion, if they kill children and adults using this justification, there is no legal, moral, or humane basis for it.
To protect the country, Iran’s rulers have a duty to find the best solution - they can’t blame it all on the protesters and foreign powers.
So far, the government’s response has been to suppress and kill, which has only intensified the crisis. Not listening to the protesters’ voices is one of the main problems in our country. There needs to be a peaceful solution other than repression.