“Woman, Life, Freedom”—
a feminist revolution against
police atrocity

by Tania Ahmadi

A demonstration outside Iran mourning the death of Mahsa Amini; participants paint their hands red to symbolize blood.

The history of the feminist movement in Iran and Iranian women’s quest for equal rights and sociopolitical empowerment date back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when newly formed modern social movements began to strive toward constitutionalism and a democratic nation-state. The first women’s associations, usually semisecret, helped promote women’s literacy; demanded women’s access to public education, hygiene, and vocational training; and criticized women’s seclusion, marital polygamy, and domestic violence. With the swift rise of Islamism after the establishment of the Islamic Republic as a theocratic state in 1979, many of the laws and policies in both the public and domestic domains came under the direct control of the clerics, who extended gender discrimination in favor of men.

One of the main mottos of the contemporary women’s movement has been “change for equality,” with an emphasis on legal reform and the attainment of civil and political rights. Many feminists in Iran have been battling against discriminatory laws and practices like child marriage, unequal inheritance, laws of retribution, stoning, compulsory veiling, male-biased rights to divorce and child custody. The efforts Iranian women displayed during the 1979 revolution propelled them deeper into the public arena. The result was one of the most dynamic women’s movements in the Islamic world and the rise of female activists who have won international recognition in a wide array of professions. Iran’s women’s movement persists, despite repressive laws including legal stoning, sanctioned polygamy, and street police raids against women who violate the dress code.

Protesters against the veil, Tehran, during demonstrations for women's rights on March 10, 1979. (Bettmann Archives/Getty Images).

In their over one hundred-year history of collective activism, Iranian women have made remarkable achievements in the realms of education; scientific, literary, and artistic creativity; and to a noticeable extent, economic productivity and sociopolitical participation. Iranian women continue to voice demands for self-determination. As they face subjugation and adversity, they often adopt a political attitude of refusal. They choose not to be victims but reformers. Their fight is a moral movement that demands justice for women everywhere. Although the very notion of a “women’s movement” in Iran is still a contested subject, despite various challenges the women’s movement in Iran continues to grow.

For many years, Iranian women have been the victims of tyranny, discrimination, and gender inequality, but today they are also known as liberated feminists in their thinking as well as in their bodies and movement. Throughout Iran’s history, and especially after the Revolution of 1979, women’s existence and agency have been at the center of heated debates. In this context, Iranian feminists have been trying diligently to delineate a different image of the Iranian woman from that of someone victimized, oppressed, and passive. Despite these efforts, many people still feel a level of ambiguity concerning Iranian women’s intervention into society, but an unforeseen chain of events, beginning in September 2022, turned the destiny of Iran and the role women play in it upside down. In that September, the “Woman, Life, Freedom” revolution was sparked in Iran after Mahsa (Jina) Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, was murdered in Tehran following her arrest by Iran’s Morality Police for wearing an “improper” hijab. In response to this young woman’s death, a popular slogan first used in the Kurdish freedom movement of the late twentieth century, “woman, life, freedom,” became a rallying cry in the protests that followed.

Masha Amini

Born to a Kurdish family in Saqqez, Kurdistan Province, in northwestern Iran, Mahsa (Jina) Amini, 22, was in Tehran for a family visit. On September 13, at the entrance to the metro station, the guidance patrol arrested her and subsequently transferred her into the custody of moral securities. She was taken to a detention center to undergo a forced education class about proper hijab and behavior. Her brother was waiting outside the center and then informed that his sister had had a heart attack and brain seizure, and that she had been taken to Kasra Hospital. Mahsa (Jina) lingered in a coma for two days and died in intensive care. Niloofar Hamedi,[1] [open notes in new window] a reporter, broke the story with a photo of Amini’s father and grandmother crying and embracing each other in shock and agony. The reporter Hamedi, alongside her colleague Elahe Mohamadi, were arrested and have been detained since then. In the meantime, Amini’s cousin revealed that, according to co-detainee witnesses, Mahsa (Jina) had been tortured and verbally harassed in the van on the way to the detention center. 

Widespread protests against the government and civil unrest broke out in reaction to Jina’s death. This brutal, state-sanctioned killing spurred a new women-led revolution across the country, with women, schoolgirls, and their allies mobilizing against the mandatory hijab. Security forces used pepper spray against protestors, and many people were arrested. But the real battle came into view with the subsequent arrests and killings. Public sentiment echoes the inscription on Jina’s tombstone—a powerful, provocative sentence in Kurdish written by her uncle, which reads, “Beloved Jina, you will not die. Your name will become a symbol.” This message has become a source of hope and optimism for youth and has strengthened them in their battle against injustice and tyranny.

This revolution stands as a prime example of using self, body, media, and symbolism in organizing against and protesting the police state. Iranian youth take advantage of different forms of social media on a daily basis. For example, the hashtag #MahsaAmini became one of the most repeated hashtags on Twitter. Shortly after this development, the Iranian government blocked Internet access to Instagram and WhatsApp and disrupted Internet service throughout the country to suppress unrest. Relying mostly on VPNs, protesters tried their best to gain Internet access through neighboring countries, such as Turkey. The more severe the government response, the more persistently the opponents of the regime fought back. In the Jina Revolution,[2] every restriction became an opportunity, a new, unforeseen chance for fighters to rebel. The government simply underestimated the amount of discontent, and for a couple of days security forces appeared impotent in controlling unrest.

Social media indeed functioned as new media as it overcame protesters’ frustration with Western media’s stereotyping of Iranian women. The images of mass resistance that have come out of Iran, relayed largely on social media, portray a revolution on a micro and macro level. Some of the most emblematic images include women cutting off their hair and burning their hijabs en masse in the streets; a woman eating alone, unveiled, in a café; schoolgirls finding novel ways to protest in their classrooms; large demonstrations formed with all generations and genders; and mass strikes by steel and oil workers. In no time at all, these images travelled across the ocean via Twitter and Instagram. To extend solidarity to those struggling in Iran, and to contribute some much-needed nuance and context to the history of feminist resistance to the state violence that has long existed there, people all around the world started to cut off their hair. This performative gesture, the cutting of hair, has become a form of resistance in popular culture.

Another powerful image centers on Javad Heydari, 36, who was fatally shot during a protest. Her weeping sister is seen kneeling by her dead brother’s coffin as she slashes through her hair with a pair of scissors. For Iranian women, cutting off hair—traditionally a symbol of beauty and forcibly hidden by the Islamic Republic—is a poignant form of protest. In Shahnameh, an old Persian epic written by Ferdowsi, hair is also cut in an act of mourning. In one story, for instance, when Siyâvash, a legendary prince from the earliest days of the Iranian Empire, is beheaded, his wife Farangis cuts her hair to protest that injustice.[3]

Artwork by Hajar Moradi.

An Iranian woman in diaspora cuts her hair.
Javad Heydari’s sister cuts her hair with a pair of scissors.

However, this revolution and its accompanying political gestures didn’t just begin in September 2022. Rather, they are a result of the continuous efforts of Iranian women since the Revolution of 1979. In 1994, to protest the mandatory hijab, Homa Darabi immolated herself by pouring petrol over her head and eventually died. In 2017, Vida Movahed courageously removed her white headscarf, tied it to a stick, and waved it like a flag in front of a large crowd of people. She was arrested shortly thereafter. Sahar Khodayari, known as Blue Girl, was a football fan who, in 2019, attempted to enter the male-only Azadi Stadium disguised as a man to watch a match, an act against the national ban on women at sporting events. She was arrested and given a six-month prison sentence. After leaving court, she died by suicide through self-immolation in front of the building.

These are just a few examples that demonstrate how Iranian women have long used their bodies as weapons to fight inequality. More recently, this type of performance of identity is evident in clips and videos posted by women on social media during upheavals. The burning of headscarves; mothers holding pictures of their dead children and pleading for justice and basic human rights; and dancing, singing, and walking in the streets without a hijab are just a few examples of political performance by Iranian women.

Movements and practices of resistance against police brutality and violence have also been represented in Iran’s popular culture and media. They occur in music, literature and poetry, documentaries, and perhaps mostly in the found-footage from people’s phone cameras. In the realm of music, Shervin Hajipour’s song “Baraye” has become the anthem of the wave of protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini. “Baraye,” which racked up more than 40 million views in 48 hours on Instagram, was created entirely from messages that Iranians have posted on Twitter regarding their reasons for protesting. The word “baraye” means “for,” and some of the lyrics translated say: “for dancing in the streets,” “for the fear of kissing loved ones,” “for the shame of poverty,” and “for woman, life, freedom.” The song was first posted on Hajipour’s Instagram page in September 2022, and he was arrested shortly afterward. He was held in prison for a few weeks and is currently out on bail, awaiting trial. He is also banned from leaving the country, so that when he won the first Grammy Award for Best Song for Social Change in February 2023, he was unable to attend the ceremony. While he was in custody, the police shut down Hajipour’s Instagram account and deleted it. But Iranian people all over the world started sharing the song on their social media, and the lyrics that address issues of state brutality and violence have helped fuel other grassroots movements of change.

Homa Darabi immolated herself to protest the hijab, 1994. In 2017, Vida Movahed waved her headscarf in front of a crowd.
In 2019 Sahar Khodayari went to a sporting event dressed as a man and got sentenced to six months in prison. She immolated herself outside the court. “Baraye” by Shervin Hajipour, with English subtitles. YouTube. Heard at protests and played all over the world, singer was arrested, on bail awaiting trial.

Some very important slogans of this revolution are extracts from poems. One often seen on posters reads, “I am the common pain, scream me.” This are the words of Ahmad Shamlou, a poet and journalist who was one of the pioneers of modern Persian poetry. Another popular slogan reads, “You’re the pervert, I am a free woman,” also drawn from a poem highlighting the persistent efforts of women against gender inequality.

As previously stated, found footage from people’s phone cameras perhaps most clearly reveals how the Jina Revolution has become one of the most debated and analyzed topics in Iran. The following instances detailed here show people facing and resisting police brutality. In each case, someone’s phone camera became a link between the incident and an audience, between Iran and the outside world, between private and public. Audiences of this type of footage inevitably and reflexively experience what people at the scene experienced: a mediated vision of reality, a restricted medium that ingests a world beyond this present world—a world inside the now. Audiences can feel all the pain, fear, and anger, albeit on a much smaller scale compared to what the people filmed faced.