Iran’s George Floyd moment

The arrest of a woman for not wearing proper dress and her death in custody have ignited public debate on civic equality and freedoms.

A newspaper with a cover picture of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by Iranian morality police is seen in Tehran, Sept. 18.

Iran has seen many mass protests against its ruling clerics but none quite like those in recent days. Since Friday, when a young woman died after being arrested for not wearing proper head covering, Iranians have taken to the streets, Twitter, and Instagram by the millions. Some call it Iran’s George Floyd moment.

Even outside Iran, critics from J.K. Rowling to the United Nations have decried the injustice of the mysterious death as well as Iran’s ever-harsher rules on clothing – some of which apply to men, such as not wearing shorts.

The scope of the protests appears to matter less to the regime than a particular point being made – that rules and laws can only be enacted and imposed by a democracy that has civic equality. In Iran’s Islamic Republic, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, presumes sole authority to rule.

The spirit of equality can be seen in the many female protesters who voluntarily choose to wear the mandatory hijab out of their own sense of modesty. One noted critic, Grand Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat-Zanjani, said the actions of the so-called morality police in abducting those who violate the official dress code are “against the law, against religion, and against logic.” The Quran “clearly prevents the faithful from using force to impose the values ​​they consider religious and moral,” he added.

Another critic, Ayatollah Mohaqeq Damad, said the morality police, known as “guiding vigilantes” (Gashteh Ershad), were set up to check the behavior of rulers, “not to crack down on the liberties of the citizens.”

Such high-level assertions of civic freedoms have put the regime on a back foot. The hard-line conservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, was forced to call the family of the victim, Mahsa Amini, and to order an official probe “to closely investigate the issue so that no right is violated.”

Some critics say the regime uses the dress code mainly as a way to control society. Others, both inside Iran and elsewhere, say impositions on women in Muslim societies must be challenged as a religious violation.

“The teachings of Islam, in all their diversity, encourage a woman’s spiritual aspirations absent an intercessor between her and God and define her identity as first and foremost a servant of The Divine, whose rights constitute a sacred covenant,” wrote Dalia Mogahed, an American of Egyptian origin who is director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, in Al Jazeera last year.

The regime knows it has a problem. A recent official report said some 60% of women either do not support or regularly wear full “Islamic hijab.” That spirit of equality will be difficult to suppress.

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