TIME | Mahsa Amini died in the custody of Iran's "morality police" but public rage is about more than a dress code.
Mahsa Amini was visiting the nation’s capital from her hometown of Saqqez in Iran’s Kurdistan province. On Tuesday afternoon, after exiting a metro station in midtown Tehran, she was forced into a van that belonged to Gasht e Ershad or the “guidance patrol.” The patrols enforce the women’s dress code that has been law in the Islamic Republic since 1979.
The 22-year-old was taken to the infamous “Vozara detention center,” where along with other women deemed in violation of the compulsory hijab, or head covering, she was to be lectured on her “indecent” appearance. Instead, she mysteriously died. In the outcry that followed, the police released a clumsily edited CCTV tape. It shows Amini gradually collapsing onto the back of a chair, then crumbling to the floor. Taken to a hospital, she died on Friday without emerging from a coma.
There has been no clear explanation for Amini’s death. But neither is there any confidence that the authorities can be trusted to provide one – anxious as they quickly appeared to be to do so, as people took to the streets in rage around Tehran and at her funeral in Saqqez, where protestors were dispersed with teargas and force, something that’s happened in the past. The country is the familiar aftermath to the many episodes that have claimed the lives of hundreds of Iranians in the last few decades, including innocent civilians, journalists, and political activists whose deaths or disappearances remain unresolved with nearly no accountability by those in power.
In Amini’s case, some witnesses suggest she suffered a heart-attack in detention. Others – familiar with the violent manhandling common among the morality police–cite the possibility of impact or use of force in the van. Her family denies the government contention that Amini suffered from “pre-existing conditions” that prompted a stroke. In a now-deleted Instagram post published by Kasra hospital, she was declared brain-dead upon arrival.
But the details of her death are perhaps secondary to another point: Another irrevocable loss serves as yet another example of the Iranian regime’s perpetual disregard for the safety, security, and well-being of its citizens—especially its youth.
Over and over, the Islamic Republic’s obscured investigations, convoluted narratives, and relentless denials of wrong-doing have erased every ounce of trust left among 83 million citizens who live life in an ever-present state of moral disillusionment, religious apathy and financial despair. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has directed the Minister of Interior to oversee a thorough investigation into Amini’s death. But it was Raisi‘s government that ordered heightened vigilance by the morality police over the past few months.
Anyone who has had any encounter with this force knows the trembling one feels by the sight of a so-called “Fati (short for Fatimah) Commandos” — a colloquial post-revolution term used by generations of Iranians to refer to the female officers of this sordid establishment. Their long black veil, crude nature, and insolent tone reflect the dramatic gap between millions of ordinary Iranian citizens and an enduring minority that’s clutching to power by any means and measures at hand.
I will never forget the un-matched terror I once felt in my only confrontation with them as a teen. Wearing some light lip gloss and blush, and covered in a bright shawl and a long black manteau, I was walking with a girlfriend in an outdoor sports complex in Tehran. My 16-year-old boyfriend was walking behind us out of fear of potential arrest. In the blink of an eye, two female officers blocked our way to ask us about our relationship. In a sudden rush of anxiety, I denied knowing the boy; he did the same. They let go of my girlfriend and I but asked him to stay behind. In an attempt to find a way out, he used his tennis gear as an alibi, explaining that he had just left a tennis game and was on his way home.
Many details of that afternoon are a blur. But nearly 20 years later the cold sweat against my shivering body, my girlfriend’s colorless face, and the boy’s anxious voice remain, an ever-present trauma.
Far from building pillars of virtue and morality, the “morality police” has over the span of decades done nothing but to harbor hatred, propagate deceit and rouse wide-spread resentment toward Islam. In late August, the government announced its plans to implement monetary fines to those breaking “hijab rules” in public — a move that further underscored the duplicity of the system and its never-ending ploys to make money in the name of religion and virtue.
The world needs to understand that there are millions of women in Iran who wholeheartedly believe in the virtue of their hijabs, but detest its mandatory enforcement by the violent and archaic policies of the regime. Equally, there are millions of Iranian women who would lose their scarves in a heartbeat. But more long for freedom of choice.
The continuing outcry in Iran (including weekend protests in Tehran and ongoing unrest in Amini’s hometown) is about more than grief, or how loosely one wears a scarf. The rage of the people reflects a deeply rooted fatigue and anger toward a system that’s embedded in hypocrisy, corruption, and medieval practices toward its citizens.
Just days before Amini’s death, reports emerged that the son of Iran’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs has set up a company to sell virtual private networks (VPN) in Canada. VPNs have long been used by millions of Iranians to bypass online filters and the regime’s stringent, and indeed increasing efforts to control the internet, accusations that of course the government has denied.
The internet, of course, provides at least a virtual “escape” for the millions of Iranian youth deprived of most basic opportunities by brazen domestic corruption, mismanagement, embezzlement, nepotism, and international sanctions. Yet the offspring of hundreds of current and former government officials and insiders have physically left the country, and are comfortablyliving and at times gallivanting abroad in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Forty years of force-feeding mandatory religious beliefs into the lives of people has produced a society that in some ways has gone haywire, grappling with a catastrophic prevalence of prostitution, sex-trafficking, drug and alcohol-use, gambling, and corruption. Today, in a country where its moral police uproot people’s lives on a daily basis, you freely see pimps and prostitutes roam around in restaurants and streets across the country.
This is not just about headscarves. Efforts to provoke change from the comfort of the West by encouraging Iranian women and girls to remove their headscarves has proven futile, and often brought harsher crackdowns by an already intolerant regime.
However, an effective way to undermine this oppressive apparatus is to find ways to pursue policies that help differentiate between the country’s ordinary citizens and the governing establishment, and to bolster cultural and commercial engagements with its vibrant youth — the country’s most potent asset — and to help them find ways to connect with the rest of the world in order to grow, to thrive, and to build the civil and political tools they need to one day soon break away.