The killing of Mahsa

Yassamine Mather says the imposition of the ‘full hijab’ by the Gasht-e Ershad morality police is a class issue. Richer Iranian women, the well-connected, have little to fear

On September 13, Mahsa (Jina) Amini - a 22-year-old woman from Kurdistan province, who was visiting Tehran with her family - was arrested at a central metro station. Mahsa probably thought she would be okay wearing her headscarf slightly looser around her neck and head, now that she was in the capital. However, she was arrested by the infamous morality police for ‘bad hijab’.

The morality police (Gasht-e Ershad) drive through most of south and central Tehran, and poorer districts in other Iranian cities, seeking to monitor and impose correct adherence to a ‘full hijab’ on working class and lower middle class women. Richer Iranians and those related to powerful clerics or government officials have little to fear. First of all, the ‘morality police’ rarely go to areas where they live, such as north Tehran or well-to-do suburbs of other major Iranian cities. Secondly, if by coincidence a woman from the upper echelons of society is arrested, a short phone call from one of her relatives will ensure her speedy release. Like everything else in Iran, the issue of the hijab is a class issue - the main victims being from the poorer sections of society. Indeed there are many instances where daughters or wives of senior clerics, ministers, etc are photographed (or photograph themselves) wearing no headscarf and dressed in quite revealing clothes. These appear on some of the many Instagram/Facebook/Twitter accounts of ‘rich-kid Iranians’.

In Mahsa Amini’s case, two days after her arrest Tehran police issued a statement claiming that, while in custody, she had “suddenly suffered from a heart problem” and was “immediately taken to hospital”. Soon afterwards photos appeared on social media showing her unconscious on a hospital trolley with tubes and monitoring equipment connected to her body. Her family were adamant that official reports suggesting Mahsa suffered from epilepsy or that she had historic heart problems were just lies. On September 16 it was announced that she had died in hospital.

This was followed by the usual denials of police brutality. Tehran police claimed that “there had been no physical contact between the officers who made the arrest and Mahsa Amini” (although it seems that the arresting officers’ webcams were not working). Her injuries, including blood coming out of one ear, seem to suggest she had been beaten between the arrest and her arrival at the hospital. In fact lawyer Saeed Dehghan said Mahsa had received fractures to her skull and that in reality her death was “murder”. More significantly, officials at Kasra Hospital in Tehran, where Mahsa was taken for intensive care, issued a statement that “Upon admission at the centre the patient was already brain-dead”. In fact, while the security forces claimed they had taken her to the hospital, staff there said passers-by had found her on the pavement nearby.

One of the most bizarre events was the broadcast of a CCTV film, taken at what was described as a “hijab class”. The clip shows Mahsa sitting with a number of other women prisoners receiving “guidance”. The film clip shows her wearing a full ‘manto’ (full-length coat) and a headscarf, later she is seen collapsing to the ground and passing out soon after attempting to negotiate her release with a female ‘guidance officer’. The speculation is that she was beaten up in the police van that transported her to the detention centre and that the head injury she received led to her collapse. This is based on the photo showing her swollen face, with blood streaming from her ears. It should be noted that many of the members and officers of Gasht-e Ershad are women and, of course, they can be just as vicious and aggressive as their male counterparts (in some cases worse).

In contemporary Iran the internet dominates daily life and it was no surprise that within hours of the state TV broadcasting the police statement, the presenter who had read it used his Instagram account to write: “I do believe that we journalists will be punished in the afterlife, not for what we have said - rather for what we have not.”

Immediately after the news of her death, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the hospital in Tehran and since then protestors have taken to the streets in Tehran and in Kurdish cities, with slogans such as “Death to the dictator!” and “Killed for a hijab - how much more humiliation?” In Tehran’s university campuses the majority of women demonstrators took off their hijabs and held them up as part of the protest.

There are reports of such demonstrations in every major town as well as Tehran and there have been calls for a general strike in Kurdish cities. In fact, thanks to the action on September 19, there is footage in several towns showing empty streets, with shops and businesses closed. In many of the protests women of all ages are seen removing and actually burning their headscarves. Some women have even shaved off their hair in public as part of the protests. If the government’s new ‘hijab policy’ was meant to improve adherence to the rules insisting that the veil be worn in public at all times, it has obviously backfired badly. However, as in previous protests, the police and army/Revolutionary Guards have opened fire on demonstrators and a number have been killed, with hundreds injured.

Most factions of the Islamic state have tried to distance themselves from the attacks, but thousands of Iranian women have shared a speech by supreme leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which he implies that punishing those who do not adhere to the regulations regarding the wearing of a full hijab is justified. Others shared a video of Khamenei expressing his horror at the killing George Floyd by the Minneapolis police.

By September 18 Iran’s conservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, was announcing the setting up of a special investigation into the case of Mahsa Amini. It was also reported that Raisi had called the victim’s family to “express sympathy and to wish them patience for their suffering”. According to state media, he told the family that he “considers all Iranian girls as his own children ... Your daughter is like my own daughter, and I feel that this incident happened to one of my loved ones. Please accept my condolences.”

In fact here lies the problem. Of course, Ibrahim Raisi - now making his first trip as Iran’s president to the New York for a meeting of the United Nations general assembly - is keen to appear ‘concerned’. After all, the death of Mahsa has already led to comments by US secretary of state Antony Blinken. He wrote:

Mahsa Amini should be alive today ... instead, the United States and the Iranian people mourn her. We call on the Iranian government to end its systemic persecution of women and to allow peaceful protest.

Raisi’s visit to the UN was already facing protests from Iran regime-change campaigners, as well as sections of the soft left, plus conservative Republicans opposed to Joe Biden’s attempts to restore the Iran nuclear deal. No doubt the death of a young woman on the eve of his visit will make the situation worse.

According to the regime’s own statistics, 60% of Iranian women do not fully adhere to the rules on the Islamic hijab, prompting a call even from supporters of conservative factions of the regime to decriminalise some aspects of these laws to help reduce tension. Article 638 of the Islamic Republic’s penal code states that a woman who appears in public without a hijab is committing a crime. However, it is not clear whether an arrest requires a court warrant or whether the police (in particular the ‘morality police’) may carry out such an arrest under this code.

It would be a mistake to end this short article without referring to claims by Saudi International TV that it has had access to scanned photos of Mahsa’s head. Just in case you have forgotten, this is the same country that could not find a trace of Jamal Khashoggi’s blood in their Istanbul consulate after he was butchered by MBS’s thugs!

As far as I know, the so-called scanned photos might be fakes, but, if they are genuine, it is very doubtful that the Saudis have either the equipment or the knowledge to hack into Kasra hospital’s brain scan images. But, if the photos are genuine, it gives credence to Israeli journalist Barak Avid’s twitter claims that Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, is using Saudi International as part of its information war against Iran.