Beyond the Bubble: Whitman community responds to protests in Iran

Paul Florence, News Reporter

On Sept. 16, 2022, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was visiting Tehran when she was arrested by the morality police for not wearing her hijab correctly. She died while in custody. While the circumstances remain ambiguous, her family rejects the government’s statement that she died of a heart attack and stroke from previous health conditions. Instead, they point to head trauma as proof that she was beaten by the Basij, Iran’s morality police. 

These events have led to nationwide protests throughout Iran that are not about the fundamental tenets of Islam, but they are about Iran’s mandatory hijab laws. The protests support Iranian women’s choice to wear a hijab or not. 

Prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, it was illegal for women to wear a hijab for religious reasons.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Francesca Chubb-Confer, who is studying the intersection between Islam and politics, spoke about how these protests are often cast as protests against Islam instead of the enforcement of certain Islamic practices by the Iranian government.

“Iran was supposed to be a secularizing country; the thought was that it was supposed to be a western-style country, so the Shah banned wearing the hijab,” Chubb-Confer said. “When the Islamic Revolution happened in 1979 and the [Shah] Ayatollah Khomeini comes to power, the hijab is mandated and in both cases becomes a symbol of state power.”

Chubb-Confer views the protests as evidence of greater dissent beyond the enforcement of the hijab.

“The images we have all seen of women burning their hijabs in the streets, I think, is primarily a response to the hijab having been co-opted as a symbol of the repressive state power of Iran,” Chubb-Confer said. “It’s not so much that the women are protesting Islam as such, it’s that they’re protesting the actual state apparatus that’s denying them rights across the board.”

According to Chubb-Confer, there is no one particular interpretation of Islamic tradition or the Quran that supports one way of wearing the hijab or of the role of women in society.

“There’s no real consensus on Islamic law. It’s very diverse; it’s very wide-ranging,” Chubb-Confer said. “There isn’t one sort of body of text that says women must cover their hair. Some Muslims don’t wear hijab, right? Some Muslims do and the spectrum ranges from no covering being necessary to covering one’s entire body. It also goes to the other end, where no covering is necessary.”

Parsa Keshavarz Alamdari, a sophomore from Iran, has struggled to communicate with his family under Iran’s internet restrictions.

“It’s been tough contacting my family because all the internet is shut [down],” Keshavarz Alamdari said. “I was trying to call my parents, [and] the call would be very slow. It would take 20 seconds from when I speak to when I hear a response from them. The call would end in probably two minutes to three minutes, and when I would call them on cell, I can’t discuss everything freely because of the worry of espionage. It’s been really hard to stay in touch with my family.”

Angela Eliacy, a sophomore from Afghanistan, is proud of the women protesting the regime across Iran, but she has noticed disproportionate media coverage between Iran and Afghanistan. 

“No one will raise as much voice for events in Afghanistan as they do for those in Iran … we should care about human rights in every nation, not just in Iran,” Eliacy said. 

Chubb-Confer believes that the protests may be the breaking point for change in Iran.

“The conditions in Iran are like a tinderbox, like economic sanctions and a consistent history of disenfranchisement,” Chubb-Confer said. “Not only, but especially with women and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iran, it seems like this is something that has pushed folks past the tipping point to the extent where the protests are a real danger for the Iranian regime.”