‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ – Iran faces a crisis with freedom of religion or belief and gender equality at its core

Iran is enduring its most turbulent period since the 2019-2020 pro-democracy protests, with gender equality and a lack of freedom of religion or belief at its very core. 

Since September 2022 distressing news reports have been emerging of violence meted out on Iranian citizens protesting for change – the arbitrary application of the death penalty, extrajudicial killings (including of minors),  maiming, excessive sentencing, and the suspicious deaths of several protestors after being released from detention, to highlight a few.

In the face of these violations an initially slow and largely reactive international response accelerated, and a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in November 2022 which established an independent, international fact-finding mission to investigate alleged human rights violations related to the protests, was followed by Iran’s expulsion from the UN Commission on the Status of Women in December 2022. Then in January 2023 the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union announced sanctions on 10 additional Iranian individuals and one additional Iranian entity.

A repressive state

Since overthrowing the monarchy in 1979, Iran’s theocratic regime has attempted to impose a homogenous identity based on a strict interpretation of the Shi’a school of Islam. Those espousing a different interpretation of Islam or following another religion or belief are viewed with suspicion and treated as a threat, or even an enemy, of the system.

Iran is party to several international treaties that provide for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it has both signed and ratified. Although its own constitution recognises Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, Christians are only permitted to worship in a few government-sanctioned churches, where they are monitored and even harassed by the intelligence services. This has forced many to meet in homes. However, these ‘house churches,’ are the focus of a sustained campaign of raids and arrests, prompted primarily by a growth in converts to Christianity. 

Meeting together in homes to pray, read religious materials or even merely to socialise entails the risk of harassment, arrest, harsh interrogation – including intense pressure to renounce one’s faith, and lengthy imprisonment on unjust charges.

Anahita Khademi, who was summoned to the intelligence offices in Bandar Anzaliia in early January for questioning, arrested, transferred to Lakan Prison in Rasht a week after the rearrest of her husband Pastor Matthias Haghnejad, and released three weeks later on bail, is one of several women to experience unjust detention in a country where the freedoms of thought, conscience, and religion or belief are severely restricted, alongside every other human right, and in contravention of the country’s constitutional and international obligations. 

Other minority faiths also experience repression, including the Baha’i and Sufi Dervish communities. Baha’is in particular are considered apostates and heretics, are denied legal status and have been targeted severely and very specifically since 1979.

Nationwide unrest

2022 saw adults, youth and minors of all ethnicities, religions and beliefs join in sustained, nationwide calls for gender equality and freedom which many are hoping will mark a turning point, following the death of Zhina ‘Mahsa’ Amini, a 22 year-old from Iran’s Kurdish ethnic minority community, most of whom belong to the Sunni school of Islam and are also religious minorities. 

On 13 September 2022 Ms Amini was arrested by members of the morality police during a visit to the capital, Tehran, for wearing her hijab ‘incorrectly.’ She died three days after suffering mistreatment while in custody, sparking nationwide protests and global solidarity.

The ease with which violence was visited upon her, cannot be separated from who she was: a young, female ethnic and religious minority with no ties to the ruling classes. That is why she has proved such a totem for all of the Iranian regime’s many dissidents to rally around, why even ethnic Persian protesters have begun to call her “Zhina” in the streets’ – her Kurdish name, which means ‘Life’, and which she could not legally register because non-Persian and non-Islamic names are rejected by the relevant authorities.

The protests are about more than a single extremely grave injustice. They represent the latest eruption of general discontent with 44 years of repressive clerical rule characterised by a comprehensive human rights crisis in which restrictive religious dogma dictates the daily lives of ordinary citizens, who also bear the brunt of economic privations from which the well-connected are insulated, with religious and ethnic minorities experiencing additional hardship.

At their heart are the rights of women and girls, undoubtedly the most marginalised sector of society. ‘The laws introduced after the revolution basically established institutionalized discrimination… their life is valued at half of that of a man, their testimony is valued half of that of a man, and they have lost the right to divorce, the right to the custody of their children.’ Women are denied many of the rights enjoyed by men, from travelling abroad without prior permission from a spouse or father, to dressing restrictions, with those from minority backgrounds experiencing additional inequities on account of their creed and/or ethnicity.

One cannot fail to be moved by the courage of women and girls, some not even out of school, which has been witnessed across the country in recent months. Videos have emerged of young women dancing during protests, tearing down posters of key regime leaders, and waving or even burning their hijabs, transforming a religious symbol which has been weaponised for repressive purposes by officials into a symbol of resistance.

Others extended their protest to social media, with many releasing footage of themselves cutting their hair as an act of rebellion, and across the world, many women and girls filmed themselves doing the same thing in an act of solidarity.

However, they have not been exempted from the regime’s brutal response.

Sarina Esmailzadeh, a 16-year-old YouTuber, lost her life at the hands of the authorities in September 2022. Sarina, who used her platform to speak on women’s rights, including her rejection of the mandatory hijab, died after being struck on the head during a protest near her school in Karaj. While the Iranian authorities claimed that she took her own life by jumping from a five-storey building, her family insists that she was beaten to death.

In a sinister recent development, the Iranian authorities are investigating a chemical poisoning campaign launched against schoolgirls, seemingly in ‘revenge’ for the role of young women in the protests which has affected over 40 schools in 20 towns and cities, and claimed the life of 11-year-old Fatemeh Rezaie from Qom.

The security forces – namely the Republican Guard – have also unleashed physical and sexual violence on female protestors in an effort to intimidate them into ending their protest.  Women and girls have been detained in significant numbers, amid increasing reports of  brutal beatings, sexual harassment, sexual assaults, threats of rape and rape, including of men.

Additionally, hundreds of protestors, both male and female, have been blinded by security forces who deliberately fired birdshot in their faces. Among them is Ghazal Ranjkesh, a law student from Bander Abbas, who stated on Instagram: ‘the last thing my right eye recorded was the smiling face of the man who shot me.’ Then, displaying the defiance that has become the hallmark of Iranian women and girls, who continue to protest despite the violence and intimidation, she added: ‘The shooter didn’t know I’m bullet proof.’

Estimates so far are that at least 529 protesters have been killed and 19,700 detained. The regime has also sentenced protesters to death. Already six men have been executed, and over 100 others – including women – are at risk of execution, or of receiving death sentences on dubious criminal grounds, or vague religious charges such as ‘Moharebeh’ (Warring against God). Far from stopping the demonstrations, the executions appear to have galvanised them, with 40 day commemoration protests breaking out overnight in several major cities, including Tehran, Arak, Isfahan, Izeh and Karaj, following the last judicial murders.

‘They having nothing left to lose’

CSW spoke recently with a young Christian in exile, who grew up under the current regime, and who described the difficulties of living with such curtailed freedoms as a girl and woman, including the ability to walk on a street alone, the mandatory hijab, the banning of makeup (although restrictions were eased years later). She described how a fellow student was forced to remove the red lipstick she was wearing with a razor blade, causing cuts and bleeding all over her face. She also described the need to ‘always watch your back’, for fear of making the slightest move that could be used by the authorities to justify taking swift punitive, and often brutal, action.

While recognising that protests are an embedded part of Iranian resistance, she explained how it is different this time for young people. This generation of protesters believes they have ‘nothing left to lose’ as they fight for their future, and that if the worst occurs, then ‘dying is better than living’ under such oppression. Despite the overwhelming odds, she retains a sense of optimism, inspired by the persistence and unity of the Iranian people themselves.

The young woman does not know when she will be able to return home, but fervently believes it is only a matter of time before the government collapses, as the people’s resistance will only strengthen as the regime becomes more oppressive. In the meantime, those who, like her, anticipate the end of this repressive era are maintaining cautious optimism that this may indeed be a turning point in the fight for women, for life, and for freedom.

By CSW’s Head of Advocacy Khataza Gondwe