On Sept. 16, 22-year-old Jina “Mahsa” Amini died after being arrested in Iran by the country’s “morality police” — or Gasht-e Ershad.

The “morality police” enforce strict interpretations of sharia law, and Amini was arrested because she allegedly had some hair visible under her headscarf — which it has been compulsory for women to wear since the 1979 revolution.  

After being arrested, Amini was beaten and taken to a detention center in Tehran. Within hours, she was in a coma, with authorities claiming she’d suffered a stroke. 

Across Iran, millions of women have similar stories of harassment, arbitrary arrest, and beatings at the hands of the “morality police”, and Amini’s death has sparked a wave of protests across the country. Women have been removing their headscarves, burning them, and cutting off their hair in acts of incredible bravery and solidarity, amid what has been reported as the largest anti-regime movement in Iran since 2019.

Here, women’s and refugees’ rights activist and Global Citizen Prize winner Anuscheh Amir-Khalili, who left Iran with her family as a child, shares her response to Amini’s death, and how it resonates both with her own past and her current work supporting women and refugees through conflict and human rights violations. 

When I was eight years old, my family and I fled from Iran to Germany.

As a teenager, I remember, I wanted to travel to my home country with some friends. My father did everything he could to prevent this. At that time, I was active in the left-wing scene in Germany, I went to punk concerts, I was political and, above all, I was a feminist. 

These were my privileges because I grew up in Germany instead of in Iran.

I was born in Bandar Abbas, so according to Iranian law, I am Iranian and Muslim. My father's concern was that if I went back to Iran I would be picked up by the “morality police” and taken to the vice squad, because of my hair not being fully covered by my headscarf. 

Global Citizen Prize: Citizen Award Germany winner, Anuscheh Amir-Khalili
Image: Konrad Weinz for Global Citizen

The morality police are the Islamic religious police created to arrest people who don't abide by the dress code. It's a show of force that I had to experience as a child in Iran. As a 7-year-old, I didn’t wear a headscarf and was stopped by the morality police bearing machine guns until I conformed to the dress code.

Oppression as a Daily Reality

These control measures, aimed at humiliating women and girls, have been going on for years, and thousands of women and girls living in Iran are affected. They are taken to prisons or police stations and subjected to barbaric "educational" measures. Whipping is a very popular tool. 

Most young women in Iran know no other reality than oppression and subjugation. Although more than 70% of them study or have a university degree, many of them stay at home because they cannot find work. The lack of prospects adds to the discriminations and humiliations in everyday life, as well as oppression as a whole. They are treated as property by the Islamist patriarchal system with Sharia as the form of law, and are not allowed to lead an independent life.

My Father's Fear

On Sept. 16, 2022, the thing my father always feared would happen to me became a tragic reality. 

Jina “Mahsa” Amini, aged 22, was arrested by the “morality police” for wearing her headscarf "wrong" and beaten to death. It was a state femicide. It is very important to name it as such, because this violation of human rights is unfortunately not a rarity in Iran. Yet women's rights are human rights — even though, unfortunately, this is still not understood anywhere in the world. 

Nevertheless, for years Germany’s female politicians, who otherwise do not wear a hijab, have been wearing headscarves at events organized by the Iranian president. He is a guest of the UN. The president of the country where I grew up is welcomed by the Western world, while at the same time, through my work with refugee women and children, I have to witness how many asylum applications for Iranians are rejected.

The Intersectionality of Oppression 

Women and girls are far from the only ones facing oppression, discrimination, and violence in Iran on a daily basis. These issues also affect vast swathes of the population who are considered minority groups — including people who are Kurdish, and LGBTQ+ communities. 

In 2005, two gay teenagers were publicly executed; right now, two LGBTQ+ activists are in prison waiting to be executed: Zahra Sedighi-Hamedani and Elham Chubdar. They have campaigned for the rights of minorities and now are paying for it with their lives.

There is a great deal of discrimination in Iran against different minority groups: Afghan children are not allowed to attend school in Iran for example, while Kurds live a "second-tier" life. Amini was a Kurd. It is also important to recognize that, and call her by the name Jina, just as her mother did at her funeral. Jina means “life” in Kurdish, while following her death the world has come to know her under her “official” Iranian name, Mahsa. 

Kurds are oppressed by colonial systems in so many parts of the world, as in Iran. They are not allowed to speak their language in public, their names are not accepted.

From the Kurdish Women's Liberation Movement comes the chant "Jin Jiyan Azadî," which means "women, life, and freedom" in English. 

For years, they have been fighting against Daesh, or the Islamic State, and for women's freedom in the Rojava region, a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria. Here, people of different ethnicities and faiths live peacefully together, but there, too, they have been and continue to be abandoned.

Jin Jiyan Azadî: A Worldwide Call

But now it seems that what these champions of women’s rights are sowing is finally bearing fruit. The women can go on the counterattack — and that is what they are doing right now. They are taking to the streets, protesting the systematic oppression of women, and the Islamist system of rule. Women are burning their headscarves, they are cutting off their hair. 

People in other parts of the world are also demonstrating to show their solidarity. Because that is what is important now. The protests must be read as defense, defense must be read as life. That is my hope. These are the fruits of the Kurdish fighters.

Meanwhile, "Jin Jiyan Azadî" is shouted not only in the streets of Iran, but all over the world. 

I love this phrase of three, it means everything. Women. Life. Freedom.

In My Own Words

Demand Equity

‘Jin Jiyan Azadî’: Why It Matters That the World Is Crying Out for Iran's Women, for Life, and for Freedom

By Anuscheh Amir-Khalili