Mahsa Amini and the Iran Protests: What to Know

Unpacking the unrest in Iran.

People hold up a photo of Iranian woman Mahsa Amini as they participate in a protest against Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi outside of the United Nations on September 21, 2022 in New York City. Protests have broke out over the death of 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody for allegedly violating the country's hijab rules. Amini's death has sparked protests across Iran and other countries.
(Image credit: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

On September 16, Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini passed away after spending three days in a coma. According to medical reports, the 22-year-old's coma was induced by severe trauma to the head, which she suffered after being detained in police custody in Iran's northwestern city of Saqez. She had been arrested for allegedly failing to follow Iran's strict laws requiring that women wear hijabs and remain fully covered in loose clothing―the punishments for which include detainment, prison time, fines, and flogging.

While the morality police that arrested Amini claim that she collapsed at the police station due to a heart attack, her family maintains that she had no preexisting health conditions that would have caused one. Furthermore, eyewitnesses and a top Iranian medical official wholly reject these claims, explaining that Amini's fatal injuries were caused by internal bleeding consistent with trauma from a severe beating.

After Amini's death, protesters gathered outside the hospital where she'd been; these protests have since spread to 50 cities around Iran and all over the world. Largely led by women but supported by people of all genders, these protests have, notably, featured Iranian women publicly burning their hijabs and cutting their hair in solidarity with Amini. The movement is the most significant internal threat to Iran's strict regime in decades, and we have yet to see whether this widespread condemnation of government policy will have a lasting impact on women's rights in Iran. 

In the meantime, the Iranian government claims that 17 people have been killed over the course of the protests, while the Center of Human Rights in Iran, which is based in New York, puts that figure at 36. Iranian police and militia have responded to protests not only by shooting directly at protesters but with internet shutdowns in order to limit the extent to which protesters can communicate with one another and with the outside world.

Iranian Law

In 1979, Iran underwent what's known as the Islamic Revolution. This popular uprising overthrew Iran's CIA- and MI6-backed Pahlavi regime, which favored Western economic and sociopolitical interests. The Revolution, while invested in nationalizing Iranian oil production and other economic ventures, also honed in on mixing church and state through an imposition of laws against "anti-Islamic" behaviors such as drinking and women showing their hair. This strict interpretation of the Quran and Shari'ah law is just that―an interpretation―and is not universally agreed upon within the Muslim community in or outside of Iran.

Iran's strict laws put women, in particular, at risk. Iranian girls can be "temporarily married" to men against their will when they're as young as 13, cannot travel without the permission of a husband or father, and violence against women carries a lesser punishment in Iran than violence against men. Whereas many female supporters of the Islamic Revolution once welcomed the pro-nationalist changes to Iranian law, believing that they would enhance gender equality in Iran rather than destroy it, they have since been led to question the religious, social, and cultural justification for laws (most of which were conceived by a single man: Ayatollah Khomeini) that so severely curb their freedoms and diminish their quality of life.

People hold signs and chant slogans during a protest over the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini outside the Iranian Consulate on September 21, 2022 in Istanbul,Turkey. Mahsa Amini fell into a coma and died after being arrested in Tehran by the morality police, for allegedly violating the countries hijab rules. Amini's death has sparked days of violent protests across Iran, which has so far seen more the five people killed.

(Image credit: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

How to Support Iranian Women

When a conflict is happening on the other side of the world, in a country you may not have visited or may not know much about, it's easy to feel disconnected. It's also easy to feel like it's not possible to help the Iranians fighting for equality and human rights. However, there are a number of ways you can support Iranian women from the comfort of your home country―whether through protest, education, or monetary assistance.

Educate Yourself about Iran

A great deal of Western feminist thought about women in the Middle East has been condescending, white savior-like, and Orientalist. While many women in the Middle East―and, indeed, all over the world―are suffering at the hands of their governments, to apply Western frameworks and preconceived notions about Islam and the East to the issue does Iranian women a disservice. In order to better understand the wants and needs of Iranian women, along with the cultural context in which this human rights issue exists, check out some of the books below.

Support Iranian Feminist Creatives

One of the most stifling aspects of life in Iran―particularly for women―is how limited they are in their ability to speak about the issues that matter to them. Therefore, when Iranian creatives are able to speak up, it's of the utmost importance to listen.

If you're into visual art, check out the work of Parastou Forouhar, an Iranian-born artist now based in Germany. Her work draws attention to state-sponsored war crimes committed against civilians and takes particular aim at the Iranian government. You can also check out Marjane Satrapi, a graphic novelist whose most popular work, Persepolis (listed above), details her childhood in Iran, coming of age during the Islamic Revolution, and eventual departure to Western Europe. It's a deeply impactful, shockingly relatable book, and was also made into an excellent film.

If film is, indeed, your cup of tea, you can also check out Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari's 2009 film Women Without Men, which is based on Shahrnush Parsipur's knockout novel and delves into women's perspectives of the Islamic Revolution and the years that immediately followed it. Iranian-British Ana Lily Amirpour's 2014 film A Girl Walks Home At Night, meanwhile, is one of my all-time favorite films: a feminist vampire horror-movie-meets-love-story with a killer soundtrack.

Finally, for the documentary lovers out there, take a look at Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's 2011 This Is Not a Film. While it doesn't specifically center around feminism, it's an intimate critique of the Iranian government that Panahi cleverly thought up after authorities forbade him from making any more films. 

Donate to Iranian Human Rights Organizations

While it's challenging for Americans to get in touch with Iranians and the Iranian government is not allowing significant non-government intervention to mitigate injuries among protesters, it's still possible to help. 

First and foremost, consider donating to United 4 Iran, an organization that has long worked year-round to support human rights as well as access to safe food and drinking water in Iran. At the moment, their efforts are also focused on providing Iranians with mobile applications and VPN networks through which they can communicate in spite of state-ordered government shutdowns.

You can also support the NCRI Women's Committee of Iran, which is an international organization committed to advocating for women's rights in Iran, promoting free speech, and spreading international awareness of human rights violations in Iran.

Finally, you can also donate to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, which releases in-depth statistics, analyses, fact sheets, and detailed reports about the state of human rights in Iran. They also spread awareness about the situation in Iran through media outreach and international advocacy, and they support Iranian creatives.

Raise Awareness on Social Media

Political activism should always extend beyond social media and your values should be part of your everyday life rather than remaining relegated to an Instagram post. However, social media is also a powerful tool through which many people get their news, form opinions, and spread awareness and support. Use social media to support to Iranian women by talking about what happened to Mahsa Amini, plugging Iranian writers and creatives, and sharing links to human rights organizations helping Iran. Just be sure that, when you post, you refrain from Orientalist and/or anti-Islamic language (i.e., describing people or entire countries as "backward," "Old World," etc.).

Gabrielle Ulubay
E-Commerce Writer

Gabrielle Ulubay is an E-Commerce Writer at Marie Claire and writes about all things fashion and beauty. She's also written about politics, gender, and sex for publications like Bustle, HuffPost Personal, and The New York Times. As a film school graduate, she loves all things media and can be found making art when she's not busy writing.