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Death in Iran: How Mahsa Amini's Story Sparked a Feminist Backlash

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RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a transcript of this episode. 

On Sept. 16, 2022, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died.
Three days earlier, she was arrested by Iran’s so-called morality police for not wearing her hijab, a traditional Muslim face covering, in accordance with the regime’s standards. Her death sparked a series of protests in a country deeply divided for several decades.
We discuss Amini's death and the politics of the region with Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, and Reza Mehraeen, a Iranian-born PhD student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

Show Notes

Nader Hashemi

Professor Nader Hashemi is a respected and highly valued scholar, teacher and colleague at the University of Denver. He has made numerous contributions to the University and the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. As the founding director of the Center for Middle East Studies, he has undertaken an expansion of the center’s research agenda and contributes to the public’s understanding of the politics and societies of the Middle East.

His work has been featured by news outlets around the world and he's among the leading experts on politics in the Middle East.

Reza Mehraeen is a Ph.D. student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He's an Iranian student and political activist with a background in public policy and economics.


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On September 16th, 2022, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died. Three days earlier, she was arrested by Iran's so-called morality police for not wearing her hijab, a traditional Muslim face covering, in accordance with the regime’s standards. Police claimed she had a heart attack, collapsed to the floor of a station, cracked her head and fell into a coma. Women detained alongside Amini and other eyewitnesses, however, paint a different picture. They say she was badly beaten and, after her medical records were leaked, independent observers insist she died of severe trauma, cerebral hemorrhage and stroke. Her death and the subsequent findings have led to massive protests across the country already deeply divided since the revolution of 1979 brought about the Islamic Republic of Iran. While Islamic traditionalists with a long and brutal track record of oppressing women work to maintain the status quo, much of its citizenry, with growing international support, has risen up in dissent.


More than 12,000 people have been arrested and state-sponsored media reports 41 people have died, although independent sources place that figure as high as 240. The regime has shut down cell phone signals and throttled internet access in a response similar to the protest in 2019, where citizens took to the streets over a 200% spike in fuel prices. As many as 1500 people died during those protests and left the country even more angry, divided and repressed. It's a particularly troublesome time for women in the country. So much so that the Iranian-American women we reached out to both inside the DU community and beyond were unwilling or unable to discuss this situation, with several citing the current political climate and potential dangers for family members still in Iran. In this podcast, we'll discuss the situation in Iran with Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at DU. But first, we'll chat with someone who has firsthand experience in Iranian protests.

Reza Mehraeen (01:55):

I am Reza Mehraeen, a Ph.D student in international studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. I have a background in public policy and economics, and today I am extremely proud to call myself an Iranian student and political activist. I have been a student and political activist in Iran since 2013, and I can tell you that life for Iranian activists of all sorts is a continuous struggle rife with risks of being arrested, being detained, being expelled from university and fired from your workplace. The least that one could expect as a known activist in Iran is to be denied work related promotion indefinitely, or as a student being denied acceptance into top-ranked grad schools in Iran, if any grad schools at all. This being something that is happening on a daily basis with most of the individuals that are deciding to continue and pursue their educations abroad and in different countries.

Matt Meyer (02:55):

The death of Mahsa Amini sparked what some are calling a feminist revolution in a country that's been under strict Islamic rules since 1979. How long has this reckoning been brewing?

Reza Mehraeen (03:04):

So the first feminist movement in Iran actually happened one month after the 1979 revolution of being the March 8th, 1979, the International Women's Day. Women took to the streets protesting the ongoing hijab discussion, and demanding their basic rights and freedom. The Islamic Republic, of course, at the time, took a step back only to take 10 steps forward later. The protest continued in so many different ways throughout the years that were less apparent to the international community until the millennials and the Gen Zs entered this society, making these protests more obvious and more noticeable. In 2017, one of the most significant protests in post-revolution Iran happened when a video went viral of a 32-year-young Iranian woman who took her hijab off in the middle of the street and put it on a top of a stick. Subsequently, unfortunately, she was arrested and this triggered the next round of the mass protests in the country with people from 105 different cities coming to the streets.


But this time it was much different than the previous times that we had to witness protests in Iran, with the chants and slogans directly targeting the core ideology of the Islamic Republic and the supreme leader himself, calling him out as a dictator and opposing the theocracy that Islamic Republic had in place. From 2017 onwards, the chants were upgraded into demanding fundamental changes in the structure of the regime and essentially a regime change. And, of course, we are here today after much occurrences and after the brutal death of Mahsa in 2022, which people are calling for a revolution, which is the so-called women's revolution of Iran, or the feminist revolution.

Matt Meyer (04:50):

For those living in the United States. The concept of morality police might seem strange. Established in 2005, this religious police force is tasked with arresting those who violate these Islamic dress code. These interactions almost always target women. In 2014, these guidance patrols took 220,000 women to police stations and asked them to sign statements promising to wear their hijabs. 19,000 were given hair covering notices and 9,000 were detained. In the same year, 3.6 million warnings in citations were issued for improper dress. In 2015, more than 40,000 women were stopped while driving in Iran for improper dress. As a result, their cars were impounded. These patrols routinely harass members of the LGBTQ community, with a particular attention paid to trans women. As Mehraeen explains, these patrols target women for numerous reasons.

Reza Mehraeen (05:35):

I, like many Iranians have had talks and confrontations with the morality police on and off in so many different occasions. One thing that I can tell you for sure is that these people are not normal individuals. They are not psychologically stable and there are no clear guidelines as to what they should and should not be doing in the country. In brief, the morality police is a segment of the police forces that is being paid to wander around in streets with vans and motorbikes to harass the people for their clothing, their hairstyle, for walking their pets and et cetera, among many different things. And essentially, their role is to enforce the social ideology of the Islamic Republic in the Iranian society. And one thing that is definitely for sure is that the more good looking you are, unfortunately the higher the risk of you being picked on by the morality police in Iran.

Matt Meyer (06:27):

Like many other places worldwide, the avenues of protests have changed and evolved, especially as younger Iranians have joined the fray through social media platforms and WhatsApp of popular messaging service. News of Mahsa Amini's death and numerous public protests have made their way around the globe. In response, the government has throttled internet access and sent messages of their own.

Reza Mehraeen (06:45):

So, the women and men in Iran are resisting the force of the Islamic Republic and essentially battling oppressive authoritarianism in two different fields: one is online and through different social medias and the second is on the street. When we're talking about the social media, people are trying to share the story, share the news, share the updates, share the actual footage of people recording what's going on in the protest on the front lines, in the streets with theirselves and with the international community in order to share their courageous resilience with each other, to motivate each other, to not back off and to hold the ground and with the international community, to try to gain their support and let them know of what is going on inside Iran and, and the human rights that are being violated inside the country.


And this is definitely paid off during the past couple of weeks as we are witnessing today with many influencers sharing our message globally with their millions of followers through different Instagram posts, Twitter posts. And it's been gaining traction, which is something that we are very proud of and we definitely appreciate. And obviously on the streets. So about the streets, I have had the chance to witness and participate in the protests that have been happening in Iran in 2017 and 2019. And one thing that I can tell you for sure is that these protests are fundamentally different from what I actually saw in 2017 and 2019. The people, similar to the previous protests, are empty-handed and the government in some occasions, it has been witnessed that they have come to the streets with military equipment and military ammunitions. They have been targeting people directly. As of right now, the amount of people that have been dead is in the three digits, close to 200 people.


One thing that is extraordinary in these protests compared to the past protests that we have witnessed is the unity among the people. So say if, if people are protesting in the streets and the people and the protestors have been cornered in a residential area, we do witness that men and women, the owners of the residential properties are opening their homes to these protestors, taking them in, so that they would not be arrested by the police. Which is something that is extraordinary and is something that we haven't witnessed during the past decades and in the past protests, showing the unity of the people Iran against Islamic Republic. And as for the response of the Islamic Republic to these uprisings and mass protests. Well, the Islamic Republic, per usual is calling to protestors out and labeling them as either foreign individuals or Iranians who have been bought or misled by foreigners, which is the page of their playbook in response to all protests.


And quite frankly, there are a small group of supporters who are also having a very difficult time believing this narrative this time around. Many of the supporters of the regime of people and celebrities there are speaking out against the regimes crackedown on the protestors on their social media. We actually take a close look to what the Islamic Republic is saying about the people being bought and the people being misled by foreign governments after four decades of them ruling  in the country and implementing this forced theocracy. We will only notice one thing, and that's the lack of sufficient governance by Islamic Republic, that with which they have failed so much and they have messed up so much that the protestors are currently on the streets, that as they would call them foreign protestors.

Matt Meyer (10:25):

For a broader look at the political powers at play, we bring in Nader Hashemi, the director for the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. He's a respected and highly valued scholar, teacher and colleague at the University, and has made numerous contributions to the University of Denver and the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. As the founding director of the Center for Middle East Studies, he has undertaken an expansion of the center's research agenda and contributes to the public's understanding of politics and societies of the Middle East. A large portion of this discussion centers around his latest essay on the website of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy, the rule of law and human rights for all the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. The essay is titled, “The Talibanization of Iran has Sparked a Revolutionary Feminist Backlash.” A link to his work is available in the show notes.

Nader Hashemi (11:09):

The current powers at political play in Iran are first and foremost, the regime itself, you know, in power for over 40 years, deeply authoritarian, deeply repressive one of the worst human rights violators in the region, if not globally. And then of course, there's the citizens that are protesting right now in Iran. They have no known leadership. They have no international backing except the force of global public opinion that is sympathetic to the protests and sympathetic to the aspirations of the protesters, particularly the women who are demanding, you know, freedom, democracy, human rights. And those are the two groups that are in, in contestation right now for the future of Iran.

Matt Meyer (11:55):

The religious fundamentalism at play in Iran is not divorced from other authoritarian regimes around the world. Hashemi says the morality police central to the current protests are only one tool used by the government to target women.

Nader Hashemi (12:06):

So the Islamic Republic of Iran is a deeply ideological regime. It justifies itself based on a particular politicized and conservative interpretation of Islam. And because it's an ideological regime, like other ideological authoritarian systems, the regime in the state apparatus believes that they have a moral obligation to uphold a particular standard of conduct in society. And so they've trusted these security forces to observe citizens behavior, which is, let's be clear, it's overwhelmingly women's behavior. Men's behavior doesn't really factor into monitoring and control, and they seek to punish, arrest, lecture and educate — and educate in quotes here, because one of the things that happens often if you're arrested by the morality police, you're instructed on why you're arrested. And often for women it's because they haven't been wearing the veil or the hijab properly. And then they are sometimes subjected to mandatory educational classes that are not that different from what we would see in other authoritarian regimes.


I mean, we're reminded of the parallel of the former Soviet Union or the Communist Party in China right now, if you sort of dissent from the official narrative, you will be reeducated in the mindset of the ruling regime's ideology. So this is fundamentally what these morality police and their job has been about. They ‘ve been in existence for roughly the length of the post-revolutionary regime, roughly 40 years. And their enforcement of public morality, you know, has ebbed and flowed over time, often overlapping with which government is in power in Iran. Reformist governments have asked the morality police to be less intrusive in implementing the existing state laws with respect to public morality. But hardline regimes like the one that is in power right now in terms of the presidency and the parliament are very opinionated on this issue and have increased the level of citizens’ surveillance and crackdown, which directly has led to these protests.


If you're following internally Iranian politics, there was an election — and I say election in quotes because it was a rigged election — but the former reformist president left office and a hardline president, actually quite a notorious figure who has a lot of blood on his hands; he's a certifiable war criminal — came into office last summer pledging to uphold public morality in particularly the way that women are dressing. So it's as a direct result of that stricter enforcement that led to the arrest of this 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, who was then killed in police custody that sparked these protests. So that's broadly what the context is.

Matt Meyer (15:07):

You touched on this a little bit, but in Democracy for the Arab World Now, you pen an essay highlighting what sociologist Azadeh Kian calls the Talibanization of political power under President Ebrahim Raisi and how that has sparked a feminist backlash. You mentioned that controlling women's bodies is a pillar of the Islamic Republic since its inception. How long has a reckoning on this been brewing?

Nader Hashemi (15:25):

It's been brewing for a long time and it's a direct result of policies in place, roughly for the last, at least five years, if not longer, that led to an uptick in the attempt to regulate women's lives to strictly limit their public presence in society. So, one of the examples that I cite in the essay is the Isfahan National Orchestra. Isfahan is one of the biggest cities in Iran. They have an orchestra. And a few years ago, all of a sudden, this mixed orchestra of men and women were not allowed to perform together because local authorities said that women can no longer perform in public. And this was somewhat of a shock because this was never a problem before. And so it became a problem a few years ago as a direct result of your Iranian hardliners trying to control society by upholding this particular aspect of their political ideology, the presence of women in public, how they should perform, and what they can do and can't do. And so one of the obsessions that Iranian hardliners have with respect, with respect to the public presence of women, is preventing them from performing musically, singing or dancing. They view those things from their ideologically hawkish perspective as sexually provocative and undermining public morality. And so there has been an attempt to, you know, crack down on those types of public displays of women in public spaces. But of course, women have been fighting back. And we can see that right now in the streets of Tehran.

Matt Meyer (16:55):

A handful of public incidences beyond the death of Mahsa Amini has sparked discourse, both political and public. The general consensus at the peak of Iranian government, however, remains the same.

Nader Hashemi (17:04):

Yeah, well, now there's interestingly, there has been a public debate in Iran among conservative hardliners over this particular attempt to regulate women's lives. There has been some actually dissenting voices who are saying, “look, this is just making things worse. It's leading to irreligiosity, people leaving religion. It's leading to societal backlash.” And so there has been this attempt to try and make sense of where this policy is leading and, and, and its effects on political stability. But the people in power in Iran, starting from the office of the supreme leader, who is the most powerful figure in the Iranian political system and all of the different institutions of the state, they're very much committed to this form of regulation of women's bodies and presence in public space. There's actually an incident that happened about 10 days ago here in the United States when the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi came to the United Nations for the annual meeting of the heads of state, and he was supposed to give an interview.


He had a scheduled interview with the veteran journalist who's actually Iranian-American, very famous on CNN and now PBS, Christiane Amanpour, and they were supposed to have an interview. But at the last moment, the Iranian delegation informs Christiane Amanpour that the interview can't take place unless Christiane Amanpour wears a veil. Christiane Amanpour, to her credit, says, “absolutely not, I'm not gonna do that.” She said, “In the past, I've interviewed Iranian officials here in the United States. That's never been a demand.” But this tells you something that not only do these conservative hardliners want to regulate how women are going to appear in public in Iran, they want to do so in the United States as well to the extent that they have influence. So it's a deep part of the identity of these conservative hardliners. And the reason why they're so obsessed with this is because, you know, political Islamist identity formation, both in Iran and across the Islamic world, is constructed and shaped in relationship to the west.


The west is the big adversary. So the perception from the part of these Islamic, or I should say Islamist political activists, is that because the west is the historic rival, colonial and imperial entity that has imposed themselves on the Islamic world. And because of that, these political Islamists define their identity in relationship to the west, and they view the west and western women as being dressing quite loosely, dressing quite provocatively. They then construct an identity for the ideal Islamist or Muslim citizen as the direct opposite or in rejection of what they perceive to be the west doing. So if western women are perceived to be addressing loosely and provocatively, our women will dress conservatively. And this is almost for them, a non-negotiable aspect of their political identity, which is why they're so resistant to compromising on this issue. Because if they compromise, then it raises the question more “then what really do they stand for?” What is their, what is their? What values do they claim to uphold? So that's the dynamic that explains the rigidity of the belief on this particular issue with respect to the role of women in public places.

Matt Meyer (20:06):

Both international response to the death of Mahsa Amini and the protests in the streets of Iran are growing, something Hashemi likens to past controversies involving the Islamic government. With enough international pressure, Iran will change policy, even if only for a short while.

Nader Hashemi (20:20):

International outcry matters because it's a source of solidarity and support to the women on the streets in Iran. It also then forces the Islamic Republic to sort of make a calculation in terms of how far do they want to go with this hard-line interpretation of Islam, because now it's starting to affect its international relationships. So I was just reading a moment ago that Iran's very heroic and courageous Nobel Peace prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, who's a human rights lawyer and living in exile, has asked for the international community to pull their ambassadors out of Iran over what's happened over the last few weeks. So that's gonna force the Islamic Republic then to make a calculation. If you follow the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, this is a regime that has survived 43 years and not by accident. And what I mean by that is they know when to compromise in order to preserve the longevity of their political system.


So the one parallel that immediately comes to mind here is what happened roughly 30 years ago when the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the time issued a death threat against the writer Salman Rushdie. It created a huge international crisis and a huge problem for Iran. European ambassadors were pulled out, Iran's relationship with the world, particularly the west, was deeply threatened. And so because of that international reaction, the regime was then forced to make a compromise by effectively pledging to the European Union that while we won't rescind the death sentence, we won't send agents to carry out the death, the death threat. As a reassurance to the west and to Salman Rushdie that, look, we we'll make a compromise in order that our international economic and political relationships won't be threatened. So that's sort of a parallel here. So I suspect if international outcry attention and criticism of Iran, if western countries start to pull their ambassadors out of Iran, if trade relationships start to get affected. This is a regime that fundamentally when it has to make a choice between its ideology and its national interests, will always choose its national interest because it's a regime that wants to continue living it. And they're not interested in, you know, self-suicide.

Matt Meyer (22:26):

The battle for women's rights in Iran has been ongoing for decades, and the memory of Mahsa Amini will play an important role. Hashemi says she'll join a long list of women who have fought and continue fighting against a government, actively stripping them of their rights.

Nader Hashemi (22:38):

Her name will go down in history is synonymous with the struggle for women's rights, for the struggle for democracy. You know, now there's all these photos, artwork, songs that are being produced within the last week remembering her and inspiring, you know, civil society in Iran to continue to resist against this repressive regime. So I think that's how she will be remembered in the future. I mean, and I would just add, and I say this in my essay, that unbeknownst to many people in the west, the struggle for human rights and democracy in Iran has been led by many courageous women. I mentioned a moment ago the, the name Shirin Ebadi, who is a human rights lawyer and won the Nobel Peace Prize for her heroism. But there are many other women, many, many women who are either have spent time in jail, have been forced into exile and who've been active in, you know, the struggle for human rights and democracy in Iran.


So this is very much, I think, a positive development because when you have this type of mobilization from basically one half of your society, it makes it very difficult for a regime to, you know, ignore those demands and, and try to repress effectively half of the population. I mean, one of the interesting things that people don't know about is despite the repressive apparatus of the Islamic Republic, because it was a revolutionary regime after the revolution, it invested heavily in literacy, female literacy, and by the year 2001, 60% of the university students in Iran were women. And so you have a highly educated class of women who are not going to be willing to live as second-class citizens and tell some conservative cleric or listen to some conservative cleric who tells them how they're supposed to dress and not dress. So they're gonna fight back, they're gonna mobilize. There's been many smaller campaigns of women's rights activists mobilizing for their rights. They get crushed, but they come back again. So this is very much part of the, the broader backstory of the struggle for human rights and democracy in Iran, the role that women have played in this, in this struggle.

Matt Meyer (24:40):

Tamara Chapman is our managing editor and James Swearingin mixed our theme music. I'm Matt Meyer, and this has been RadioEd.