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In this episode, we spoke to Dr. Saeed Bagheri, lecturer of International Law at the University of Reading about the women-led protests in Iran, sparked in response to the arrest of Mahsa Amini by the morality police and her subsequent death.

  • Executive Producer: Meghan Campbell
  • Producer: Sophie Smith
  • Editor: Sophie Smith
  • Host: Louise McCormack
  • Music: Rosemary Allmann
  • Show notes: Sarah Dobbie


TRANSCRIPT: Dr Saeed Bagheri: “Woman, Life, Freedom” — Protests in Iran  


Louise McCormack (0:02) You’re listening to RightsUp, a podcast from the Oxford Human Rights Hub. My name is Louise McCormack, and I’m a podcaster here at the Hub. In today’s episode I will be speaking to Dr Saeed Bagheri, Lecturer in International Law at the University of Reading. We will be discussing the women-led protests in Iran. In 2022, Mahsa Amini was arrested by the Iranian “morality police” and died in custody shortly thereafter. Her death sparked women in Iran to rise up and protest against the restrictions on their human rights. While accurate figures are difficult to ascertain, numerous people, including children, have died since the protests began. Many have been imprisoned and hundreds more have been sentenced to death. 


(0:44) Welcome, Saeed, and thank you for joining me today. 


Dr Saeed Bagheri (0:46) Thank you. Thanks, Louise, for having me. 


Louise McCormack (0:48) Let’s begin with the major source of the protests currently ongoing in Iran — the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman on the 16th of September 2022. Could you tell us briefly about the circumstances surrounding Mahsa’s death? 


Dr Saeed Bagheri (1:01) Well, Mahsa, as you said, she was called Jîna Amini— I’m trying to pronounce her Kurdish name. She was a 20-year-old Kurdish girl who was arrested by the Iranian police for improperly wearing her hijab in violation of [the] Islam[ic] Republic’s dress codes for women in public. So, she collapsed at a detention centre in the city of Tehran, which is the capital of Iran, after spending three days in [the] custody of the morality police, and then she had died after being transferred to a hospital. And, as was reported, she was beaten by the morality police during her detention, unfortunately, and so basically what happened to Mahsa was a fracturing point, which I think prompt[ed] Iranian women to come onto the streets to protest the Islamic Republic, its injustice, and most importantly, its– the grievous violence against women, which, in a way, is an indication of the brutal nature of the Islamic Republic. 


Dr Bagheri (2:08) And so, since the beginning, women have been at the forefront of the protests and decry[ing] “woman, life, freedom”, express[ing] the deep yearning that women across the country share in the face of the Islamic Republic’s oppression against its people. But I think it’s also important to mention that they are joined in the protest by thousands of Iranian men who want to force a systemic change to ensure the fundamental rights of Iranians are respected. 


Louise McCormack (2:41) Great. And then could you just explain for our listeners who the “morality police” are and how they came into being? 


Dr Saeed Bagheri (2:47) So, basically, the morality police is one of the most important [of the] Islamic Republic’s religious branches — I will say they’re religious police and the law enforcement command of the Islamic Republic, which is enforcing the law on the expansion of hijabs since 2005. So, the law enforcement itself is a uniform[ed] police, which was created in 1992, and currently they have more than 60,000 personnel around the country, who are acting under the direct control of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the Head of State, and in the meantime, Commander-in-Chief of the Iranian armed forces. And maybe also it is important to mention that the main responsibilities of the morality police are just taking actions against moral crimes, such as prostitution, and importantly, improper hijab in public, just in line with the Iranian hijab law. 


Louise McCormack (3:50) And just on the laws, then, as you’ve mentioned the hijab law – could you describe that and some of the other laws that have a particularly detrimental effect on women and their freedoms in Iran? 


Dr Saeed Bagheri (4:01) Um, yeah. Well, as I mentioned, the morality police is just acting on the law enforcement command who [are] enforcing the hijab law. The hijab law was introduced after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and we know that, basically, many people protested [the] hijab and— mandatory hijab, but wearing [the] hijab became mandatory for Iranian women from 1983. And since then, all Iranian and even foreigners who are visiting Iran have been legally obliged to wear [the] hijab in public, which has [a] detrimental effect on women because it restricts their freedom to choose their lifestyle. 


(4:45) And one more thing that I would like to mention — that the hijab law is an example of the discriminatory regulations being blanket-written in Parliament, and according to which wearing [an] improper hijab is to be considered as a crime. So this is the main point that I think we really need to— just to focus on that. 


(5:05) But the problem with this regulation, or the hijab law, is that the law is quite open to criticism because it doesn’t clearly provide a definition of “improper” hijab. So, we don’t know what is the— what is the “improper” hijab. So, this is the reason that basically allows to police— the morality police to interpret the law in different ways, and of course, take arbitrary actions against women. 


(5:33) And of course, perhaps you know that Iran is a State Party to the core human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, but again, the idea is that Iran is [an] Islamic country, and although Iranian women equally enjoy the protection of the law, and of course, enjoy all human— political or social or cultural rights, but it should be in conformity with Islamic criteria. This is what [the] Iranian Constitution says. I mean, it’s no coincidence that the Iranian government has never ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which basically ensures for equality for women in all areas their lives. 


Louise McCormack (6:25) I think what you’re getting at there is that the laws regarding dress code are somewhat subjective in nature. Is that fair to say? 


Dr Saeed Bagheri (6:32) Yeah, exactly. Yeah.  


Louise McCormack (6:34) Okay. So, returning then to Mahsa’s death. Could you elaborate on whether the violence of this kind is a common occurrence in Iran, and if so, why Mahsa’s death in particular sparked such outrage? 


Dr Saeed Bagheri  (6:48)This is a, well, very interesting question. I mean, the way in which the Islamic Republic has been dealing with women has become normalised as its general policies towards gender equality, which doesn’t accommodate— but the regime, which is coming from— which is coming from the Iranian regime’s approach to international human rights law and non-discrimination policies. 


(7:11) However, I think there has been a fluctuation in the application of the hijab law at times, and it is predominantly because of the different and inconsistent practice, and I will say the exercise of power by the Iranian presidents in different periods of time. For example, during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, who is well known as the most moderate and reformist president in Iran, I think the situation for the Iranian women was much better than today, under the presidency of the current president, President Ebrahim Raisi, who is one of the most radical officers of the Islamic Republic. 


(7:51) And just a quick point — that last year, when he came into power, [one of] the primary initiatives was taking an action about the hijab law. And he was quite clear when he just made a statement that improper hijab is against the religious values of the Islamic Republic and so the government needs to take serious actions against any women who [are] wearing [an] improper hijab in public. 


Louise McCormack (8:20) So, initially, the protests focused on the hijab laws, but have now expanded to other issues. Can you explain what the protesters are now demanding? 


Dr Saeed Bagheri (8:29) Yeah. As I mentioned earlier, the death of Mahsa Amini prompted Iranian women to protest the regime’s violence against women, but I believe that our understanding of these protests shouldn’t be restricted to the rights of women because they are actually a reaction to the absence of democracy and the rule of law, I think, in Iran. So, this is one thing that we need to think about it from one hand, and from the other hand, I think the reason that people are now protesting— so, basically, as I’ve said, you know, women and men altogether, just protesting government and [the] Iranian regime. 


(9:07) Well, yeah, the second reason that I think is the abuse of power and frequent human rights violations, on the other hand. So, let me just explain this with some more details, which I think would be much better to understand the rationales behind the protests. 


(9:24) One of the biggest issues, I think, for the Iranians is built into the way the Islamic Republic operates with the lack of democracy and accountability. So, for example, [the] judiciary in Iran is not independent of the regime. And so, power is constitutionally concentrated on one person, who is the Supreme Leader, and again, who is not answerable to any authority or legal or political mechanism. And I think this is— this is the reason that— you know, just has paved the way for unfair trials of the opponents of the regime, at times. 


(10:02) And the other point is that, I think, there is a direct reference to democracy in the Iranian Constitution, [from] which flows respect for human rights, in general terms, and in particular, you know, fundamental rights, like freedom of expression, the rule of law, independence of [the] judiciary, or transparency and accountability of the government. But, again, we need just to think about the practice — what happen[s] in practice. Unfortunately, in practice, things are so different, and I can definitely tell you that non-accountability and abuse of power have become normalised during the Islamic Republic’s four decades in power.  


(10:43) Well, again, as I said before, Iran is the party to some fundamental and core human rights instruments, but the regime has frequently restricted the right to peaceful protest — which is a matter for, you know, their social, political rights — basically by using lethal force against and torturing protesters in different times. 


(11:06) So, in the meantime, in violation of its, you know, free speech obligations under the international human rights law, it has frequently violated the right to freedom of expression by restricting people’s, you know, just access to information, like banning social media platforms, on different occasions, and of course, shutting down the internet in times of peaceful protests. 


(11:30) But unfortunately, the list of human rights violations is too long. But I’m trying to highlight some of the most critical examples. For instance, denying freedom of religion to minority religious groups, who suffer regular discrimination and persecution. 


(11:47) And another example which is, I think, really, really important to discuss a little bit about that, just, rights of minority groups. So, Iran is a multicultural country, with different ethnic minority groups, and so, ethnic minority groups and minority languages, which are routinely suppressed, including in schools, and despite in an article— it’s an article— there was an Article 15 in the Constitution, which, you know, declares that the use of ethnic languages in the press, in the media, or the teaching of the literature at schools, alongside the Persian language, which is— which is the official language of the country, these are, you know, freely permitted. But again, if you have a— just have a look at the practice, unfortunately this article has never been applied adequately by the government.  


(12:38) So, these are some sorts of examples [which] explain that there are different reasons that people are protesting the central policies of the Iranian regime. 


Louise McCormack (12:47) Yes, I think that’s very helpful. Just building on that — the government, obviously, are hostile in terms of wanting to address these human rights abuses and freedom of religion and these other issues, as you suggested. So, I guess the next question, then, is how has the government responded to these protests? 


Dr Saeed Bagheri (13:07) Well, again, I think, it’s quite clear that, as always, the regime has responded with excessive and unlawful lethal force and the arbitrary arrests of the protesters, and arrested more than 15,000 protesters over the past two months. So, one more thing which is really important to know [is] that the security forces of the regime [inaudible] the use on unlawful force against protesters across the country. And it’s been reported, as I know the [inaudible], one of the evidence is that they have killed at least 600 people in just two months, including 40 children. 


(13:46) And the authorities have, you know— have also just used, as I’ve mentioned before, used partial torture [inaudible] to shutdowns during the protests just—just to restrict access to information as a means to prohibit this dissemination of information, like sharing images of the protest in different platforms like social media. 


(14:05) But I think the worst is that the Iranian regime has never conducted any transparent investigations into the security force’s serious violations against people. This is simply because the regime has— has basically— you know, relying on national security, in a broad sense, just to suppress peaceful dissent unlawfully by using violence against people, just for the sake of the survival of the regime, rather than the safety of the country and national security. Again, this is one of the exceptions that [is] in the Constitution, just declaring that the regime is capable of, you know, taking actions against people who are acting against national security, but as I mentioned, this is a very broad and general, you know, reading of the article, because basically, the— when it comes to “national security”, the Constitution [is] saying that, yeah, we need to just consider any threat to the nation. But it is not clear how the government explains, you know, [that] the peaceful protests were using [the] internet against the national security. 


(15:14) And so, crucial to the regime’s survival has been the support of its security forces, who take orders from the Supreme Leader. Basically, a unit is coming from [the] Supreme Council for National Security, who [are] also taking orders from the President, and the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. 


Louise McCormack (15:33) I suppose, then, we’ve kind of addressed the national response to the protests. How has the international community responded? 


Dr Saeed Bagheri (15:41) Well, basically, you know, it’s a very good question again. Over the past few weeks, or maybe, let’s say, it is two months, to many Iranians, you know, who are inside the country and outside the country, they were expecting, you know, the international community— how they were going to deal with this problem because it’s a matter for international human rights law and international human rights. It is a universal law. So it’s deemed to be an international — it’s a universal law. So, [the] international community needs to, I mean— to take it seriously.  


(16:12) Well, fortunately, and luckily, I will say that on November 24 the UN Human Rights Council held a special session on the human rights situation in Iran, mainly with respect to women and children. And so the current Council called for an independent probe into human rights violations by the Iranian regime, and the Council decided to create a fact-finding mission to investigate the violations by the Islamic Republic, and of course, the security forces related to the protests that began in September, right after the death of Mahsa Amini. 


(16:50) But we just need to remember that this isn’t— this is not how this should be ended because, basically, the lack of effective enforcement mechanism of international human rights law to hold states accountable for— for gross violations unfortunately makes so many different difficulties in practice. And I think that [the] international community needs to work on— in a much stronger and effective legal mechanism, with— with a  binding force just to take, you know, just serious issues, and of course, make— you know, accept new decisions that are binding on State Parties. And remember that international law is a law just based on the State’s consent, which allows them just to remain only accountable for gross violation[s]. So, these are the sorts of things that we still need to think about them. 


(17:43) It is important to note that [the] Human Rights Council in itself can only just, you know, respond to human rights emergencies and make recommendations on how to better implement international human rights law. But either way, if— if I talk about what— just want to talk about the reaction that [the] Human Rights Council had yesterday— I mean, I will say that just [the] 24th of November. I believe that the investigation where the Council will definitely enforce the soft power through diplomacy, scrutiny, international attention, and pressuring [the] Islamic Republic through the others States just to remedy human rights abuses… So yeah, it’s definitely a positive development, but it [is] just taken by [the] international community. 


Louise McCormack (18:32) Yes, absolutely. Are there any plans, I suppose, for other states to impose sanctions? 


Dr Saeed Bagheri (18:38) Yeah. For example, Germany was one of the countries that, for the first time, they started to talk about the need for taking, you know, just holding a special session. I think, yeah, there’s some European countries that already started to talk about, you know, imposing new sanctions against [the] Islamic Republic. But again, we just need to think about what happened over the past few years — does it [inaudible] sanctions against the government, because we just need to remember the main objective of the economic sanctions is just, you know, pressuring the government to change their behaviour. But in practice, again, what happen[ed] in reality, the Islamic Republic has never changed its behaviour. 


Louise McCormack (19:16) Yes, but definitely a positive step from the Council on the 24th. 


Dr Saeed Bagheri (19:20) Exactly. Yeah, I think so, yeah. 


Louise McCormack (19:22) So, I just have a final question for you then, Saeed. As you mentioned earlier, “woman, life, freedom” has become the slogan of the protests in Iran. What do you think it will take to bring about social and economic equality for women in Iran, and what changes might need to be made, say, constitutionally, or to current structures of political religious authority, in order for such equality to be realised? 


Dr Saeed Bagheri (19:46)  Well, I think this is, you know, it is very difficult question to answer. But in my opinion, I think the Iranian regime would not welcome any constitutional change or reform because during the four decades of [the] Islamic Republic, through many reformist groups, and as I said earlier in this discussion, you know, to moderate presidents like Mohammad Khatami, they tried many times, you know— they tried to take actions to bring you forward by the regime, but the problem is, you know, the regime blamed them with actions against national security, again. 


(20:26) So, if we just consider the Iranian regime’s approach to international human rights law over the past four decades, we can easily— we can realise how— how a reform can pose a big challenge for the regime in practical and normal— normative terms. For instance, the Iranian government has never accepted the individual complaints procedures in the context of human rights treaties that [are] ratified by the government. This is— this is, I mean, the reality, that the Iranian government has already blocked this system, and so you, as an individual, you cannot— you cannot criticise the government. So, because the regime is not open to any criticisms— And so, this brings us to the very central issue that today, I will say, that Iranians can see this predicament more than ever. 


(21:13) I think my answer to this question would be that the practice of the Iranian regime in using lethal force against women and children, and its oppressive laws and regulations, especially the laws and regulations on women, clearly manifest that the regime is not theoretically or practically flexible, or willing to have any agenda on freedom, democracy, and gender equality. This is what I can say. 


(21:42) So, I think that’s the reason why Iranians are now calling for regime change, rather than a constitutional reform. And so, I will conclude by saying that, um, you know, this is— this is basically as a result of the brutal behaviour of the Islamic Republic over the last four decades that has undermined trust in the Islamic Republic. 


Louise McCormack (22:08) Great, thank you so much for speaking with me today, Saeed. 


Dr Saeed Bagheri (22:12) Thanks for having me. It was really a pleasure. 


Louise McCormack (22:15) RightsUp is brought to you by the Oxford Human Rights Hub. The Executive Producer is Meghan Campbell. This episode was produced and edited by Sophie Smith, and hosted by Louise McCormack. Music for this series is by Rosemary Allmann. Show notes for this episode have been written by Sarah Dobbie. Subscribe to this podcast wherever you like to listen to your favourite podcasts. 



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