Intended for healthcare professionals


Reframing Iran’s Woman, Life, Freedom Movement: from gender violence to state violence

BMJ 2023; 382 doi: (Published 15 September 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;382:p2120
  1. Roghieh Dehghan, Wellcome Clinical Research Fellow
  1. University College London

On 16 September 2022, the Woman, Life, Freedom movement was sparked by the tragic death of Jina Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian-Kurdish woman. She was taken into custody in Iran by the morality police for non-compliance with the mandatory dress code for women. Four days later, she died, succumbing to her injuries inflicted by the police.

As an Iranian woman and researcher focusing on state violence from a gender perspective, I believe there are two distinct ways to frame this recent movement in Iran. Given the common framing of Mahsa's death as a sign of gender inequality and the significance of gender in global health discourse, an overview of women’s health issues in Iran helps to contextualise the first viewpoint.

Despite four decades of turmoil, healthcare in Iran has improved with increased life expectancy, and reduced maternal mortality rates.12 But gender disparities endure. Despite high education levels (99% literacy rate for women aged 15-24 and more than 60% of university students are women), participation of women in the workforce is only 18.3%.34 Women have limited political representation and face legal inequalities in divorce, custody, and inheritance, as well as criminal laws. They also need spousal consent for certain health services, including abortion. Limited access to reproductive health services in particular affects economically disadvantaged women. In addition, child marriage and intimate partner violence persist, linked to social class, poverty, age, education, and unemployment. Lastly, there is higher prevalence of mental health problems among women, with the highest suicide risk in poorer provinces and among ethnic minorities, particularly Kurdish women.15678

Poor health in women stems from unequal resource distribution tied to socio-economic factors. For instance, women in deprived areas have a life expectancy nine years shorter than those in the capital Tehran.6

In light of this pervasive gender inequality, it is understandable that following Mahsa’s death much of the narrative in social and mainstream media has centred on women, their prominent role in the protests, and their call to end the oppression of women. These women subvert and resist the gendered and sexualised politics of the Islamic regime.

This women centric discourse has evolved into a shared platform for unification, evoking a profound sense of solidarity and hope among Iranians across diverse backgrounds. The focus on women, owing to its visibility and its less overtly political façade, has garnered substantial support from global allies. However, it simultaneously perpetuates stereotypes and preconceived notions about Islam and Muslim women. In fact, the public and media reaction followed a predictable and conventional pattern, characterised by orientalist and right-wing nationalist discourses, for example by the portrayal of Islam as a villainous force in Iran and the glorification of the ancient “Persian empire.”910 These perspectives are further bolstered by neo-liberal media outlets, which, in a distinctly orientalist manner, present an essentialised view of Iranian women.

The status of women has historically been intertwined with political dynamics. In Iran, like in other Middle East and North African countries, women are often perceived as symbols of national identity, used to align with or resist Western influences. As a result, women's bodies have been instrumentalised as visible markers of political identity; they have been regulated, from compulsory unveiling under Reza Shah Pahlavi, to veiling under the Islamic Republic. Thus, while this movement is viewed by many as a “feminist resistance,”11 I am concerned that framing the movement as a struggle of women diverts attention from the oppressive control exerted by the Iranian state over the bodies of its citizens—regardless of their gender.

Violence serves as the means through which the Iranian regime asserts its dominance. While women and other vulnerabilised people are predominantly targeted by the morality police, the purpose of this disciplinary force is not gender violence, but control and terror of society. It is crucial to remember that the Iranian government is notorious for its human rights abuses in general. These include arbitrary arrests, forced confessions, and torture. The country maintains a high number of death penalties and executions. Control is exercised not just over women's bodies, but every aspect of citizens' private lives. The regime instils fear in the public by silencing dissenting voices. During last year’s crackdown on the protestors, over 19 000 people were arrested, more than 500 were killed, with the majority being men, and all seven executed were men. Ethnic minorities were overrepresented in those arrested or killed.121314

Violence is inflicted upon bodies marked by class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and economy. An exclusive focus on women's issues risks concealing the broader state violence and human rights violations of the Iranian regime. When Iranian women cut their hair or remove their scarves, this is done as an act of resistance within a specific socio-political context. The history in which we place events can be healing. Framing the recent movement within the broader context of Iranian people’s struggle for human rights and democracy acknowledges women's crucial role in this movement and those that preceded it. It also encourages us to see this movement as a continuation of the constitutional revolution (1905-1911), where people aimed to secure civil liberties and limit the absolute power of the state. Regardless of gender, Iranians identify with Mahsa's plight. The slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” reflects a forward-looking, optimistic vision of a different future.


  • Competing interests: the author declares no competing interests

  • Provenance and peer review: commissioned, not peer reviewed.