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Mahsa Amini: Geopolitically Manufactured Outrage?

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Mahsa Amini

Within the span of a month, from August 22nd to September 22nd, five tragic deaths of women took place in four different parts of the world.

In Mississippi, USA, Mable Arrington was shot by the local Biloxi police in her home in front of her children on August 22nd. The police had been called over because of a possible dispute between neighbors.

In Tehran, Iran, the Gasht-e Irshad or guidance/morality police detained a young woman called Mahsa Amini on September 13th for not wearing her hijab properly. As subsequently released videos show, she collapsed, went into a coma, and died at a detention centre.

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In India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh, two Dalit sisters, Manisha and Pooja, were raped and hanged by a group of boys which included five Muslims and one Hindu on September 15th. Two of the Muslim boys were in a relationship with the girls. According to the police the girls voluntarily left the village with the boys but subsequently were raped in sugarcane fields. When the sisters insisted that the boys marry them after the rape, the latter refused and instead, along with their friends, killed the sisters.

In Baghdad, Iraq, Zainab al Essam Al-Khazali was working on her father’s farm when a bullet in the head killed her on the 20th of September. The shot was fired as part of the military exercises of the US Army stationed near Baghdad International Airport.

Hardly anyone outside Mississippi would have heard of 42-year old Arrington’s killing and only a few local newspapers carried the news and obituaries. 22-year old Amini’s death has received global coverage. The rape and lynching of the two teenage sisters received widespread coverage in India and some international coverage but soon became ‘slow news.’ Al-Khazali’s death, just a week after Amini’s death, received hardly any coverage except for on social media and in Iranian and local Iraqi press.

All four incidents clearly show how women’s bodes bear the brunt of familial, social, institutional, and state-endorsed violence and patriarchy. Each woman had other aspects to their identities that complicate linear and binary understandings. Arrington was a black American. Mahsa Amini was an ethnic Kurd. Manisha and Pooja were from India’s most disenfranchised and persecuted caste. Zainab al-Khazali was a teenage Shia woman and grand-daughter of Majid al-Khazali who had died fighting for the pro-Iranian paramilitary organisation, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. The receptions of these four incidents speak volumes about the way in which the wider context, geo-political imperatives, state narratives, and indeed our individual prejudices eclipse any question of principle.

A Cause Célèbre

For obvious reasons, the news of each of the incidents, save the death of  Mahsa Amini, would have been heard by a limited number of people depending on their access to news, their location, their own identities, their ideological underpinnings, or of course simply whether they cared to follow the news. However, the death of Amini has eclipsed all other coverage internationally. Indeed her tragic death is now being used as a cloak by Iran’s geo-strategic rivals in order to call for regime change.

@Israel, a twitter handle run by the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs is regularly tweeting about Mahsa Amini. Their Persian language page also tweeted in solidarity. The blurring of the line between supporting Iranian women and explicitly promoting regime change only harms the protesters and the protests since ‘foreign intervention’ is often invoked by countries across the world to crack down on dissent. Iran in particular has a long history of foreign interference, especially by America and Israel. The latter has a history of carrying out assassinations within Iran. Both governments and media from various countries (including America, France, the UK and others), have made Amini’s death into a cause célebrè to highlight state-sponsored atrocities in Iran. This is precisely the basis on which the Iranian government is dismissing the protests that reflect genuine dissatisfaction and anger. The protests might have been catalyzed by Amini’s death, but are now also about the wider socio-economic difficulties that common Iranians face. But why does the international community single out Iran?

An Outrage Discrepancy

Why does the shooting of a black American woman or the regular atrocities that Dalits suffer in India not invoke anywhere near a similar kind of reaction? The George Floyd killing in 2020 had catalyzed huge protests but most commentary and the demands were about fixing a broken system, not replacing governments. Just in the last year 1048 people have been killed by police in America and the rate at which black Americans are killed by police is twice as high as that of white people. To this day local activists in Biloxi, Mississippi have been unsuccessful in getting the police to release their body-cam footage, which in any case privileges the view from the perspective of the policeperson wearing the camera. In George Floyd’s case the horrific bodycam footage was only released 10 months after his murder.

In India, the Hathras Rape case in 2021 of a Dalit girl who was raped and killed received widespread coverage and high-lighted how collusion between politicians and the police even prevented a dignified funeral for the girl. The police locked her family at their house, cremated her in the dead of night and arrested journalists who tried to reach the village. Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code was invoked by the state to prevent people from gathering to protest in Delhi. Anti-Dalit violence is so normalized in India that outrage is replaced by apathy even though 130,000 crimes against Dalits were recorded between 2018-20 according to the Indian government’s data. Just recently a nine year old Dalit boy was beaten to death by his teacher for drinking water from a pot meant for upper-caste teachers. Subsequently, more Dalit girls have been raped and killed in a number of Indian states.

Are black bodies and Dalit bodies less important than Muslim women’s bodies? Just because race and caste are often localized and do not impinge on geopolitics, does that mean the world largely remains silent? And indeed, if only Muslim women’s bodies do need saving, then where’s the outrage about women in the Arab world where even privileged Princesses and ordinary citizens flee from the male guardianship system. Apart from the odd token statement about respecting gender equality or titillating tabloid news, there is no outrage against these countries whose leaders are allied to the West.

The Selective Amnesia of Liberal Principles

The liberal principle of the right to choose what to wear is being invoked but it seems that wider geo-strategic imperatives are as much a reason for the death of Mahsa Amini being made into a global event. The US and Iran have been renegotiating the nuclear deal that Trump tore up. Israel has made it clear that it wants no deal. Additionally, the Russia-Ukraine war has massively affected energy prices in Europe and there is deep worry about the future. For decades, one of the reasons that many Western countries have wanted a pliable proxy in Iran is because of its rich natural gas and oil reserves.

Part of the reasons for invading Iraq in 2003 was precisely to ensure access to its oil although everyone remembers how Bush and Blair invoked values and principles in order to legitimize their invasion of a country whose dictator that had originally propped up against Iran. It is not without irony that Al-Khazali was killed near the symbol of the US occupation of Iraq, Abu Ghraib prison. Today, we speak of the brutality of the Iranian authorities and the notorious Evin prison but a general amnesia has set in about the brutal torture chambers and rendition black-sites, not to mention the killing of civilians by US soldiers. Zainab al-Khazali’s death will be dismissed as collateral damage, that odious term coined by the American state to conceal the true fact of the matter: bloody murder. When nation-states invoke principles, they are almost always a cloak to legitimize deeply instrumental and selfish motives.

Hijab vs. State

Just as the hijab is invoked to demonstrate Iran’s ‘tyranny’ while the real reasons are also geopolitical, the protests in Iran have, no doubt, been catalyzed by Amini’s death, but are also a valve for deep unrest and anger about the dismal state of the Iranian economy and the lack of other social and political freedoms. American-led sanctions are no small part of the reason that the price of basic commodities have sky-rocketed.

In Iran, members of the political elite are talking about how the death of Mahsa Amini is partly their fault since they are merely enforcing principles on a population rather than truly trying explain their value to people. Parliamentarian, Masoud Pezeshki spoke about how politicians and the ‘ulama need to introspect, but these conversations are not being written about outside Iran. Meanwhile, France’s hijab ban and the debate in India about whether school-girls should be allowed to wear the hijab are hardly spoken about on the same scale or in the same manner as the right of women not to wear the hijab. Just last year a Muslim woman was barred from standing in an election in France because she wore the hijab. She belonged to the same party as Emmanuel Macron.

 

Much like leaders of America and India in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder or the killing of Dalit girls, Iranian President Ibrahim Raeesi too has promised an investigation into the causes of her death. We all know that such statements are often disingenuous and do not often lead to any kind of deeper change, but it is clear that the problem lies within the structures of state power. It is evident that the violence perpetrated by states on their citizens and the policing of their bodies, whether in France, Iran, America or India, is not restricted to countries that are run on religious principles.

In all this, the victims and the tragedies faced by their families are ignored or subsumed under larger struggles. The latter would be a good outcome but in the case of Mahsa Amini, it is clear that global outrage is also a pretext for veiling pernicious geopolitical imperatives. Ultimately, we will all identify with certain struggles and stories more than others, but this should not be defined by governments, media and social media but by our own choices and understandings. It is especially easy to manufacture outrage and consent in today’s day and age. The harsh fact is that Amini’s tragic death can be profited from, in the very literal sense of the word, whereas the deaths of Mable, Manisha, Pooja and Zainab and countless other women are just more statistics.

 

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Ali Khan Mahmudabad is an Indian historian, political scientist, writer, columnist, occasional poet, and assistant professor of both history and political science at Ashoka University, India. His Ph.D. at Cambridge focused on the formation of Muslim political identity in North India between 1850–1950. Before his Ph.D., he secured his MPhil, also from Cambridge. He wrote a thesis on transnational Shi‘a Muslim networks in the early 20th century between South Asia and the Middle East. His book titled “Poetry of Belonging: Muslim Imaginings of India 1850–1950” was published by Oxford in 2021.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. MMReader

    October 9, 2022 at 4:05 PM

    This latest faux outrage has all the hallmarks of a Zionist-inspired color revolution. Iran has been targeted by innumerable such attacks over the years, from cyber to nuclear to energy-related to social, with this being the latest one. The hijab as a symbol of Muslim identity should be defended first and foremost, over anything else. It can be done despite the corruption, rot and mismanagement of the Iranian political establishment and the deficient and misguided Shi’ite ideology that fuels it.

  2. Joyce

    October 9, 2022 at 11:55 PM

    Thank you for writing this! Well explained.

  3. Spirituality

    October 10, 2022 at 9:39 AM

    Great article! Jazak Allahu Khayran!

    I disagree with MMReader: “The hijab as a symbol of Muslim identity should be defended first and foremost, over anything else. It can be done despite the corruption, rot and mismanagement of the Iranian political establishment and the deficient and misguided Shi’ite ideology that fuels it.”

    Hijab (Khimar, modesty) is a command of Allah, no doubt. But remember – it was instituted in 4 or 5 AH (Sura Nur) a full 17 or 18 years after the Prophet (s) received the first divine revelation. The years and years before that were spent focusing on ‘the basics’ – introducing (reminding) people to who Allah was, why we should worship Him and Him alone, the rewards of doing so (Jannah) and not doing so (Jahanam).

    The reason hijab is such a problem today is that people have lost a hold of these basics. This is also the cause of corruption, rot and mismanagement. It all goes together.

    Instead of having religious police running around and forcing people to wear hijab and measuring their beards, the focus must be on getting people to know Allah, love Him and understand that His commands are the best for us. This is also ultimately the only way to deal with corruption, rot and mismanagement.

    Otherwise, we simply defend mere symbols while the substance behind those symbols (which is of course far more important) is lost. What’s the point of women who wear hijab but then show up in beauty pageants (with male audiences) and playboy magazine? What about women who wear hijab but have left their prayers?

    As Aisha (RA) says in Sahih Bukhari: “When the people embraced Islam, the Verses regarding legal and illegal things were revealed. If the first thing to be revealed was: ‘Do not drink alcoholic drinks.’ people would have said, ‘We will never leave alcoholic drinks,’ and if there had been revealed, ‘Do not commit illegal sexual intercourse, ‘they would have said, ‘We will never give up illegal sexual intercourse.”

  4. Spirituality

    October 10, 2022 at 9:57 AM

    Also, I would argue that hijab was never really meant to be ‘a symbol of Islam’ – although perhaps it has become so in recent times as modesty has declined tremendously everywhere: only Muslim women seem interested in upholding this important virtue.

    In the past, women, especially women of elite status, in many societies and cultures (Greeks, Syrians, Persians, Jews, Hinduism) covered their hair/faces/bodies to one extent or another.

  5. MMReader

    October 11, 2022 at 8:41 PM

    @SPIRITUALITY We are WELL PAST that stage of people not knowing exactly where the Shari’ah stands on these matters as was the case before those verses were revealed. Way to compare apples and oranges. Today, just like in the time right AFTER the Prophet, what’s needed is enforcement. Less or more, all of that can be discussed. But no enforcement is what the secular and liberal segments of the population want and that’s as good as no Shari’ah.

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