Women in Iran have taken to the streets, leading protests, burning their head scarves, and clashed with police. Today, let’s discuss why Iranian women are burning their hijabs and protesting against their government.

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Vocabulary List

Morality (n) – a personal or social set of standards for good or bad behaviour and character

Technology’s morality is determined by its political or social use

Hijab (n) – the head covering that some Muslim women wear when they are outside

Iranian law requires women to wear a hijab while in public

To spark (v) – to cause the start of something

The visit of the Donald Trump sparked mass demonstrations

Unrest (n) – disagreements or fighting between different groups of people

It is feared that the civil unrest in that country could lead to war

Zealot (n) – a person who has very strong opinions about something, and tries to make other people have them too

He is a religious zealot

To detain (v) – to force someone to officially stay in a place

A suspect has been detained by the police for questioning

Outage (n) – a period when a service, such as electricity, is not available

The radio news reported power outages affecting 50 homes

Decisively (adv) – quickly, effectivley, and confidently

If they had acted more decisively, they could have saved him



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The Death of Mahsa Amini

Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old student from the city of Saqez in Iran, died on September 16th after spending three days in a coma. She was spending time with her brother in the capital city Tehran, when she was stopped and arrested by the Iranian morality police.

The police accused her of breaking Iran’s strict laws on women’s clothing. Women are required to fully cover their hair with a type of headscarf know as a hijab, and fully cover their arms and legs with loose clothing. According to some reports, Mahsa was wearing a looser style of headscarf.

Witnesses report that Mahsa was beaten by the morality police. Acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif has stated that they targeted her head with batons and smashed her body into their cars. Mahsa collapsed into a coma shortly after arriving at the detention centre and passed away a few days later.

Iran’s government and police force rejected accusations that she died from injuries and instead suggested she suffered from “sudden heart failure.” Mahsa’s family say she was young, healthy, and fit – they say her death was not accidental, it was murder.

Iranian Protests, BBC

Mahsa’s death sparked protests across Iran. Women are at the front of protests, leading the crowds of angry citizens. Women are burning their hijabs in the streets, cutting their hair, and dancing in public – all things restricted by Iran’s strict religious laws. The Iranian police have responded with brutality – shooting and killing a number of protestors. But the unrest is continuing and spreading.

Most of Iran’s 31 provinces have experienced some kind of protesting in the past week. Around 35 people have been killed in the violence, and there are clashes ongoing in a number of cities. Social media videos have been posted online appearing to show Iranian police and security forces using live ammunition (real guns) against protestors who have responded with petrol bombs.

In one north-western province, 739 people were arrested in one day. Reports are emerging that those arrested have been beaten and kept in appalling conditions.

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Iran’s Religious Restrictions

It is important to understand that while the trigger, the immediate cause, of current protests was the death of Mahsa Amini, Iranian’s anger is the result of 40 years of incredibly strict religious policies – with these policies hitting Iranian women hardest. One of my listeners from Iran, who I won’t name for their safety, described it to me in this way – “it’s not just about the hijab. The hijab has sparked this anger over tyranny and oppression inflicted on Iranians for more than 40 years.”

In 1979, Iran underwent what is known as the Islamic revolution – the dictatorship of the Shah was overthrown and replaced with an Islamic theocracy. Above the country’s president sits a Supreme Leader – a religious leader who holds power in the country.

Before 1979, Iran was a dictatorship with a terrible human rights record. But under the Shah, Iranians had a much larger degree of personal freedom. In the 1930s, the most conservative Islamic veils were banned, and headscarves removed. Iran was a close ally of both Britain and the US, and this western culture spread into the country. It wasn’t uncommon to see Iranian women in tight-fitting clothes like jeans, miniskirts, or short sleeved tops.


Everything changed in 1979. The new Islamic government led by Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a compulsary dress code for women. The hijab, which was once banned in Iran, was now mandatory. Women had to cover their hair at all times while in public. The western outfits and tight-fitting clothes were prohibited.  During the revolution, one of the slogans adopted by supporters of the new Islamic system was “cover or suffer.” Women were openly threatened if they did not follow the new regulations.

It has been four decades since the Islamic revolution, and things have not improved for Iranian women. If anything, the social restrictions have become even stricter. Iran’s current leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is aging – and while they search for a replacement, policies have become increasingly harsh.

Slightly more moderate Iranian officials and politicians have been removed from government, and religious zealots have been put in charge of all important parts of government. One of these zealots, president Ebrahim Raisi passed a new policy known as “hijab and chastity.”

The Iranian morality police have been reinvigorated by the new decree. Cafes playing music have been forced to replace songs with instrumental music – singing is seen as sinful. Posters of women without Islamic veil have been removed, and hundreds of women have been arrested and detained by groups of men.

These men, the morality police, wear black and carry batons. It is these men who beat and killed Mahsa. And there are many of women like Mahsa punished for not following the strict dress code perfectly in public.

Iran has also become more technological. There are plans to introduce facial-recognition software in train stations to record, identify, and track down women not wearing a veil in public. And recently the Iranian version of Uber, a taxi app called Snapp!, has begun allowing drivers to report passengers to the morality police.

Aside from restrictions on clothing, Iran’s general human rights situation is abysmal. According to Amnesty international, in 2021 alone thousands of Iranians were arrested, interrogated, and detained simply for peacefully demonstrating. Protests are regularly crushed using lethal force and illegal weapons.

Women and minorities have their freedom heavily restricted – they are regularly discriminated against and subjected to violence. Rights to freedom of religion, access to the internet, sexual and reproductive rights, and freedom of speech are all undermined.

Iran regularly uses torture in prisons and detention centres. Prisoners are kept in unsafe conditions without access to medical care, toilets, or beds. Aside from prison, trials are unfair and punishments for breaking religious rules can include floggings, amputations, and blinding.

For decades, Iranians have lived under a violent and unforgiving government. The government not only has some of the strictest religious rules in the world, but they also crack down on any protest or unrest. It is against this background that Iranians have chosen to protest and rebel.


Internet Lockdown

Iran has no independent broadcast media – everything you see on TV or hear on radio is from the government. There is never any criticism of the state or the leaders. If a protestor wants to share their voice and opinions, they only have one choice… the internet.

And Iran knows this. For the past week, internet access in Iran has been heavily limited. Instagram and WhatsApp are usually two of the only western social media apps allowed by the country… but this week they have been blocked. What is unusual about the current internet outage is that even people using VPNs and Proxys are unable to access the outside world.

Millions of Iranians rely on these two platforms to communicate with the outside world – in fact, I have many Iranian listeners who use Instagram to communicate with me. Multiple Iranians messaged me this week, requesting I use my podcast to explain the situation in Iran to the world. And hopefully I can also help Iranians to develop the skills to talk about the situation in English.

The current protests are largely organised over social media. With internet access shut down, it become much more difficult for large scale unrest to develop. It is also harder for Iranian women to share their stories online and communicate the situation to the rest of the world.

According to the BBC’s disinformation unit, shutting down internet connections “is an effective tool that severely harms the ability of protesters to organise, communicate and inform the outside world, but it also carries a huge cost for the Iranian economy, businesses and public services.” Despite this, Iran has shown throughout the past four decades that they care more about controlling the people than economic success.

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Iran to “Deal Decisively” with the Protests

The sad reality is that it is unlikely Iran will back down to the protestors. The opposite is likely. President Raisi promised to “deal decisively” with the unrest – the police have already killed, arrested, and beaten multiple protestors. The internet has been blocked – Iran will sacrifice economic success to keep its strict control over people.

Iran has dealt with large protests before. In 2019, rising fuel prices triggered the most violent protests in the history of the Islamic Republic. During that time, internet was taken down for many days.

The Islamic leaders of Iran benefited from a revolution in 1979 – they know the mistakes made by the Shah’s government and are making steps to not follow in his footsteps. As such, Iran always takes an aggressive stance with protest. And experts suggest that the government only needs 500,000 loyal supporters to control the country.

Iran will probably not liberalise their clothing restrictions. And once the protests and violence subside, normal Iranians will be living in fear once again. One mistake, one broken rule, could leave them open to arrest, beatings, and even death.

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Final Thought

The purpose of this episode was to explain what is happening in Iran to people all around the world. I have listeners in almost every country in the world and I believe it is important to highlight the situation facing Iranian women. Moreover, I wanted to help give Iranian listeners the vocabulary and English knowledge to explain what is happening in their country to people around the world.

I am a British guy, living in Japan, who has never been to Iran. When I see unrest around the world, I always want to help – I spent a year leading an Amnesty International chapter as a 20-year-old student. But what can I do to help Iranian people?

Well, I can help give my Iranian listeners the tools to express their situation to people around the world. Without a voice, you can’t be heard. And in our modern world, an English voice can spread much further.

Share this episode, copy the explanations I gave, and borrow my words to talk about your own situations and tell the world what is happening in Iran.

What do you think? What do you think the people of Iran should do?


2 thoughts on “174. Why Are Iranian Women Burning Their Hijabs? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Thank you Tom for your support of the Iranian. No revolution comes without a price. So my advice to the Iranian people is to continue and not give up until the end.
    Rights are not given, taken.

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

2 thoughts on “174. Why Are Iranian Women Burning Their Hijabs? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Thank you Tom for your support of the Iranian. No revolution comes without a price. So my advice to the Iranian people is to continue and not give up until the end.
    Rights are not given, taken.

Leave a Reply