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International Women’s Day in Iran 2023

Article by Drewery Dyke and Tahirih Danesh

March 8, 2023

International Women’s Day in Iran 2023

What can we do in response to the toxic gassing of thousands of female students and those risking their lives to advance the values behind the expression “Woman, Life, Freedom”?


As we mark International Women’s Day 2023, more than 1,000, overwhelmingly female students in over 90 schools in 20 provinces in Iran have been injured and hospitalised on account of targeted gas attacks in mainly schools for girls.[1] This is the latest in a series of converted attacks that started on 30 November 2022 and continues until today.[2]


On 6 March the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, spoke out against the attacks and its criminality. Other prominent figures have likewise spoken out; and some are taking action to ensure that all students – mainly females – can attend school without fear of being harmed.[3] At the time of writing, reports stated that a Deputy Interior Minister said that arrests had taken place and that the accused were Gasht-e Ershad, or Morality Police officials (see below).


In contrast to the authorities’ apparent inability or unwillingness to take action to protect mainly female students, the Centre for Supporters of Human Rights (CSHR) highlighted officials’ haste to break up gatherings of families seeking action and answers; and their prompt investigation into newspapers seeking to examine the attacks.[5] One 4 March report, for example, while unconfirmed by other sources, stated that security officials detained a 19 year old student, Sarina Mahmoud Salehi, in Karaj, after she had spoken out about the gas attacks.[6] Officials reportedly threatened her with having to confess a role in the attacks. The recent toxic attacks will fuel a fury that will advance for months to come in what appears to be a female-shaped revolution.


There is recognition that security forces the world over need time to assess and investigate criminal activity; that political leaders may appear slow to respond to damaging and harmful events. But the conduct exhibited in this instance is not one in which the authorities are out of step with society and its concerns; it is one in which apparently misogynistic authorities step on swathes of society’s concerns, and members of society themselves, to protect an illusive status quo.


The conduct, too, resembles patterns once again unfolding in neighbouring Afghanistan, where Taliban rule is likewise rolling back women’s rights and the place of women in society.


Is this the state response to Woman, Life, Freedom?

The authorities never bought the narrative that the September 2022 death in custody of Jina (Mahsa) Amini marked a turning point in honouring human dignity and rights accorded to all Iranians, beginning with the country’s women, who were the first to arise against the Islamic Republic’s (IRI) discriminatory policies on this very day in 1979. 


They do not, however, dispute the fact that the Morality Police (Gasht-e Ershad) detained Jina Amini on 13 September 2022 for the alleged improper use of the hijab, or that she died in government custody on 16 September. They differ in that the authorities claim she died of natural causes linked to an underlying health condition; her family, citing her good health, denounce the authorities’ claim. Leaked medical documents indicate that ill-treatment caused her death.


On the other hand, officials recognise that her death resulted in nationwide, mainly urban demonstrations into 2023.[7]  The authorities have killed scores of people, including children; targeted women demonstrators; detained close to 15 thousand people and executed at least four.[8] Since September, reports indicated that the authorities were sending secondary school students to ‘psychological centres’ and would only allow them to return to school once ‘reformed’.[9] The Persian call: Zan, Zendegi, Azadi, or Woman, Life, Freedom is at the heart of the demonstrations that have pulsated through every corner of Iran and more than 150 cities around the globe. 


If the Interior Ministry official is right, the question before us is: are the very organisations whose members killed Jina Amini also those involved in the intentional harming of girl students? If so, it is a new low for the Islamic Republic, amongst a damning catalogue of decades of human rights violations.


What can the UK authorities, parliamentarians, NGOs do?

People outside of Iran cannot directly do much: international law and practice forbids state acts that could amount to aggression against another state. But we can and must echo and amplify calls for justice on the one hand, and stand with those shaping this historic moment on the other hand.


Days ago an Iranian diaspora media outlet, Iran International, had to temporarily relocate to the USA to escape threats of violence expressed by Islamic Republic officials. The IRI has, for years, harassed and threatened BBC journalists and terrorised their families in Iran. Such state-sponsored threats on UK soil should at least make us sit up straight, listen and appreciate what it must be like to a single woman standing up against such repression.


In 2018, we wrote that:

Iranian women impose themselves today and every day on state structures in Iran that keep them down. They demand their #MeToo rights and – leaving aside their willingness – paying a price to assert their rights. Iranian women are not victims, they don’t need saving by foreign powers; we are seeing a new, home-grown generation that is amongst the most highly educated in the region; plugged-in and nearly fully charged. This is the promise of the Iran; and indeed the promise for us all, globally.


As we have seen, women in Iran and women human rights defenders have continued to call for respect and equality – for women, life, freedom.


On International Women’s Day 2023, let’s use every platform we have access to and raise a call for life and freedom in a constructive and resilient manner. Parliamentarians and NGOs can do exactly this; the FCDO’s Human Rights team can draw attention to women human rights defenders, Nasrin Sotoudeh and Narges Mohammadi, both of whom have faced years of imprisonment, marked by occasional, temporary releases. Their ‘crime’? Advancing human rights standards and calling for accountability. Echo their voices.


UK officials and Parliamentarians; public figures and – for example – legal professionals, can amplify the calls facilitated by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, in which 20 leading lawyers (including Nasrin Sotoudeh) set out asks to the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to investigate the attacks.[10] They can also engage and promote the work of organisations like FEMENA or the Centre for Supporters of Human RightsWhy? Because, after all, we too cherish Women, Life and Freedom.



Drewery Dyke is a FPC Senior Research Fellow, Chairperson for the Rights Realization Centre and Senior Researcher specialising in analysis and international advocacy relating to human rights in The Gulf (GCC), Iran and Afghanistan. He currently works with the Iran-focused Centre for Supporters of Human Rights (CSHR).


Tahirih Danesh is a FPC Senior Advisor, Lecturer in Human Rights Law and serves as Executive Director of the Persia Educational Foundation and is the Founding Editor of Iran Human Rights Review.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.


[1] 20 Prominent Iranian Lawyers Call on UN to Investigate School Girl Poisonings, Center for Human Rights in Iran, 6 March 2023.

[2]  Infographic Geographical distribution of student poisoning, Etemad Online, December 2022 , accessed 7 March 2023

[3]  Statement of new religious views on the chain of poisoning of girls, News Gooya, 7 March 2023

[4] Chain poisoning; Deputy Interior Minister: “Some” were arrested and some were “guided”, BBC Persian, 7 March 2023, at:

[5] Centre for Supporters of Human Rights, Twitter, Twitter  Post,  7 March 2023,

[6] @persianated, Twitter, Twitter Post, March  2023, at

[7] Nationwide Coverage Of Protests In Iran On September 2,  Iran International, September 2022:

[8] Iranian actor Taraneh Alidoosti released from jail after family post bai, Patrick Wintour, The Guardian, l 4 January 2023,,shown%20on%20Iranian%20social%20media

[9] Iran International,  Twitter, Twitter post, 12 October 2022,

[10] Center for Human Rights in Iran: 20 Prominent Iranian Lawyers Call on UN to Investigate School Girl Poisonings, 6 March 2023,

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