Iran is currently being rocked by a wave of violent protests. For over two weeks now, people have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the Islamic Republic in more than 100 cities and towns.
They are engaged in militant clashes with a powerful but seemingly overwhelmed security apparatus, destroying symbols of the state’s domination, occupying government offices, and even temporarily controlling entire towns such as Oshnavieh, which is predominantly Kurdish. More than 100 people are reported to have died, thousands have been arrested.
Most remarkable about the protests is how Iranian women are tearing off the mandatory hijab and shaping the protests. Clearly, the movement that began this September contain within it a revolutionary potential that strikes fear into the hearts of the Islamist rulers.
Hamid Mohseni was born in Iran and grew up in Germany. He has followed developments in the country since 2009 and is involved in left-wing solidarity initiatives support the democratic and social protests there.
Translated by Loren Balhorn.
The protests were triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini, an Iranian Kurd, in police custody. She was approached by Iran’s so-called “Guidance Patrol” in Tehran about how she was wearing her headscarf on 13 September and subsequently arrested. They accused her of showing too much hair, claiming it was “un-Islamic” and “indecent”. Amini was detained for a few hours in the notorious Evin Prison as an “educational measure”. She had fallen into a coma by the time she was released, and died in hospital three days later.
The Iranian authorities claim Amini died of an epileptic seizure followed by a heart attack, and that she had already suffered from health problems — a blanket statement issued by the regime when people die of torture. Since then, eyewitnesses have reported that her head was slammed against the hood of a car during her arrest. Other women detained in prison at the time said after being released, “they killed someone in there.”
Amini’s family clarified in an interview that their daughter had been in perfect health prior to her detention, and senior Iranian medical experts publicly stated that there was no evidence of death by heart attack. In fact, a leaked CT scan of Amini’s head showed evidence of a brain haemorrhage as the cause of death.
But even before the leak and the testimonies of the family and various medical experts, all of whom questioned the official version, the essence was clear to the demonstrators: state officials had killed a young woman because of a piece of cloth, or, as her mother put it at her funeral, “because of a few strands of hair”. The first gatherings and actions took place in the Kurdish part of Iran soon thereafter, especially in Sanandaj, Amini’s hometown and the capital of Iran’s Kurdistan Province, but within a few hours the protests had spread nationwide. Amini’s picture and the hashtags #IranProtests2022 and #MahsaAmini went viral.
The banality of her death is what made the protests so intense. Millions of Iranian women are familiar with this harassment, either experiencing it first-hand or witnessing it against sisters, aunts, mothers, and friends, as women are spat on, insulted, beaten, kicked, arrested, and tortured in front of them by conservative regime loyalists and the so-called “morality police”. Amini’s death was the result of a controversial procedural action that has faced criticism, even from within the ruling political class, since the Islamic Republic was founded. This explains the frustration, anger, and ultimately the courage of those now protesting in Iran.
The Struggle against the Hijab
The hijab in Iran is simultaneously much more than a piece of cloth: firstly, it is crucial to understanding the ideology of the Islamic Republic, and secondly, it is the most important issue of the largest and most important social movement in the country, the women’s movement.
In the era before the Republic, the Shah — a Western-oriented, authoritarian modernizer from above — banned the wearing of the hijab. During the anti-monarchist revolution that broke out in 1979 and was supported by many different forces across the country, it was reinterpreted as a symbol of resistance against the Shah. Many women, including leftists, progressives, and feminists, donned it for strategic reasons.
After the revolution, the mullahs led by their figurehead Ayatollah Khomeini secured power, deploying widespread violence against their former allies in the process. By banning opposition organizations and parties, imprisoning them, and carrying out mass executions, they destroyed the once formidable Communist parties as well as the People’s Mujahedin and thus secured sole rule for themselves.
Mandatory veiling was of paramount importance to the Islamists, who branded not wearing it as loyalty to the Shah and thus counter-revolutionary. Their image of women focused on their role as supportive companions who were obliged to shoulder reproductive labour within the family. At the same time, the new regime held women responsible for the moral decay of society. The new rulers saw the solution to this decay in the wearing of the hijab. Khomeini stated: “If the Islamic revolution should have no other result than the veiling of women, then that as such is enough for the revolution.” In other words, it is through women that the mullahs control society.
Although Khomeini viewed the obligation to wear the headscarf as the most important political measure, it also provoked resistance from the women’s movement, which at least delayed the introduction of the hijab. As a result, it became the most important issue for the women’s movement in the post-revolutionary era.
Even after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, women continued to scandalize the deeply sexist reality of life in the country. This included issues beyond the dress code such as marriage and divorce laws, the right to have a say outside of male caregivers, the minimum age for (forced) marriage and criminal responsibility, the right to abortion, restrictions in certain occupations, political representation, and more. Nevertheless, the hijab stood as a symbol for all of these shortcomings in society, particularly in everyday life.
Iranian women have now been fighting against the regime via civil disobedience for decades. As a result of their efforts, the headscarf is deliberately worn more and more carelessly and more hair is shown, especially in major cities like Tehran and Isfahan. A few years ago, campaigns were launched in which women without hijabs and/or dressed in “garish” clothing would go out in public spaces and film each other doing so. In December 2017, Vida Movahed, a single mother from a humble background, climbed an electrical power box on Tehran’s iconic Revolution Street, removed her white headscarf, and waved it on a pole. The iconic photo travelled around the world and today seems almost prophetic.
The Country Is a Powder Keg
Like other recent waves of uprisings in Iran, the September protests did not emerge from nowhere. We cannot understand their intensity and radicalism without the political and economic context and situation in which the country finds itself.
First, the Islamic Republic suffers from a kind of “birth defect”, as the state’s personnel simply lack the competence to deal with many issues in the complex world of the twenty-first century. The few truly influential positions in the Islamic Republic’s totalitarian political system are filled exclusively by Islamic scholars who have undergone strict religious education.
Secondly, the Republic is highly corrupt. A conglomerate of mullahs and the industrial-military-economic complex around the Revolutionary Guards divide all key sectors of the economy into so-called bonyâds, providing each other with contracts, permits, and orders with the aim of maximizing their own profits. The gigantic social gulf between the members of the state apparatus and the population is becoming ever more apparent as a result of sanctions: while the rulers continue to live luxurious lives, more and more people are plunged into existential crises and do not know whether they will be able to feed themselves and their families the next day.
This state of affairs is exacerbated by the Islamic Republic’s pitiful proclamation that all budgets in the country must be cut, while at the same time billions of dollars continue to flow to allies in the region to continue the proxy war against the West — in Syria, Israel/Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Third, the current protests are hitting the regime at the worst possible time, as ageing leader Ayatollah Khamenei continues to decline in strength. Remarkably, he has not commented on the protests to date.
President Ebrahim Raisi, who was already weak anyway and not really seen as legitimate by the people, was not even in the country when the protests broke out. He was at the UN General Assembly in New York and only returned to Tehran after a state of emergency had been declared for over a week.
Finally, Iran’s bloated security apparatus, thought to be overpowering, is beginning to show cracks as the counterinsurgency against its own population, which has been going on for years, leaves its mark. There are now rumours that some security forces are tired of brutally attacking their fellow citizens. There are even recordings of scenes in which security forces attack each other. It could indeed be that the unity of the Islamic Republic’s security complex will break apart this time around.
The reality of the last few years has made the Iranian people so desperate that the country is becoming a powder keg. Various occasions become the proverbial straws that break the camel’s back, whether it’s inflation (which is over 30 percent) and thus unaffordable food or petrol prices, ecological crises, or, as is the case this time, the death of a young woman for not wearing the hijab properly. The protests have also radicalized since 2018. The slogan “Reformers, conservatives — the game is over” illustrates that trust in the political system has been shaken and the population has lost all faith in the Republic’s pseudo-democratic trappings
The left-wing, Iran-based “Slingers Collective” went so far as to announce a “mass movement to overthrow the gendered, ethnic, and class oppression forced on the ppl by the theocratic regime of #Iran” on their Twitter account. Indeed, impressive solidarity between Iran’s different ethnic and religious minorities can be observed. As protests take place everywhere in the multi-ethnic state, there is one clear shared concern. This was not always the case before, as protests often remained regionally isolated.
Furthermore, the slogans also point to the unity and sisterhood of the actors: since Amini was Kurdish and the protests are strongest in the Kurdish part of the country, Jin, Jiyan, Azadi (“woman, life, freedom”), a well-known slogan from Kobanî, is one of the most important chants. You even hear slogans like “Kurdistan, you are the eye and light of Iran”. When, like now, women all over the country are at the forefront of the protests and tear the hated hijab off their heads, it is nothing less than a moment of revolutionary awakening.
That said, we should refrain from making hasty judgements, as there is still a possibility that the protests will be violently repressed. In that case, once again, a high price would be paid for the pursuit of freedom. But it is also certain that the September 2022 protests will further deepen the rift between the population and the regime. How deep can the rift go before everything falls apart?