There is something enthralling about the images coming out of Iran in recent days. Countless videos shared on social media show female students without their head scarves, college campuses resounding with slogans, even middle school girls waving black headscarves in the air and chasing away the representative of the Basij – the Islamic militia often used to maintain order. Scenes that would have been unthinkable ten or twenty years ago. Who would have imagined, even in recent times, such an ebullience motivated precisely by the rejection of the rules of behavior imposed by a religious state: a kind of anti-authoritarian revolt.
Iran has already experienced countrywide waves of protest in recent years: those of 2017, triggered by the drastic cut in fuel price subsidies (the pragmatic Hasan Rohani was president), and those of December 2019, when new riots against the rising cost of living were brutally suppressed. The latest wave of discontent materialized last May, again over rising prices, and involved different categories of workers, teachers, and small business owners: the small middle class impoverished by inflation.
This time, however, it is about something else: a collective surge of impatience with the rules that dictate behavior imposed by a religious state. Indeed, what triggered the general outrage was the death of a young woman on September 16th in the custody of the so-called “morality police” who had arrested her for not complying with Islamic dress codes. Photos of Mahsa Amini, 22, in a coma on a hospital bed circulated widely on social media, causing consternation. On the day of her funeral, in the Kurdistan town where her family resides, the anger was palpable. On September 18th, the protests spread to Tehran and then to all of Iran, as evidenced by numerous videos uploaded to social media: within ten days some 80 cities and small towns were swept up by the protests.
We saw girls burning their headscarves, or haranguing the crowd from the roof of a car. Women cutting their hair, a gesture of protest and mourning; others shouting “shame” at the Basij who speed through the crowd on motorcycles wielding batons. We heard chants saying “death to the dictator” – shouted at the time against the Shah. Or “justice, freedom, optional hijab,” which has evolved into the movement’s most popular slogan: zan, zendeghi, azadì, “woman, life, freedom.”
What, then, is happening in Iran? Protests have been going on for almost a month now, although it is difficult to gauge their strength at this time. They have involved women and men, cities large and small, and different social strata. Demonstrations have occurred in working-class areas such as the Nazi Abad neighborhood in southern Tehran. Even among oil industry workers; a video circulated on Monday October 10th shows workers at Asaluyeh, the largest petrochemical plant near Bushehr on the Persian Gulf, chanting slogans in solidarity with protesting women and fellow citizens. Workers at Asaluyeh, including many on temporary contracts, have been agitating for months and demanding better wages and contractual protections, now have added their voices to those around the country.
Such widespread protests took the state by surprise. At first, the Islamic Republic’s top leadership tried to run for cover: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi himself had telephoned Mahsa Amini’s father to express his condolences and the promise if an investigation. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sent his closest aide to the Amini home to express “great sorrow.” The head of the moral brigades was suspended. The Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance said he had already been thinking of reforming the “morality police”. Meanwhile, however, authorities have claimed that Amini died of a pre-existing heart problem – not from the beating she received in the police van, which the girls detained with her had instead insisted happened. The family retorted that Mahsa did not suffer from a heart condition at all; her father told the BBC that he was not even allowed to see her body. In short: the official apology has not extinguished public outrage, which instead has flared up.
The state responded with repression. On the one hand, force: tear gas against peaceful gatherings, batons, metal bullets at eye level (according to some human rights organizations, police even employed real bullets). On the other, censorship: the internet has been restricted, social media such as WhatsApp or Instagram have been blacked out – although this has not really stopped the flow of videos, photos, and news. Finally, the accusations: after the first days of “condolences,” the media began to use other words: riots, anarchy, terrorism. The regime organized a large demonstration of “support for the Islamic Republic” against “external plots.”
In fact, as in other waves of protest, the state accused “external enemies” of organizing the unrest. Kayhan, a newspaper that is considered the official voice of the Supreme Leader, explained that “counter-revolutionaries” are trying to undermine the foundations of the Islamic Republic. Mahsa Amini was Kurdish, one of Iran’s many minorities, and the harshest repression has taken place in Kurdistan Province (just as union protests, branded as separatist sympathizers, have been particularly harshly repressed here in the past).
In his first public speech since the protests began, Supreme Leader Khamenei was adamant: we are aggrieved by the death of a girl, but the riots are a plot organized by external enemies. Period.
Instead, the protests, which seemed to die down at the end of September, flared up again in schools and universities that reopened on October 1st (the academic year officially began on September 24th, but in the first week classes were held online to avoid demonstrations): so we saw female students shouting slogans on campuses across the country, police charges, and arrests. In one case President Raisi was booed and shushed by students. New demonstrations took place on October 8th, only to wane again in the following days.
The toll is heavy, although accurate reports are difficult to come by. Official media in late September spoke of 41 dead including several security officers, a number that has not been updated since. The Norway-based organization Iran Human Rights speaks of 185 dead (as of October 10th). Photos of girls killed during the protests have been circulating. That of Nika Shakarami, 16, is the best known: she had left to go to a demonstration; her body was found lifeless at a construction site, as if she had fallen from a building under construction. Either killed by the police who had arrested her, as her mother claims, or by unknown persons under circumstances yet to be clarified. Either way, videos of her reciting poetry for freedom, and photos of other girls who have died in this month of protests, have become a new symbol of the Iranian women’s struggle; and not only women, now.
Perhaps that is precisely the point. In May, aiming at resolution, the president announced new subsidies for poor families. But what will he respond to the hundreds of thousands of girls – with and without veils, judging by the photos that have circulated – who have protested the death of Mahsa Amini? It’s a sign that impatience with a state that claims to dictate how one should dress is widespread, far beyond the urban upper-middle classes or what the regime wryly calls “Westernized.” Paradoxically, today’s protests are a consequence, perhaps unintended, of the 1979 Revolution: because the Islamic Republic restricted women’s rights and imposed the veil, sure, but it also fostered schooling and even activism among women also in the less wealth strata of society. The women who had made the revolution, then fought to stay in the public space – and indeed today, there they are. Their daughters and granddaughters have entered university en masse (today 60 percent of university enrollees are women), professions, and culture. They are the “granddaughters of the revolution” who today wave headscarves and shout “shame” at the Basij.
Instead, President Raisi’s administration has given more space and power to the very brigades that go around slapping and arresting the “badly-veiled.” A president elected in June 2021 with the lowest voter turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic, with virtually no opponents (certain popular candidates had been excluded from the electoral contest), seeks to strengthen his legitimacy by leaving more room for the apparatus – the militias, the Basij, the most extreme bodies in the system. One incident last July is significant: a woman was arrested after a video circulated online showing a self-proclaimed “guardian” loudly reprimanding her on a bus, accusing her of being improperly dressed. The victim was Sepideh Rashno, 28, a writer and artist; a few days after her arrest, she was shown on TV apologizing in what was clearly an extorted confession. In those days dozens of women were arrested and forced to take Islamic morality classes; in fact, the Raisi government declared July 12th “Chastity Day.” The same president signed a decree on August 15th imposing new measures to enforce dress codes. As if he did not understand his own country.
But here, a month later, it is precisely the brutality of the morality police that ignites the largest protest in years. Will the government have to backtrack? In the past month, the morality police have disappeared from the streets, and Speaker of Parliament, Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf (a conservative) said on October 2nd that he will push to change how the force operates so that cases like Mahsa Amini’s are not repeated. Others go further and harsh criticisms are not only coming from the reformist currents. On October 12th, Ali Larijani, the former speaker of parliament during the last legislature as well as former head of the National Security Council, and a prominent figure in the Islamic nomenclature, said in a lengthy interview that “more tolerance is needed,” and that enforcing the hijab “should not be the business of the Basij or the police” (the interview is quoted extensively here).
It is likely that sooner or later the protests will die down: after all, what we are seeing in Iran is a spontaneous movement, not an organized opposition.
But all the motivations that led so many Iranians, women and men, to defy the security forces in the streets, remain. Many things have converged in these protests: the weight of economic hardship, the lack of prospects suffocating an entire generation, and a feeling of disenfranchisement. After Mahsa Amini’s death, this collective impatience has converged with the system of prescriptions and prohibitions of which the hijab is the strongest symbol. The question is whether the Islamic Republic will be able to transform itself, and answer its citizens’ demands for the future.
Cover Photo: Front page of newspaper Hafteh Sobh on Mahsa Amini’s death, Iran, September 18th 2022. (Atta Kenare/Afp).
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