by Hamid Mohseni, Iranian-German free-lance journalist based in Berlin, who is involved in the Iran solidarity networks since the 2009 uprising. First published in Greek from our friends in Babylonia magazine.
Iran is currently shaken by the next massive wave of protests. In over a hundred towns and cities, people have been taking to the streets for two weeks to demonstrate against the Islamic Republic Iran (IRI) – nothing less. They are engaged in militant clashes with a powerful but seemingly overwhelmed security apparatus, destroying various symbols of the ruling system and occupying government offices or even temporarily controlling entire towns such as the predominantly Kurdish- populated Oshnaviyeh. More than a hundred people are reported to have died already, and thousands have been arrested. Already, the protests of September 2022 include an act that is revolutionary in itself and frightens the Islamist rulers and their deeply sexist ideology: Women are taking off the mandatory hijab and clearly making their mark on the protests. This wave of protests is feminist, progressive and democratic.
The protests were triggered by the death 22-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman who died in police custody. She was approached by Iranian “morality police” in Tehran about her headscarf and got arrested. The accusation was that there was too much hair showing, that this was “un-Islamic” and “indecent.” She was ordered to spend a few hours in custody in the notorious Evin prison for an “educational measure”. When she was released from it, Amini was in a coma and died in the hospital three days later. Iranian authorities claim Amini died of an epileptic seizure followed by a heart attack, and that she suffered previous health problems – the typical explanation for torture deaths. Eyewitnesses say her head was smashed on the hood of the car during the arrest. Other women in prison at the time said upon her release, “They killed someone in there.”1 Amini’s family clarified in an interview2 that their daughter had been in good health. High-ranking Iranian medical experts publicly3 stated that death from heart attack was highly unlikely. Amini’s leaked head CT4 clearly points to a brain hemorrhage as the cause of death.
For the demonstrators, it was clear from the beginning: a young woman was killed by state servants because of a piece of cloth or “because of a few strands of hair” (Amini’s mother at her funeral). At first, gatherings and actions took place in the Kurdish part of Iran, particularly in the capital Sanandaj (Amini’s place of residence), but within hours the protests were nationwide, and Amini’s picture and the hashtags #IranProtests2022 and #MahsaAmini went viral through the digital world.
It is the banality of her death that allowed the protests to sprout up so quickly and become so intense. Millions of Iranian women know this harassment and have already experienced it first hand or witnessed it on sisters, aunts, mothers, friends. And Iranian men also experience how women are spat at, insulted, beaten, kicked, arrested and tortured in the worst way by conservative regime loyalists as well as by those “morality police” for this so charged piece of material in front of their eyes. Amini’s death resulted from a controversial everyday act that has been criticized even from within the ruling political class since the existence of the Islamic Republic. This explains the frustration, anger and ultimately the courage of those currently protesting in Iran.
A piece of cloth with a lot of meaning
The hijab in Iran is much more than just a piece of cloth. It is a key for understanding the ideology of the Islamic Republic and the most important object of the largest and most important social movement, the women’s movement in the country.
In the pre-IRI era, the Shah – a Western-oriented, authoritarian “modernizer from above” – prohibited the wearing of the hijab. In the revolution against the monarchy 1979, carried by many different forces in the country, it was reinterpreted as a symbol of resistance to the Shah; many women, including leftist, progressive, and clearly feminist ones, wore it for strategic reasons – it was a symbol of opposition. After the revolution, the mullahs and their figurehead Khomeini secured power through massive use of force against their previous allies. By means of bans on organizations and parties, imprisonments and mass executions, they destroyed the formerly strong communist parties and the People’s Mujahideen and secured sole rule for themselves. Mandatory Hijab now was not a tool of opposition anymore; the new ruling law forced women to wear it – not doing so was interpreted as loyalty to the Shah and branded as counterrevolutionary and treason. This was not just one of many laws, but one of the Islamists’ most important concerns. Their image of women was characterized by the supportive companion of men – the sole real agents of history – who was assigned all kinds of reproductive tasks within the family. However, she had to control herself strongly, because at the same time women were solely responsible for any moral decay and (sexual) corruptibility of men. Especially their hair but also her body were too seductive, which is why she has to be veiled at all costs. Through women, the mullahs control society. To emphasize the importance of this control and of the hijab, Khomeini once said, “If the Islamic revolution should have no other result than the veiling of women, then that is per se enough for the revolution.”5
Thus, the hijab became the most important object of the women’s movement in the post- revolutionary era. Even though it was the most important measure in Khomeini’s eyes, he experienced resistance – including a mass demonstration on March 8, 1979 – on the part of the women’s movement, which at least delayed the introduction of the hijab. Even when the IRI was established, women repeatedly scandalized the deeply sexist reality of life in Iran. Of course, this included more aspects than the dress code: rights in marriage and divorce, the right to have a say beyond male caregivers, the minimum age for (forced) marriage and criminal responsibility, the right to abortion, occupational bans in all sectors, representation in politics, and so on. But the hijab, as a symbol, unified the miserable overall situation like nothing else, especially in everyday life. For decades, Iranian women have been waging a struggle of civil disobedience and have succeeded in getting the headscarf to be worn more laxly and more hair to be shown, especially in large cities such as Tehran and Isfahan. A few years ago, campaigns were launched for women to go out in public spaces without hijabs and/or in “garish” clothing and film themselves doing so. In December 2017, Vida Modavahed – a likely single mother from the lower class – climbed an electricity box on Tehran’s iconic “Revolution Street”, removed her white headscarf and waved it on a pole – an
iconic photo6 went around the world and today seems almost prophetic.
Because now, also, in the current protest movement, the removal of the hijab and the strong presence of women in the front ranks in whatever forms of action is the sign that, regardless of the outcome, most strongly characterizes this wave of protest and does lasting damage to the legitimacy of the IRI – if it still exists in this way in a few weeks. Incidentally, they are a slap in the face of those left-liberal pseudo-feminists who claim that the fight against the hijab is only about “a bit of wind in the hair” and promotes “western ideologies”.
A powder keg for years
The September protests, like recent waves of uprisings in Iran, did not fall from the sky. Above all, one does not understand their intensity and radicalism if one ignores the context and situation in which the country finds itself politically and economically.
First, the IRI has a significant “birth defect” in that its personnel lack the competence to deal with many issues in the complex world of the 21st century. In the IRI’s politically totalitarian system, the few truly influential positions consist exclusively of Islamic scholars who pass through a strictly clerical education.
Second, the IRI is highly corrupt. A conglomerate of mullahs and the industrial-military-economic complex of the Revolutionary Guards divide all key sectors of the economy into so-called “bonyads “7; they push orders, permits and decisions back and forth for the sole purpose of maximizing their own profits. The gigantic gap between the members of the state apparatus and the population became clear not least because of the sanctions: while the rulers did not budge one inch from their luxurious lives, more and more people plunged into existential crises, not knowing whether they would be able to feed themselves and their families tomorrow. This state of affairs continues to be perverted when the IRI, seeking sympathy, announces that all budgets in the country must be cut, but billions continue to flow to supported political groups and militias in the region to continue the proxy war against the West, especially in Syria, Iraq, Israel and Yemen.
Third, the current protests are hitting at the worst possible time: the current leader, Khamenei, has become weak, both health-wise and charismatically. Remarkably, he has not famously commented at all on the protests like he usually does. President Raisi, who is weak anyway and not really legitimized by the population,8 was not even in the country for a long time, because he was buying souvenirs from the “Satan” during a UN-assembly in New York City8. And finally, the overly inflated security apparatus, thought to be overpowering, is showing cracks. After all, a permanent counterinsurgency against its own population, as has been conducted more and more regularly for several years, is leaving its mark. There have already been frequent (unconfirmed) rumors that the security forces are tired of acting so brutally and lethally against fellow citizens who sometimes have a legitimate concern to protest9. Moreover, during the current protests, footage was taken of units going after each other. Some officers apparently have said, they cannot prevail control over the protests much longer. During the last days, more and more children are deployed10 to counter the protests. Like in the 1980s, during the “Gulf War” against Iraq – where children where sent to the front to clear mine fields with the promise to go into paradise – again the IRI deploys children in another war, this time in a war against its own people.
Also part of the reality of the last few years is that the people of Iran are so desperate that this country must be described as nothing more than a powder keg. Different occasions are the drops that bring the barrel to overflow, whether inflation of over 30%11, unaffordable food or gasoline prices, ecological crises or now just the death of a young woman because of the hijab. Since 2018, there has been a radicalization, when the slogan “reformers, conservatives – the game is over”12manifested a blatant breach of trust in the political system, which now cannot even pretend to be democratic to its own population. The anti-authoritarian Iranian “Slingers Collective” even currently diagnoses a “mass movement against the gender, ethnic and social oppression against the population by the theocratic regime”13.
Character of the protests – solidarity, feminism, democracy
Indeed, an impressive solidarity between the various ethnic and religious minorities can be observed. The protests are taking place all over the multiethnic state, and there is a clear common concern – this is not always the case. The slogans also suggest unity and sisterhood: Since Amini was Kurdish and the Kurdish part of the country is where the protests are most intense, one of the main slogans is the “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” familiar from Kobane. You can even hear slogans like “Kurdistan, you are the eye and light of Iran.” This is truly remarkable, since Iran is a highly discriminating country. Not only the state treats ethnic and religious minorities (Baha’is, Kurds, Azeris, Turks and so on) like citizens with a lower value, but the discrimination and chauvinism is also reproduced in society. In recent decades, these groups lived their own realities parallel to each other; when one group protested, it mostly stayed isolated. The “Green movement” of 2009 is a good example for that; it was mainly carried out by a bourgeois, reformist urban youth in bigger cities, the minorities at the different border regions of Iran never joined – thus you could hardly speak of nation wide movements. This time it’s different and it’s not any group fueling and basically leadings the protests, of all group it’s the Kurds with a very progressive core. And when, in this situation, women are clearly at the forefront of these protests all over the country, tearing the hated hijab off their heads, then one can speak of a revolutionary aspect within the protests, and then fear and terror is guaranteed within the IRI – and rightly so.
As an exiled Iranian myself, writing this text I am begging you: be ware of the exiled Iranians and their agenda – rather, propaganda. Two bigger groups battle for hegemony over these protests from the outside, the people’s Mujaheddin with their leadership sitting in Paris and the monarchists with their “heir to the throne”, the prince of the king who was sent to hell in the revolution 1979, sitting in the US with tight bonds to the government there. They have resources, media and they try to take over the solidarity demonstrations all over the world, especially in USA, Canada and UK. All exiled Iranians, but especially the monarchists, have a tendency to put their stamp on the protests in Iran. In their media outlet they select certain scenes and they write declarations, praising the brave people of Iran and expressing solidarity. When these people try to explain what the brave protesters in Iran “really want”, they try to politically take them over and they harm the battle in Iran the most dangerous way. Of course, there are people in Iran sympathizing with those groups. Nonetheless, the Iranians are fed up with all those exile-propaganda and rightly say: you out there in your comfortable residences in the West be silent, we are risking our lives here. So despite any efforts to manipulate the footage from the protests in Iran in a way, that the people chant for the prince to come and govern the country, the reality looks different: there are very radical as well as progressive slogans being chanted, such as “bread, work, freedom”, which is a social demand that developed popularity during the poor people’s uprising 2017/2018. Another big slogan is “Death to the oppressor – be it the shah or the leader [of IRI]”. The media outlets mentioned above never show this slogans in their coverage.
Beyond slogans, the analysis of the current forms of protests hints to a similar, progressive and democratic direction. Till this moment, the clashes in the streets and the resistance in daily life is going on in many cities and municipalities. And yet, as it has been seen even in European countries, militancy alone does hardly lead to a real change, and most certainly not to a revolution. Especially in the case of Iran, where the leadership of the IRI has multiple times said: we don’t go anywhere, after us comes burnt soil. Regarding their security apparatus – which is designed to smash any protest and insurrection like hardly any other country in the world – a pure battle on the streets is mostly won by the IRI. Even if the Iranian units get tired or may become insecure because they are slaughtering their own people, the IRI can summon militias from Lebanon and Palestine, who love to satsify their racism and kill some rebellious Iranians. The people in Iran know that and have painfully experienced that.
That’s why during the last days, calls for strikes and boycotts are being written and spread. Consider that no independent union or political group is allowed, groups calling for this kind of protest are usually operating underground, or, in rare cases, are being tolerated because of their popularity, like the independent teachers’ union, which is very active since the last years and builds up good connections to workers from other sectors. They may be tolerated, but after each action many activists get arrested – so in a way, they also have to operate underground. They were the firsts to call out for a general strike, then students groups followed and about ten universities were being boycotted and used for protests, even certain workers in the very important oil sectors start to prepare to strike, as well as truckers, bus drivers, educators, academics and many retail workers plan the same. This kind of organization is democratic and hosts very progressive ideas how a society should look like. And Iranians have gathered experience in strikes and other actions, because for years now, everyday there is such a struggle going, even when it does not enjoy much attention.
Where will this protest wave lead to?
It may still well be that the protests are suppressed and crushed, hundreds would die and several thousands arrested, beaten, tortured. Once again, an incredibly high price would be paid for seeking freedom. But these protests in September 2022 are once again guaranteed to deepen the rift between the population and the IRI. How deep can such a rift go before everything falls apart? What can even happen when the IRI is in fact gone? Will there be free elections? And who would win that? A new case of Syria in Iran is possible as well – a long, uncontrollable and violent civil war and bloodshed, a country in total ruins. This was a huge fear among the Iranians, but now, yet again, the anger and frustration topples the fear. And this makes many scenarios and forecasts obsolete – the beauty of a revolutionary situation is, that nothing can be predicted for sure.
2 https://iranhumanrights.org/2022/09/mahsa-aminis-father-everything-they-have-said-and-shown-is-lies/ 3 https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-amini-death-head-injury-doctor/32042587.html
5 Nameye-Zan, No. 2-3., Teheran, 2003
7 https://www.mei.edu/publications/country-free-fall-corruptocracy-full-swing-why-building-collapse-iran-matters 8 https://www.iranintl.com/en/202209236867