Ruth Stainer sheds light on the context of the female-led protests currently taking place in Iran, its possible implications and what you can do to help assist protestors in their fight for change:
Artwork by Ruby Tait (IG: @Rubyt.art).
What sparked the protests?:
It has been nearly three months since the widespread national protests began in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini. The 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman was visiting family in Tehran when she was arrested by the Islamic Republic’s‘morality police’for allegedly not adhering to the government’s hijab standards. According to eyewitnesses and her family, Amini was brutally beaten while in custody and subsequently fell into a coma for several days before passing away on September 16th, 2022. The Islamic Republic government has publicly denied this and have attempted to convince the public that Amini’s death was due to an underlying heart condition. Amini’s family have confirmed that she had no such underlying condition; since then, medical scans have also been released that confirm skull fractures.
The public response to Mahsa Amini’s death was not only that of an overwhelming outpour of anger and grief over the unjust death of an innocent young woman but also a powder key moment in modern Iranian history and a tipping point for people all over the country, particularly women who had suffered decades of persecution by the Islamic Republic regime on the basis of sex. For the weeks and months following September 16th, Iranian women boldly took to the streets in great numbers, burning their hijabs, cutting their hair, and demanding an end to the curtailing of their rights, with the clarion call of ‘Women, Life Freedom, reaching every cornerstone of Iranian society and indeed, the world. What started out as a protest against human rights abuses and inequality quickly transformed into a fully-fledged national revolutionary movement against the current regime as chants of ‘death to the dictator’ echoed on streets of Tehran and all over the country. Iranians of all ages, gender, ethnicity and class have collectively mobilised against the theocratic state. Despite the violent crackdowns these protesters are being subjected to, resulting in hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of arrests, the movement’s momentum continues. The message is clear: ‘enough is enough’.
The predominantly female and youth led protests, although historic in more ways than one, were largely ignored by Western media until the third week of continuous activity. Even then, some outlets falsely reported that the protests were due to economic hardship. All the while, the Islamic Republic paramilitary troops responded to protestors with increasing violence, including the use of batons, live ammunition and tear gas. We have witnessed paramilitary troops shooting at any protestors who attempt to take photos or videos of the protests with their phones. In addition to this, the government instituted an internet blackout in an attempt to stop the flow of information which is still in place 3 months on. However, despite the brutal crackdown, the number of protestors and public displays of support for the movement increased. Symbols of the government are routinely defaced, laborers, merchants and petrochemical workers have routinely gone on strike (which proved extremely effective during 1979). Athletes have also demonstrated public displays of support for the movement in televised sporting events in varying forms; men’s sporting teams, including the men’s national football team refused to sing the national anthem and Iranian women, such as rock climber Elnaz Rekabi (who is currently under house arrest), refused to wear the hijab during their events to demonstrate their solidarity with the movement.
Likewise, countless journalists, actors, activists, and students have been arrested for displays of discontentment with the government. Most recently, doctors are being arrested for treating wounded protestors who fear going to the hospital where police await to arrest them. It is estimated that a total of 475 protestors have been killed, 18,000 have been arrested and 11 of which are now on death row on trumped up charges and as of 8th December, the first execution of a protestor took place. Without due process or a fair trial, 23-year old Mohsen Shekari was found guilty of ‘Mohareber’ (enmity against god) by the revolutionary court and was executed by hanging on December 8th. In a series of sham trials, 23-year old MajidReaza Rahnavard was also executed by hanging on December 12th, his family were only notified afterwards. Furthermore, there have been numerous reports of rape and torture in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, which caught fire on the 16th of October amidst the surging protests. As the protests continue, it is clear that the Islamic Republic regime will use every violent tool at their disposal to try and stifle the flame of revolution.
It is important to note that the theocratic Islamic Republic Regime only came into power following the 1979 revolution that overthrew Iran’s then constitutional monarchy. Images of pre-revolutionary Iran stand in stark contrast to what we witness today, many Iranians have family members who lived through the 1979 Revolution and remember a time not long ago where they enjoyed the freedoms that they now seek to regain. Iran today consists of a predominantly young and modern population with 60% of all Iranians being under the age of 30. These protests appear to reflect a dichotomy between this young segment of the population, proud of their 2500-year-old Persian civilisation and culture versus an ageing theocratic Islamic regime.
Photo: University students in pre-revolutionary Iran (1970s). Credit: rarehistoricalphotos.com
This current female-led Iranian revolution, though representing a distinct and unprecedented moment in history, is not an isolated event, with Iranian women’s rights movements having long demanded equal access to the public sphere. In fact, just weeks after Iran established its theocratic regime, on March 8th 1979, women took to the streets of Tehran to protest after AyatollahKhomeini declared the state’s intention to enforce mandatory hijab and ban women from their workplaces if they did not comply. However, as a result of the protests , the regime could only enforce hijab in steps, and was not able to fully enforce mandatory compliance until 1981.
More recently, in 2014 Iranian activist Masih Alinejad started a Facebook campaign called ‘My Stealthy Freedom’, where women would send her their story of how life under the regime had affected them alongside a photo of themselves in Iran without a scarf for a few moments. Her page now provides a platform for daily updates on the protests in Iran, with over 1 million followers. Likewise, the Girls of Revolution Street protests began in 2017 when Vida Movahed, a 31-year-old mother, removed her headscarf and waved it in the air above a platform on Revolution Street in central Tehran. As a form of solidarity, and in spite of the threat of arrest and harassment, many other women followed suit, removing their headscarves in non-violent protest which were named ‘white Wednesday’.
What’s different this time?:
So, what makes the current female-led protests so incredible to see, serving as a point of unprecedented weight? Many are rightly pointing out that this movement is the first female-led revolution in history, what's more is that the majority of protestors are also extremely young- with some reports stating that the average age of arrested protesters is only 15. Despite the Islamic Republic historically being witness to larger demonstrations (notably the Green Movement of 2009, in which millions protested state sponsored vote-rigging), the current movement is distinct in its prominence and geographical diversity. Spreading to as many as 19 cities (as of October 12th), their calls for change are being echoed by larger swathes of the Iranian public than ever before, including university students, workers’ unions, ethnic minority groups and an overwhelming support from Iranians in the diaspora. Speaking to TIME Magazine, Mona Tajali states that ‘The Iranian regime, ever since 1979, has been quite tone deaf to people’s demands’ and that ‘this has been one of the fundamental reasons and justifications for why people just want to see the downfall of the system’.
Even more significantly, ‘this is one of the first times that we’re seeing men also join in that call’ says Tajali. ‘They are seeing that women’s interests and their demands for gender equality and non-gender discrimination falls in line with the larger pro-democratic, pro-human rights demands that the larger society has. It’s much more intersectional’. Moreover, Zoe Marks, an expert on non-violent mass movements at the Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, proclaims that the protests’ wealth of prominence, at least in part, are owed to the movement being led primarily by women. In fact, movements that heavily feature women have been frequently found more likely to lead to defections among both members and supporters of a regime, with women able to bring more legitimacy and sympathy to these movements.
What the future holds for Iranians remains rather unclear at present. One of the biggest challenges these protesters face is not only bringing about the downfall of a ruthless regime, but also articulating a vision for the kind of government that could replace it whilst safeguarding against a repeat of 1979. In fact, attempting to instating a new government that truly reflects the will of the people amidst the chaos of a revolution, after nearly 44 years of dictatorship, deep rooted corruption and the potential interference of powerful external actors all with their own personal agendas and stakes in the future of Iran- will be anything but simple and clear. Moreover, the formation of official revolutionary groups within Iran in this current climate is incredibly dangerous, with increased surveillance and crackdowns, any new groups will be in immediate danger. This is perhaps a time where prominent members of the Iranian diaspora might band together to create some sort of platform for Iranian voices to be heard and for greater coordination- think of the BBC broadcasts that spread Khomeini’s messages in the 70’s whilst he was in exile in France and leading the movement in Iran.
Until now, it could be argued that the nature of the protests, as a spontaneous and leaderless grassroots movement, has had its advantages. Most notably perhaps, there is no leader or political group for the government to target or persecute in order to quell the revolution. However, this also means that there is a lack of coordination in terms of vision and strategy that the protestors will inevitably need if they hope to overthrow the current government. When speaking to TIME Magazine, Women’s rights advocate and former Iranian reformist lawmaker Fatemeh Haghighatjoo expressed that the current movement lacks ‘unified leadership inside and outside of the country and this is a big weakness’, indeed many more have echoed this sentiment. As the protests continue and enter into more mature stages we may witness the emergence of potential leaders and political groups, as well as increased attempts to hijack the movement by external actors. Nevertheless, whilst the future of Iran remains uncertain, one incontestable fact remains: these protests serve as a vital inflection point. Indeed, irrespective of whether a regime change is achieved, the country has already proven inexplicably transformed by the movement at play.
The red lines of the Islamic Republic government are crossed by Iranians every day, women of all ages have chosen to stop wearing the mandatory hijab (which is deemed a criminal offence) during their normal daily activities, a single morality police van can no longer stop on the streets to arrest or harass a woman because people will swarm in large numbers to fight against them and prevent an arrest from occurring. Powerful images have emerged of young women walking past security forces unveiled and they dare not approach her; the dynamics between the security forces and the people has changed. Of course, the fight for freedom is far from over, the government’s forces still use violent force but they have also displayed signs of fatigue. What is clear is that fear tactics historically used by the Islamic Republic regime are no longer effective- many young protestors have confessed that they believe they have no future under this regime and nothing more to lose, with many more chanting ‘we will fight, we will die, but we will take Iran back’.
Ultimately, the omniscient revolutionary mood in Iran is unlikely to be quelled. Despite diminishing coverage by the mainstream media, the calls for freedom by Iranian women and men continue in full force, and the impact will be felt for years to come. ‘Most people who experienced the 1979 revolution say this condition is like 1978, the year leading to the revolution’, says Haghighatjoo. ‘I am hopeful that people will succeed. But it may take a couple of years.’
To help support the female-led Iranian revolution, you can do the following:
1) Write to your MP asking them to support Iranian’s women rights publicly:
- You can find your local MP here: https://members.parliament.uk/FindYourMP
2) Donate to or support human rights organisations:
- The Center for Human Rights in Iran is an independent, not-for-profit organisation working to protect human rights in Iran by working closely with the media to document Iranian human rights violations.
- The Women’s Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran is raising funds to help support their work against Iran’s gender-based inequalities.
- United for Iran is an organisation of coders, developers, and activists working to support Iran through technology and online advocacy.
- Amnesty International is currently running an appeal, asking for emergency donations to help to fund their investigation into ongoing events in Iran.
- The Abdorraham Boroumand Centre for Human Rights in Iran records executions and assassinations in Iran, whilst also providing a platform for victims of human rights violations.
3) Sign relevant petitions:
- Petition for the UK government to maintain sanctions and introduce a visa ban on people linked to the Iranian regime: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/623572
- Petition by Amnesty International calling for an end to the protest bloodshed in Iran alongside the establishment of an independent United Nations mechanism to investigate crimes committed under international law in Iran: https://www.amnesty.org/en/petition/end-the-protest-bloodshed-in-iran/
4) Continue to help raise awareness and amplify Iranian voices on social media.
5) Attend upcoming protests across the UK in support of the Iranian protestors:
- Instagram accounts such as @MiddleEastMatters are great for staying up to date on the status of upcoming protests in your local area.
Important things to note:
- Following the 1979 revolution, the new government that came into power was called the Islamic Republic Government and Iran’s name officially changed to the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). It should be noted that the protests are not religiously motivated, and the majority of Muslim Iranians condemn the actions of the IR Government who routinely use their version of Islam to control, coerce and oppress the public, especially women. - The Morality police is a stand-alone force created under the Islamic Republic Government who are tasked with enforcing strict behaviour and dress codes. Under President Raisi’s ultra-conservative administration the presence of the morality police was greatly increased in big cities across Iran. - The State mandated hijab has been seen as a tool of oppression by the majority of Iranian women, if given the choice the majority would choose not to wear one. It should be noted that the burning of headscarves was not a religious statement but a political on