Annabelle Sreberny on how the murder of Mahsa Amini lit the tinderbox of women’s anger and wider social unrest
One month after the success of the 1979 Iranian revolution that had overturned the monarchical system, women found themselves on the streets again for International Women’s Day but shouting, “At the dawn of freedom, women’s place lies empty”. The revolution of February 1979 was a popular anti-imperialist pro-democracy mobilisation that became increasingly Islamic and culminated in the Islamic Republic. It has been the focus of 43 years of political activities designed to mitigate its worst elements, to reform it and, currently, in the longest sustained public mobilisation, to remove it.
The struggle for women’s rights was part of both Iranian revolutions of the 20th century – the Constitutional Revolution in 1906 and the 1979 revolution – with the covering and uncovering of women part of a wider politics. As part of his modernisation programme in the 1930s, Reza Shah Pahlavi forcibly unveiled women. Under the last shah, women had gained various social rights, but these were rapidly abrogated in 1979, as mandatory hijab (religious covering for women) was imposed and the media censored.
The Islamic Republic is a patriarchal, theocratic structure where old men rule under the notion of velayat-faghih, ‘the supreme jurist’. Women do not enjoy equal citizenship with men or adequate social protections, and are denied the guardianship of their children and rights to divorce, travel, and equality under the law. Women can vote – unlike some countries in the region – but one would have to say that while the regime tries to maintain its popular revolutionary mandate through elections, these are increasingly performative. There are no independent political parties, and the Guardian Council vets political candidates. No woman has been allowed even to run for president. Rakhshān Banietemad’s film Our Times (2002) brilliantly explores this.
Women have actively fought for their rights as well as being involved in more general political matters. There have been various attempts to build a women’s press, but journalists and editors, such as Shahla Sherkat, have been imprisoned or threatened with imprisonment. Bloggers raised many issues, especially issues around sexuality and private life, as have women filmmakers such as Tahmineh Milāni and Samira Makhmalbaf. When women lawyers tried to defend women who were arrested, they themselves ended up in trouble – viz. Shirin Ebadi, Nasrin Sotoudeh, Mehrangiz Kar. Sadly, there is a special women’s political wing of the notorious Evin Prison. Its inmates have spoken out in support of the current mobilisation.
The hardline president Ebrahim Raisi, enjoying a very weak mandate after a highly contested election in 2020, recently produced a 119-page document about ‘Hijab and Chastity’ which not only continues to mandate hijab but also intends to limit contraception and abortion, essentially returning women to private, family life and reproduction in order to increase the population to 150 million, as supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei wants.
This goes against the grain of the slow social revolution in mores and attitudes against hardline Shi’ite ideology that has been unfolding. The regime’s problem is that more women have joined the workforce as two salaries are needed for many families, and the country is now experiencing high inflation and economic difficulties. Over 60% of university students are women, many in STEM subjects, but they cannot find appropriate work. 22% of women graduates are unemployed. The Islamic Republic is increasingly known for its misogyny and gender apartheid.
The spark of Mahsa (Jina) Amini’s death on September 16th fell on the dry tinder of women’s anger and frustration, triggering the current mobilisation under the slogan “Woman, life, freedom”. But it also fell on popular concern with the other economic, environmental and political crises that Iranians are facing.
There is immense impoverishment caused by externally imposed sanctions as well as economic mismanagement and corruption. The economy has not grown in the last decade and remains centred on oil and gas production, which make up 82% of Iran’s exports. This produces a very particular and skewed class formation. A small coterie, mainly connected to the Revolutionary Guards (the IRGC), have become hugely rich. The most Porsches in the world were imported to Iran recently, and their rich children live in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The cost of basic foods has skyrocketed, and inflation is running at over 50%. There were strikes in the years 2017 to 2019 around economic issues, with protesters angry at the removal of food subsidies and a threefold rise in petrol prices. The slogan “Marg bar Khamenei” (“Down with Khamenei”) emerged. These protests were brutally crushed, with 1,500 known deaths in 2019. No protest lasted longer than one week.
There is terrible environmental decay. Lake Urumieh has dried out, and the noble Zayanderood river that ran under the magnificent bridges of Isfahan is but a trickle, while the bridges themselves are cracking. Air pollution keeps city schools closed, while dust storms have affected farming.
Minorities have always had to fight for their cultural and political rights, and there has been terrible brutality recently in both Baluchistan and Kurdistan, the regime playing on irredentist fears.
Youth – 60% of Iran’s population are under 30 – see no future for themselves. The Islamic Republic, despite its ideological desire, is not totalitarian like North Korea but a culturally leaky environment. There has been a massive brain drain, with over four million Iranians in a worldwide diaspora that tells Iranians at home what life is like elsewhere. One might even suggest that Covid lockdown set young people internet surfing to see and inform themselves about elsewhere. The regime tries to control the internet by slowing it or periodically shutting parts down, but that hurts business and their own activities and has not stopped a very digitally savvy population who use Tor and VPNs to get around regime limitations.
A wonderful song called ‘Baraye’ (‘For’), which rapidly became the anthem of this movement, notes the range of crises facing Iranians.
Since September 22nd, all the different oppositional elements have come together in an intersectional uprising. It is geographically widespread across the country. It is driven by women and the young, but their parents are there too. It includes ethnic and religious minorities. It includes university students and schoolchildren, striking steel workers and truck drivers, ordinary men and women. Unity is a central rallying cry. There is (as yet) no obvious leadership nor clear set of demands, other than an emergent “down with the Islamic Republic”.
As of mid-December, around 450 people have been killed since September, including 60 children. Around 18,000 people have been arrested including musicians and rappers, environmental activists, actors, filmmakers, journalists. The two women who broke the story about Amini’s death are in peril. Thirty-six protesters have been charged with capital crimes, two of whom have been publicly executed without due process. Many people have been blinded in one or both eyes by the security forces, and many have been shot with a particularly cruel kind of pellet that explodes on contact, leaving a body riddled with fragments. Women’s faces and genitals have been targetted. There have already been two hangings and more are likely, which happen without trial, without evidence, without legal representation. Women and girls have been expelled from universities and schools while others have been fired from workplaces. There is no right of assembly, of protest, of peaceful gathering, and the regime is using extreme force against its people.
The UN Human Rights Council has established a fact-finding mission about human rights violations. On December 14th, the members of the UN Economic and Social Council voted to turf the Islamic Republic out of the UN Commission on the Status of Women – a small victory. Iran has never signed the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against women (CEDAW) and did not warrant a seat on the committee.
Emerging demands from inside Iran and from its human rights activists in the diaspora ask that the international community respects the Iranian people’s right of self-determination and not to continue to engage with a regime that not only does not recognise its people but kills them for voicing their dissatisfaction. The regime continually says that the “rioters” are working for and with foreign powers (the US, Germany, the “zionist regime”), yet this is clearly a home-grown movement.
People are calling for the cessation of all negotiations with the Islamic Republic, including negotiations on the nuclear programme (the JCPOA) and the expulsion of its ambassadors and other representatives serving within embassies or international organisations.
The EU, Canada and the US have already sanctioned select individuals and entities. But this is somewhat toothless as Iran doesn’t really have a large cohort of Putin-style oligarchs travelling the world, so travel bans are a weak tool. The international community could list and sanction more entities, including the SETAD, Mostazafan Foundation and others. It could trace the outward flows of money, particularly of those assets connected to perpetrators of human rights abuses. Any sanctions need to be smart, not the blanket ones that hurt ordinary people. Perhaps most importantly, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps should be designated a human rights abuser and a terrorist organisation.
There has been a huge groundswell of global symbolic acts of solidarity, especially of women and men cutting their hair, helped by a well-connected and effective diaspora. The aim is to maintain the visibility of what is happening, using social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to carry information from inside Iran to the wider world and to resonate back inside the country that the world is paying attention. Mainstream media, which are not allowed into Iran to report directly, can pick up material from the scores of citizen journalists who are reporting on events.
This is now the fourth month of massive public protest. There have been three days of general strikes. The bazaar closed, yet it is unclear just how far it will support this mobilisation. There is little sign of action abating, despite the regime’s repression. Indeed, one popular slogan is “Kill one of us and a thousand more will appear”. It remains leaderless, eschewing old reformists, exiled intellectuals and external models of change. It embodies Havel’s sudden “power of the powerless” in refusing the religious “normalisation”. It appears to be a fascinating example of Gramsci’s “organic intellectuals” coming to the fore. And there are, slowly, a few voices from within the power structure suggesting that violence is no answer and that Iran’s youth has to be heard. Iranians are demanding that this be called a “revolution”. This is not over.