February 12, 2023/Peace & Security, Social & Racial Equity
An all-Iranian panel speak about a century-long unresolved ideological conflict which, with the death of Mahsa Amini whilst in the custody of Iran’s morality police, has re-erupted in a seismic women-led protest against the regime. Why has this death triggered such a strong and co-ordinated response, where will it lead, and will Iran find a way to reconcile the religious conservatism of its leadership with the strong yearning of its young population for modernisation?
Iran has a long history of political uprisings, and whilst the recent women-led protests of 2022/23 might appear to be in line with decades of protests and activism since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, its origins can be traced back to the idealogic conflicts borne in the early 20th century that Iranians have periodically grappled with: How can Iran maintain its Islamic and Iranian identity and still be a ‘modern’ nation? This question is especially pertinent when visions of a modernised Iran brings with it a recalibration of the rights and freedoms that women might enjoy.
The death of 22-year old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini whilst in the custody of Iran’s so-called ‘morality police’ was the trigger, but her death was the catalyst for the voicing of underlining frustrations pertaining to women’s rights that had been constrained for too long. Women’s voices have erupted like a volcano in response to decades of silencing by a highly patriarchal society. Iran’s Islamic regime and its religious ideologies have suppressed women and marginalised groups, and Iranian women and their allies have been galvonised by the circumstances surround Mahsa’s death to take to the streets echoing their chant: “Women, freedom, life!”
The slogan; Women, Life, Freedom
Jiyar explains the person who popularised the slogan, ‘women, life, freedom’, was Abdullah Öcalan, one of the founding members of Kurdistan Workers’ Party and who evidently advocated jineoloji, a decolonial feminist development which aims to rediscover women’s histories and restore women’s central place in society. The chant continues to be vocalised across Iran and by international supporters who are hearing the cries of the Iranian people. Those words have concisely articulated to the regime what women are standing up for, and many have been courageous enough to take off their hijabs in defiance of the law and in protest on behalf of the many women who have suffered under the regime.
Overnight all of women’s rights were gone
Nazenin Ansari, managing editor of KayhanLondon, explains that Iranian women have a history of activism and of participation in Iranian society, in particular the success seen in 1963 after the White Revolution when women were allowed to vote. She explains, ‘by the 1960s, women were also allowed to be parliamentarians and the reforms and developments that were brought between 1960 and 1975 allowed Iran to become the Head of the Advisory council at the UN for the conference on Women, which was also the first Women’s UN conference.’
This progress was reversed after the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution, when a growing number of Iranians were actively fighting against modernisation, resulting in the abolishment of the Shah. It precipitated a big shift in both leadership and in the direction of Iranian society. One of those changes was women across the land losing many of their rights under the guise of a stricter adherence to Islamic principles. This created a huge reverse in gender inequality, resulting in women having little to no opportunities to make a living or progress in education, further limiting their options in life. Nazenin concludes that the biggest losers of the Islamic Revolution were women, whose rights dissipated almost overnight.
In 1983, wearing hijab became obligatory for all Iranian women, becoming a legal requirement to observe in public even for non-Muslims and foreigners visiting the country. In the 1990s, a law passed that those who violated this requirement faced criminal punishment which varied from imprisonment to fines. A new system of re-education was introduced for the women who broke the rules and Iran’s morality police monitored public places to ensure women were complying with this law. All this created an demoralising environment aimed at controlling women in public, and it explains why the protestors of today removing their hijabs is a deeply symbolic and brave statement to the Iranian authorities.
Fearless Gen Z see no future in Iran
This bravery and fearlessness, as well as good co-ordination amongst young people, is something that will deeeply concern authorities. Rohan Alvandi, an associate professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science explains, ‘What’s happening in Iran with organised and coordinated protest and campaign events in small, local areas to national ones. You can see it amongst labourer groups; Isfahan steel workers strike or the contract workers in the oil industry are on strike.
He emphasises the impact of Gen Z’s protestors and draws them out to be ‘the little engine of this revolution that is impossible to stop’. The Gen Z engine is constantly churning over because they have nothing to lose. ‘They look at this country and think “I have no future in Iran if this movement doesn’t succeed”,’ he adds, pointing to the willingness of young people to stand up to security forces en masse in a way that previous generations would have thought twice about doing. The ability to also share through social media their experiences on protest, the security responses, and the realities of living under the current regime instantly to the world is also a galvonising factor.
Tyranny faced by ethnic minorities
Jiyar Gol, an investigative journalist and documentary maker believes what triggered the international attention was the simple fact that Amini was a young, Kurdish woman. She reports, ‘similar events have occurred with Iranian women all over the country but the Kurdish community, a minority group who have been struggling for decades with their own displacement, were not going to let this pass. The day after the killing, Kurdish political parties despite their ideological differences came together with one voice – they called for a general strike in Kurdistan and, by Monday, the entire Kurdish region including bazaars, shops and vendors shut down.’
The tension between the Kurds, who form a population of ten million, and the Islamic Republic continues to grow as their fight for cultural and religious freedoms continue to be resisted and quelled by the regime.
Will new leaders emerge?
These protest have swelled despite (or because of) a lack of identifiable leaders who can speak with authority on behalf of the masses. However, Rohan Alvadi warns, in order to turn these mass protests into tangible political outcomes, leaders who have a broad backing and the gravitas to sit at the table before the ruling elite and press for real change will be required. With many of those would-be leaders currently imprisioned or exiled, this might take time, he adds.
What happens next?
The UN declared Iran to be a fully-fledged human rights crisis. Volker Turk called for an independent impartial and transparent investigative process into violations of human rights in Iran. The UK and its partners have imposed sanctions against Iran, including against the country’s morality police. Iran has responded to the protests by ramping up its surveillance of women, installing security cameras across the country to identify and crackdown on women who are not wearing hijabs in public. A police statement articulated a zero-tolerance stance on the matter, saying they would ‘not tolerate any kind of individual or collective behaviour and action in violation of the [hijab] law.’
In recent weeks, there have been over 100 reports from across Iran of girls being poisoned by gasses whilst at school. UN experts investigating these attacks issued a statement condenming the Iranian authorities for their failure to protect the girls or adequately investigate the mass poisonings:
“We are deeply concerned about the physical and mental well-being of these schoolgirls; their parents and the ability of the girls to enjoy their fundamental right to education. While arrests have just been announced, we remain gravely disturbed by the fact that for several months, State authorities not only failed to swiftly investigate the attacks, but repeatedly denied them until recently.”
Whilst the origins of these seemingly co-ordinated attacks are yet to be determined, their nationwide reach, their co-ordinated nature, and the fact that these attacks started just weeks after women first took to the streets to protest raise fears that these poisonings have been orchestrated to punish girls and women for leading these protests.
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