In mid-September of this year Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman was taken into police custody and died shortly after. The police stated that Mahsa Amini had a heart attack and that was the cause of her death. Although Amini’s brother, Kiarash Amini was outside the detention center during Masha Amini’s ‘cardiac arrest’ and spoke to a witness that claimed the police had killed a woman inside of the detention center. Masha Amini was taken into custody after not following the hijab rule, a mandatory hijab law that has been in effect since after the Islamic Revolution in 1981. Mahsa Amini’s death triggered several protests and mass condemnation of the violence used against her and the hijab rule in general.
The Iranian regime’s response to the death of Mahsa Amini and the subsequent protests are examples of stealth authoritarianism. The initial response of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, just days after the protests began, “urged the judiciary on Thursday to prosecute ‘anyone who spreads fake news and rumors’ on social media about the unrest“. Eventually, “The Ministry of Intelligence sent a text message to all cellphone users warning that anyone participating in the demonstrations… would be punished according to Sharia law” . Which is avoiding accountability, which Varol explains to be a component of Judicial review, a method of stealth authoritarians. The threats coming from the government under the guise of judicial duty to protect individuals from ‘false information’ truly serve to eliminate any public scrutiny that could further fuel protests and social unrest. The purpose of avoiding accountability is to separate, in this case, the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from any harsh government orders. Varol explains it “by entrenching its policy preferences in a relatively autonomous judiciary, the regime can allow the judiciary to protect its interests, authorize judges to issue controversial decisions… and insulate themselves from political accountability” (1692). The ruling elites get to be associated with the glory and success of their nation and any downfall or disapproval will be handled by an unnamed powerful government body. Which only works so long until citizens recognize the scapegoating and its true purpose. Which will eventually backfire and become a source of resentment for the regime. The resentment for the dictator has reached its limit, as protestors demand “death to the dictator” during riots and protests over Amini’s death. Although when Khamenei was asked regarding the cause of widespread protests, he turned to another scapegoating method. Khamenei claims that “these riots and the insecurity were engineered by America and the occupying, false Zionist regime [Israel], as well as their paid agents, with the help of some traitorous Iranians abroad”. In addition to scapegoating, the Iranian regime also utilizes surveillance laws and institutions to curb the spread of protests. “To prevent protests from spreading, Iran’s biggest telecom operator largely shut down mobile internet access against Thursday, said Netblocks, a group that monitors internet access, describing the restrictions as the most severe since 2019” . The regime slows down the internet to stop the spread of information about protests and hinders the ability to communicate with those during protests and riots. In addition to this, internet monitoring group is a form of authoritarian control. “The fear of being watched by the government may cause people to think and speak differently and foment self-censorship” (Varol, 1711). Citizens fear the consequences of nonconformity and that is a bolstering mechanism that is self-implemented. And when citizens decide to take an act rebellion on social media, they are met with arrests. Which has normally been an effective form of reinforcement except in the cases that it is not. Women have been fighting for their rights for years, just to be met with even more oppressive laws and harsher punishments for not listening.
Social unrest is not an unfamiliar problem in Iran, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 women’s rights issues have been at the forefront. Although there are many men and women calling for an advancement of women’s rights and repeal of discriminatory laws, there does not seem to be a solution that is plausible while the Islamic Republic and its theocratic rule is still in place. The fundamental ideal of the Islamic republic’s identity is the subordination of women , which is an ideal that conservative dictators are not likely to change. This becomes even more apparent when recognizing that any alternative political parties (those not in power but intend to run for election) do not intend to implement radical change like ending the hijab law. Although there is hope, this has been considered the biggest threat to the regime in decades, fueled by years’ worth of oppression. The regular mechanisms of the stealth authoritarianism may not be enough to soothe Iranian citizens, which will be a turning point in Iran’s history.
Fassihi, Farnaz. “In Iran, Woman’s Death after Arrest by the Morality Police Triggers Outrage.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Sept. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/16/world/middleeast/iran-death-woman-protests.html.
Fassihi, Farnaz. “Iran Protests Surge to Dozens of Cities.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Sept. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/24/world/middleeast/iran-protests.html.
Gritten, David. “Iran Protests: Supreme Leader Blames Unrest on US and Israel.” BBC News, BBC, 3 Oct. 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-63118637.
Müller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
Press, The Associated. “At Least 9 Killed as Iran Protests over Woman’s Death Spread.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 23 Sept. 2022, https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-iran-dubai-united-arab-emirates-5897d601151beb0f01353dd83e405d7d.
Shannon, Kelly J. “Perspective | Four Decades of Smoldering Discontent among Iranian Women Is Erupting.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 26 Sept. 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/made-by-history/2022/09/26/iranian-women-uprising-against-oppression-history/.
Varol * 100 Iowa L. Rev. 1673 (2015), Ozan O. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review, 2015, https://ilr.law.uiowa.edu/print/volume-100-issue-4/stealth-authoritarianism/.
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