For the past seven weeks, Iran has seen national protests with the gravitas to suggest the possibility of revolution. The protests were ignited by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, in mid-September. Amini was detained by the Iranian “morality police” for improper coverage of her hijab and died in their custody. Officials claim that she died from a heart attack, but her family insists she had no pre-existing medical conditions, and instead was tortured on her way to the police station. They have been refused access to her body immediately following her death. The Iranian government responded to protests with an internet blackout and a violent police force. Humanitarian groups estimate around 150 people have died in the protests thus far.
What do the current protests in Iran say about the country’s political atmosphere? Despite the current global proclivity towards democratic erosion, it is still worth looking at democracy through a wider historical lens; the majority of countries are democracies, and over the past two hundred years billions of people have gained access to democracy. The sustained and overwhelming response to Amini’s death signifies that there is an overarching purpose to the protests; they are a call for women’s rights, democracy, and an overall prosperous Iran. The country-wide, and increasingly defiant protests provide an opportunity to make the Iranian citizens’ dreams of equality and freedom from the revolution of 1979 come to fruition.
Iran is one of the least democratic countries in the world, but that isn’t representative of its citizens’ 150 year struggle for freedom. The Islamic state’s clerical rule has a platform built on misogyny and despotism which stands in direct opposition to the will of the Iranian people. Iranian officials call for a stop to the unrest, particularly as the protestors call for the overthrow of the clerical establishment that has ruled for over forty years. A 63-year-old teacher told reporters he was protesting to support his daughter and that he hopes they can now materialize the justice and freedom promised in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in which he participated.
After the revolution, people have protested in Iran a number of times, each with its own significance. First in 1999, in reaction to the shut-down of a reformist newspaper, and centered around Tehran University; the next protest was ten years later and known as the Green Movement. It involved public outrage to election fraud and climaxed with 3 million peaceful protestors in the streets of Tehran. This protest too called for democratic rights but was violently put down over the course of six months. Protests again happened in 2017, but in Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran, and spread to over 140 cities. They were largely economic protests, but there were calls for regime change in the form of the slogan “death to the dictator.” Renewed protests in reaction to spikes in gas prices were violently put down when they began again in 2019. Lastly, protests occurred in January of 2020 after a government coverup of a Ukrainian plane carrying dozens of Iranians being shot down and killing its passengers.
The history of protests under the Islamic Republic of Iran can provide an idea of what may come of the current protests in Iran, but there are aspects of what is currently transpiring that are unprecedented. The Islamic Republic has shown its competency with putting down uprising violently, which points to imminent violence between Iranian citizens and their government. However, there is reason to believe that this round of protests is a breaking point to which the people of Iran will no longer stand for oppression, particularly against women. An attack on women’s rights has been growing on the world stage and the current situation in Iran gets at the root of violence toward women everywhere. People are watching the reaction to Amini’s death from around the world, and the message it sends is one that cannot be easily dismissed; the Iranian people have made a declaration that they will not stand for female oppression, and the universality of this idea has evoked global attention, and in some cases, action.
Still, is there evidence inside Iran that these protests can bring change that the 1979 revolution utterly failed to do, and the 2009 protests were unable to do? According to women of the conservative Iranian city of Mashhad, “when you see Mashhad women coming to the streets and burning their veils publicly, this is really a revolutionary change… [they are] showing fury against something at the heart of the identity of Iran’s cleric-led state: the compulsory veil.” The most radical opinion is that the there is no turning back, because “if the Islamic Republic wants to stay in power, they have to abolish compulsory veiling…[which would require them] to transform their political ideology…and the Islamic government is not ready for that change.” This only leaves one question: what happens when the people are willing to fight for a change that the government cannot make?
“From Tehran’s universities to far-flung Kurdish towns, men and women protesters have chanted, ‘Whoever kills our sister, we will kill them.’” This is most definitely a call for bloodshed, but it may also be a call for the long-awaited democracy the Iranian people fought for in 1979.