The degradation of civil rights and freedoms within Iran has fallen primarily on women and is responsible for the recent unrest. A protest based on women’s grievances is likely to be more effective than class-based uprisings. It has the potential to mobilize a large, cross-class, and cross-ethnic coalition.
On March 7, 1979, Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader of Iran, announced that women would be required to wear a hijab. The ability for individuals to freely choose and express themselves in terms of clothing and speech is an element of a functioning democracy. Prior to the 1979 revolution, which toppled the Pahlavi Dynasty, women were freely able to choose how to dress. Women with and without hijabs in Iran lived amicably amongst each other. However, in an attempt to overthrow autocratic rule, the Iranian revolution – which was made up of a broad cross-section of society from working-class leftists to clerics – was hijacked by clerics and religious extremists who instituted a theocracy. Popular representation is limited in the Iranian theocracy. Since then, the headscarf has been a symbol of state influence in highly personal aspects of individual life. The headscarf is, in this way, symbolic of systemic oppression in Iran. Furthermore, the removal of the hijab and cutting of one’s hair is a sign of agency and resistance for women.
“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex,” – Karl Marx
Protests are not new to Iran. However, these protests, unlike previous anti-government movements, will be different: either they succeed in overthrowing the regime, or the government will be pressured into change, or it will lay the foundations for future protests. This is conditional on the strength of international pressure on the authoritarian regime. What is sure is that things won’t go back to their prior status even if the protests are brutally suppressed.
Since the revolution in 1979, in which millions of individuals participated and many were killed or detained, Iran has had six mass movements with increasing frequency. In 1999, the student protest began to demonstrate frustrations with the government’s closure of a popular reformist newspaper, Salaam. 40,000 individuals in Tehran took part in the protest, four were killed, and 1200-1400 people were detained.
In 2009, the Green movement began because of election fraud in the 2009 election. The official narrative was that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won with a landslide; however, there was demonstrable evidence of electoral fraud. Millions across Iran participated in the movement. The movement called for the same rights that originally motivated the 1979 revolution prior to its hijacking by extremists. 100 were killed during the Green movement, 4000 were detained, and the regime subjugated the movement.
In 2017-2018, economic protests began to decry the increase in the prices of basic goods. The protest would end due to its lack of leadership. 22 people were killed and 3700 detained, and the revolution spread to more than 80 cities and 42,000 participants. Initially, the protest started with economic concerns but transformed into an anti-regime movement that sought international realignment. People chanted, “not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran,” “Leave Syria alone, think about us,” and the unprecedented “Khamenei, shame on the dictator.” These quotes demonstrate the protestors’ depth of disillusionment — not only with domestic and foreign policy— but also towards a single executive with very limited vertical and horizontal accountability.
In 2019, domestic oil prices increased by nearly 300 percent after a shift in government policy. The rise in oil prices led to an uprising of nearly 200,000 people that took place all over Iran. 300 people were killed, and thousands were detained.
In January 2020, Ukraine international flight 752 was shot down by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Initially, the guards denied the event. An unknown number of civilians were killed in the fallout from the 2020 protests. 30 people were detained. Many students chanted “death to the liars,” in response to the atrocious actions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The guards eventually came out with the truth about the event, but it was too late.
In July 2021, protests broke out over water shortages and electricity blackouts. Five were confirmed killed, and 100 were arrested. These sporadic events have fused with the Mahsa Amini protests this fall.
On September 16th, 2022, Masha Amini’s Protests began. Mahsa Amini, 22 – an Iranian woman of Kurdish descent– was arrested by the Iranian morality police. She was arrested in Tehran supposedly because she wasn’t wearing her headscarf properly. She died while in police custody. Her family claims she was attacked by the morality police, while the police claimed she died of natural causes. As of November 20, 378 people have been killed, and the protests have spread across Iran. For reference, the protests that overthrew the Shah lasted a little more than 13 months. Using this as a standard, the regime has nearly a year before sustained protests causes the regime’s collapse. Women have been setting their headscarves on fire to voice their anger at the restrictive religious policies. The street rhetoric has become increasingly heated with calls for the overthrow of the supreme leader. Women have been seen chanting “death to the dictator” Cutting hair and burning of the hijab has swept the internet. Twitter has been an important resource for protesters, as many have been calling for the overthrow of the theocratic regime online. This has caused the Iranian government to clamp down on domestic internet usage. Posts about Mahsa Amini have been spread more than 85 million times, equal to the population of Iran.
The United States has attempted to ease online access to enable protesters to communicate more efficiently. Elon Musk has also offered his help to the Iranian population by providing access to his Starlink network. The United States has already taken some of the necessary steps to assist pro-democratic protesters in Iran. This includes actions such as tightening the embargo on individuals in high-ranking government offices, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian militia, and the morality police. To complement these actions, US officials should consider messaging the possibility of an end to the crippling Western sanctions in exchange for certain pro-democratic concessions. President Biden has already instituted sanctions on morality police and top security officials. The justification for the sanctions were stated as, “Abuse and violence against Iranian women, and the rights of peaceful Iranian protesters.” Iranian police have been known to intentionally use live ammo on protest movements. There has also been global anger from the Iranian diaspora around the world. In London, 2500 people protested Amini’s death. Protests have also taken place from Rome, and Madrid, to Los Angeles, as people protested Amini’s death. In Norway, the consulate was attacked by Iranians.
A cohesive international response is a key to the success of this unrest and the future possibility of accountability. Currently, there is no justice system or sense of accountability both domestically and internationally for the Iranian people. As a result, Amnesty International is calling for the establishment of an independent international investigation into the brutality of the increasingly authoritarian Iranian state towards the Iranian people. This will require international backing to have a meaningful impact.
The claim that the government is increasingly authoritarian is an accurate analysis of the Iranian regime according to Levitsky & Ziblatt’s signs of authoritarianism. Iran meets all four conditions they set forth. Firstly, Iranian elites reject the commitment to democratic rules of the game by restricting women’s civil rights to choose and express themselves freely. Secondly, Iranian officials in power deny the legitimacy of the protesters, recently decrying the 2022 protests as agitators and anarchists – President Ebahim Rehisi said the protests were, “The latest moves by hostile powers against Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979.” They also claimed, baselessly, that foreign actors are influencing events. Moreover, they argue that the protesters are an existential threat to the Islamic Revolution. Ebrahim Raisi says that Amini’s death needs to be investigated, but called the protests acts of chaos. Thirdly, The Iranian government tolerates or encourages violence via the use of its militia and morality police, who have been known to use live rounds on protesters. Finally, they have not hesitated to curtail civil rights and liberties like internet access.
Iranian protestors would benefit if the news coverage of this ongoing event were spread across the world in hopes of generating more international support. That would contribute to the overall pressure on the current regime. If international support grows, there’s a real possibility for political realignment in Iran’s global affairs, which could have important results for democracy in the Middle East.