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It Took Women To Wake Up Iran's Regime

10 Oct 2022
By Haleh Esfandiari
Protests against Iranian regime. Source: Matt Hrkac, Flickr,

The death of Mahsa Amini triggered protests across Iran. These protests highlight the anger that Iranians hold toward their government and its regime.

The past three weeks have shaken Iran to its core. The country has seen continuous anti-government demonstrations in over 80 cities and towns, and the ruthless behavior of the security forces in arresting, mistreating, imprisoning, and killing demonstrators. These events opened a new chapter in the relationship between the state and its citizens in the Islamic Republic. This time, it is women who are leading the demonstrations.

The death of Mahsa Amini hours after she was violently arrested by the morality police simply for showing a bit of hair, violating the Islamic dress code, triggered the demonstrations first in her native province of Kurdestan, then across the country. Mahsa Amini was a prototype of the younger generation of Iranians—women and men who came of age under the Islamic Republic. These are the children of the revolution, but despite attempted indoctrination in schools, universities, places of work, and the social sphere, they have turned their back to the system as they seek a different path for themselves. They ignore government regulations, fight against the morality police who interfere with the way they dress and behave in public, and through their attitude and behavior, they show that they despise the rules and norms that are being forced on them.

The demonstrations over the past three weeks are a protest against widespread issues in Iran such as rampant official corruption, political repression, rigged and controlled parliamentary and presidential elections, the suppression of political parties, control of the press, and the absence of freedom of expression. Iranians are also protesting the judiciary and court’s subservience to the government and security agencies. Finally, the protests are in response to the arrests of women, civil society activists, dissidents, and university students who dare speak out, and university faculty who deviate from what the state wants them to teach. The vicious attack on Sharif University students participating in a sit-down strike, beating, and removing them by force from the campus and imprisoning them, will not be easily forgotten. Faculty and students at other universities have asked for the immediate released of all arrested students and teaching staff across the country.

Almost all Iranians, and particularly the young, are frustrated at being isolated from the rest of the world. They are angry with the poor job opportunities, economic difficulties, and staggering prices of everyday goods—the results of official mismanagement and sanctions—while the government-connected elite enjoy good incomes, material comforts, and travel abroad.

The rapidity and breadth of the protests caught the government by surprise.

President Raisi perhaps imagined that by telephoning Mahsa’s father expressing his condolences and promising a thorough investigation INTO her death, he would be able to head off any unrest. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, sent a personal emissary to Mahsa’s parents. No one believed in the sincerity of these gestures, and the family had already rejected the authorities’ claim that their daughter had a history of heart problems and seizures and died of a heart attack.

The government crackdown that followed the initial protests was swift and severe. The security forces first used water cannons and tear gas, then live ammunition against the protestors.  Human rights organisations estimate that between 70 and 135 people have been killed so far. Among them were at least five young women aged between 17 and 25. Almost a thousand have been arrested, among them popular singers, artists, students, academics, and athletes on Iran’s national soccer team.

The brutality is clearly intentional. Riot police have fired at peaceful demonstrators from a distance. Those arrested have been physically abused. Women have been threatened with rape if they continue demonstrating. The government makes no effort to suppress news about the deaths and the maltreatment of arrestees. The intention is to intimidate the demonstrators and anyone who may be tempted to join them. But to no avail. The protests across the country continue.

The brutality of the crackdown is also due to what may seem to be contradictory impulses. Like many dictatorships, Iran’s rulers believe that they can disregard with impunity the wishes of their people, as well as international opinion. This includes fellow United Nations members who have asked Iran to refrain from violence against its people. In the 40 years of the Islamic Republic, there has never been such an international outcry against the government’s repression. Yet the regime believes it can do as it wishes because it wields sole power within its borders.

At the same time, the Iranian regime knows it is unpopular. Authorities crush protests with full force because they want to prevent the demonstrations from growing and spreading, suppressing protests before they pose a serious threat to the regime.

What are the prospects for the future? So far, the women protesters have kept up their momentum. They have shown that they will not easily give up, nor will they accept being humiliated and treated as second-class citizens. Men are joining them. The demonstrations are likely to continue, but the government will likely bring to bear as much force and brutality as necessary to clear the streets. The current protests may eventually be crushed, but the regime is sitting on a powder keg of simmering and widespread public discontent. We will certainly witness explosions of protest in the future, and they will most likely be led by women.

Haleh Esfandiari is a Distinguished Fellow and Director Emerita, Middle East Program at the Wilson Center in Washington DC. She is the author of My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.