On the day that Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s President, was giving a speech at the United Nations headquarters in New York about the double standards with which human rights are pursued around the world, a tear gas canister flew past me and hit a car that was parked a few meters away. I was among the protesters running down Palestine Street in the center of Tehran, and tear gas was being fired directly at us by anti-riot police. We were doing nothing more than shouting slogans, but any of us could have been severely injured or killed—this was not an isolated incident. According to human rights groups, more than 90 people have been killed in the ongoing protests across Iran. The protests were ignited by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while she was in the custody of the morality police. The authorities have responded to these protests with a brutal crackdown—beating, shooting, arresting—and an internet blackout that has blocked access to platforms such as WhatsApp and Instagram.
Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that dozens of cities in Iran would erupt in protests against imposed religious rules. The death of Zahara Bani Yaghuob, an Iranian medical doctor arrested by authorities in Hamedan in 2007, did not lead to widespread protests at the time. But the Iranian state is reaping what they have unintentionally sown. Despite rolling back some women’s rights, such as the Family Protection Law introduced under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and imposing an Islamic dress code, after the revolution, a so-called Islamic educational system helped more women in rural and lower social classes to receive an education. While women in upper and middle social classes benefited from progressive laws prior to the revolution, traditional families, typically from disadvantaged backgrounds, felt more comfortable sending their daughters to school under Islamic laws. Today, women account for 60 percent of university students in Iran. It is no coincidence that Generation Z, now on the frontlines of the recent protests, are the children of Iran’s 1980s baby boomers. Generation Z’s parents were the first cohort to see a dramatic shift in the numbers of women receiving higher education in Iran.
A few hours before the tear gas canister nearly struck me on Palestine Street, I was passing security forces on Revolution Avenue when a man in plain clothes and a helmet came up to me and said, “Our cameras will capture your face. If I see you again in this area, you’ll get arrested.” “For what crime?” I asked. “No offence required,” he replied, “I have the power, and I’ll use it against you.”
The man’s boast is the key to understanding the recent protests in Iran. After Sepideh Rashnoo was harassed on a bus by a fellow citizen over her “improper” hijab in July, the dangerous power that had been delegated to pro-regime citizens became clearer. Iranians watched Rashnoo, a writer and artist, make a humiliating forced “confession” on national TV. In contrast to Rashnoo’s humiliation, the woman who harassed her over her hijab enjoyed a kind of authority bestowed upon her by the government.
Along with the morality police, the citizens who have been granted this authority stepped up their policing of the hijab rules since Raisi’s election, which was marred by record low turnout. The death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody has revealed the conflict between the Iranian government and citizens who do not want to comply with rules they believe infringe on their civil rights. There is significant disillusionment and profound doubt about the prospects of reforming a system that has shown zero interest in compromise. If the Green Movement’s slogans were full of verses from Qur’an and other Islamic references, the slogans heard in the recent protests contain no Islamic references and no requests for narrow reforms.
Despite the economic stagnation, systematic corruption, and mismanagement in recent years, economic grievances do not feature in the slogans either. The protests have coalesced around dissatisfaction about how the Iranian state relates to society. The protests that erupted after Mahsa Amini’s death emerged mainly from marginalised groups: Kurds who are an ethnic minority, the middle class which as encountered so much hostility from the government, women who are not even recognised or protected in the system if not wearing a hijab, and the working class who have witnessed widespread governmental corruption in the recent years.
While living under the strict rules of an increasingly authoritarian state, the future for these oppressed groups is grim—they see a dead end. Accordingly, for the Iranian authorities, the unification of these various social groups, which has happened for the first time since the 1979 revolution, poses a new challenge.
In recent years, Iran’s middle class has been shrinking because of international sanctions and economic decline. Still, they have had some spaces, such as social media and satellite television, to engage with progressive ideas on human rights. Long before the recent protests forced Iran’s national television to address the issue of compulsory hijab on their programmes, subjects such as the hijab, personal freedom, and gender politics have been debated on social media and foreign-based television channels before large audiences. In this way, two different worlds have coexisted and one is now crashing into the other.
Are we witnessing another revolution in Iran? It is hard to ascertain. Iran’s state ideology still has sincere supporters, not just at home but also across the region. Some analysts have pointed to the limited number of protesters to suggest the protests are a “virtual revolution” that exists only on social media. Still, a revolutionary turn does not necessarily depend on the number of active protesters; it arises from a dead-end situation. Following Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech in which he called the protests “riots” and blamed a foreign plot for the unrest, the obstruction has never been clearer.
Nevertheless, there is a movement in Iran. Motivated by their anger following Mahsa Amini’s death, a growing number of women who have found the courage to go out with their hair uncovered in public. For a political system that places enormous emphasis on women’s appearance, this is a profound form of protest. Iranian women, supported by the many men who have now joined them, are challenging the discrimination they have experienced for decades. They have already achieved a great victory by making their voice heard around the world.
Published in The Bourse & Bazaar Foundation