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Friday, 17 February 2023 16:33

Iran's 2022 Protests: Women Stand Up

On September 16, 2022, the Iranian morality police arrested a 22-year-old Kurdish woman visiting relatives in Teheran likely because her hijab had slipped a bit over her head, showing some hair. Three days later, Mahsa Amini died in police custody, presumably from the beatings she received. Within days, dozens of Iranian cities in all parts of the country exploded in protests. These demonstrations continue, though much smaller now, almost five months later.

It’s hard to believe for those of us living in democratic nations – however imperfect that democracy might be – that these protesters, often women, and as young as 15, with the majority in their twenties, will still venture in the streets, or engage in public acts of defiance to voice their anger, when by now . . .

    • 20,000 have been jailed
    • there are testimonies of people released saying that most all prisoners experience beatings, torture and rape
    • more than 500 people killed by security forces, including 70 children.”
    • four protestors have been executed – all young men in their 20s or 30s who faced only a judge behind closed doors with no defense or jury in a trial that lasted between 5 and 15 minutes.


In this four-minute video in The Guardian from January 23, 2023, the journalist tells us that these executions have made protestors even more angry and even more determined to continue their fight for freedom, even if it costs them their lives. A protestor on death row put it this way, “What they’ve done, the regime with their executions, is that they’ve created this fire under the ashes.

First, allow me to present some historical background. There’s a long genealogy of public resistance to the Iranian theocratic regime, but it flared up dramatically in this century.


The four protest movements since 2009

The first was arguably the greatest, in terms of participation. The Green Movement, named for the green sash previous President Mohammad Khatami gave to reform candidate Hossein Mousavi in the months running up to the June 12, 2009 presidential election. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was running for a second term and won, but from the start the opposition believed the vote had been fraudulent (it turns out that it was, as the UK’s Chatham House, among other studies, proved). Quoting again from the Iran Primer, “The Green Movement reached its height when up to 3 million peaceful demonstrators turned out on Tehran streets to protest official claims that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the 2009 presidential election in a landslide. Their simple slogan was: ‘Where is my vote?’”

But over the fall, under Hossein Mousavi’s leadership (a cleric, he had been prime minister in the 1980s), the movement “evolved from a mass group of angry voters to a nation-wide force demanding the democratic rights originally sought in the 1979 revolution, rights that were hijacked by radical clerics.” But by the beginning of 2010, the regime had cracked down so brutally, that Mousavi and his leaders had to call off any more public protest. Still, particularly among the students, protests had loudly called for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to step down. One often heard the crowd chant, “Death to the dictator!”

An October 26, 2022 interview with respected Iranian American sociologist Asef Bayat (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) was first conducted in Farsi and was “widely shared in Iran – and now banned by the Tehran authorities.” New Lines Magazine republished it in English under the title, “A New Iran Has Been Born – A Global Iran.” Bayat brings up the 2009 Green Movement and notes that it “was largely a movement of the urban modern middle class, though some other discontented people also supported it.” The uprising of 2017, by contrast, was more about the poor protesting their impossible life conditions, but they remained separate groups demanding better conditions, “like unpaid workers, creditors, drought-stricken farmers and others rose up in protest simultaneously throughout the country, but each raised their own sectoral demands.”

Two years later, this wave of discontent found greater unity. The uprising of 2019 was a more cohesive movement of middle-class poor and other marginalized people from cities and the provinces protesting “economic and cost-of-living issues.” And in some cases, the tactics they used were “quite radical.”

But, argues Bayat, “this current uprising has gone even further.” He explains:


“It has brought together the urban middle class, the middle-class poor, slum dwellers and people with different ethnic identities — Kurds, Fars, Azeri Turks and Baluchis — all under the message of ‘Woman, Life, Freedom.’ Significantly, this is an uprising in which women play a central part. These features distinguish this uprising from the previous ones. It feels like a paradigm shift in Iranian subjectivities has occurred; this is reflected in the centrality of women and their dignity, which relates more broadly to human dignity. This is unprecedented. It is as though people are retrieving their ruined lives, perished youth, suppressed joy and a simple dignified existence they have been denied. This is a movement to reclaim life. People feel that a normal life has been denied to them by a regime of elderly clerical men. These men, they feel, seem so separated from the people and yet they have colonized their lives.


The current wave, sparked by Mahsa Amini’s brutal death, is the fourth since 2009. It was not just set aflame by the death of a young woman; it was and continues to be a movement inspired and led by women.


The persistent role of women

Suzanne Kianpour, “an Emmy-nominated news reporter and producer,” is only 36 but has reported from Washington, Los Angeles, Beirut and London, and most recently produced the “Women Building Peace” series for the BBC. As a “Persian and Sicilian” American who speaks and writes fluently in Farsi, she has leveraged her intercultural background and journalistic experience to cover stories in over fifty countries and interviewing some high-profile leaders, including the Iranian foreign minister (see her website). I only mention this as background to the piece she wrote for Politico magazine (Jan. 22, 2023), “The Women of Iran Are Not Backing Down.”

She starts off by recalling an incident while visiting her cousin in Tehran in 2007 while a student. She witnessed a young woman being dragged off the street into a morality police van. Then she adds,


“Fifteen years later, the morality police took it too far. In September 2022, during what seemed a typical detention over an inadequate hijab, Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman visiting Tehran, was arrested and beaten. She subsequently died in custody. Two female journalists broke the story. They are now in prison. The country erupted in widespread protests not seen since the Green Revolution of 2009, demanding justice for Mahsa and freedom and civil rights for all women.”


Protests have taken place over the years in Iran, “over election fraud, economic woes, civil liberties.” Yet this time feels very different, Kianpour contends: “an unprecedented revolution led by women, with support from men, encompassing a wide variety of grievances, all laid out in the heart-wrenching Persian lyrics of Shervin Hajipour’s song ‘Baraye,’ or ‘because of.’ It’s become the anthem of the revolution, striking such a nerve around the world that backlash after Hajipour’s arrest led to his release.” This song won a Grammy award, in fact the very first for Best Song for Social Change Award (watch Jill Biden present it at the Grammys).

Catherine Z. Sameh, associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Irvine, reminds us that the Islamic Revolution, unlike the Shah regime, noticeably benefited the rural, working class, and poor women who had been left behind. Through its comprehensive social welfare programs, literacy levels and life expectancy went up for women, as well as the number of women in Iranian universities. Women also began to have fewer children as the poverty rate was falling. However, she notes, “these improvements were exacted at a very high cost for women: a discriminatory legal structure that legitimizes patriarchal control over and violence against women and girls.”

What are some of these “discriminatory” laws”? Here are a few: a citizenship status conferred on children only through the father; custody of children more easily granted to the father; inherently patriarchal family laws related to marriage and divorce. Kianpour adds a few more: “Women are forced to cover their hair in hijab and bodies in loose clothing. They cannot dance publicly, cannot drive motorcycles and cannot travel without parental or spousal approval.” They are not admitted in sports stadiums either.

Women over the decades, at least in some circles, have often quietly resisted this oppressive system aimed at controlling their persons and bodies. But in the 2000s, they started to speak out. Sameh describes the 2006 One Million Signatures Campaign launched by women activists both inside and outside Iran. Both the Qur’an and the Iranian revolution promised equality for women but reality turned out quite differently. Hence, they presented 46 articles in Iran’s Civil Code and Penal Code that plainly discriminated against women. Going door to door, organizing both house and public meetings, they sought to build a movement of dialogue and consensus building starting at the grassroots. The signatures collected helped to show that anyone and everyone’s voice is counted.

The movement’s co-founder, Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, explained their rationale: “The power of the civil and democratic movement of the Iranian people must come not from blood, clenched fists, bulging veins, and zealous revenge-seeking, but rather from life-affirming endurance, persistence, and thoughtfulness.” Sameh calls this “a politics informed by feminist principles and organizational practices of collectivity, dialogue, and a deep embeddedness in the ordinary lives of people.”

In fact, she argues, this “might well be the unfolding of a distinctly new kind of feminist revolution.” It’s extraordinary, really. Sameh is worth quoting here:


“In the streets, schoolyards, universities, restaurants, shops, and homes of Iran, women and girls are demanding their freedom and autonomy and, in the process, creating relationships based on mutuality, solidarity, love, and care. Unlike their predecessors, however, they are not interested in negotiating within the parameters set by a patriarchal authoritarian state. In the multiple and extraordinary acts of celebration and defiance—removing and burning hijabs, dancing in the streets, eating in restaurants without hijabs, graffitiing walls, kissing in public, creating art, singing, cutting hair, taping sanitary napkins over surveillance cameras—women and girls are occupying space with their bodies and creating a new world of political symbols, ideas, practices, and visions.”


Why the slogan, “Woman, Life, Freedom?”

As quoted above, Noushin Khorasani described the One Million Signatures Campaign as women continuing the revolution very differently than the men had it in the past – “from blood, clenched fists, bulging veins, and zealous revenge-seeking.” Enough of that misapplied testosterone, she says. What is needed is an injection of “life-affirming endurance, persistence, and thoughtfulness.” Sameh had begun her essay with these words:


“The feminist uprising in Iran—sparked by the beating, arrest, and death in police custody of Mahsa (also known by Jîna) Amini, a young Kurdish Iranian woman accused of “improper hijab”—is generating previously unimagined ideas, images, and possibilities. The current movement, led by women and girls, has forced us all to rethink the glorified figure of the revolutionary as a militant, often militarized, and individual masculine subject. It also invites us to understand the complex history of women’s struggle in Iran—not as counterpoised to or lagging behind Western feminism, but rather on Iranian women’s own terms.


Notice that Mahsa Amini’s other name is “Jina,” meaning “life.” The current revolutionary movement, as mentioned above, is about girls and women demanding their civil rights of “freedom and autonomy,” but only in a way that creates “relationships based on mutuality, solidarity, love, and care.” Recall that sociologist Asef Bayat had claimed, “This is a movement to reclaim life.” The quest for freedom is about life and human flourishing.

This reminds me of the time we lived as a family in the West Bank just outside of East Jerusalem in the 1990s. The Oslo Accords rolled in with great hope for Palestinians, but were soon dashed, as military checkpoints appeared out of thin air constraining Palestinian life even more than before. Already, it was clear that the Israelis had no intention to back down from their military occupation of Palestinian territories and that the establishment of the Palestinian Authority was only a sham, an insidious scheme to pacify a people in order to better subjugate them. Under those conditions, violence is bound to erupt. With horror, we witnessed several suicide bus bombings in Jerusalem (West Jerusalem, the Jewish side, much larger and more prosperous). At the time, we were actually part of a support group for parents of ADHD children, in which we were the only non-Jews. We saw up close the fear, anger and grief of Israelis.

We also saw women coming together from both sides, calling themselves “Woman in Black.” These Israeli and Palestinian women would stand at a busy Jerusalem intersection in West Jerusalem at noon on Fridays (Israelis are rushing to get ready for Shabbat so traffic is intense). They held up signs communicating the following message: “violence is not the way; we all mourn these senseless killings; only dialogue and mutual understanding will bring peace.” Since time immemorial, it is the men who start wars and kill. Today in many places, it is often the women who come together to seek reconciliation and peace (see my blog post about the 2019 women-led protests in Sudan).


Whence Iran?

I began this post with the sheer brutality of the theocratic state’s repression of this protest movement. Kianpour notes that “[t]he Islamic Republic’s atrocities have gotten global attention and led to Iran being kicked off the UN Commission on Women.” She also quotes the “Iranian-born British actress and activist Nazanin Boniadi” who in October “met with Vice President Kamala Harris and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan at the White House to discuss how the Biden administration can help protesters with internet freedom and hold the Islamic Republic accountable for human rights abuses.” Boniadi stated:


“The most unprecedented thing we’re seeing is people are fighting back against security forces. Women are not just taking off their headscarves in protest, they’re burning them. And young kids, young girls are protesting . . . Despite the brutal crackdown, they’re showing no signs of slowing down. I think this is a historic moment, I truly believe this is the first female-led revolution of our time.”


But will it topple the clerical regime of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei? In a short interview conducted by Ali Shapiro of NPR with Columbia Senior Advisor Kian Tajbakhsh, the latter had this to say about it:


“… authoritarian systems are remarkably resilient in the face of opposition. I mean, the experts who look at authoritarian regimes point to three pillars of regime strength – a cohesive ruling elite, a highly developed, loyal coercive apparatus and the destruction of rival organizations and alternative centers of power. Looking at those three, what is very striking is how these all seem to be intact. So unfortunately, it's hard to see them crumbling in the next six months or so.”


But when Shapiro asks him whether some image or moment sticks with him from these months of protest, Tajbakhsh seems more optimistic. That young men, he answers, stand publicly with these young women is “absolutely uplifting” for him. That kind of solidarity “bodes well for the future.” He adds, “It'll be very hard for them to go back into their families and into their houses and even to their own marriages, let's say, or their partnerships, and treat women in a more traditional and discriminatory way. So I think that these protests have thrown down a gauntlet. It's a moral challenge to this regime.”

I end with James Dorsey’s analysis of a recent poll among Iranians in Iran and abroad conducted by the Netherlands-based Gamaan Institute with the help of Voice of America and London-based and Saudi funded Iran International TV. The outcome was stunning, even if the participation of Iran International might have skewed some of the results: “an overwhelming majority of the 158,000 respondents in Iran and 42,000 Diaspora Iranians in 130 other countries, rejected Iran’s Islamic regime. The poll was published days before Iran commemorates the 44th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.”

To the question, “Islamic Republic: Yes or No?,” 80.9 percent in Iran said no. Among the diaspora, the figure was 99 percent. When respondents in Iran were asked whether they supported the anti-government protests, 80 percent said yes; when asked if they would change anything, 67 percent said they would.

Within Iran, it is striking to see the level of participation. If, as Kianpour puts it, it’s fair to say that Gen Z “are the true leaders of the revolt,” many others support it. Dorsey highlights the following from that poll:


“Twenty-two per cent of those in Iran said they had joined the protests, including participating in nightly chanting against the government; 53 per cent indicated they might. Thirty-five percent had engaged in acts of civil disobedience like removing headscarves or writing slogans; 44 per cent participated in strikes, and 75 per cent were in favour of consumer boycotts. Finally, eight percent said they had committed acts of ‘civil sabotage’ while 41 per cent suggested they might.”


Eighty-five percent of respondents believed the opposition should organize, preferably around some kind of “solidarity council or a coalition of opposition forces.” Then, in terms of next steps, “[f]ifty-nine percent expected the council to establish a transitional body and a provisional government.”

But it gets a bit murky when you go into details. It turns out that the top candidate to join such a council is “Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Virginia-based son of the toppled Shah.” Though 22 percent in Iran and 25 percent outside preferred a constitutional monarchy, 28 percent inside Iran and 32 percent outside leaned toward a presidential system. Fewer preferred a parliamentary system (say, like Britain).

In the end, we cannot say that the current wave of protests will actually topple the Islamic Republic, which requires that its Supreme Leader be an ayatollah. NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly just spent a couple of weeks in Iran and filed this report (Feb. 16, 2023). The street protests have been mostly tamped down, but students interviewed said they will start up again. One female student studying psychology said, “This kind of dissent . . . it doesn’t go away.”

But it’s worth emphasizing: this is not a revolution against Islam, like the French Revolution was against the Catholic Church (allied with the monarchy) and Christianity. Rather, it’s a revolt against the traditional, male-dominated interpretation of Islamic law that robs women of their civil and personal status rights. It is also a full-throated demand for democracy – in the way I was explaining it in the context of the UN’s Sustainable Development goal #16:


“A democratic system is one in which its institutions and the mechanisms that keep them functioning (including voting, which isn’t spelled out here) are actually considered “inclusive and responsive,” and one in which those serving in the legislatures, public service, and the judiciary, reflect the population as a whole ('by sex, age, persons with disabilities and population groups').”


Is this kind of holistic human flourishing that controversial? In many parts of the world ruled by authoritarian regimes, it seems out of reach. In Western cultures too, especially with their strong emphasis on individualism, whole segments of the population can be left behind. Clearly, this “inclusive and responsive” democracy is a challenge for all societies.

In this light, I urge people of faith in particular to get behind this kind of feminist-inspired, grassroots movement of “creating relationships based on mutuality, solidarity, love, and care.” It’s about human dignity, first and foremost. Maybe it will still take a while to get there in Iran (or in the US, for that matter), but as Kianpour concludes, these young people have sacrificed so much to call for a change. They won't stop: “This genie cannot and will not go back in the bottle.”


Afterword (3/25/23): Asef Bayat published an in-depth article in the March 2023 edition of the Journal of Democracy. His concluding paragraph nicely summarizes this 4900-word piece:

"Whatever the endgame, a lot has changed already. Things are unlikely to go back to where they were before the uprising. A paradigm shift has occurred in the Iranian subjectivity, expressed most vividly in the recognition of women as transformative actors and the 'woman question' as a strategic focus of struggle. Most Iranians now want a different kind of government. A discursive shift away from religion has been combined with a strong anticlericalism and resentment of state religion. New norms have been established on the ground and are likely to stay. The morality police, forced hijab, and sex-segregation in public might be things of the past. The once lethargic society plagued by a sense of impasse has gained a new energy. After years of anguish and despair, a kind of uncertain hope has emerged, a vague belief that things might really change for the better. Those who expect quick results will likely be dispirited. But the country seems to be on a new course. The people’s drive to live in dignity has thrown a wrench into the machine of subjugation. A new, though unknown, opening may well be on the horizon."