by Roja Fazaeli and Maryam Foumani
Over the last three weeks we have witnessed widespread protests across Iran and extraordinary shows of dissent from ordinary people. We have been astonished by the bravery of Iranian women who are taking to streets of Iran in acts of protest, removing their headscarves, shaving their heads, demanding rights, autonomy, and an end to the Islamic republic. On Saturday, September 20, Iranian women began a new chapter of feminist resistance when they took off their headscarves and waved them in the air during the funeral of Mahsa Amini. It is fitting that these women-inspired and women-led protests have begun to shake the very core of the Islamic regime. The veiled woman has been the very emblem of the Islamic republic. By removing their veils Iranian women protestors are actively challenging the current Islamic state identity.
Importantly, the protests, which were ignited by the death of Mahsa (Zhian) Amini, a 22 year old Kurdish Iranian killed in custody of the morality police, have transcended ethnic, religious and gender divides to unify Iranians across Iran and beyond its borders under the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom.”
In Mahsa’s death we recognize 43 years of the Islamic regime’s violence. Iranian women have witnessed and experienced this violence at different times and in different ways: through control, coercion, and repression, as well as through arrest, torture and killing. Women, minorities, and dissidents have all been affected as over the past 43 years we have witnessed our bodies becoming sites of violent control used to further political and religious ends. We know well that the anger projected by people in Iran is not only about covering, revealing or shaving women’s hair; it is the collective memory of 43 years of oppression. People are also voicing their utter dissatisfaction with the current regime over its widespread corruption, economic mismanagement and systematised discrimination on basis of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion. These factors have all contributed to overall poverty and poor living conditions across the country.
During these three weeks we have witnessed the brutality of the Islamic regime in attempting to silence protesters. On Sunday night, for instance, Iranian militia mercilessly attacked, injured, and arrested students on Sharif University’s campus. In these three weeks Iran’s security forces have repeatedly used unlawful force. They have fired live ammunition and metal pellets at protesters at close range, misused tear gas and water cannons, and severely beaten people with batons. More than 200 people have been killed and thousands have been injured and arrested. Yet this violence is not new, it is a trademark of the regime and standard operating procedure. In the face of such violent repression we have also witnessed protests by workers, teachers, and retirees over previous years. Widespread nationwide protests in December 2017 and November 2019 due to economic problems were signs of the dissatisfaction of different sections of society with the Islamic regime. Like the recent protests the past rallies demanded fundamental and structural changes, or even an end to the Islamic regime. Their slogans included “Death to the dictator”, “Death to Khamenei”, and “We Don’t Want the Islamic Republic”. These slogans have been repeated in recent days.
However, the current protests are distinct in a number of ways. They have continued for a longer period than past protests, and the difference in their manifestation and organisation is also noteworthy. No one person or group is leading the protests. There are what we term “protest circles” in every city, neighbourhood, and university. These circles plan protests in a decentralised manner. Young people under 25 years of age are the main membership of these circles, although the circles are usually led by slightly older members, around 30 years old. People older than 30 are also on the street, but it seems that they are mostly present in supporting roles for the younger protestors who are fearlessly standing up to the bullets and batons of merciless security forces. How will this powerful and courageous presence, which has lasted for nearly twenty days conclude without a specific organization or leadership? Will the protesters be able to achieve fundamental and structural changes without the intervention of civil institutions that can plan the next step of the protests and a possible transition in government?
A look at the past activism of labour organizations, teachers’ unions, women and student movements in the face of constant pressure and suppression by the state gives us a sense of hope. We trust in the power of these movements as demonstrated by the several national strikes of teachers and workers in recent years, protests which have doubtless paved the way and inspired the protests in universities in recent days. However, with governmental control still holding, and the threat of future severe repression still strong, Iran’s civil society organisations need yet more assurance to take the leap toward the helm of the protests. This is an assurance that the large and continuous presence of protesters on the streets of the country can provide coupled with the increasingly vocal support of the internal community. A new Iran built up by Iranians and guided by popular commitment to fundamental rights and freedoms is possible. We hear the possibility in the continuing chant, “Woman, Life, Freedom.”