Deep popular anger at the root of Iran’s eruptions
Some years ago, I was discussing the largely male-led uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring with a Saudi friend. He said to me, that was nothing: Wait until women realize their power.
Events in Iran give that thought a special resonance now. The facts are straightforward. Members of the specialized morality police – the Gasht-e-Ershad – are tasked with enforcing strict rules on women’s dress in public.
Two weeks ago, a young Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, was beaten to death after being arrested for “bad hijab.” The Iranian regime tried to suggest she had died of an existing condition. No one believed such nonsense.
Her death has led to widespread protests throughout Iran and equally widespread and brutal regime reprisals. There have been scores of further deaths, many of them young women shot by the security forces.
This is only the latest in a long series of popular protests against the Iranian government’s oppression of its own people, dating back to the 1990s and early 2000s. The regime – unlike the Shah – has always been prepared to kill enough of its own citizens to regain control – at least until the next eruption. Will it be any different this time?
Well, these eruptions are becoming more frequent. The last major occurrence was only last year, in the largely Arab southwest, over water shortages, a growing problem caused not simply by climate change but by wholesale misgovernance. They reflect a deep and growing popular anger about the entire revolutionary project in Iran, whose preservation seems to be the major concern of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Often these disturbances have been sectoral – farmers, students, the frustrated middle class. This time they seem much more broadly-based both sociologically and geographically: The country as a whole has been affected.
But why women? First, women’s issues know no boundaries. Just breathing while female is enough to attract the regime’s attention. You are as likely to be arrested or harassed if you come from a farming community or the urban poor as you are as a student or a middle-class professional.
Second, the enforcement of rules on female dress in Iran has in recent years been tightened up as the regime feels revolutionary enthusiasm draining away. Those Iranian women committed to the revolution (a shrinking number) have always worn full chadors. But during periods of relative liberalization in the 1990s and early 2000s, many others would be seen, especially, with colorful scarves pushed to the back of the head and loosely draped abayas. The determination of the authorities to enforce the rules seemed to vary with the political temperature.
Many in the West thought this meant Iran was becoming a more tolerant place. That was folly. In the last decade, as the economy has tanked, the nuclear file become more intractable, the struggle for succession to the supreme leader more vicious, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps more central, women have suffered.
After 2005, under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, moral policing was reinforced with a stronger mandate, and several new programs, such as the hijab and chastity plan, were implemented. In 2021, Ayatollah Khamenei absurdly ruled that even female animals in cartoon films should be depicted wearing the hijab. Most ordinary Iranians doubtless think this is ridiculous. They yearn for a more normal life. The regime does not. In the absence of an alternative, policing women’s behavior has become the visible index of domestic revolutionary purity.
But the revolution is not what it was. There has been a precipitous decline in public religiosity inside Iran. One recent reputable survey suggested that 73 percent of Iranians now believe the hijab should not be compulsory. And women have increasingly fought back.
In December 2017, Vida Movahed became famous (and disappeared) after being filmed removing her white hijab and waving it from the top of a soap box in Enghelab (revolution) Street, Tehran.
In a project directed by the Dutch artist, Marinka Masseus, supported by the defiantly unveiled (and exiled) Iranian dissident, Masih Alinejad (whom the Iranian regime has allegedly sought to kidnap or kill), other Iranian women have been bold enough to allow themselves to be photographed or filmed casting the veil off as a gesture of resistance.
This has often been at high personal cost. But they have been following a distinguished regional tradition.
In the late 19th century, debates about the veil – and female dress more broadly – became a lightning rod for a broader range of issues centered on women’s rights and the meaning of modernity within Islamic societies.
An important feminist movement emerged, beginning in Egypt, including women such as Aisha Al-Taimuriya, Malak Hifni Nasif, Huda Sha’rawi, the founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union, Durriya Shafiq, the founder of Bint Al-Nil (Daughter of the Nile) magazine, the combative Druze feminist, Nazira Zain Al-Din, and, in more recent times, Nawal Al-Sa’adawi, the late Egyptian feminist activist and writer, and Fatima Mernissi from Morocco.
In the absence of an alternative, policing women’s behavior has become the visible index of domestic revolutionary purity.
Sir John Jenkins
There were sympathetic men, such as Qasim Amin, and the Tunisian labor activist and Islamic scholar, Al Taher Al-Haddad. There was also an Islamic feminism which defended the veil while arguing for women’s rights in other spheres. The debate could be fierce. Many women’s activists suffered socially for their outspokenness. They endured occasional physical attacks. But they were not murdered by the state.
In Iran, the veil became a particular point of contention among radical constitutionalists after 1906. The classical singer Qamar (meaning, moon) was one of the first to break the taboo when she appeared unveiled on stage at the Grand Hotel in Lalehzar Street in 1924. The habit spread to women of the upper and administrative classes. The same was true of Turkey under the late former President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
It did not last. Feminism of this sort tended to be an elite concern. And a conservative reaction set in. Supporters of the Iranian revolution in 1979 denied at first that women would be disadvantaged. They lied. Ayatollah Khomeini – who had made his position clear three decades earlier in his book, Kashf Al-Asrar –imposed a reactionary and oppressive system of rule on a confused and fractured population, something notoriously missed by Western intellectuals at the time, such as Michel Foucault, the patron saint of critical theory, who saw the revolution as in some way a welcome “return of the sacred” instead of a Leninist coup in Islamist clothing.
Now we have the reaction to the reaction. Women – who now constitute well over half of all university graduates – matter far more economically in Iran than they did in 1979. And they suffer in the same way everywhere, creating a sense of solidarity amplified by social media (which is why the regime has sought to shut the internet down).
It may seem bizarre that a stray wisp of hair showing under a hijab could pose such a threat to the violent praetorian Iranian state that Khamenei has built. But he knows the legitimacy of the system is fragile. To challenge one part is to challenge the whole.
To maintain it requires a readiness to use extreme physical force against the myriad and growing numbers of Iranians who want something different. They must be stigmatized as seditionists, as agents of foreign powers, and as traitors, when all they want is to live in dignity. For daring to challenge the revolution, which has delivered misery, and removing a piece of cloth that symbolizes its power, they can be murdered in cold blood.
This is not sustainable. Not in the sense that the regime will simply collapse. To relax the rules on the hijab risks compromising everything else.
Khamenei, President Ebrahim Raisi, and their acolytes in the IRGC and other institutions of the deep security state have too much to lose and will escalate the violence until the streets are clear. But they have clearly lost the confidence of their own people – and perhaps even some of those whom the regime regards as its own supporters.
After all, everyone has a mother, a sister, a daughter. Once trust is lost, it cannot be regained. And the Islamic Republic has clearly lost the trust of most of its citizens. Similar crises will occur more and more frequently. At some point, something will crack. The state that Khamenei built out of the Khomeinist wreckage of the 1980s is living on borrowed time.
- Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was corresponding director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.