Persistent Protests Expose Deep-Seated Rage at Iran Regime
Analysts say that the enduring unrest, coupled with the inflexibility of the government, could change the landscape in Iran
“Women, life, liberty.” This is the slogan that has for 13 consecutive days been the banner under which Iranians have protested, following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after her arrest by the “morality police” for not wearing a compulsory headscarf sufficiently securely.
And according to Iran watchers, these protests are different from others that have erupted since the revolution of 1979 brought with it strict Islamist rule.
As news of the young Kurdish-Iranian woman’s fate spread alongside images of her in a coma, so did the civil unrest. It first erupted in her home city of Saqez, west of Tehran in the Kurdistan region, and then throughout the country. The protests were met with a violent response from the Iranian security forces.
“There is freedom of expression in Iran,” its president Ebrahim Raisi said Thursday of the protests. But, he added, “acts of chaos are unacceptable.”
The protests against Iran’s oppression of women and their lack of choice over wearing the hijab have expanded past the Islamic Republic’s frontiers, appearing widely on social media and breaking out in front of Iranian embassies in several countries around the world.
The demonstrations have even reached Iran’s neighbor Afghanistan, where the return of the Islamist Taliban government last year also saw the return of a draconian dress code for women.
At least 25 women protested Thursday in front of the Iranian embassy in Kabul in solidarity with Iranian women. The protest was dispersed by armed Taliban officers shooting into the air. The women, inspired by their Iranian counterparts, carried banners bearing slogans such as “Iran has risen, now it’s our turn!” and “From Kabul to Iran, say no to dictatorship!”
As Iran has seen popular protests against the regime in the last two decades, but Dr. Farian Sabahi, who lectures in history and the politics of contemporary Iran at John Cabot University in Rome, believes that this is different.
She told The Media Line that the current protests are unlike previous examples of unrest as they involve many more women and started in Iranian Kurdistan, triggered by the killing of a young woman with people able to identify her death and her family’s grief. Another difference, she said, was the wave of solidarity that followed around the world, including in Kabul.
Intelligence expert Hugo Corden-Lloyd, who specializes in Iran, believes protests had a very powerful trigger as “the senseless brutality of Amini’s death is such a literal and visceral reminder to Iranian women of the repression they live under.”
This has acted as a catalyst for wider economic and political dissatisfaction among broad demographics of the Iranian population, thereby strengthening the protest movement, he told The Media Line.
Martyrdom has long been an important rallying point within Iranian society, said Corden-Lloyd, and Amini’s death is tragic for so many reasons, including the minor nature of her “offense” and the brutal overreaction of the police who detained her.
Her murder, he said, broke the social contract between the Iranian authorities and the people when the authorities usually turn a blind eye to minor “morality” rule-breaking in between high-profile crackdowns.
Abdolrasool Divsallar, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and a visiting professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, told The Media Line that as powerful as the protests can be, he is skeptical that they could cause a major or permanent shift in Iran’s domestic politics.
“It may cause some cosmetic changes, some adjustments in the government’s policy, particularly about the morality police,” he said. “I expect, at least for a period, that the government may step back from its harsh implementation of its hijab policy.”
However, he added, the fact that the protests have continued for almost two consecutive weeks means that the level of anger and discontent has grown to an unprecedented level that has not really been seen in the last four decades of the Islamic Republic.
“This level of discontent towards the political system is absolutely a new pattern and a phenomenon,” Divsallar said. He sees this wave of protests as “one step in a longer-term trend of a change in Iran’s political landscape.”
Corden-Lloyd said that for a long time after the Arab Spring, Iranians were hesitant to protest as they saw the insecurity that such unrest caused in their neighboring countries.
This hesitation was effectively promoted by the Iranian authorities who used it to their advantage, Corden-Lloyd said, pointing out that these current protests show that perhaps sections of Iranian society are becoming increasingly assertive and willing to challenge state authority.
According to Divsallar, what is happening in Iran is dangerous as the government has so far failed to understand the message of the protests.
“They have not caused any major revision of the policy of the government, which has insisted on continuing to use force and suppression as a response to the protests and mobilizing its core supporters to confront the people.”