Iran’s Astonishing Women and Girls, Sparking a People’s Revolution
Leave it to suffering humanity, suffering the unendurable, to articulate the bedrock essence for dignified human life.
In this case — this revolutionary case — it is the women and girls of Iran who are throwing off their chains — their encumbering hijabs and chadors — in the aftermath of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the “morality police” for allegedly wearing her hijab, or head covering, improperly. Iran’s theocratic regime, seeking to enforce modesty as well as subordination in all realms, require their women to enshroud head and body — or else.
The women and girls of Iran are chancing the “or else.” In a police state, astonishing!
But this revolution is not confining itself solely to women’s rights — or the thoroughgoing lack of them in the Islamic Republic of Iran, established by its own revolution in 1979. The fury in this protest is more comprehensive, more all-encompassing: It is directed at the regime itself — its cruelty, its corruption, its incompetence. And what is the protesters’ goal? Freedom and respect.
Propelled by a feminist banner — #WomanLifeFreedom — women and girls all across Iran for four weeks now have poured into the streets of their cities and towns, pulled off their hijabs, taken scissors to their own hair — in many cases uncut since childhood — and cut it off in angry solidarity with Ms. Amini’s alleged “crime.” Waving the veil in the air has become the emblematic gesture of this dissent. But the dissenters’ demands are not solely for better treatment as women — that is, for reform. In their suffering, the women and girls of Iran have been pushed to the heretofore unthinkable: to revolution — to rage against the two Supreme Leaders of the regime’s short history: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, currently in power, as well as the founder of the Republic himself, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
This is a revolution against the Republic’s very legitimacy. Heard repeatedly throughout the demonstrations is the angry demand directed at the ruling leadership: “Get lost!”
As long-time Middle East observer Robin Wright of The New Yorker writes: “Protest chants about [Ms. Amini’s] death quickly evolved into calls to oust the regime: ‘Death to the Dictator,’ and ‘Our disgrace is our incompetent leader,’ and ‘We don’t want the Islamic Republic.’” The ultra-hardline President Ebrahim Raisi is also in the protesters’ sights. Notes Wright, Raisi was heckled during his speech by students at a women’s university in Tehran: “‘We don’t want a corrupt establishment,’ they chanted. ‘We don’t want a murderer as guest…. Get lost.’” (Raisi served on a commission that sentenced some 5,000 political prisoners to death in 1988.)
It is the participation of the young girls — one-half of Iran’s future — that is particularly riveting and no doubt upsets the regime the most. Especially girls in groups: Video is circulating showing teenage girls taking down a framed photo of the two Supreme Leaders, then stomping on it, one by one. Photos circulate showing teenage girls, seen from behind, hijabs off, and, employing the international gesture of defiance, middle finger raised. Another video shows schoolgirls chasing off a male, thought to be an education official, chanting “Shameless” and “Get lost!”
The bravery of the protesting women and girls, in a country whose security forces — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the Basij militia, the “morality policy” — are known for their viciousness, is breath-taking. In an irony of history, the younger generations, the ones now protesting the regime, are the beneficiaries of this regime’s early edicts that opened the doors to women’s education: Female literacy rates have shot up from below 30% to 80%. Now more informed of the world, young women know what they are missing: freedom, equality, autonomy. As an Iranian woman of the next-older generation, a teacher, told The Washington Post, the younger generation is “the main core of this revolution…. A group which is fully aware of their rights, is in touch with the world and knows really well what they are deprived of…. They don’t have the fears of my generation.”
(As an indicator of inequality and corruption: Countless Iranian women have attested that they themselves have been harassed by the “morality police” — it’s a near-universal experience — but that the elites, because of their connections to the regime, do not get harassed.)
Importantly, Iranian men in sizeable numbers, mainly young men — the other half of Iran’s future — are showing up for these brave women and girls. Notably, male students are joining in their sister students’ rallies. But then, a banner of #WomanLifeFreedom appeals to young men too, who, like the young women, despair of a future in this repressive society and in an economy so mismanaged by the regime; moreover, they know this once-proud civilization, because of this regime, is an international pariah. The Christian Science Monitor quotes a male professor: “This girl [Ms. Amini] has united us all, not just women, even men. She’s the embodiment of our plight; in one word she’s ‘Iran,’ its suffering, the barest form of a nation’s misery under a criminal regime.”
Already this revolution claims its casualties. A death count of protesters is hard to come by from a closed regime, but rights groups estimate protest deaths number 185, including 19 girls. The authorities claim two teenage girls, separately, jumped to their deaths, as suicides. A data point that leaps out: The average age of those arrested is just fifteen (15!). Youth up in arms. Yet with every beating and death, public outrage deepens and activates further: This revolution now includes old and young, men and women, rich and poor, all areas of the country.
Can this revolution — more universalist than earlier protests — succeed? To date, no leader or leadership cadre has emerged from the protests: This revolution has its themes, but no leadership, and failing that, it can dissolve. (Like the Occupy movement here, which had a brilliant theme — defining the 1% versus the 99% — but lacked organization and, absurdly, eschewed politics.) Karim Sadjadpour, Iranian-American scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, notes that for a revolution to succeed, it needs pressure from below and fissures in the power apparatus above (right now, there’s lots of the former, none of the latter). There is talk of a general strike across Iran’s various economic sectors; such a strike played a major role in priming the ground for the 1979 revolution.
In an early response to these historic protests, hardliner president Raisi expressed condolences to the family of Mahsa Amini and, further, admitted to “weaknesses and shortcomings” in the Islamic Republic. But it is not clear to what extent, if any at all , the regime will undertake a real review of those internal “weaknesses and shortcomings” — as expressed so clearly with these protests. The regime is pointing the finger yet again at external forces as the provocation, with Raisi invoking Iran’s old bogeyman — America — and appealing for unity “to render our enemy hopeless.” One dreads the all-out crackdown of the above-cited vicious security forces….
America can help, first with moral support to the protesters. President Joe Biden issued a statement of solidarity: “The United States stands with Iranian women and all the citizens of Iran who are inspiring the world with their bravery.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken commits to ensuring Iranians regain access to the internet (deactivated by the regime) and sanctioning parties inflicting violence on the protesters. Meanwhile, Iranian-American writer Roya Hakakian urges a rethink for U.S. foreign policy: “For 40-plus years the U.S. has been waiting for Iranians to stop burning American flags, burning effigies of Uncle Sam, not calling us ‘the great Satan.’ Well, these demonstrators are saying, ‘Our enemy is right here. They [the regime] lie when they say our enemy is the U.S.’” Noting America often sides with tyrants for expediency’s sake, she asks: “Will we side with the people this time?”
The world is in extraordinary tumult at this moment, churned by strongmen rulers exerting their muscle to compel events (and people) their way — for one, the Taliban recapturing Afghanistan. For another, Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine. But just as the Ukrainian people have astonished the world with their valiant resistance to the invader, great swaths of the Iranian people, led by their women and girls, are likewise astonishing the world with their resistance to the cruelties of their own regime. If there is a proper antagonist to any of these strongmen, it is The People — if they are organized. And if there is any Justice, the people’s suffering will ultimately be rewarded — by their own effort. Handling their freedom responsibly is of course the challenge, but first they need to get it: their freedom. Bon chance, Iran.