Iran is witnessing its most extensive protests since the 1979 revolution. Demonstrations have spread to eighty towns and urban centers, and many are led by women for the first time. The heart of the campaign, ignited by the arrest and police killing of Masha Amini for not wearing the hijab properly, has come to focus on the fundamental issue of women’s place in society. This raises a larger question: Can a society be truly free without equal rights?
In truth, in 1978-1979 there was a movement in Iran for economic justice, human rights, political freedoms, and national sovereignty with the expectation that a representative and constitutional democracy that had been interrupted with the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 by the shah and the United States would be restored.
The movement did not start as a revolution, much less an Islamic revolution, but it became one within a year of the shah’s overthrow as Ruhollah Khomeini and the clergy won the struggle for power among the various factions of the coalition that had toppled the monarchy. Like during the shah’s rule, the system remained authoritarian but had a different national purpose, power structure, and class of beneficiaries.
This is not what the movement had bargained for, although the rural poor—traditionally more Islamic than the urbanites—may have silently welcomed it. It was also welcomed by the small Islamist segment of the intelligentsia either coming from conservative family backgrounds or harboring leftist/Islamist leanings. They all became the backbone of a partially technocrat-run, largely class-based, ideology-driven, and cleric-led revolution that turned Iran on its head.
Historically three cultural and religious influences have formed Iran’s national identity: the Persian, Islamic, and modern. Iranians have lived with all of them. The revolution came and its overriding emphasis on Islam ended up provoking two fundamental conflicts in the society, first between Islam and Persian culture and then between Islam and modern influences that made Iranians aspire for political freedoms and democracy. In fact, Iranians have been struggling for democracy for over a century. Unfortunately, women have borne the brunt of both conflicts.
The revolution had promised three goals: social justice, freedom and democracy, and independence from great power dominance. It has failed in the first two, though to be fair, the regime’s populist approach did narrow the gap between the rural and the urban, widened the middle class, and brought along better healthcare and accessible education.
The revolution did, however, achieve the third goal but at an enormous cost. To the credit of the revolution, it established a nationalist and independent foreign policy that put a premium on self-reliance. Iran stood up to the U.S. hegemony but went too far by broadening its goals in the region. With its policies and rhetoric, Iran has threatened the stability of America’s Arab allies and challenged the strategic superiority of Israel with its nuclear program. Iran has also incited fear among the conservative Arab monarchies that it wants to dominate the region. Washington no doubt retaliated and slapped the harshest possible sanctions, creating serious economic problems for average Iranians and disaffecting the majority of the population.
To maintain its support, the regime presented itself as under siege by foreign powers. It also flaunted the Islamic ideology and moral values of which the hijab was an important political symbol. Yet the truth is that hijab laws have no religious sanctity but instead represent a systemic subjugation of women that denies them freedom and imposes patriarchal rules. The regime clearly manipulates religion to assert control over people and is using its domestic and foreign policies for its own defense. It has survived but at the expense of the economic well-being of most Iranians, and the freedom and dignity of women.
There have been many protests in Iran over the years, mainly stemming from economic grievances and popular frustration and disillusionment with the revolution. But unlike in the past, this time the protests are not centered on the gap between economic expectations and realities but on the regime’s control over society and morality, and violence against women. The brutality against Mahsa Amini is even harder to bear in a society where women enjoy education, successful careers, and relative social freedoms. The young among them, connected to the world through technology, are saying that this is not the kind of regime under which they want to spend the rest of their lives.
Despite the imposition of hijab and legal gender inequality, Iranian women have shown greater agency and a louder voice compared to the shah’s time. They ironically became more empowered after the revolution. Their aspirations are old but the tone of defiance is new. This is bad news for the regime.
Like the murder of George Floyd in the United States, a pinpointed moment of injustice can play in our minds perhaps much more powerfully than a series of economic woes, however crushing. Maybe there’s something about these moments that are universally recognized as untenable injustice. The call of “Zan, Zendigi, Azadi” is actually a universal call.
Where does Iran go from here? The dire economic situation makes it harder to sustain protest movements for a long period, particularly since people risk losing their jobs. Neighboring countries that have experienced such uprisings have not had better outcomes. In any case, the regime is still too powerful to be overcome by protests, at least for now.
This movement has come at a time when there seem to be divisions in the ruling establishment caused by jockeying for power to succeed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is eighty-three years old. That will affect the regime’s response to the protests. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the true power behind the throne, has a monopoly over its armies, the economy, and resources that it does not want to lose. Perhaps it will be in the IRGC’s interest to allow Iranian society to become more secular, including greater rights for women, while it retains control in the background and lets the clergy try to crush the movement with the help of the Basij militia. Thus, suppression and conciliation could go hand in hand. The regime might survive but emerge with less legitimacy than it had before.
Touqir Hussain, a former ambassador of Pakistan and Diplomatic Advisor to the prime minister, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.