Iran’s Women-Led Protests: What It Means for The Islamic Republic
Interview with Ladan Boroumand
Protests are not abating in Iran since the death of Mahsa Amini. Two months after the young woman passed away, Ladan Boroumand, historian and co-founder of the NGO “Abdorrahman Boroumand Center” puts the recent events in a historical context. She discusses the nature of the Iranian regime, the importance of women’s rights and the role Western democracies can play. This interview took place on the eve of the UN Human Rights Council’s decision to set up a fact-finding investigation into human rights abuses in Iran.
How do you assess what has happened in Iran since the murder of Mahsa Amini?
The murder of Mahsa Amini in Iran may have set fire to sparks, but tensions had been building up for years if not decades. Since the 1990s, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, great ideological debates had been brewing amongst the youth, intellectuals and a Leninism-influenced Islamist left, advocating for greater openness to the world. In 1998, a student protest for human rights was violently repressed, setting the stage for an ideological breakup with the regime. For a long time, that was not understood outside Iran, and the world misread was happening in the country.
In 2003 and 2005, organizations for human rights, women’s rights – against stoning for example – or Kurdish NGOs for human rights, began emerging in Iran. They were all suppressed following Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005.
Rigged elections and a ruthless crackdown on subsequent protests convinced Iranians that dialogue with the regime was futile.
Rigged elections and a ruthless crackdown on subsequent protests convinced Iranians that dialogue with the regime was futile. This led to profound cultural transformations and mounting discontent, day after day, month after month and year after year. In that respect, 2017 and 2019 saw new significant breaks with the regime. In 2017, the high cost of living sparked popular protests across more than 100 Iranian cities. Outside of Iran (where the Islamist Republic narrative was prevailing) demonstrations were reported as strictly motivated by economic demands and having no political significance.
Still, protesters set fire to 60 offices of Friday prayer Imams, the very place of the regime’s ideological propaganda – that has little to do with economic grievances. This symbolic gesture indicates demonstrators were already targeting the regime’s ideology. They were highlighting the link between the theocratic nature of the regime and its catastrophic management of the country’s economy.
The uprising took place two years after the Iranian nuclear deal had been signed and before the US withdrawal from the accord under Trump. The continued deterioration of the economic situation, after the sanctions were lifted, could thus not be blamed on US sanctions. Compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA – the nuclear agreement with Iran) and sanctions made no difference in altering the constant decline in living standards for the Iranian population. The roots of the uprising were much deeper. The demonstrators were predominantly lower middle class or working class. They rejected the theocratic regime and demanded that the mullahs be removed from power; some called for a monarchy, others for a secular republic. Yet, foreign reports of the protests, influenced by the regime’s discourse, stressed economic rather than political discontent. Two years later, in 2019, other protests erupted against fuel price hikes. Again, the Islamic Republic used economic difficulties as an argument, this time blaming the sanctions, thereby dismissing the regime’s responsibility for Iran’s dire economic situation. The internet was shut down and protesters were brutally repressed by the authorities. Amnesty International reported nearly 400 deaths, but sources inside the country set the death toll to over 1,500.
Both protests heralded a qualitative change in the relations between the state and civil society. Protesters demanded an end to the theocracy. The world chose to ignore these demands and accept the lies of the regime. In retrospect, it seems the “Women, Life, Freedom” revolution was intended to clear up any misunderstanding and let the world know Iranians are fed up with theocracy. One can no longer pretend that burning headscarves in public and risking one’s life is not political.
The “Women, Life, Freedom” revolution was intended to clear up any misunderstanding and let the world know Iranians are fed up with theocracy.
The world finally grasped the true nature of these protests. All propaganda efforts by the regime remained ineffective. The courageous actions of Iranians leave no doubt here and speak to men and women around the world. This explains the exceptional outpour of global solidarity. It is very good news for the world and Iran.
Why did the movement begin with women? What role does it hold for social media – and especially for women?
Women are the most disadvantaged citizens in Iranian society. Their second-class treatment is the hallmark of this regime and a constant humiliation. Even streets are not safe, as women face arbitrary and violent harassment and verbal abuse by the Morality Police. Every year, hundreds of thousands of women are fined while hundreds are convicted and whipped. In addition to these extremely violent humiliations, women are predominantly impacted by the widespread corruption that deprives citizens of any financial security. Although Iranian women do pursue higher education, the country remains at the bottom of international rankings in terms of women’s economic participation. They are undoubtedly those who have the most to gain from the fall of the regime. It is no coincidence that they spearheaded the movement sparked by the death of the Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini.
Women’s fight against compulsory veiling is first and foremost about challenging an Islamic regime narrative that claims that women choose to wear the veil for cultural and religious beliefs. After defying regime-imposed dress code laws for decades, an important step was taken in 2014 through the creative use of social media. As the regime enforced its dress code and prohibited women to show their true selves in public, women created a parallel public space online where they showed themselves unveiled.
Women’s fight against compulsory veiling is first about challenging an Islamic regime narrative that claims that women choose to wear the veil for cultural and religious beliefs.
Through thousands of videos posted, especially on “My Stealthy Freedom’s” Facebook page (created by activist Masih Alinejad) they could show the world their true selves and refute the regime’s narrative. Paradoxically, this inner truth was displayed in a virtual space based outside the country – a space beyond the reach of police violence. This movement grew and so did awareness about its importance in the virtual space. The mirror effect between real and virtual space precipitated the politicization of women’s discourse on veil-wearing – and blurred the distinction between the outside and the inside of the country.
Another milestone was reached in 2017 with the movement spilled over from virtual space into real space, that is, from digital platforms to the streets of Iranian cities. What was then an offensive against the regime’s narrative on veil wearing morphed into full-blown civil disobedience. Women began to let their headscarves slip onto their shoulders when walking down the street. Another step was taken when women started filming the Morality Police’s brutality in an act of defiance. Those who participated paid the price by getting arrested, sentenced to jail or whipped. December of 2017 marks yet another step in the movement’s progressive radicalization. A young woman climbed on a utility box in the street and removed her headscarf. She was followed by hundreds of others across the country.
From a modest and anonymous act of civil disobedience, the gesture turned into a public display of defiance. Social media became an antidote to state violence and its suppression of facts. The regime could no longer hide these acts of defiance by arresting women. Their videos still racked up millions of views even as they rotted in prison.
Social media became an antidote to state violence and its suppression of facts.
Most recently, the death of Mahsa Amini seems to have both generalized and radicalized the movement. By burning their veils, women turned civil disobedience into a revolutionary movement against theocracy and for “Women, Life and Freedom”. Indifferent at first, sympathetic to their cause in 2017, and supportive in 2022, men finally joined in.
How important is the Kurdish question in this uprising?
The regime has been fuelling the fears of Iranians for years, labelling Kurds as separatists. Its success in alienating the Kurds from their fellow Iranians bears comparison with women, who face additional discrimination by a manipulative regime. But for the first time, the regime’s ruse was thwarted by unprecedented solidarity. Kurds have been vocal in asserting their Iranian Kurd identity and their unwillingness to separate from Iran. If federalism is still on the table, no political party still discusses separatism. This has outmanoeuvred the regime’s propaganda strategy of trying to turn society against Kurdish communities. Demonstrations in solidarity with Kurdistan are growing all over Iran. The most popular slogan in current protests, “Woman Lives Freedom,” is a Kurdish slogan (which translates to “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî”; in Persian: زن زندگی آزادی).
The regime’s ideology has been hit to the core. At this point, what can it do? What is the future of the protest?
I have observed the regime for 43 years. To me, its nature and its constitution do not allow for any kind of reform. The Supreme Leader is appointed by God. When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in February 1979, he made it clear that although he had relied on the support of the people to take power, his legitimacy was derived from divine appointment – a clear warning to those who would want to challenge his divine authority. To oppose him, he said, was to oppose God, a severely punisheable offence. An authority that emanates from God does not submit to the will of the people.
The diaspora must back the movement from the outside and capitalize on worldwide solidarity to compel the regime to reduce state violence so that opposition forces can organize from within.
The regime has been in a deadlock since 2017 (even Revolutionary Guards magazines admit it in their analyses!). Their worldview no longer prevails in the minds of Iranians. What will they do in the face of this latest uprising? Surely, they will attempt to block social networks and continue to crack down on protesters. But this solution is not a sustainable. The regime is incapable of managing the country. The movement’s success will largely rely on Western democracies and the Iranian diaspora’s support.
The diaspora must back the movement from the outside and capitalize on worldwide solidarity to compel the regime to reduce state violence so that opposition forces can organize from within. Democratic states, for their part, have the power to put pressure on the regime. Back in 1997, the Mykonos trial resulted in all EU countries recalling their ambassadors from Tehran. It was this isolation and fear of the regime that had allowed Khatami to become a serious contender for the presidential elections.
How do you see these events unfolding in a complex geopolitical context (Ukraine, US-China rivalry)? Do the two phenomena relate? What role do you see here for the West and the broader international community?
Ayatollah Khomeini chose to look East in November 1979 by storming the US embassy and referring to America as “Great Satan” and France as “Little Satan“. Since then, the Islamic regime has allied with Russia against political liberalism. Ayatollah Khomeini’s holy war against liberal democracy suited the Soviet Union, which cared less about Sharia law than Iran leaving the Western camp. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic was left bereft of Russia’s protection, a time which translated into regime concessions to civil society by handing power over to reformists. The alliance between the two countries has since taken on new life with the advent of Putin’s autocracy. But today, Russia is mired in Ukraine and no longer has the means to support Iran. Liberal democracies must seize this opportunity and put pressure on the Iranian government to end the repression.
As for China – closely aligned with the Russian agenda against political liberalism – it will undoubtedly support the Iranian regime. If Putin’s regime was to miraculously fall and Russia was to democratize, Iran would certainly follow. Liberal democracies have a decisive role to play in that respect. It is important to stress that they have already begun doing so, as evidenced by the recent UN Human Rights Council resolution put forward by Germany and Iceland to investigate alleged human rights violations in Iran.
If Putin’s regime was to miraculously fall and Russia was to democratize, Iran would certainly follow.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s fairly strong words and President Macron’s meeting with Iranian rights activists in Paris are other strong indicators of Western democracies’ realization that supporting the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people has strategic importance.
Are divisions within the regime possible?
Iranian reformists have been excluded from power and appear discredited in the eyes of the population. They could play a pivotal role this time. It is still worth noting that reformists were all between 18 and 30 years old when the Islamic Republic was established 43 years ago. They have blood on their hands. Posing as bearers of this new democratic wave taking shape currently will be difficult. On the other hand, recent speeches by the Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards commanders echoed concerns among the ruling elite and the security forces. In an attempt to boost morale, Khamenei recently addressed the Basij pro-regime militia forces. One Revolutionary Guards commander has even complained publicly about the elite’s conspicuous silence on the regime and the protests. Fear seems to have switched sides. The army does not have access to its own weapons, guarded by the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The bulk of the repression is carried out by the Basij. Priority must be given to ensuring that Basijis and Revolutionary Guards will not face lynching and executions should they decide to defect and help the revolution succeed.
This remains the most important issue. It must go hand in hand with Western pressure over state violence. In an attempt to terrorize the population, the Islamic Republic’s judicial authorities have issued scores of death sentences against arrested protestors, after hasty sham trials. On December 8th, 2022, one of the protestors, Mohsen Shekari was executed. Violation of due process is systemic in Iran’s judicial system. Judges are not independent, and coerced confessions are accepted as evidence in courts, even when defendants tell the judge their confession was obtained under duress. Among those sentenced to death, Dr. Hamid Qarahassanloo is of particular significance. He has been falsely accused of complicity in the murder of a Basiji agent. Three thousand members of Iran’s medical corps have written a letter in his defense. Ironically Dr. Qarahassanloo had tried to save the Basiji agent’s life. A well-reputed doctor who is known for his charitable work, Hamid Qarahassanloo participated in the 40th-day memorial of one of the protestors, the 22-year-old woman Hadith Najafi, who was killed during the protests on September 21, 2022. The brutal torture of Dr. Qarahassanlou, who has lost one lung under torture, and his death sentence, along with the 25-year detention verdict issued against his wife Farzaneh, are meant to terrorize and deter Iran’s upper middle class from joining the protests. Tragic as this cruelty is, it also indicates that the authorities are aware of upper middle class support for the movement and seek to prevent its actualization by all means.
Liberal democracies and the Iranian diaspora must play smart in both encouraging defections from within the regime’s security forces and pressuring the government to mitigate its violence against protesters. The most urgent task is to deprive the regime of its actual means of repression while providing space for the opposition to organize. But no matter how this all plays out, I do not see how the Islamic regime of Iran can overcome the ideological, political, cultural, social and economic dead end it has reached.
Copyright: OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP