“This is your captain speaking. We are just leaving Iranian airspace”. Instant removal of headscarves. That was twenty years ago flying out of Tehran.
This September it was the mandatory hijab worn, I imagine, pushed back, perhaps with a suggestion of defiance, that led to the arrest and murder of 22 year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran at the hands of the Gasht-e-Ershad, the ‘morality police’, custodians of Islamic women’s dress code.
Mahsa Amini lived in Kurdistan Province in the North West of Iran and was visiting her brother in the capital. According to those detained with her, she was beaten in the police van and lapsed into coma. Her death triggered national demonstrations that still continue.
There have been major, but intermittent, demonstrations against Iran’s theocratic regime since the disputed Presidential election of 2009 brought almost two millions onto the streets. Each outbreak violently suppressed. But the embers of former protest were still hot this September. Mahsa Amini’s death was enough to breathe life into them. The blaze has been unexpectedly uncontrollable.
Street protests both in Mahsa Amini’s home town in Kurdistan and in Tehran spread rapidly to provincial towns, gaining in numbers. A rolling youth rebellion at first led by women and girls, students and school children, picked up support across age-groups including university teachers and professionals - reminiscent in some ways of the Soweto 1976 youth uprising. Strikes in many sectors, including oil, followed. As Jonathan Friedland wrote in a passionate article in The Guardian (26 November) it wasn’t just about mandatory wearing of the hijab – anymore than Soweto 1976 was just about compulsory Afrikaans in schools - it was about liberty.
The Iranian regime, led by the 83-year old Ayatollah Khamenei, supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), taken by surprise responded brutally. There was nothing unusual about State violence but this outbreak of protest didn’t peter out and displayed new features. Rebellion in Kurdistan had secessionist potential. Throughout the Middle East the Kurds – a population of some 35 million - have been denied national sovereignty, a state of their own. Iranian Kurds are no exception.
The revolt’s feminist dimension wrong-footed the regime. They had expected to suppress protests as easily as they had the 2017 and 2019 demonstrations in working class areas against the rising cost of living and unemployment - created at least in part by Western economic sanctions. Instead the protests took on a counter-cultural life of their own. Women, Life, Freedom banners became a permanent challenge on the streets. Hijabs were burnt, a news broadcast was hacked with attacks on Khamenei appearing, young girls pelted a Ministry of Education official with water bottles and chased him out of their school, women blocked CCTV cameras with sanitary-towels – none of the security forces would want to handle them.
Iranian singer, Shevin Hajipour’s, poignant Baraye (For) has become the theme song of national protest. It is a litany of what over years the protestors feared or hoped: “for an ordinary life”, “for changing these rusted minds”, “for fear of kissing (in public)” and so on. Years ago I walked the ski-slopes north of Tehran and saw approaching hand-holding couples spring apart then laugh when they realised I was a foreigner.
More worrying for the regime should be the results of encrypted opinion polls by GAMAAN (Group for Analysing & Measuring Attitudes in Iran), a Dutch non-profit organisation following punctilious sampling methodology - funded over 70% by North American and European foundations. The old divisions, between south Tehran, working class conservative, and wealthy north Tehran’s progressives, between urban anti-regime and rural pro-regime, between pious elderly, and irreligious youth, are breaking down if the hijab is a yardstick. 74% of women polled were against the mandatory dress code but also 71% of men, with little difference in attitudes according to age, urban or rural backgrounds. 84% were in favour of the mullahs getting out of politics. The Tony Blair Institute for Gobal Change paper ‘Protests and Polling Insights From the Streets of Iran: How Removal of the Hijab Became a Symbol of Regime Change’ (22 November 2022) interprets these findings, along with a reduced level of praying five times a day, as a sign of secularisation. Less religiosity perhaps but a widespread loss of Shi’a identity? I doubt it.
Similarly, it is too early to see the current revolt as comparable to the events leading up to the end of the Shah’s rule in 1979. The protesters have no leader waiting in the wings, no organisational centre. They are rallied by social media, but so are the regime’s agencies of repression, with intelligence on the protesters’ next moves provided for free by the internet. Death sentences have already been imposed on street demonstrators for alleged crimes such as ‘enmity against God” and “corruption on earth”. An estimated 450 protesters have been killed on the streets - some 10% of them children- deaths in custody are unknown. The IRSC have been entering the mainly Sunni areas of Kurdistan, Sistan and Baluchestan in the south-east, in vehicles with mounted machine-guns and using them.
Revolutions succeed when cracks in the political elite widen and the armed forces split. But Iran has lived with cracks in its elite for a long time. Plenty of mullahs, even in the religious heartland of Qom thought, and think, that political life is corrupting true religion. The former Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, refuted Khamenei’s claims that the hijab protests were not home-grown but engineered by Iran’s enemy the USA. Yet Khamenei has held onto to power and, in every sense, stuck to his guns.
Recently the government asked prestigious families help to calm things down. They – notably former president Hashemi Rafsanjani – preferred to keep their counsel. A split within the regime and, within the military, armed opposition to the IRSC and its Basij volunteers would probably cause a Syrian-style civil war; Khamenei pointedly warns of the consequences.
The duration of this protest movement, now often called a revolution, is itself a significant turning point. In the past fear of reprisals conquered. But women and youth are releasing the brake of fear and keeping resistance to the regime moving. They seem to be winning on the hijab, many women are ignoring the code. But as the distinguished Iran commentator, Christopher de Bellaigue, points out (‘Khamenei’s Dilemma’ New York Review of Books 24 November 2022) the present Supreme Leader Khamenei lived through the Shah’s collapse, saw the consequences of the Shah’s indecision and will not repeat his mistakes. The present President, Ebrahim Raisi, is accused of involvement in the 1988 hangings of thousands of dissidents on orders from Ayatollah Khomenei. Khamenei will double-down. There are already an estimated 14,000 imprisoned. A majority in parliament supported a letter to the judiciary calling for harsh punishments of protesters – this can include the death penalty already being imposed. From now on it will be live rounds and draconian sentences.
It was almost a decade after the Soweto uprising before the apartheid regime decided on compromise and another five years before they decided to negotiate. The Iranian regime is not likely to change much faster than this even if they decide change is inevitable. The nuclear deal, scuppered by Trump, is dead. Iran is hardening its position and increasing its uranium enrichment in Fordow and Netanz towards 60%. We are not looking at a regime about to crumble.
The removal of the hijab is a symbol of liberty. It will be a long time before it is a symbol of regime change.
See TheArticle 28/11/2022