The unrest in Iran, which started with the death of 22-year-old Mahasa Amini, is nearing two months with no let-up. The question arises of how the scarf issue may attain so much traction in a country ruled by the clergy with iron-fist. Strangely, Iranian women are challenging the fundamentals of the Iranian revolution in which the Hijab, or covering women’s heads, is an essential pillar. The Iranian government is gradually taking countermeasures to control the situation. However, this time demonstrators have been innovative in their tactics. Thanks to the swiftness of social media, the young protestors gathered at a point in the shortest possible time, and before authorities could react, they dispersed.
For the time being, the protests in Iran are scattered to many cities and towns. The slogan of the protestors Zan, Zindagi, Azadi (Woman, life, freedom) has caught the imagination of a broader spectrum of Iranian society. Whether it will gain momentum and pose a formidable threat to the theocratic order in Iran is yet to be seen. However, one thing is clear: the entire movement is directed against the ruling clergy. Videoclips showing humiliations hurled at the clergy have become viral; government officials are also becoming the target of the protestors, mostly youth in their twenties.
In 2009, the Green Movement took millions of protestors to the streets of Tehran and other major cities. Those demonstrations were attributed to the alleged election fraud, which brought President Ahmadinejad to a second term. In the coming five to six months, the Iranian authorities controlled the situation and prosecuted hundreds of protestors to various prison terms. Again, women were at the forefront of the Green Movement’s agitations.
This time, the modus operandi of the protestors is unique; instead of concentrating in one place, the protestors gather in different city localities, which becomes difficult for law enforcement agencies to control. Such a tactic has also stretched the law enforcement machinery too thin. Moreover, every single protest or reaction by the government is recorded on the cellphones and sent to international channels. Despite all efforts, including interrupting the internet, the government has failed to control social media effectively, which is why any event on the streets of Iran becomes viral in a matter of seconds. The Iranian diaspora also plays a lead role in galvanizing support in favour of protestors.
Second, growing unemployment, inflation and American sanctions are creating hardships in the country. While the youth in their twenties, primarily dependent on their parents, may enthusiastically participate in protests, others in their thirties are more concerned about their lives and livelihood. In such a situation, how long the protestors may continue their agitation is a matter of speculation.
Third, Iran has been in the eye of the storm ever since the revolution; Mahasa Amini’s episode has given a ready-made alibi to the West to align with the protestors in the name of supporting the freedom movement in Iran. Germany, France and Canada witnessed big demonstrations staged by the Iranian expatriates; the EU is planning to slap stricter sanctions on the Iranian regime. The US has almost suspended talks about the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Perhaps, the Americans may be expecting a change through these unrests, although there is hardly any bet on such an eventuality happening in the country.
Although top Iranian officials, including Rahbar Ayatollah Khamenei, and President Ebrahim Raisi, have warned that demonstrations are being held in the country at the instigation of Americans and Zionists, the frequency of these protests must have been a source of concern for the authorities. To counter the anti-Hijab protestors, the Iranian authorities put up a grand show by mobilizing hundreds and thousands of pro-government supporters to observe World Anti-Arrogance Day last Sunday (November 6). This day reminds the previous repressive regime, which served as the surrogate of the Americans. Indeed, the message from the clergy was loud and clear: No one would be allowed to harm the Islamic revolution. Meanwhile, 227 Iranian lawmakers, in a letter to the judiciary, have called for firm punishment of those who incited the recent riots.
The Iranian government has displayed patience and avoided a big purge on the demonstrators in the hope that the protesters would ultimately step back after venting their pent-up feelings. A major source of solace for the Iranian clergy is that, for the moment, no organized body may threaten the theocratic order. However, the persistent hammering of an anti-clerical narrative may turn the tables in the longer run. Despite the Iranian regime’s grouse against “foreign interference”, there is no denying the fact that protests are mainly indigenous and spontaneous. These protests are further catalyzed by social media platforms whose controls are either outside Iran or maintained inside the country secretly.
The Iranian society takes pride in its glorious past, which has seen great monarchies in its three-thousand-year-old uninterrupted history. Its capacity to adapt to external influences has been routed through the monarchies. However, the 1906-1911 constitutional movement in Iran sowed the seeds of democracy in the country, although the monarchs hijacked subsequent events in the country’s constitutional history, whether Qajars or Pehlevis. Nevertheless, Iranian intelligentsia and political mainstream continued to agitate for democracy and the rule of law.
The 1979 revolution was a watershed event in the constitutional history of Iran, which not only introduced a political process based on the adult franchise but also gave a constitutional framework constructed by the ordinary people, even if it favoured a clergy-dominated order. After four decades of struggle and fighting against the American hegemony, the country is grappling with a situation whereby it is rebelling against the theocratic order to be replaced by the western form of democracy.
So far, anti-Americanism has sustained the theocratic order in the country. However, given the Iranian youth’s upbringing and the pro-western tilt of Iranian society, coupled with the power of social media, the existing order may face headwinds. How the ruling elite in Iran overcomes future challenges will depend on the political accommodation by the Qom School, which controls the current political order in the country.
Note: This article appeared in BOL, dated 13 November 2022.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.