Three days after a young Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini was taken by Tehran’s Guidance Patrol, members of Iran’s morality police who enforce conservative Islamic dress in the country, she was dead. The protests that have followed have called to mind earlier protests in Iran—in 2009, 2017, and 2019—in some ways, but in other aspects, these protests are distinct.
SIS professor Shadi Mokhtari has an extensive background in human rights and women’s rights issues in the Middle East and the Muslim World. We asked her to provide some perspective on what is happening in Iran.
There is more to the protests than women defying compulsory hijab.
Iran’s protests are not just about the brutal treatment of one woman, nor are they just “anti-hijab protests” or even exclusively about the discrimination and injustices women have endured over the 43-year life of the Iran’s Islamic Republic. They are a broader outcry from Iranians feeling they have reached a breaking point with an authoritarian government facing a longstanding crisis of legitimacy and sustaining itself almost exclusively through unrelenting repression while closing off avenues through which the population can effect change from within.
The gender dimensions of the protests are extraordinary.
While the protests are not just about the treatment of women, they do reflect extraordinary leaps in gender consciousness in Iran. It was the death of a young woman that set ablaze such stunning nationwide protests. Women stand at the helm of the protests, defiantly taking off and burning their veils, which constitute a symbolic pillar of the regime’s control over the population and over women’s bodies, while confronting security forces on the streets. Men are not only participating, but, in many instances, are following women’s lead in the protests, taking up chants such as “woman, life, freedom.” These are all highly significant indicators of a shift in gender norms and the entry of women’s issues into—and not separate from—the broader political sphere, a shift rooted primarily in decades of secular feminists’, Islamic feminists’, and ordinary women’s struggles within Iran and also inspired by global feminist gains.
A path beyond the regime has become imaginable, but it is also a minefield.
After pursuing meaningful political change from within to avoid violent confrontations with the state, only to find that route to be a dead end, and seeing successive rounds of mass protests brutally crushed by the Iranian regime’s security apparatus, two weeks ago, most Iranians could not imagine a path that would take them beyond the grips of the regime in its current form. Now, the idea that the population can pose a formidable challenge to—or even possibly bring down the regime—is much more imaginable. Yet, even if Iranians pull off the Herculean and improbable feat of either significantly transforming or dismantling Iran’s regime, the path ahead is nothing short of a minefield. Given that the 1979 revolution, in effect, replaced one authoritarian regime with another, arguably much worse, authoritarian regime, the fact that, at this moment, there is no discernable organized alternative leadership that could take over is troubling. At the same time, despite the extraordinary solidarity currently on display among Iranians, long-standing ideological, religious-secular, and class divisions only exacerbated by Iranians’ widespread trauma stemming from the oppression and injustices of the last 43 years could derail political change at many points along the uncertain path ahead.
Expressions of international solidarity are helpful only if they reflect Iranians’ agency and multifaceted experiences of oppression.
Western hegemony and Islamophobia make international solidarity complicated. Sometimes aided by voices in the Iranian diaspora, people and government officials in the West can easily use the scenes of women burning hijabs to feed their Islamophobia and sense of civilizational superiority over the Middle East as well as to find justification for devastating Western policies in the region, past and present. On the other hand, those in the West attuned to how women’s rights and human rights discourses are entwined with Islamophobia and highly problematic foreign policies may find it hard to forge or express solidarity with people on the streets in Iran today for fear of contributing to these dynamics. To avoid both scenarios, expressions of international solidarity should be centered around Iranian protestors’ agency and multifaceted experiences of oppression.