In Iran protests, the long fight for freedoms

The growing protests are a fight for human dignity and individual rights, centring on the recognition of women as the primary victims of the regime’s male-dominated tradition and strict ideology

Updated - November 21, 2022 06:47 pm IST

Published - November 15, 2022 12:08 am IST

A demonstrator, in Paris

A demonstrator, in Paris | Photo Credit: AFP

“In our dream, wind will blow into women’s hairs, in our dream, children will not be forced to learn ideologies of the Middle Ages, in our dreams, no one will attack girls’ schools… no one will shoot at them from behind”, was the line of Hamed Esmaeilion (Iranian-Canadian activist at a rally organised to support the protests in Iran).

Defying a crackdown by security forces, it is almost two months since protests started across Iran, and have lost little momentum. Discarding their legally-mandated Islamic head scarves, women have been at the forefront of the demonstrations over the death in September 2022 of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini who had been arrested by the morality police for wearing an ‘improper’ hijab in violation of Iranian law. According to eyewitnesses, Amini was beaten in custody, an assertion denied by the authorities.

The protests, the response and questions

These demonstrations are the most serious challenge to the Iranian government in years, forcing lawmakers on November 6 to call for the protesters to be taught a ‘good lesson’ to deter those who defy the authority of the Iranian government. For the authorities, repression appears the only recourse to remain in power. These developments give rise to many questions: can the demonstrations be sustained? How is this movement different from the several previous protests in Iran? Are the protests the beginning of long-term opposition to the ultra-orthodox Islamic Republic? And, how is the international community reacting to the movement?

Demonstrations have spread across Iran’s cities and university campuses, with large crowds in the streets protesting against the attempt by President Ebrahim Raisi’s regime to impose strict hijab rules, and brandishing defiant slogans such as: ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ and ‘We will fight and take Iran back’. In places, protesters condemned the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, calling for his death or removal. The movement has been marked by excessive force as security forces have attacked and shot at the demonstrators with live ammunition, and assaulted them using tear gas and batons. Some crowds in the capital Tehran have reportedly fought back by chasing the security forces and setting fire to their vehicles. According to credible reports, at least 330 Iranians have been killed and 15,000 arrested, making these protests the deadliest since the 2019–20 protests that resulted in more than 1,500 fatalities. In 2009, millions of people had taken to the streets after a disputed presidential election, but the unrest then was led by the middle class and limited to major cities. Economic hardship triggered nationwide protests in 2017 and 2019, and these took place mostly in working-class areas.

Unlike the previous protests, the chief source of discontent in the current movement is neither economic nor political, but for human dignity and individual rights, centring on the recognition of women as the primary victims of the regime’s male-dominated tradition and strict Islamist ideology. But neither is it an anti-religious movement; in fact, the protesters have deliberately eschewed the use of religious symbols or rhetoric. For the first time, the protests involve people from all sections of society and age groups, and have spread across the country.

Drawing global attention

Iran’s brutal crackdown is arousing international attention and great concern. The American government and other western officials and rights activists have sought to remove Iran from the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women, the body focused on gender equality and the empowerment of women. The European Union, like the United States, has sanctioned regime officials responsible for the crackdown on the Iranian protesters. The UN Security Council has met informally to discuss Iran’s human rights violations and member countries decided to give the movement moral support. Apart from official statements, civil society across the globe has shown solidarity with the Iran movement by holding massive rallies. In India, activists have publicly cut their hair and burnt the hijab. But it is also true that these manifestations of support have drawn criticism for being selective. These critics say women cannot be coerced into either wearing or not wearing the hijab and feminism should be equally applied whether it is a question of the rights of women in Iran or India, a pertinent reference to the Karnataka government’s hijab ban on Muslim students in government educational institutions.

On its capacity to result in change

A relevant question, however, is whether such protests have any potential to change the attitudes of a doctrinaire regime such as those in Iran and Afghanistan. In Iran’s case, without a charismatic leader and a political agenda it will be difficult to disturb the regime, which is determined not to budge. Precedents show it has mastered the capability to suppress dissent through its decades-long Internet control, vigilantism, stifling of civic activism and draconian policing methods. The evidence of history, from France in the 1780s to Sri Lanka of today, is conclusive that no regime, however unpopular, can be overturned by a people’s movement without the army switching sides to support the people.

This is not to argue that people across the world should then stop showing solidarity with the protesters. The death of Mahsa Amini and the disappearance on September 20 of 16-year-old Nika Shakaram, whose death was only disclosed to her parents after 10 days, have become symbols that have galvanised the demonstrations and bestowed momentum to a nation-wide movement led by Iranian women and young people. It can only be hoped that in the near future, the plight of Afghan women under the repressive Taliban — and indeed of all disadvantaged females across the world — will receive equal attention and support from the international media and the international community.

Arpita Basu-Roy is an international relations scholar. Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary of India

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