The world’s eyes are on Iran. Outrage was sparked by the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, while in police custody following her arrest by the morality police. Her original arrest being on the grounds of her wearing her headscarf too loosely, protests have brought women’s bodily autonomy to the forefront of the debate. In protest against the mandatory veil, women have taken to the streets, burning their headscarves and cutting their hair in public. The calls for personal freedoms in Iran are growing louder with each passing day.
Setting the scene
Before delving into the details of the current 2022 Mahsa Amini protests, it is important to establish a baseline understanding of Iran’s political and social history. Personal freedoms have not always been outlawed in Iran. Moreover, these are not the first calls for freedom from oppression.
1979 Iranian Revolution
Context here is crucial. Iran has been an authoritarian theocracy since the 1979 Iranian (Islamic) Revolution, when the Shah and his appointed prime minister were overthrown. While the country appeared to Westernise at an increasing pace, the tail end of the 1970s saw the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This 180-degree shift was brought on by several factors.
For one, the White Revolution carried out in 1963 by former Prime Minister Mohammad Reza and Shah Pahlavi, resulted in social upheaval, and ultimately, a cultural vacuum. This was an ambitious and rapid modernization programme, which ran until the revolution in 1979. The programme prioritised industrialisation, while transforming rural economies. The result was ultimately rapid urbanisation and Westernisation. The traditionally wealthy and influential classes lost their monopoly on land, as well as their positions in society, while those in rural communities flocked to city centres. Moreover, public institutions became increasingly secular. And so, much like the upper echelons of society, clerics found their power and influence diminishing. Furthermore, laws became increasingly liberal, especially with regards to women. In fact, in 1963 women were given the franchise. They were also able to access tertiary institutions. Moreover, the 1967 Family Protection Law raised the minimum marriage age for women from 13 to 18, as well as allowed women the right to petition for divorce. Women also, under this law, no longer faced the daunting, unilateral loss of custody rights over their children in the case of divorce. And so, up until the revolution, Iranian society was becoming increasing secular and Western. However, for the Leftists, this change was not fast enough. They were advocating for a democracy free from the monarchy’s leadership. And so, both Leftists and conservatives were dissatisfied with the Pahlavi regime.
Another factor was the level of foreign interference in Iranian affairs at the time. Russia, the UK, and the US were all heavily involved in Iranian politics since the Constitutional Revolution ended in 1911. The UK, for instance, backed the Reza Shah Pahlavi-led monarchy in 1921, who was then forced into exile with the help of UK and Russian forces in 1941, in favour of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Later, in 1953, the American CIA and British MI6 were implicated in a coup against then-Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. As such, the Iranian people rarely saw a government reflective of their own views and values. One such political radical responded to this in later decades. Out of fear that foreign agents would instigate a coup during the social turmoil of the 1970s, Ruhollah Khomeini formed an informal religious militia, which he called the Revolutionary Guards.
Lastly, the period leading up to the revolution was characterised by economic hardship. By the 1970s, Iran had experienced a decade of high economic growth, which was accompanied by high government spending. This was largely driven by Iran’s large oil reserves. At the time, there was a global boom in oil prices. Therefore, the Iranian economy was greatly dependent on oil. Oil and mining accounted for 75% of Iran’s GDP in the 1979/1980 period. Agriculture only accounted 2%, industry 9%, and services 13%. However, this all led to high inflation, decreased buying power, as well as a lower standard of living for Iranians. The sheer brutality of the monarchy’s regime only exacerbated feelings of discontent. Torture of dissidents, violent squashing of protests, corruption, and de facto US-leadership all worked towards further demoralising civil society. These socio-economic conditions created a powder keg for civil protest and unrest.
Therefore, this cultural vacuum, foreign interference, and economic hardship culminated in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In the wake of a national referendum, Khomeini was declared Iran’s new leader. He later announced that Iran was to be an Islamic republic. Leading from 1979 until his death in 1989, his reign saw a wave of conservativism enter into Iranian legislation. Acts such as the Family Protection Law were repealed, intellectual allies were abandoned and persecuted, and Islamic dress codes were enforced by patrolling Revolutionary Guards. Iran has remained a theocracy under Ali Khamenei’s leadership.
Iran’s history of civil unrest
Iran is no stranger to civil unrest. For one, the melting pot described above culminated in mass protests in 1978, which eventually led to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Beginning with the Black Friday protest in September 1978 where over 100 demonstrators were killed by security forces in Jaleh Square, Tehran, by the end of the year, protests were mushrooming in every major city in the country. Conservatives and Leftists alike joined in on these protests.
Notably, Iran’s theocracy did not bring an end to civil unrest in the country. At the tail end of the 20th century, another wave of protests was triggered. Thousands of university students began protesting at Tehran University in July 1999, primarily against the government’s banning of the university’s reformist newspaper, known as Salaam. Riot police were reported to have beaten students with clubs and to have set fire to dormitories, with at least one death being reported. Outrage resulted in a week long protest involving 10,000 demonstrators. Around 1,500 demonstrators were detained, alongside a handful of deaths. A decade later, in 2009, election fraud triggered another wave of protests, sending another 4,000 protestors into detention, and another 100 to their deaths. This was known as The Green Movement, a reference to the reformist movement’s primary presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi’s green sash. Essentially, the movement was triggered by the 2009 announcement that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidential election in a landslide victory over his opponent, Mousavi. Subsequently, 3 million Iranians took to Tehran’s streets in peaceful protest. This continued over the next 6 months and evolved into a democratic movement. By 2010, the movement had been quashed as each demonstration was suppressed by riot police and paramilitary forces in the ensuing months.
In recent years, the frequency with which protests have occurred has increased. Starting in December 2017, protestors in Mashhad took to the streets. This was largely in response to poor economic policies and high prices of food and basic commodities. Similar demonstrations popped up in over 80 other cities in the ensuing two weeks. Of the 42,000 protestors involved, around 3,700 were detained, and another 22 killed. The leadership vacuum in these protests resulted in disorganisation and a quick end in January 2018. The following year, the Iranian government announced a hike in gas prices by 300%, alongside a new rationing system. Outrage led to demonstrations forming in 100 cities throughout the country in just four days. An estimated 7,000 protestors were detained. Tear gas, water cannons, and live ammunition were all used. The number of dead is disputed, with some estimating in the thousands. In 2020, another round of protests swept through Iran. Unlike in the preceding two years, this was not sparked by economic concerns. Rather, this came in response to Iranian officials admitting the involvement of the Revolutionary Guard in the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. However, this coming after three days of denial, the general public took to demonstrating on campuses across the country over 5 days. Again, live ammunition and tear gas were used, with around 30 demonstrators being detained. However, journalistic access having been restricted, the number of deaths remains unknown.
And so, since the establishing of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country has been gripped by waves of protest. Ranging from anti-monarchy sentiment to the repression of freedom of speech, to election fraud, to economic hardship, to government cover-ups, Iranian civil society has had a long list of reasons to be dissatisfied with its leadership.
The 2022 Mahsa Amini protests
Yet another issue has sparked outrage in Iranian civil society. On 16th September 2022, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody. She was originally arrested by the morality police as her headscarf was too loose. This is not unusual. Many younger women have been skirting around the laws concerning conservative dress, as a form of protest against the compulsory veil.
However, news of her death has not elicited an ordinary response. Rather, there has been two weeks of civil unrest with student, middle-class and working-class participation. As of 29th September, just over 1,400 protestors had been detained. The protests have spread to 46 cities, villages, and towns across Iran. Solidarity protests have too spread abroad, most notably in Syria. While the riot police are responding violently, this has not deterred women from taking the bold step of removing their headscarves. Moreover, protestors are burning their headscarves and cutting their hair in public. And so, this time around, protests in Iran are women-led, with many men in support and partaking in the protests. It is undeniable that women’s bodily autonomy is at the forefront of Iranian discourse for the first time since 1979. Unfortunately, government officials have been largely dismissive of the issue. Lawmakers are on record calling the protestors “prostitutes” guilty of “impurities”.
Will Amini’s death spark change?
While the Iranian government has a strong record of squashing civil unrest, it cannot be assumed that these protests will die alongside their forebearers. For one, history is behind the Mahsa Amini protests. The current demonstrations are not simply about bodily autonomy and women’s rights. They are also about freedom of choice. This is not a new point of contention. The 1978 protests centered around freedom from the monarchy, the 1999 student protests were triggered by a fight for freedom of press, the 2009 protests were about voter freedoms, the series of protests from 2017 until 2019 were about economic freedoms, and the 2020 protests about the government’s suppression of information. And so, the fight for freedom has long been brewing in Iranian society. There has long been a call to limit the government’s authority over civilian lives.
Additionally, these most recent protests have been high-profile. Major publications have covered the story worldwide. Videos of the protests and of women burning their headscarves are circulating. The world is watching. What has previously protected the Iranian government has been a relative shelter from journalistic exposure. In 2022, there is nowhere to hide. Solidarity protests have erupted in Europe. The Iranian football team has even shown solidarity on the world stage. Change is more likely than ever.
Stephanie is the Assistant Editor at the Journal of Political Risk. She has a B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics and an Honours degree in Justice and Transformation from the University of Cape Town. She is currently pursuing her MPhil in Public Law, focusing on a gendered analysis of transitional justice mechanisms. She has also contributed as a member of the research team for the South African Medical Research Council, focusing on the National Health Insurance bill.