Protests in Iran: a unique experience with global significance
The protest movement in Iran, now in its sixth week and with no end in sight, is in many ways unusual.
Its ability to maintain almost daily street protests for as long as it has in the face of severe repression – over 250 have been killed, many of whom were children, and over 13,000 arrested – is different from previousprotests in recent years. It is also remarkable in being the first popular nationwide mass protest movement of modern times initiated, and in places led by women.
This article outlines the features which make the current movement in Iran special and, in some respects, unique in the history of popular resistance to tyranny.
The protests began in Kurdistan after the murder of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Jina Amini from the Kurdish town of Saqqez while visiting the capital, by the Tehran’s gashte ershad (morality police). Within days the protest spread across the country. To date, over 120 towns and cities have witnessed protests under the overarching slogan zan, zendegi, azadi: Women, Life, Freedom (zhen, zhian, azadi in Kurdish). This slogan, first aired by Syrian Kurds in their fight against Daesh (ISIS), has become the rallying cry of the protestors.
While the protests were initially against compulsory hejab, the demands rapidly escalated after the massacre of at least 82 people in the Eastern city of Zahedan. Shouting “Death to the Islamic Republic” and “Death to the Dictator” in the streets and university campuses, nightly from roof tops and scribbled everywhere on walls, protestors everywhere have gone on to make it clear that they will not be satisfied with anything short of the overthrow of the entire Islamic regime, directly targeting the Supreme Leader who has absolute power over every aspect of civil and political society in Iran. Demands for the overthrow of the regime has now become nationwide with “Death to the Dictator” being the most repeated slogan nationwide.
The majority of protestors belong to generation Z, born since the turn of the millennium. This is a generation that was not only born decades after the Revolution of 1979, it is also a generation in dialogue with the rest of the world through social media. Iran is a country of the young, internet savvy and frustrated. In a population of over 88 million over 60% are under 30 years of age. This generation increasingly feel a dissonance between their own experience under a regime which is not only unable to provide them with jobs (27% of 15-24-year-olds are officially unemployed) but severely restricts their private life.
In this intensely patriarchal country, social restrictions chiefly target women. Numerous laws discriminate against women, such as inheritance, custody of children, divorce, the right to travel etc. Their witness in court is half that of men and even when murdered, a woman is valued as half that of a man. In addition to strict rules of dress in public, which in larger cities is continuously being monitored by the morality police, women are forbidden from singing in public, cycling outside the home, cannot watch football matches, are severely restricted in the which sports they can pursue, and are segregated in most public places.
Women have, from the very beginning of the Islamic Republic fought against these restrictions and have indeed been able to obtain some concessions, especially in family law. But the huge difference in gender rights persists and underlies the significant role the women’s movement has made in the resistance to the Islamic regime over the last 43 years. One has only to look at the list of girls and women executed by the Islamic regime, or read the tale of the thousands of women imprisoned and tortured by those that survived the hell of prison life to see the heroic role of women of all ages in the struggles against the autocratic theocracy ruling the country.
What is remarkable in this current protest, is not the mass participation of women, which has been significant in most of the protests in the past, but the leadership roles they have played. The uprising was sparked by the death of an innocent women at the hands of the morality police, and from the first day of the protests in many cities, young women, singly or in small groups, took to the streets, taking off their scarfs and symbolically twirling it or throwing it into street pyres. Intensely courageous, mostly young women, some of whom lost their lives, have been continuously inspiring the men in the street protests, reflected in slogan writing and other innovative forms of protest. In many large cities, such as Tehran, Tabriz and Shiraz the role of women, in a symbiotic relationship with men, particularly young men, continues to play an important role in the continuation of the battle against the Islamic state. In this, I believe the Iranian women have created a precedence in West Asia and indeed contemporary world history.
One of the few things the Islamic regime did after they got into power was to hugely expand higher education. There are now hardly any towns, large or small, without a university, technical college or other institute of higher education. After some hesitation, the regime also allowed women to sign up to most (but not all) courses, albeit after ensuring gender separation in the classrooms and canteens. Today, Iran has one of the most educated populations in the West Asia. There are currently over 300 universities, post-secondary technical institution facilities and technical colleges, spread over the entire country. In any year, 7.4% of the over 19-year-olds are in higher education – a figure higher than the US. Over half of the students are women. Thus, we have an educated younger generation most of whom cannot find any employment, particularly in recent years with the worsening economy. The issue of unemployed youth is even more pronounces in the case of educated women who are grossly underrepresented in the workforce. This is a generation waiting to explode.
As a force for change, the huge student force dispersed across the country in its numerous universities is a potential unifying force providing neighbourhood groups with leadership, and through its natural links with the working class, both white collar and blue collar, with the potential force to overthrow the regime.
Guerrilla tactic of protest
The fact that the young women and men of Iran have been able to prolong the street protest daily for nearly six weeks is in itself astonishing. This, I believe, they owe to two factors. Firstly, the geographic breadth of the revolt involving both large and small towns (in the last count over 220), and in the various districts of the larger towns. Secondly, the unpredictability of the lightening appearance of protestors in this or that town or neighbourhood, shouting slogans, lighting fires, provoking the security forces some of whom are mercenaries recently recruited from villages, having a quick skirmish with the police, and then vanishing back into the neighbourhood. What this tactic maximises is the invisibility of local leaders. They melt into the neighbourhood like everyone else.
This tactic exhausts the regime’s forces of repression. Flitting from one corner of the town or province to another. It also frustrates it. Despite arresting tens of thousands, they have been unable to effectively stop these guerrilla skirmishes. Most of those arrested are roughed up, made to sign a promise to behave in the future and released.
Another consequence of a tactic of widespread unexpected local uprisings is it forces the regime to rely on local basij militia to counter the local uprisings. This puts the forces of repression directly in opposition to people they know. There have been a number of examples of local basij militia being called up and refusing to enlist.
The arson followed by prolonged shooting in one of the buildings in Evin prison housing recent arrestees, in which an unknown number of inmates were killed or injured, perhaps shows the frustration felt by the repressive arm of the regime.
Choosing the right slogan is important in any uprising. Alongside the ubiquitous slogans demanding an end to the Islamic Republic, the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom”, has become one of the most common slogans heard, particularly because it speaks to every need in Iranian society. With “Women” it addresses all forms of discrimination, whether gender, sexuality, ethnic, or linguistic; and any inequality, whether economic, cultural, or ideological. With “Life” it opposes poverty, unemployment, exploitation, commodification and destruction of nature, and welcomes all that enhances a future society that is beautiful, harmonious and equal. Finally, “Freedom” not only demands individual and civic freedoms but also celebrates all forms of public freedoms from speech to sexuality. Liberation from all forms of dictatorships to all forms of patriarchy.
For this reason, the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” speaks to all that must change, not just under the Islamic Republic but also under capitalism. It speaks equally to women and men from all walks of life, to workers, to students, to teachers and school children, to writers, to artists, to sportsmen and women. From the very young to the old. From the dustman to the lawyer. It is its universality that makes it ubiquitous. It appeals to reformist as well as the radical revolutionary. And finally, the slogan transcends boundaries and can apply to all countries, whether neighbour or further afield – it is an international slogan for freedom and liberation. Thus it possesses the hallmark of a good slogan that can unite a population against an autocracy that effects all but the few, and yet can also go beyond.
Women, Life, freedom is a strategic slogan.
From protest to overthrow
From here on the road becomes more precarious. What now faces the protestors is how to progress from being a street movement to overthrowing the Islamic regime. Here the absence of an overall leadership and of co-ordination at the national level may be a handicap. Moreover, despite sporadic strikes by the working class in the petrochemical and some other industries, and support from more organised groups of workers with a history of mass action like the teachers, lorry drivers and Tehran bus drivers, the mass of the working class has not yet joined the protest. Mass closure of shops and markets have been mainly confined to Kurdistan. Nor have white collar workers in offices and other state employees taken significant action. All of these are necessary to paralyse the Islamic regime and split its security apparatus.
At this juncture another set of players enter the scene, namely the myriad of TV, radio and other means of communications, funded by foreign powers, zooming down and bombarding the people of Iran. TV stations such as Iran International, Man-o-To, BBC, Voice of America, and of course the social media are watched by millions of Iranians. All are trying to divert the popular struggle into paths that they can control and to provide a national leadership of their liking. One policy, particularly followed by the Saudi-funded Iran International TV station at present, is trying to co-ordinate the street demonstrations across the nation and abroad. This makes it easier to lead the movement along their desired directions. The internal opposition needs to be wary of such manoeuvres to impose what some have called “an Iranian Chalabi” on the country, referring to Ahmad Chalabi who was the Neo-con’s favoured candidate to rule Iraq after the US invasion.
Within the country too, the maturing of the uprising has created its own leadership and within this dynamic a national leadership may emerge. The regime is intensely vigilant to identify and destroy any emerging leadership. Many such potential leaders have been identified through its extensive security network and are currently in prison.
As mentioned, students provide the major source of activists for organising and interlocking the disparate parts of the uprising. For this it is important for the revolutionary student and academic body not to confine themselves within the walls of the universities and colleges. The important thing is to remain as mobile as possible using whatever social media that can be salvaged and used in the presence of an internet blackout by the regime, to co-ordinate nationally.
Whatever the fate of the current uprising, there has been a qualitative shift in the people’s struggle against the Islamic regime that would be impossible to reverse. This is not least because of the heroic acts of the protestors, especially the women and the clear evidence that the movement has learnt from the experience of previous large protests such as those in 2009 (1388), 2017 (1396) and 2020 (1398) by avoiding large static gatherings that are vulnerable to attack and adopting a much more hit-and-run tactics. The leadership of Iranian women, their courageous stand against oppressors and their tactical creativity has also been an inspiration to the women and feminist movement worldwide.
Mehdi Kia, October 2022
Featured image: Women running away from riot police officers in Tehran last week.Credit…Associated Press
 Article 5 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran gives supreme power (velayat) to “a just and pious religious jurisprudence (faqih)” over all affairs of state and society (ummat).
 The Law of Qesas states that the plaintiffs of an injured or murdered person can either demand a similar treatment of the accused – an eye for an eye – or a state-defined monetary settlement.
 With the introduction of compulsory veiling of women on International Women’s day in 1979, 15,000 women marched towards Khomeini’s residence in North Tehran in protest. They were dispersed by the security forces and did not receive support from the left and democratic forces, who considered the hejab a minor issue.
 See Nasser Mohajer, Voices of a Massacre; Marina Nemat, Prisoner of Tehran; Behruz Ghamari, Remembering Akbar; Nasrin Parvaz, One Woman’s Struggle in Iran; M.S. Kia Entangled Lives, in press.
 The official number is 8 killed and injured, but it is widely recognised to be much more. Sounds of machine gun fire was heard for about 2 hours. There were also some form of objects lobbed into Evin from outside which exploded after impact in the area where the fire was being filmed by outside observers. Evin is in North Tehran with some houses able to see inside parts of the prison.
 See: What we mean by “women, Life, Freedom” http://www.middleast4change.org/what-we-mean-by-the-slogan-woman-life-freedom/
 In the run-up to the 1979 revolution, student and faculty from many universities, such as Sana’ti Tehran, Jondishapour in Ahwaz and Shiraz (Pahlavi) University were able to create close links with those struggling outside and effect changes in tactics, despite the fact that they had to compete with the well-organised Islamists being led by the mosques.