A leftist activist in Iran, Shirin Kamangar, explains the conditions that led to the latest uprising spreading across the country. This article was first published here.
The killing of Jina (Mahsa) Amini, following her arrest by the regime’s “morality police” in Tehran on September 15, 2022 for allegedly failing to observe Iran’s strict hijab codes, sparked a wave of public protest which continues to spread across Iran.
Jina was initially taken to Tehran’s Vozara detention center for “re-education classes.” Within a few hours, however, she was transferred to the hospital after exhibiting symptoms of a concussion. She soon went into a coma and died two days later. It is widely suspected that her death was caused by repeated blows to the head. Iranian authorities insist that her death was the result of a “heart attack,” a claim that her family rejects as absurd, given that Jina was a 22-year-old healthy woman with no known medical conditions. On September 17, her body was transferred to Saqqez, her place of residence in northwestern Iran’s Kurdistan province, as a means of quelling popular unrest in Tehran. Despite all the security measures taken by the regime, her funeral became the occasion of a mass uprising that quickly spread to neighboring cities—Sanandaj, Mahabad, Marivan, Divan Dare, Bukan, and Paveh among others—the following day.
The protest movement quickly spread beyond Kurdistan province, making it clear that people throughout Iran see Jina’s death and the regime’s oppressive morality laws as emblematic of the increasing intensity of the oppression, corruption and poverty imposed by a “militarized and patriarchal capitalist” state that has triggered a series of protests over the last five years. People in every part of Iran, including Tehran, Rasht, Sari, Ghazvin (in the north of Iran), Arak and Isfahan (central), Mashahd (northeast), Tabriz (northwest), Khoram Abad (west), Kerman (southeast), Shiraz, Bandar Abbas, and Kish (south) have all organized protests against Jina’s killing, and the number of cities joining the protests is increasing daily.
Announcements of the time and place of the protests have been posted on forums including Leftist Telegram, Instagram, and Twitter channels like Sarkhat and Sedaye Mahi Siah, to help people organize and allow them to post videos and photos from the day’s protests. Students at most of the universities in Tehran, including Shahid Beheshti, Allame, San’ati Sharif, Tarbiat Modares, Amirkabir and Al Zahra, as well as universities in such major cities as Yazd, Isfahan, Karaj and Tabriz, have organized and maintained campus protests. In addition, many celebrities have expressed their discontent with the existing repression by appearing unveiled on international platforms and virtual networks. Teachers’ and workers’ shuras (councils) have denounced the regime’s oppressive measures through public declarations. Interestingly, a significant number of religious families, veiled women and even clerics have demanded the revocation of the laws mandating the compulsory hijab.
The slogans coined by the protesters show quite clearly the connections between current protests and the series of uprisings in 2017 and 2019, which were sparked by the removal of state subsidies on oil products and staple foods, as well as earlier protests against the compulsory hijab, first, immediately following the 1979 revolution, and later in 2017 in a movement known as the “The Girls of Inquilab (Revolution) Street.”
Women are resisting the instrumentalization of their bodies in the service of the dominant regime and for the promotion of its ideologies. In the early years of the revolution, unveiled women were seen as a threat to national unity and security at a moment when “anti-imperialism” was the central focus of political discourse. Various oppositional groups, despite their differences, joined forces against the imperialist powers then exploiting Iran’s natural resources. In that period, removing the veil signified the imposition of western values and culture which many people felt had to be openly rejected in defense of the nation. It was for this reason that women’s protests against the compulsory hijab immediately after the 1979 revolution were often not supported, even by much of the Left.
However, the protests today are not solely focused on the “women’s question” or on “Islamic repression;” they are also responding to a growing socio-economic crisis whose origins lie both in the effects of US sanctions and in the increasingly neoliberal direction of economic policy that has created massive unemployment and allowed systematic government corruption. Iran’s neoliberal turn has deprived people of their daily subsistence and granted immeasurable wealth to the minority “regime class.” These factors, combined with massive repression of freedom of speech and thought, and a tyrannical regime which has reduced Islam to the question of the compulsory hijab and regional intervention, have led to a widespread sense of indignation.
This indignation is captured in the chants and slogans of the current protest movement. “Woman, Life, freedom” (زن، زندگی، آزادی), a slogan first born in Rojava, the Kurdish autonomous region in northeastern Syria, as (ژن، ژیان،ئازادی) has become the main slogan of the movement, chanted today by most of the demonstrators in all of the cities of Iran. There is a growing understanding in Iran today that women are up against a “patriarchal capitalism” which marginalizes women’s participation in the labor market by enforcing strict rules and regulations that exclude them from the public sphere and segregate them by coercing them into motherhood and domesticity.
University students also chant, “poverty, corruption, injustice / shame on all this tyranny” (فقر و فساد و بیداد/ مرگ بر این استبداد); “Liberation is our right, our power is our collective action,” (رهایی حق ماست، قدرت ما جمع ماست), and “exploitation, unemployment, forced hijab for women” (بیگاری، بیکاری، پوشش زن اجباری). Other slogans in the streets of Iran, like “Down with the dictator” (مرگ بر دیکتاتور) and “Down with the tyrant, be it the Shah or the Supreme Leader” (مرگ بر ستمگر، چه شاه باشه چه رهبر), “Khamenei is a murderer, his sovereignty is illegitimate,” (خامنهای قاتله، ولایتش باطله) and “Down with Khamenei” (مرگ بر خامنهای), reveal the people’s anger with the current despotic regime and their rejection of a monarchical regime whose descendants are always looking for opportunities to use the people’s movements to regain power.
The overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979 did not prevent the family from living like royalty with the enormous wealth stolen from the Iranian people. It is important to recall that the Pahlavi dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1925 to 1977, was a “secular regime” closely aligned with the West. High oil revenues allowed the regime to “modernize” Iran and present a “progressive” posture to Western powers. This rapid “modernization” and “Westernization” was realized at the cost of the people, whose “backward” appearance had to be “normalized.” Reza Shah launched an “unveiling campaign—outlawing men’s traditional garb in favor of Western clothing—so coercive that it sparked bloody clashes in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city. The unveiling was extended in 1936 by measures requiring women teachers and wives of ministers, high-ranking military officers, and government officials to appear in European clothes and hats, rather than the traditional chador.” This “emancipation” was more beneficial to Europe’s economy than to the Iranian people, as European fashion was imposed by force, and a large market was opened to the benefit of German and French manufacturers, all while local producers suffered.
Meanwhile, the forced modernization and Westernization campaign led to the dismissal of government employees whose wives accompanied them veiled. Further, veiled women were banned from certain public services and entertainment venues, such as cinemas and public baths. Headscarves were pulled off and torn to shreds by the police; “officials would sometimes break into private homes or search door-to-door and arrest women wearing chadors in the privacy of their homes.” Veiled women were also denied a number of educational opportunities.5Sedghi, Hamideh. Women and Politics in Iran Veiling, Unveiling, and Reveiling, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Just as under Reza Shah’s regime, the existing regime punishes the violation of dress codes with imprisonment and corporal punishment. This illuminates the fact that whether women have been required to expose or conceal themselves, the control of women’s bodies remains an integral part of all political orders, whether secular or Islamic. That’s why the slogan “Long live socialism and long live communism” (زنده باد سوسیالیسم، زنده باد کمونیسم) is chanted in Kurdistan in rejection of both the current and the preceding despotic regimes.
There are also slogans chanted against the Basij force, a paramilitary organization which has acted as the primary repressive arm of the regime from the early days of the 1979 revolution. The Basijis repress the university students by attacking them or chanting slogans in support of the regime. They are also in the streets beating the protestors with batons or electric shocks. The protestors chant in response: “Dishonorable Bajis, you’re our ISIS” (بسیجی بیغیرت، داعش ما شمایی). The sector of the clergy that struggled to monopolize power after the 1979 revolution under the banner of Islam are also publicly denounced: “Clergy, Fuck off” (آخوند برو گمشو). The protestors have creatively modified the euphemistic names of repressive state institutions to reveal the violence and repression these names serve to conceal. For example, the “Guidance Patrol,” also known as the “morality police,” was established in 2005 under the official name of “the program for increasing social security.” It is now referred to as the “Slaughter Patrol” in such slogans as “Down with the Slaughter Patrol” (مرگ بر ماشین گشت کشتار) or “Killing after killing, damn the Guidance Patrol” (کشتار پشت کشتار، لعنت به گشت ارشاد). Protestors in different cities have set fire to a number of police and Patrol cars.
As is evident, the accumulation of grievances from a diversity of socio-political levels and different geographical and social locations has turned Jina’s death into an occasion for collective resistance. The sentence written on Jina’s grave, “Dear Jina, you won’t pass away, your name will become a symbol,” has spread widely through virtual space and through the graffiti now visible throughout the country, showing that her death has turned into a struggle for life, as her Kurdish name indicates–Jina means life. Her death reminds us of the political, economic and ideological threats to our lives—some immediate and others emerging gradually, posed both by repression undertaken under the banner of Islam and by the implementation of neoliberal economic programs starting a decade after the 1979 revolution. It also reminds us that the people’s desire to live will lead them to resist repression, no matter how ferocious.
In the early years of the revolution, most of the big enterprises were nationalized, market prices were controlled, and most basic goods and fuel prices were kept low by government subsidies. After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in June 1989, capitalist relations of production were reinvigorated through the “economic restructuring” program developed with the assistance of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. As a consequence of the liberalization of the economy, price controls were removed, state subsidies reduced and nationalized enterprises privatized. The reduction in state subsidies increased the price of goods and services provided by the government and the value of national currency dropped dramatically. By 1996, consumer prices had increased, officially, by 359 percent in comparison with 1990. Economic liberalization in the Islamic Republic of Iran has pursued a “zigzag strategy,” retreating when popular discontent sparks public uprisings and accelerating when the protests subside.
This tragic event is widely represented in the international media as a consequence of “the forced hijab” implemented in an “Islamic State.” The problem is not what such statements say, but what they serve to conceal. This dominant discourse obscures the fact that women’s subordination is achieved in different ways and that it is neither restricted to “Muslim societies” nor to the “forced hijab.” In fact, the issue is not merely the obligation to “cover” women’s bodies, but rather a “domination or control over women’s bodies” which can take very different forms, from forced concealment to forced exposure, as well as forced pregnancy and forced birth. The mainstream narratives are actively engaged in invigorating orientalist binaries between the “West” and the “East,” as if the barbarous act of forcing women to wear the hijab proves the civilized character of the West, or as if the secular West is automatically innocent of the relentless oppression of women supposedly typical of the Muslim world. In fact, once we acknowledge the diverse forms of women’s subordination, we can see not only the forms of women’s oppression proper to secular states, but that Islamic doctrine alone does not explain women’s oppression. We must reject the often repeated myth of the cultural and political superiority of the West to an oppressed and oppressive so-called “Muslim world.”
To take one recent example: France, one of the most “enlightened” European countries, passed an “anti-separatism” bill on March 30, 2020 that bans girls under 18 from wearing the hijab in public, prohibits parents who wear hijab from accompanying their children to school activities or trips and prohibits the wearing of the “burkini,” a full-body swimsuit, thereby forcing women to expose their bodies at the beach or at public swimming pools.
Just as the Shah’s regime struggled to portray a “civilized” and “secular” image of the country through the policing of women’s bodies, France also mistakes “equality” with “absolute identity” which can be realized by negating any single difference to produce a harmonious and unified whole. This repressive prohibition, though not explicitly stated in the bill, is directed toward the Muslim women in France.
The insecurity and alienation imposed on women by “forced unveiling” equals that of “forced veiling.” The latter, however, always serves to render the former invisible, an emphasis that reduces the “policing of the bodies” to their forced concealment, as if forced exposure does not serve political ends by creating a hierarchy between “enlightened” and “unenlightened” women.
It is crucial today for the international left to express solidarity with the protestors in Iran who are fighting for the right to go on living against all the mechanisms of oppression and exploitation, whether under theocratic or secular regimes. The people’s ongoing struggle demands not foreign intervention but an international movement against oppression in all its forms. Whether the compulsory hijab in Iran or the prohibition of the hijab and other forms of dress associated with Muslim women, attempts to control women’s bodies must not be tolerated. As is evident, the problems the people of Iran are grappling with are neither restricted to Islam nor to women. The entire world is faced with a neoliberal order characterized by increasingly authoritarian politics, racism and misogyny that offers nothing but misery and destitution to the peoples of the world.