Iranians’ appetite for regime change is palpable, but the clerical establishment clings on with the help of heavy-handed security forces.
“From now on, Iran will be known for the courage of its women, not for its carpets, its saffron, or its cats,” declares one widely-circulated social media post.
For more than five weeks, the world has watched as Iranian women bravely defy repressive dress code laws. Setting headscarves alight, roaming the streets unveiled and slogan-chanting are just a few of the ways in which Iranian women and girls have rebelled against a regime whose punishment for such acts includes double-digit prison sentences, if not death.
Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of the religious police on September 16th was the spark which lit the fire. Officials claim that her death was caused by an underlying heart condition, but this contradicts brain scans revealing the extent of her brutal treatment in custody. Skull damage and swelling of the brain forced her body into a coma, until she succumbed to her injuries days later.
Within days, demonstrations erupted across Iran’s major cities, and to date have spread to over 100 cities in each of the 31 Iranian provinces. Regions which had remained silent in previous bouts of protest have awoken amidst widespread discontent and anger with the ruling clergy.
Women are leading the protests, but men, too, have taken part in equal measure. Grievances of protesters transcend demographic boundaries. Protesters are more socially and geographically diverse than in previous years. Young and old, rich and poor, pious and irreligious; all manner of men, women and children have taken to the streets to vent their disapproval with the regime.
Iranians are objecting to “a collapsing economy, brazen corruption, suffocating repression and social restrictions handed down by a handful of elderly clerics,” say the New York Times. But it is “the central and leading role of women in the movement” which sets this apart from other protest movements in the Islamic Republic’s 43 year history, according to Dr. Kamran Matin, an Iran expert and Senior Lecturer of International Relations at the Department of Global Studies.
The demise of the Islamic Republic is a natural extension of the feminist feature of the uprisings, says Dr. Matin: “To the extent that legal and official subordination of women is key aspect of the Islamic Republic’s political and ideological identity, the slogan and current movement is targeting the very existence of the regime and therefore very different from for example the 2009 Green movement which was, broadly speaking, a reformist movement seeking change within the framework of the Islamic Republic. The feminist frame of the uprising has given this round of protests an unprecedented level of political radicalism, geographical spread, and nationwide scope.”
International recognition and declarations of support for the women-led Iranian uprising are helping to sustain the movement, adds Dr. Matin. “The more protesters feel they are heard and supported internationally the more likely that they continue their course.”
That support, so far, has not been lacking. Celebrities from all over have weighed in to express solidarity for the cause, the likes of Britney Spears, Gianluigi Buffon, J.K. Rowling, Meghan Markle, Kim Kardashian, and Harry Styles among them.
Prodigious rallies, marches and demonstrations, led by Iranian diaspora communities, have sprung up in cities across the globe, from London, Berlin and Warsaw, to Toronto, Los Angeles and Sydney.
Dr. Matin’s suggestion that “European countries can also collectively recall their ambassadors from Tehran to demonstrate their principled opposition to the regime’s brutal killing of unarmed protestors” chimes with the clamours of human rights groups and Iranian activists who are imploring Western politicians to turn verbal support into concrete action.
In this vein the European Union recently imposed sanctions on 11 individuals and 4 entities with ties to the Iranian government, including travel bans and asset freezes. The legislation also forbids EU citizens and companies from making funds available to the listed individuals and entities, and prohibits the exportation of equipment to Iran which might be used for repression of protests and monitoring of telecommunications. Similarly, the Canadian government barred 17 Iranians from entering Canada or doing business with Canadian firms.
It is vital that this support does not fade, adds Dr. Matin. “Crucial here is facilitating the free flow of information as the regime always seeks to carry out its repression under cover by internet shutdowns and jamming Western-based TV stations. Anything the outside world can do to help keep Iranian people connected to the internet will greatly help them.”
Internet blockages have made it increasingly difficult to disseminate information both within and outside of Iran. It is a tactic of a government keen on preventing images of the violent suppression of protests being seen across the world, while also stifling communication and effective organisation among protesters. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which tech-savvy Iranians would use to bypass such blackouts, are also being restricted by a regime hellbent on shutting Iranians off from the outside world.
Information coming out of Iran is therefore staggered and infrequent, but anecdotal accounts and images depict a gruesome reality.
In Zahedan, security forces massacred worshippers observing Friday prayers, killing 96 people and maiming over 300.
A ‘military-style occupation’ is taking place in Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan province, as reports emerge of police violently attacking demonstrators with teargas, clubs and live ammunition.
To the west of Sanandaj, bombardments of Iraqi Kurdish dissidents by Iranian missiles have caused the deaths of at least 18 people and injured 50 more.
Meanwhile in Tehran, state media reported the deaths of 8 inmates, with more than 60 injured, after Evin prison was set ablaze. Eye-witnesses and relatives of inmates said prisoners were attacked with gunfire and teargas after riots broke out at the jail, where political prisoners are often housed.
Schoolgirls across Iran have staged protests by discarding their hijabs and defacing pictures of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This prompted the authorities to raid a number of schools, detaining and beating students. Iran’s minister of education confirmed that a number of students had been sent to ‘psychological centres’ for taking part in anti-state protests.
In Ardabil, a number of schoolgirls were taken to hospital after being beaten by security forces for refusing to sing a pro-regime anthem. One girl aged just 15, Asra Panahi, later died of her injuries. The authorities have denied any role in her death, claiming she died from a heart condition.
It is symptomatic of a recurring pattern where the state’s explanation for the deaths of protesters is at odds with the accounts of eye-witnesses and relatives. Often, as in the cases of Nika Shakarami, Sarina Esmailzadeh and Abolfazl Adinezadeh, relatives report that they have been threatened to publicly corroborate the state’s version of events.
Since the unrest began on September 16th, over 250 people, many of them teenagers and young adults, have died in clashes with security forces, say rights groups. Thousands more have been injured or detained. One Iranian human rights group estimates over 13,000 people have been arrested.
Activists, academics, journalists and celebrities who have expressed support for the protests have been swiftly imprisoned after having their homes raided and property seized. Resultantly anybody who might emerge as a potential leader of the movement is muzzled.
The lack of a figurehead to coherently organise protesters is a double-edged sword, says Dr. Matin: “To the extent that the uprising lacks an identifiable organisation and leadership it is hard for the regime to suppress it. But that feature of the movement also means that there is also no organised political force to replace the regime should it eventually fall. One possibility is that in its course the movement produces its own alternative leadership and political programme. But overall we are on uncharted territory here.”
The future is uncertain, but “even if the regime succeeds in repressing the protests, it’s unlikely to be able to contain for too long the tremendous political energy of the women’s revolution that has begun in Iran,” adds Dr. Matin.
“There is also the possibility that the ailing Ayatollah Khamenei might die. This would create both a decision making vacuum at the top of the regime and instigate an internal power struggle which is likely to further weaken the regime.”
The International Development Society (DevSoc) is planning to host an event in the next few weeks to show solidarity with the women-led protests in Iran. Follow @DevSocSussex on Instagram to keep abreast with the latest news.