The eruption of nationwide protests in Iran following the death in police custody of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman detained for allegedly failing to adhere to hijab (headscarf) rules is the most serious challenge Iran’s leadership has faced in years.
While authorities say Mahsa Amini died from underlying health reasons, her family and countless other Iranians believe she died as a result of having been beaten.
Protesters say that if they don’t act now, they could fall victim to the same fate. At least 30 people have been killed in the protests.
It has come at a time when Iranians are feeling particularly fed up. Systematic corruption among Iran’s political elite, growing poverty with inflation at more than 50%, deadlock in nuclear talks and lack of social and political freedom have left Iran’s young and vibrant population feeling hopeless.
According to Iran’s Social Security Organization Research Institute at least 25 million Iranians were living below the poverty line by June 2021. That number is even higher now.
These are not the first protests in the history of the Islamic republic of Iran. But many observers believe there is something different about them.
More than anything, this is a woman’s protest.
‘Society has shifted’
Civil liberties groups continually spotlight the suppression of women in Iran, an entire part of society who have been the biggest losers of the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Iranian women were forced to wear hijab (headscarf) soon after the revolution and have lost many of their rights, including right to travel, right to work and right to child custody over the age of seven. There was little objection to these changes from men at the time.
“The fact that many men are joining the protests shows that the society has shifted to more progressive demands,” says Mehrdad Darvishpour, an Iranian sociologist based in Sweden.
The main slogan of protesters is “Woman, Life, Freedom”, a call for equality and a stance against religious fundamentalism.
Also, these protests are far more inclusive than the previous ones.
The so-called Green Movement of 2009 saw the middle class protest against alleged election fraud. Although it was large in size, it centred on major cities. Other major protests in 2017 and 2019 were confined to poorer areas.
But the current protests are now being reported in both middle class and working class areas. They seem to have moved from local or ethnic issues, to more inclusive ones.
“We are witnessing the birth of a mega-movement,” says Mr Darvishpour.
A movement that was being led by women but has managed to bring other movements together. And more importantly, the symbolic value of burning hijabs, has cracked the image of an unbreakable regime.
According to Mr Darvishpour, there is no going back from this experience.
The establishment is in a very difficult place. The death of Mahsa Amini has even shaken some of the hardcore supporters of the government.
Many of them, including some clerics, are questioning the violent tactics that are being used by morality police against women.
So, the government has two options: To change its strict hijab rules, which are part of the identity of the Islamic republic. But doing so may encourage protesters to continue until they reach their final demand for regime change.
Or not to change anything and continue the violent crackdown and killing of protesters, which may briefly calm down the unrest but will only add fuel to their ever growing anger.
Many of the riot police that are now suppressing the protests are also suffering from economic difficulties and are not necessarily supportive of the establishment.
If these protests continue they might switch sides.
On top of that, the Supreme Leader’s 83 years of age and his ill health is on the mind of many Iranians on both sides.
It’s unclear whether whoever succeeds him will be able to sustain the support of the regime’s hardcore supporters or not.
This might not be the final chapter, but it is a very important one.
Lives are being lost, but more cracks are appearing in a system that is no longer working for many angry Iranians who want a different way of life.