The protests in Iran are proving an ongoing challenge for the Islamic Republic

Three weeks after anti-government protests erupted across Iran – sparked by the death of a woman detained for allegedly violating the country’s strict Islamic dress code – the movement has proved more resilient than previous challenges to Tehran’s leaders and could be a constant threat.

The protests are unlikely to topple the government, at least in the short term, activists and political analysts said. But the deep discontent they represent and the fact that they are targeting a key pillar of the Islamic Republic and its fundamental ideology make them a significant test.

Since the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman arrested by Iran’s morality police in September, protesters who initially focused on women’s rights have broadened their goals, calling for more freedom in life and politics and the overthrow of the country. Islamic leadership.

At the center of the protests is the Islamic head covering, or hijab, which has been compulsory for Iranian women since 1983, four years after the Islamic revolution that brought Islamic clerics to power.

“This moment is important because it unleashed the potential for long-term civil disobedience,” said Narges Bajoghli, a Johns Hopkins University anthropologist who studies Iran. “Since half the population needs to be covered, this issue is about class, ethnicity and social status.”

Protests broke out in Iran in 2009 against the outcome of the country’s elections.


Photo:

Ben Curtis/Associated Press

Mass protests in the streets of major cities—dispersed with violence by the authorities—gave way to sporadic but frequent and widespread demonstrations involving women removing their headscarves. It is a kind of daily resistance that is difficult for the authorities to stop.

The spontaneous, unpredictable nature of the movement creates a form of theft for already thinned security forces in Tehran and beyond, while images of pro-government hardliners using violence against uncovered students fuel public anger.

The hijab is central to the Islamic Republic’s raison d’être. It is the most visible symbol of adherence to the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, in which women’s dignity must be protected by modest clothing. And it is a political tool to control half the population in the public sphere.

The movement has overturned the Iranian authorities’ guide to cracking down on the protests. Tehran has used violence to quell previous uprisings, even as other Middle Eastern governments have collapsed. Iranian leaders were able to consolidate their power and return to business as usual.

Previous mass protests have been rooted in allegations of electoral fraud or economic hardship and have never won the support of enough Iranians to topple the government or force it to make significant concessions.

The latest protests have unprecedented support from Iranians across class, gender and age, and come after years of economic hardship that has driven millions of Iranians into despair.

Protesters in Tehran shout slogans during a demonstration over the death of a woman who was arrested by the morality police.


Photo:

Associated Press

Universities and schools have become the latest hotbeds of opposition, with high school girls and toddlers removing headscarves and telling Education Ministry officials and paramilitary commanders to “get lost.”

This weekend, students in the capital rekindled their protests and shopkeepers across the country went on strike. Tehran’s streets were blocked with cars honking in solidarity with the protest movement and girls and women crowded the street, waving their veils in the air before security forces dispersed them with tear gas. On Sunday, the governor of Kurdistan province ordered the closure of universities, likely to prevent further protests.

Artists have entered with works advocating civil disobedience. Last week, an anonymous artist splashed red paint on famous fountains in Tehran in a project he called “Tehran drowned in blood,” according to photos and footage released by activist network 1500tasvir.

“Baraye,” a song composed from tweets about Iranian women’s struggle for freedom by singer Shervin Hajipour, has become an anthem of the uprising.

Iranian public opinion polls are often unreliable. But the number of people advocating firm support for the Islamic Republic appears to be shrinking.

According to a March poll by Gamaan, an independent research group based in the Netherlands, 18 percent of Iranians want to preserve the values ​​and ideals of the Islamic Revolution. About 17,000 respondents living in Iran took part in the survey. A 2020 study by the group found that 72% of Iranians opposed mandatory coverage.

The crackdown on protesters by security forces sparked more public anger. Dozens have been killed, including at least three teenage girls whose faces have become rallying icons for the movement. On Saturday, state television was hacked by a group of activists who posted photos of the three girls during a live broadcast and projected an image of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on fire.

“Every family, to some extent, has been harassed by the state,” said Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former Iranian parliamentarian who is now based in the US as executive director of the Nonviolent Initiative for Democracy, a pro-democracy activist group. “That resentment and anger has been there, under the skin of society, for many years.”

Protesters near a rally in Tehran in 2009.


Photo:

/Associated Press

Adding to the leadership uncertainty, there have long been rumors of the declining health of the 83-year-old Mr. Khamenei, who has been in power since 1989. If he were to die, the forced power shakeup would likely further embolden the protesters and potentially create fissures. in leadership.

Protesters responded to government violence by adapting. Many have sought refuge inside universities or taken to rooftops to shout slogans such as “Death to the dictator”. Others are preparing for confrontations with law enforcement.

“We are not afraid anymore,” said a protester in Tehran who was beaten by members of the Basij militia during a recent rally for not covering her hair.

When preparing for a protest, the woman said she wears dark clothing, removes her jewelry, covers her tattoos and wears a surgical mask. She said she’s packing extra clothes, water, a lighter and vinegar in case she and the other protesters are hit with tear gas or worse.

“I usually don’t take my phone with me, and if I do, I make sure to delete any information that would get me in trouble,” he said.

The Islamic Republic has clashed with the population on the streets many times since its establishment in 1979 and with increasing frequency.

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Student protests in 1999 and the Green Movement in 2009 protesting alleged fraud, as well as demonstrations in 2017 and 2019 against the government’s economic policies, mainly called for reforms to the existing system. Now, the Iranians are calling for a total overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

The current movement has no set leaders and no coordinating body. That’s both a strength and a potential weakness, said Mohammad Ali Kadivar, an associate professor at Boston College and an expert on pro-democracy movements in Iran.

The leaderless nature makes it difficult for the government to decapitate the movement. The 2011 arrest of opposition leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi effectively ended the Green Movement. But it also makes the movement less flexible in making tactical changes, and if the government at a later stage wants to negotiate, it needs leaders to do that, Mr Kandivar said.

The real strength of the movement lies in the inclusion of marginalized groups, Mr Kandivar said. Ms Amini, whose death sparked protests three weeks ago, was a Sunni Muslim Kurd in a majority Shiite country. “Everything about her identity was marginalized,” she said. “Women’s leadership is new and cross-ethnic solidarity did not exist before.”

Unions of bus drivers, oil workers and teachers have gone on strike in the past to protest poor economic conditions, and if they coordinate their efforts, they could dramatically shift the balance of power, said Roham Alvandi, an associate professor at the London School of Economics. specializing in Iranian history.

“The question is whether they can translate these protests into something like a general strike,” Mr Albadi said, adding that the uprising was still in its early days. “If they can, then I think that’s pretty much the end of this regime.”

So far, unions are not known to have coordinated large-scale action.

Protesters are also younger than ever. In recent days, footage has emerged of Iranian children and high school students confronting government officials and tripping over pictures of Mr Khamenei and his predecessor, Rukhullah Khomeini.

“The Islamic Republic will find it difficult to rule this generation,” Mr Kandivar said.

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at [email protected]

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