In Iran, the protests, the long fight for freedoms


A protester, in Paris | Photo credit: AFP

“In our dream, the wind will blow through women’s hair, in our dream, children will not be forced to learn the ideologies of the Middle Ages, in our dreams, no one will attack girls’ schools…no one will will shoot them from behind,” was the line of Hamed Esmaeilion (Iranian-Canadian activist at a rally in support of protests in Iran).

Defying a crackdown by security forces, it has been nearly two months since protests began across Iran and have lost little momentum. Throwing away their legally mandated Islamic headscarves, women have been at the forefront of protests over the September 2022 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by vice squad for wearing an ‘inappropriate’ hijab in violation of Iranian law. According to eyewitnesses, Amini was beaten in police custody, a claim denied by authorities.

Protests, response and questions

The protests are the most serious challenge to the Iranian government in years, prompting lawmakers on Nov. 6 to call for protesters to be given a “good lesson” to deter those who challenge the Iranian government’s authority. For the authorities, repression appears to be the only recourse to stay in power. These developments raise many questions: Can the protests be sustainable? How is this movement different from many previous protests in Iran? Are the protests the start of long-term opposition to the ultra-Orthodox Islamic Republic? And how is the international community reacting to the movement?

Demonstrations have spread to Iranian cities and university campuses, with large crowds taking to the streets to protest against President Ebrahim Raisi’s regime’s attempt to impose strict rules on the hijab, and brandishing provocative slogans such as: ‘Women, life, freedom’ and ‘We will fight and take back Iran’ In places, protesters condemned Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, calling for his death or removal from office The move was marked by excessive force as security forces attacked and fired at protesters with live ammunition, and assaulted them with tear gas and batons Some crowds in the capital Tehran reportedly returned fire chasing security forces and setting fire to their vehicles Credible reports indicate that at least 330 Iranians have been killed and 15,000 arrested, making the protests the deadliest since the 2019-20 protests that left more than 1,500 people dead. In 2009, millions took to the streets after a disputed presidential election, but unrest was then middle-class led and confined to major cities. Economic hardship sparked nationwide protests in 2017 and 2019, and these took place mostly in working-class neighborhoods.

Unlike previous protests, the main source of discontent in the current movement is neither economic nor political, but for human dignity and individual rights, centered on the recognition of women as the main victims of the male-dominated tradition of the regime and strict Islamist ideology. But neither is it an anti-religious movement; in fact, protesters deliberately avoided the use of religious symbols or rhetoric. For the first time, the protests involve people from all walks of life and all age groups, and have spread across the country.

Attract global attention

Iran’s brutal crackdown is attracting international attention and great concern. The US government and other Western officials and rights activists have sought to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the body focused on gender equality and women’s empowerment . The European Union, like the United States, has sanctioned regime officials responsible for the crackdown on Iranian protesters. The UN Security Council met informally to discuss Iran’s human rights abuses and member countries agreed to lend moral support to the movement. In addition to official statements, civil society around the world has shown solidarity with the Iranian movement by organizing massive rallies. In India, activists have publicly cut their hair and burned their hijabs. But it is also true that these demonstrations of support have been criticized for being selective. These critics argue that women cannot be forced to wear or not wear the hijab and that feminism must be applied equally whether it is about women’s rights in Iran or India, a relevant reference to the hijab ban imposed by the Karnataka government on Muslim female government students. educational institutions.

His ability to bring about change

A relevant question, however, is whether such protests have the potential to change the attitudes of a doctrinaire regime like those in Iran and Afghanistan. In the case of Iran, without a charismatic leader and a political agenda, it will be difficult to upset the regime, which is determined not to budge. Precedents show he has mastered the ability to suppress dissent through his decades-long control of the internet, vigilantism, stifling of civic activism and draconian policing methods. The evidence of history, from France in the 1780s to Sri Lanka today, is conclusive that no regime, however unpopular, can be overthrown by a popular movement without the military change sides to support the people.

That’s not to say that people around the world should then stop showing solidarity with the protesters. The death of Mahsa Amini and the September 20 disappearance of 16-year-old Nika Shakaram, whose death was only revealed to her parents after 10 days, have become symbols that have galvanized the protests and given momentum to a national movement led by Iranian women and youth. One can only hope that in the near future, the plight of Afghan women under Taliban repression – and indeed of all disadvantaged women around the world – will receive equal attention and support from the international media and the international community.

Arpita Basu-Roy is a specialist in international relations. Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Minister of India

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