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Beyond The Hijab: Iran's Protests Now Seek Nothing Less Than Revolution

Iran's protests have quickly expanded to be "national and revolutionary" in scope, having surpassed the various class, region and gender-based barriers that might have reduced their significance. The Islamic regime has never faced a bigger challenge.

Photo of a woman in a black veil

The protests are more than a women-led reaction against the hijab

Roshanak Astaraki


For three weeks now, the propaganda machine of the Islamic Republic of Iran has repeatedly announced the end of the mass protests that erupted in mid-September, following the suspected killing of a 22-year-old girl, Mahsa Amini, in a Tehran police station.

We keep hearing from official sources that "calm" has returned to many districts, in the face of all the audiovisual evidence of the recurrence of unrest on the streets, and in schools and universities in Tehran and elsewhere.

A good many of Iran's protesters are young people born just before or after the year 2000, constituting a generation the regime liked to dub the "foot soldiers of their commander," the term used of late for the country's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

It so it seems they have done everything but obey a "commander" they consider nothing more or less than a dictator.

By now, we can no longer describe these protests as a reaction against the hijab or the headscarves and thick clothes imposed on women in public, or in defense of their gender rights. For protests over hijab restrictions might just fit into the framework of the regime, with protesters seeking specific rights within the existing polity.

The Green Movement protests of 2009 — where hundreds of thousands of demonstrators demanded a rectification of the presidential election results — might be said to fit in that framework.

Continuous, clear ​and widespread

But the events of the past three weeks indicate a truly national movement involving Iranians from all walks of life. Those detained by police include lawyers, doctors, students, shopkeepers and factory workers, not to mention secondary schoolchildren.

The death Mahsa Amini of proved to be the last straw for a nation

The protests erupted and kept their pace in numerous districts, with people everywhere chanting similar or identical slogans. In big cities, they began in the city center before moving to suburbs, shantytowns and rooftops. Ideologically, protesters have already trampled on all the regime's red lines, indicating an unequivocal rejection of its legitimacy and entire leadership.

For its scope and its demands and the dismissal of regime boundaries, this movement bears the traits of a revolution.

Prelude to the end?

The protests have entered a fourth week, in spite of the bullets and beatings and the regime's claims that they have ended. They are showing elements of organization and leadership, and a great deal of cohesion. The death of a girl arbitrarily arrested over a headscarf proved to be the last straw for a nation that has suffered 43 years of brutal oppression and economic ruin.

In slogans heard on the streets in 2017, Iranians were already telling politicians they had tired of the interplay of "reformists and conservatives" that deceitfully fed public hopes of reforms from the 1990s. In case it had not become clear in prior rounds of protests: Iranians are loudly stating their rejection of an entire regime.

Over the years and through several rounds of crushed protests, Iranians have managed to finetune their methods and practices. Perhaps the challenge this time around is to find a collective leader, who may yet emerge, alongside the resilience and courage of women and youngsters, as one of the surprises of an uprising many thought would be snuffed out within days.

At a protest against the Islamic regime of Iran and the death of Mahsa Amini in New York City

Stephanie Keith/ZUMA

Escalating threats

Sixteen days after the start of the protests, Khamenei emerged from an unusually long absence to denounce the "riots." Speaking at an army barracks, he pinned the blame on the usual suspects, the United States and Israel. He sought to appear as a leader firm in resolve and determined to crush "enemy plots," proffering encouraging words to "loyal forces." But his speech and its tone could not hide the regime's fears.

He accused foreign forces and "the remains of the Pahlavi state and Savak agents in the country" of provoking the unrest. He was referring to the Pahlavi dynasty, overthrown in 1979, and its secret police, known by its acronym SAVAK. He cited information ministry reports on the first 10 days of unrest, which he said revealed that most of those arrested had expressed support for the monarchy.

This may become the revolution that will finally turn Iran into a modern democracy.

The Prosecutor-General Muhammadja'far Montazeri has in turn threatened protesters with the "crushing zeal" of the regime's Basij (or "mobilization") militia. The reactions show the state's concern with the resilience of protests, the hostile slogans and with signs of discouragement among the security forces.

International support

This uprising, in contrast with protests in 2017 and 2019, has caught the world's imagination and swiftly garnered support abroad, both among politicians and figures of the arts or sports.

Support from ordinary folk, especially women, spread like wildfire on social media. This was notable in places like Turkey and Afghanistan, where women face the similar oppression of fundamentalist powers.

Analysts have even begun speculating on how the end of the ayatollahs might affect reforms in Arab states and the fate of other Islamist regimes like those of Turkey or Indonesia, or reverse some of the historical fruits of the Islamist wave: instability in the Middle East and beyond, and migratory waves.

The scale of foreign sympathies for the protests is unprecedented. Exiled supporters of democracy might use their momentum to forge solid ties with foreign powers and media, and pressure Western governments to withdraw visas and economic facilities for the regime, its institutions and agents (as Canada has done, impeding the entry of Revolutionary guards officers into the country). They can urge them to act against any further repression of protests or restore or expand Internet access in Iran. Such measures would be fitting contributions to what may become the revolution that will finally turn Iran into a modern democracy.

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