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Protests in Iran: Q&A with Peyman Jafari

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by the Islamic Republic’s morality police, on Istiklal avenue in Istanbul on September 20, 2022. Ozan Kose | AFP | Getty Images

As the world watches the protests in Iran,  Peyman Jafari, Assistant Professor, History and International Relations, agreed to provide some insights and context. 

Q: After the 22-year old Mahsa Amini died in police custody on September 16, Iran has been rocked by massive protests. She was arrested by the morality police for not wearing the hijab in accordance with official regulations. The compulsory hijab has been in place in Iran during the last four decades, but protests against it on this scale are unprecedented. Why are the protests taking place now?

Since coming to power a year ago, president Ebrahim Raisi’s government has tried to brand itself as truly conservative to mobilize its social base against domestic and foreign threats. Accusing previous moderate and reformist governments of not implementing the public dress code strictly enough, it ordered the so-called morality police to be more vigilant. This led to several violent arrests of women during recent months. Female state employees have been threatened with dismissal if they showed up without what the state regards as “proper Islamic attire,” and some government officials floated the idea to use surveillance cameras to fine women who were not wearing their hijab [state required religious covering of hair and body] correctly in the public transport. The death of Mahsa Amini unleashed the bottled-up anger over this increasing surveillance of women’s bodies.

But the protests have two deeper and more long-standing causes. First, the number of women who do not accept state interference in their social life has increased during the last four decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. There has been a huge shift in cultural and religious ways of life due to increasing urbanization and participation in education and the job market, while the state elite has clung onto laws such as those that enforce the compulsory hijab. Many women, including those who are secular, Muslim or non-Muslim, want them to change. In 2014, an official survey found that nearly half of the population opposed state imposition of the veil – a 15-percent increase from 2007, indicating an ongoing and noticeable trend. Second, as the main slogan of these protests, “woman, life, freedom”, indicates, they are not only demanding women’s rights, but a better life for all, free from inequality, poverty, and political repression.

Q: We have been watching an increase in both the protests against the death of Mahsa Amini, and the violence and determination of the government’s attempts to suppress them. Some commentators are seeing these protests as a turning point in Iran from which there is “no going back.” Is that how you see them?

It is too soon to tell if these protests will end the compulsory veil, let alone the Islamic Republic in a matter of months. I think that is unlikely, but they have already made a significant impact. First, even if the law is not changed, I think the enforcement of the compulsory veil will become less strict. This might happen as a silent concession on the part of the state, or by default as the morality police will fear the popular response every time they try to harass women on the streets. Second, the protests signal a massive shift in the socio-political mentality of many Iranians, particularly the youth (half of the population is under 32 years). While women have been protesting the compulsory veil individually in recent years, they are now doing so collectively, some burning headscarves in public, and they are being supported by men. The wall of fear is crumbling.

Other walls are crumbling too. Exploiting ethnic and religious differences, state elites have always tried to divide people. For example, official propaganda frames protesters as being against Islam and the hijab as such, or accuse them of being ethnic separatists who threaten the nation’s integrity. The protests, however, are also supported by women who choose to wear the veil, and some of them even published a petition in support of free choice.  

The protests have been widespread because their message is inclusive: they don’t want the state to interfere in women’s lives. It is about self-determination: women’s bodies shouldn’t be a battle ground for politicians. Protesters in ethnic minority provinces have also emphasized that they are unified in these struggles as Iranians.

Q: You referred to ethnic differences. The issue of women’s rights is of course central to the protests and their global support. But does the fact that Mahsa Amini was from Saqqez in the Kurdistan Province add another factor to her arrest and the protests? Do you think any of the protesters are motivated by more than women’s rights?

Absolutely! The protests started in the northwestern Kurdish cities of Iran and the slogan “women, life, freedom” was first expressed in Kurdish, and then spread to the rest of the country in its Persian translation. It is important to unpack that dynamic. Many ethnic communities such as Kurds, Turks, Baluchis and Arabs have been subject to social, economic, and political marginalization, not only under the Islamic Republic since 1979, but also under the secular authoritarian Pahlavi state that preceded it. Therefore, they are demanding equal rights and the right to express their identity and language freely. But that is only a starting point as the parents of Mahsa Amini have made clear. In interviews, they stressed that this was not an ethnic conflict. Mahsa has become a symbol because many recognized themselves in her, who could have been them, their daughter, or their sister. The slogan “women, life, freedom” is inclusive and transcends ethnic divisions, and ties the anger over ethnic and gender inequalities to the socio-economic grievances of millions of Iranians.

Q: In your own research you focus on social and economic developments. Can you expand a bit more on how these might have impacted the protests?

The protests are fueled by a deeper sense of political disenfranchisement and socio-economic deprivation. The 1979 revolution mobilized the urban poor and workers in Iran with the promise of a better life. This resulted in a fragile social contract in the following decade, despite the Iran-Iraq war. The state didn’t allow or severely curtailed truly independent organizations- political parties, trade unions, professional associations. On the other hand, the populist social policies of post-revolutionary state meant that for many significant social inequalities diminished: literacy, public health and higher education expanded, developmental programs were initiated, and social mobility increased for some previously marginalized groups. This social contract started to unravel from the 1990s as neoliberal reforms were gradually introduced as elsewhere in the Global South. Privatization, precarious jobs and unemployment have created frustrations, particularly among the youth. In addition, there is systematic corruption. The economic sanctions that the US has imposed on Iran after President Trump left the Nuclear Deal in 2018 have dramatically worsened the conditions for ordinary Iranians by fueling inflation, unemployment, and the shortage of medicine.

Q: Our relationship with Iran is so intertwined with national security and nuclear disarmament. How do you see these protests impacting our understanding of internal Iranian politics as well as our policy towards Iran?

Unfortunately, there is a lack of nuanced understanding of the internal politics and the social dynamics of Iran. Most importantly, the agency of ordinary Iranians is often ignored. These protests are important because they are displaying the collective power of ordinary Iranians, and their dreams and aspirations. They are in fact building on a century of struggles for political freedom and social justice. The first pro-democratic revolution in the Middle East happened in Iran with the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11 that introduced a parliament. These struggles, however, confronted not only domestic obstacles, but also foreign ones. The Constitutional Revolution was defeated as the British and the Russian empires intervened on the side of the autocrats. Iran’s democratic opening in the 1940s came to an end in 1953, when Britain and the US organized a coup against Prime Minister Mosaddeq because he nationalized Iran’s oil turning the clock back on democratization, weakening the secular movements and paving the way for the rise of political Islam as a formidable force in the 1979 revolution.

More recently, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in 2001 and 2003 came at a time that reformist factions of the political elite were in power, and were being undermined by conservatives and the Revolutionary Guards, the regime’s loyal military force. The latter, witnessing the military encirclement of Iran, exploited the foreign threat to block the reformists and to crack down on social movements. The same dynamic happened in 2018, when President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Nuclear Deal that had been sealed under President Obama in 2015, and reimposed sanctions on Iran. It undermined Iran’s President Rouhani, who had promised the Nuclear Deal would bring Iran economic benefits, a relaxation of social and political restrictions and closer ties to the world. The population was disappointed in his moderate brand of politics, and the conservatives claimed the US is untrustworthy. Exploiting this situation, the ultra-conservative forces conquer all political institutions, including the parliament and the presidency.

To be clear, many problems in Iran, such as autocracy and corruption, are not caused by “conspiracies of the U.S.,” as the leaders of the Islamic Republic always claim to distract from their own responsibility. But our foreign policy has been unfortunately part of the problem, not the solution. The current protests are creating a new space for understanding Iran and building solidarity with its people. The protests have led to a wave of international support from those who have been fighting their own battles for women’s rights, racial equality and social justice in the US and beyond.

Q: Earlier you said that these protests are different from previous ones--"These were often individual, such as a photo on social media of a woman with her hijab on a stick. Now headscarves are burned during protests. That's really a shift. The wall of fear is falling.” A BBC reporter in her 30s said she sees a real shift in the current generation’s fearlessness compared to her own. Do you see this as an opportunity for more democratic freedoms or is this battle’s outcome less sure than we’d like to hope?

The courage and defiance that we have seen on the streets of Iran is truly incredible. Tens of thousands of people, with women often leading the protests, have stood their ground against massive repression. More than 50 people have been killed and thousands have been arrested. The protests started with the demand to lift the compulsory hijab law, but many are now shouting “death to the dictator”, “we don’t want repressors, be it a Shah, be it a Supreme Leader”, and “we don’t want the Islamic Republic.”

So, I am not surprised when journalists ask me if Iran is on the brink of a revolution. As a historian who has studied revolutions, I always reply it is impossible to predict them because revolutions happen through the unpredictable interaction of two factors. The first is a massive, sudden change in the mentality of the population: it becomes unwilling to accept the existing conditions. This shift is very visible in Iran, particularly among generation Z that is leading the protests. After few years of hopelessness and Covid lockdowns, their anger is boiling over, and they are finding each other on the streets. Wider sections of the population sympathize, but it is still the question if the protests have reached a critical mass that can pull in not tens of thousands of people but millions into the streets (Iran has a population of 88 million). Revolutions start with such a shift in mentality and the emergence of a critical mass, but they do not end there.

The second factor is the inability of elites to rule in the old way. There are many signs that the Islamic Republic not only has a crisis of legitimacy, but also a crisis of competency. But no serious cracks have yet developed at the top of the state and more importantly in its military apparatus. In the short run, therefore, I think the state will brutally crack down on the protests. But as they do, they increase the popular resentment. Without addressing the causes of that resentment, Iran will witness new cycles of protests, and each cycle will grow in experience and strength, which might then lead to significant fissures within the political and the military elite.

Peyman JafariPeyman Jafari's work focuses on the intersections of energy, labor and the environment in global capitalism, with a regional focus on the Middle East. He joins William & Mary from Princeton University, where he was a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies. Jafari holds a PhD in history from Leiden University. His current book project examines the social history of oil during the highpoint of modernization in Iran in the 1970s, the 1979 revolution, and the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. His next project, “Oil Frontiers in the British and Dutch Empires: Land, Labor, and Environment in the Making of an Imperial Oil Regime, 1890-1940,” is supported by a grant from the Dutch Scientific Council.