– the main slogan of the revolt in Iran.
In September 2022, widespread protests led by women broke out in Iran. They followed the ‘death in custody’ of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini who had been arrested by Iran’s Morality Police for ‘not wearing the hijab correctly’. The long-time simmering anger at the control exercised over their bodies and lives by the authorities spilled over onto the streets and pictures of women publicly discarding their hijabs and cutting their hair became rife.
This defiance of Iran’s clerical diktat was remarkable in itself but very soon, men joined the women and the protests widened into a revolt against the overall authoritarianism, and began to include economic and social grievances. There has always been a very strong leftist movement in Iran, the 1978-9 Revolution which toppled the Shah and led to nationalization of its oil industry is a landmark case. An attempt to enforce the ‘compulsory hijab law’ then failed, but was enforced later in 1983.
This period of relative female emancipation did lead to large numbers of young women especially from the rural areas entering into institutions of higher learning as well as into the labour market. But when the Iran-Iraq War started the regime demanded national unity – the issue of women’s rights took a back seat and the feminist struggle went downhill. This carries an important lesson—the left has to be at the forefront of fighting for women’s liberation and fighting for individual rights.
Another watershed moment in Iran’s history was the 2009 presidential election or Green Movement when the seriously divided ruling class was confronted by a huge mobilisation from below. Women continued to challenge the laid down rules in everyday life and the flame of freedom was kept burning. These individual efforts have now coalesced into collective action but the biggest strength, and weakness at the same time, is that there is no centralized leadership as yet. For the enemies of Iran this is an occasion for more sanctions and diatribes; for sympathetic outsiders the best advice is: ‘Support the Iranian people, never the Imperialist agenda.’
The scenario this time round is much more complex. There are fissures in the ruling elite as well as among the protesters. The Government is comprised of the conservatives who want to keep Iran closed and the reformists who seek change. The protesters on the other hand are torn between defying, even overthrowing, their Government and the generally accepted policy of opposing Western Imperialism and Islamophobia.
Increasing numbers of men and family members are supporting the protesters because the revolt is against the state and its authority. This is unlike as in the USA on the issue of abortion rights where most of the progressive activists are linked to the state through the Democratic Party.
People most definitely do not want to go back to the 1979 revolution – one of the most popular chants is: ‘Death to the Dictator whether Monarchy or Clergy’! There is a major concern around political prisoners and political executions as the regime ruthlessly brutalizes the opposition. Arrests, lengthy prison terms, kangaroo courts, harassment and surveillance of victims’ families, torture and even executions are on record. The mystery of a large number of school-going girls being ‘poisoned’ remains unsolved to date.
Apart from the brave and courageous feminists who are putting their lives on the line there are also strong class elements and the involvement of the working class; tens of thousands of people join the protests on symbolic dates.
The Iranian Revolution is comprised of various different forces—the workers’ movement, the women’s movement, the left, the secular nationalists and the Islamists and because the revolution was made with such massive popular participation, the regime has to make concessions to it. Workers need to join the movement in larger numbers – this would increase the numbers on the streets and fuse the protests with the strikes. People make the mistake of thinking that the poorer workers are, the more readily they will go on strike. Actually, organising strikes is about generating workers’ confidence. When workers’ confidence increases, that’s when they will strike.
The Iranian movement has to fall back on its long tradition of combining struggle against domestic oppression and foreign domination. There are those who seek help from foreign forces but there is no shortcut to change—it can only come from below.
There is now a nascent coalition between working-class and middle-class youth who are coming together at neighbourhood level, and there is therefore a fusing of social and political demands. There are all kinds of popular organisations at the level of the neighbourhoods, as well as students’ unions, professional associations and workers’ organisations.
The Iranian revolution of 1978-9 was the last great revolution of the 20th century. Today, a revolution in Iran might be the first in a new wave of upheavals in the region and globally, which would bring together issues of cultural freedoms, social freedoms, and political and economic change. [As well as of gender equality]. These causes all converge in Iran. The battle is on already.
The above essay is based largely on an interview conducted by International Socialism and published in its Issue 177, posted on 6 January 2023. The interviewee was Peyman Jafari,Assistant Professor of History and International Relations at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The title of the article was ‘Iran’s rising for dignity and freedom’. The link is http://isj.org.uk/iran-dignity-freedom/