There have been numerous waves of protest against the country’s corrupt theocracy. This time is different. It is a movement to reclaim life. Whatever happens, there is no going back.
By Asef Bayat
The death of Mahsa Amini on 16 September 2022, while in police custody for wearing an “improper” hijab, has triggered what has become the most severe and sustained political upheaval ever faced by the Islamist regime in Iran. Waves of protests, led mostly by women, broke out immediately, sending some two-million people into the streets of 160 cities and small towns, inspiring extraordinary international support. The Twitter hashtag #MahsaAmini broke the world record of 284 million tweets, and the UN Human Rights Commission voted on November 24 to investigate the regime’s deadly repression, which has claimed five-hundred lives and put thousands of people under arrest and eleven hundred on trial. The regime’s suppression and the opponents’ exhaustion are likely to slow down the protests, but unlikely to end the uprising. For political life in Iran has embarked on an uncharted and irreversible course.
How do we make sense of this extraordinary political happening? This is neither a “feminist revolution” per se, nor simply the revolt of generation Z, nor merely a protest against the mandatory hijab. This is a movement to reclaim life, a struggle to liberate free and dignified existence from an internal colonization. As the primary objects of this colonization, women have become the major protagonists of the liberation movement.
The Regime and Its Discontents
Since its establishment in 1979, the Islamic Republic has been a battlefield between hard-line Islamists who wished to enforce theocracy in the form of clerical rule (velayat-e faqih), and those who believed in popular will and emphasized the republican tenets of the constitution. This ideological battle has produced decades of political and cultural strife within state institutions, during elections, and in the streets in daily life. The hard-line Islamists in the nonelected institutions of the velayat-e faqih have been determined to enforce their “divine values” in political, social, and cultural domains. Only popular resistance from below and the reformists’ electoral victories could curb the hard-liners’ drive for total subjugation of the state, society, and culture.
For two decades after the 1990s, elections gave most Iranians hope that a reformist path could gradually democratize the system. The 1997 election of the moderate Mohammad Khatami as president, following a notable social and cultural openness, was seen as a hopeful sign. But the hard-liners saw the reform project as an existential threat to clerical rule, and they fought back fiercely. They sabotaged Khatami’s government, suppressed the student movement, shut down the critical press, and detained activists. After 2005, they went on banning reformist parties, meddling in the polls, and barring rival candidates from participating in the elections. The Green Movement—protesting the fraud against the reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in the 2009 presidential election—was the popular response to such a counterreform onslaught.
The Green revolt and the subsequent nationwide uprisings in 2017 and 2019 against socioeconomic ills and authoritarian rule profoundly challenged the Islamist regime but failed to alter it. The uprisings caused not a revolution but the fear of revolution—a fear that was compounded by the revolutionary uprisings against the allied regimes in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, which Iran helped to quell. Against such critical challenges, one would expect the Islamist regime to reinvent itself through a series of reforms to restore hegemony. But instead, the hard-liners tightened their grip on political power in a bid to ensure their unrestrained hold over power after the supreme leader expires. Thus, once they took over the presidency in 2021 and the parliament in 2022 through rigged elections—specifically, through the arbitrary vetoing of credible rival candidates—the hard-liners moved to subjugate a defiant people once again. Extending the “morality police” into the streets and institutions to enforce the “proper hijab” has been only one measure—but it was the one that unleashed a nationwide uprising in which women came to occupy a central place.
Women did not rise up suddenly to spearhead a revolt after Mahsa Amini’s death. Rather, it was the culmination of years of steady struggles against a systemic misogyny that the postrevolution regime established. When that regime abolished the relatively liberal Family Protection Laws of 1967, women overnight lost their right to initiate divorce, to assume child custody, to become judges, and to travel abroad without the permission of a male guardian. Polygamy came back, sex-segregation was imposed, and all women were forced to wear the hijab in public. Social control and discriminatory quotas in education and employment compelled many women to stay at home, take early retirement, or work in informal or family businesses.
A segment of Muslim women did support the Islamic state, but others fought back. They took to the streets to protest the mandatory hijab, organized collective campaigns, and lobbied “liberal clerics” to secure a women-centered reinterpretation of religious texts. But when the regime extended its repression, women resorted to the “art of presence”—by which I mean the ability to assert collective will in spite of all odds, by circumventing constraints, utilizing what exists, and discovering new spaces within which to make themselves heard, seen, felt, and realized. Simply, women refused to exit public life, not through collective protests but through such ordinary things as pursuing higher education, working outside the home, engaging in the arts, music, and filmmaking, or practicing sports. The hardship of sweating under a long dress and veil did not deter many women from jogging, cycling, or playing basketball. And in the courts, they battled against discriminatory judgments on matters of divorce, child custody, inheritance, work, and access to public spaces. “Why do we have to get permission from Edareh-e Amaken [morality police] to get a hotel room, whereas men do not need such authorization?” a woman wrote in rage to the women’s magazine Zanan in 1988. Then, scores of unmarried women began to leave their family homes to live on their own. By 2010, one in three women between the ages of 20 and 35 had their own household. Many of them undertook what came to be known as “white marriage” (ezdevaj-e sefid), that is, moving in with their partners without formally marrying. These seemingly mundane desires and demands, however, were deemed to redefine the status of women under the Islamic Republic. Each step forward would establish a trench for a further advance against the patriarchy. The effect could snowball.
While many women, including my mother, wore the hijab voluntarily, for others it represented a coercive moralizing that had to be subverted. Those women began to push back their headscarves, allowing some of their hair to show in public. Over the years, headscarves gradually inched back further and further until finally they fell to the shoulders. Officials felt, time and again, paralyzed by this steady spread of bad-hijabi among millions of women who had to endure daily humiliation and punishment. With the initial jail penalty between ten days and two months, showing inches of hair had ignited decades of daily street battles between defiant women and multiple morality enforcers such as Sarallah (wrath of Allah), Amre beh Ma’ruf va Nahye az Monker (command good and forbid wrong), and EdarehAmaken (management of public places). According to a police report during the crackdown on bad-hijabis in 2013, some 3.6 million women were stopped and humiliated in the streets and issued formal citations. Of these, 180,000 were detained. But despite such treatment, women did not relent and eventually demanded an end to the mandatory hijab. Thus, over the years and through daily struggles, women established new norms in private and public life and taught them to their children, who have taken the mantle of their elders to push the struggle forward. The hard-liners now want to halt that forward march.
This is the story of women’s “non-movement”—the collective and connective actions of non-collective actors who pursue not a politics of protest but of redress, through direct actions. Its aim is not a deliberate defiance of authorities but to establish alternative norms and life-making practices—practices that are necessary for a desired and dignified life but are denied to women. It is a slow but steady process of incremental claim-making that ultimately challenges the patriarchal-political authority. And now, that very “non-movement,” impelled by the murder of one of its own, Mahsa Amini, has given rise to an extraordinary political upheaval in which woman and her dignity, indeed human dignity, has become a rallying point.
Today, the uprising is no longer limited to the mandatory hijab and women’s rights. It has grown to include wider concerns and constituencies—young people, students and teachers, middle-class families and workers, residents of some rural and poor communities, and those religious and ethnic minorities (Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, and Baluchis) who, like women, feel like second-class citizens and seem to identify with “Woman, Life, Freedom.” For these diverse constituencies, Mahsa Amini and her death embody the suffering that they have endured in their own lives—in their stolen youth, suppressed joy, and constant insecurity; in their poverty, debt, and drought; in their loss of land and livelihoods.
The thousands of tweets describing why people are protesting point time and again to the longing for a humble normal life denied to them by a regime of clerical and military patriarchs. For these dissenters, the regime appears like a colonial entity—with its alien thinking, feeling, and ruling—that has little to do with the lives and worldviews of the majority. This alien entity, they feel, has usurped the country and its resources, and continues to subjugate its people and their mode of living. “Woman, Life, Freedom” is a movement of liberation from this internal colonization. It is a movement to reclaim life. Its language is secular, wholly devoid of religion. Its peculiarity lies in its feminist facet.
But the feminism of the movement is not antagonistic to men. Rather, it embraces the subaltern, humiliated and suffering men. Nor is this feminism reducible to the control of one’s body and the forced hijab—many traditional veiled women also identify with “Woman, Life, Freedom.” The feminism of the movement, rather, is antisystem; it challenges the systemic control of everyday life and the women at its core. It is precisely this antisystemic feminism that promises to liberate not only women but also the oppressed men—the marginalized, the minorities, and those who are demeaned and emasculated by their failure to provide for their families due to economic misfortune. “Woman, Life, Freedom,” then, signifies a paradigm shift in Iranian subjectivity—recognition that the liberation of women may also bring the liberation of all other oppressed, excluded, and dejected people. This makes “Woman, Life, Freedom” an extraordinary movement.
Movement or Moment
Extraordinary yes, but is this a movement or a passing moment? Postrevolution Iran has witnessed numerous waves of nationwide protests. But this current episode seems fundamentally different. The Green revolt of 2009 was a powerful prodemocracy drive for an accountable government. It was largely a movement of the urban middle class and other discontented citizens. Almost a decade later, in the protests of 2017, tens of thousands of Iranian workers, students, farmers, middle-class poor, creditors, and women took to the streets in more than 85 cities for ten days before the government’s crackdown halted the rebellion. Some observers at the time considered the events a prelude to revolution. They were not. For although connected and concurrent, the protests were mostly concerned with sectoral claims—delayed wages for workers, drought for farmers, lost savings for creditors, and jobs for the young. As such, theirs was not a collective action of a united movement but connective actions of parallel concerns—a simultaneity of disparate protest actions that only the new information technologies could facilitate. A larger uprising in December 2019, which was triggered by a 200 percent rise in the price of gasoline, did see a measure of collective action, as different protesting groups—in particular the urban poor and the middle-class poor as well as the educated unemployed and underemployed—displayed a good degree of unity. Their central grievances concerned not only cost-of-living issues but also the absence of any prospects for the future. The protesters came largely from the marginalized areas of the cities and the provinces and followed radical tactics such as setting banks and government offices on fire and chanting antiregime slogans.
The current uprising has gone substantially further in message, size, and make-up. It has taken on a qualitatively different character and dynamics. This uprising has brought together the urban middle class, the middle-class poor, slum dwellers, and different ethnicities, including Kurds, Fars, Lors, Azeri Turks, and Baluchis—all under the banner of “Woman, Life, Freedom.” A collective claim has been created—one that has united diverse social groups to not only feel and share it, but also to act on it. With the emergence of the “people,” a super-collective in which differences of class, gender, ethnicity, and religion temporarily disappear in favor of a greater good, the uprising has assumed a revolutionary character. The abolition of the morality police and the mandatory hijab will no longer suffice. For the first time, a nationwide protest movement has called for a regime change and structural socioeconomic transformation.
Does all this mean that Iran is on the verge of another revolution? At this point in time, Iran is far from a “revolutionary situation,” meaning a condition of “dual power” where an organized revolutionary force backed by millions would come to confront a crumbling government and divided security forces. What we are witnessing today, however, is the rise of a revolutionary movement—with its own protest repertoires, language, and identity—that may open Iranian society to a “revolutionary course.”
In the first three months after Mahsa Amini’s death, two-million Iranians from all walks of life staged some 1,200 protest actions that spilled over 160 cities and small towns. Friday prayer sermons in the poor province of Sistan and Baluchistan, as well as funerals and burials for victims of the regime’s crackdown in Kurdistan, have brought themost diverse crowds into the streets. University and high-school students have staged sit-ins, defied the mandatary hijab and sex segregation, and performed other courageous acts of resistance, while lawyers, professors, teachers, doctors, artists, and athletes expressed public support and sometimes joined the dissent. In cities and small towns, political graffiti decorated building walls before being repainted by municipality agents. The evening chants from balconies and rooftops in the residential neighborhoods continued to reverberate in the dark sky of the cities.
Security forces were frustrated by a mode of protest that combined street showdowns and guerrilla tactics—the sudden and simultaneous outbreak of multiple evening demonstrations in different urban quarters able to disappear, regroup and reappear again. The fearlessness of these street rebels, many of them young women, overwhelmed the authorities. A revealing video of a security agent showed his astonishment about backstreet young protesters who “are no longer afraid of us” and the neighbors who “attack us with a barrage of rocks, chairs, benches, flowerpots,” or anything heavy from their windows or balconies.
The disproportionate presence of the young—women and men, university and high school students—in the streets of the uprising has led some to interpret it as the revolt of generation-Z against a regime that is woefully out of touch. But this view overlooks the dissidence of older generations, the parents and families that have raised, if not politicized, these children and mostly share their sentiments. A leaked government survey from November 2022 found that 84 percent of Iranians expressed a positive view of the uprising. If the regime allowed peaceful public protests, we would likely see more older people on the streets. But it has not. The extraordinary presence of youth in the street protests has largely to do with the “youth affordances”—that is, energy, agility, education, dreams of a better future, and relative freedom from family responsibilities—which make the young more inclined to street politics and radical activism. But these extraordinary young people cannot cause a political breakthrough on their own. The breakthrough comes only when ordinary people—parents, children, workers, shopkeepers, professionals, and the like—join in to bring the spectacular protests into the social mainstream.
Although some workers have joined the protests through demonstrations and labor strikes, a widespread labor showdown has yet to materialize. This may not be easy, because the neoliberal restructuring of the 2000s has fragmented the working class, undermined workers’ job security (including the oil sector), and diminished much of their collective power. In their place, teachers have emerged as a potentially powerful dissenting force with a good degree of organization and protest experience. On 14 February 2023, twenty civil and professional associations, led by the teachers’ syndicate, issued a joint “charter of minimum demands” that included the release of all political prisoners, free speech and assembly, abolition of the death penalty, and “complete gender equality.” Shopkeepers and bazaar merchants have also joined the opposition. In fact, they surprised the authorities when at least 70 percent of them, according to a leaked official report, went on strike in Tehran and 21 provinces on 15 November 2022 to mark the 2019 uprising. Not surprisingly, security forces have increasingly been threatening to shut down their businesses.
The Regime’s Response
The regime is acutely aware and apprehensive of the power of the social mainstream. It has made every effort to prevent mass congregations on the scale of Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring when protesters could see, feel, and show the rulers the enormity of their social power. Protesters in the Arab Spring fully utilized existing cultural resources, such as religious rituals and funeral processions, to sustain mass protests. Most critical were the Friday prayers, with their fixed times and places, from which the largest rallies and demonstrations originated. But Friday prayer is not part of the current culture of Iran’s Shia Muslims (unlike the Sunni Baluchies). Most Iranian Muslims rarely even pray at noon, whether on Fridays or any day. In Iran, the Friday prayer sermons are the invented ritual of the Islamist regime and thus the theater of the regime’s power. Consequently, protesters would have to turn to other cultural and religious spaces such as funerals and mourning ceremonies or the Shia rituals of Moharram and Ramadan.
But the clerical regime would not hesitate to prohibit even the most revered cultural and religious traditions if it deemed them a threat to the “system.” During the Green revolt of 2009, the ruling hard-liners banned funerals and prevented families from holding mourning ceremonies for their loved ones. On occasion, authorities even prohibited Shia rituals. This is not surprising. Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founding father, had already decreed that the supreme faqih held “absolute authority” to disregard any precept or law, including the constitution or religious obligations such as daily prayers “in the interest of the state.” Iran’s clerical rulers would not hesitate to prohibit these cultural and religious rituals, precisely because of their exclusive claim on them. Under this perverse authority, the regime would delegitimize and discard values and practices from which it derives its own legitimacy. For it views itself as the sole legitimate body able to determine what is sacred and what is sin, what is authentic, what is fake, what is right, and what is wrong.
For the regime agents, mass demonstrations of spectacular scale would sound the call of revolution. They do not wish to hear it but cannot help feeling it. For a hum and whisper of revolution is already in the air. It can be heard and felt in homes, at private gatherings, and in the streets; in the rich body of art, literature, poetry, and music borne of the uprising; and in the media and intellectual debates about the meaning of the current moment, organization and strategy, the question of violence, and the way forward. The regime has responded with denial, ridicule, anger, appeasement, and widespread violence.
The daily Keyhan, close to the office of the supreme leader, has charged the protesters with wanting to establish “forced de-veiling” and warned that the “Islamic revolution will not go away. . . . So, be angry and die of your fury.” The commanders of the key security forces—the military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Basij militia, and the police—issued a joint statement on 5 October 2022 declaring their loyalty to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And the hard-line parliament passed an emergency bill on 9 October 2022 “adjusting” the salaries of civil servants, including 700,000 pensioners who in late 2017 had turned out in force during a wave of protests. Newly employed teachers were to receive more secure contracts, sugarcane workers their unpaid wages, and poor families a 50 percent increase in the basic-needs subsidy. Meanwhile, the speaker of the parliament, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, confirmed that he was prepared to implement “any reform and change for public interest,” including “change in the system of governance” if the protesters abandoned demands for “regime change.”
Appeasing the population with “salary adjustments” and fiscal measures have gone hand in hand with a brutal repression of the protesters. This includes beating, killing, mass detention, torture, execution, drone surveillance, and marking the businesses and homes of dissenters. The regime’s clampdown has reportedly left 525 dead, including 71 minors, 1,100 on trial, and some 30,000 detained. The security forces and Basij militia have lost 68 members in the unrest. The regime blames “hooligans” for causing disorder, the internet for misleading the youth, and the Western governments for plotting to topple the government.
A Revolutionary Course
The regime’s suppression and the protesters’ pause are likely to diminish the protests. But this does not mean the end of the movement. It means the end of a cycle of protest before a trigger ignites a new one. We have seen these cycles at least since 2017. What is distinct about this time is that it has set Iranian society on a “revolutionary course,” meaning that a large part of society continues to think, imagine, talk, and act in terms of a different future. Here, people’s judgment about public matters is often shaped by a lingering echo of “revolution” and a brewing belief that “they [the regime] will go.” So, any trouble or crisis—for instance, a water shortage— is considered a failure of the regime, and any show of discontent—say, over delayed wages—a revolutionary act. In such a mindset, the status quo is temporary and change only a matter of time. Consequently, intermittent periods of calm and contention could continue to possibly evolve into a revolutionary situation. We have witnessed such a revolutionary course before—in Poland, for instance, after martial law was declared and the Solidarity movement outlawed in 1982 until the military regime agreed to negotiate a transition to a new order in 1988. More recently, Sudan experienced a similar course after the dictator Omar al-Bashir declared a state of emergency and dissolved the national and regional governments in February 2019 until the military signed an agreement on the transition to a civilian democratic rule with the opposition Forces of Freedom and Change after seven months.
Only radical political reform and meaningful improvement in people’s lives can disrupt a revolutionary course. For instance, holding a referendum about the form of government, changing the constitution to be more inclusive, or implementing serious social programs can dissuade people from seeking regime change. Otherwise, one should expect either a state of perpetual crisis and ungovernability or a possible move toward a revolutionary situation. But a revolutionary situation is unlikely until the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement grows into a credible alternative, a practical substitute, to the incumbent regime. A credible alternative means no less than a leadership organization and a strategic vision capable of garnering popular confidence. It means a collective force, a tangible entity, that is able to embody a coalition of diverse dissenting groups and constituencies and to articulate what kind of future it wants.
There are, of course, local leaders and ad hoc collectives that communicate ideas and coordinate actions in the neighborhoods, workplaces, and universities. Thanks to their horizontal, networked, and fluid character, their operations are less prone to police repression than a conventional movement organization would be. This kind of decentralized networked activism is also more versatile, allows for multiple voices and ideas, and can use digital media to mobilize larger crowds in less time. But networked movements can also suffer from weaker commitment, unruly decisionmaking, and tenuous structure and sustainability. For instance, who will address a wrongdoing, such as violence, committed in the name of the movement? As a result, movements tend to deploy a hybrid structure by linking the decentralized and fluid activism to a central body. The “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement has yet to take up this consideration.
Civil society and imprisoned activists who currently enjoy wide recognition and respect for their extraordinary commitment and political intelligence may eventually form a kind of moral-intellectual leadership. But that too needs to be part of a broader national leadership organization. For a leadership organization—in the vein of Polish Solidarity, South Africa’s ANC, or Sudan’s Forces of Freedom and Change—is not just about articulating a strategic vision and coordinating actions. It also signals responsibility, representation, popular trust, and tactical unity.
This is perhaps the most challenging task ahead for “Woman, Life, Freedom,” but remains acutely indispensable. Because, first, a political breakthrough is unlikely without a broad-based organized opposition. Second, a negotiated transition to a new political order is impossible in the absence of a leadership organization. Who is the incumbent supposed to negotiate with if there is no representation from the opposition? And third, if political collapse occurs and there is no credible organized alternative to an incumbent regime, other organized, entrenched, and opportunistic forces—for example, the military, political parties, sectarian groups, or religious organizations—will move in to shape the course and outcome of a transition. Such forces could claim to represent the opposition and make unwanted deals or might simply fill the power vacuum when authority collapses. Hannah Arendt was correct in observing that the collapse of authority and power becomes a revolution “only when there are people willing and capable of picking up the power, of moving into and penetrating, so to speak, the power vacuum.” In other words, if the revolutionary movement is unwilling or unable to pick up the power, others will. This, in fact, is the story of most of the Arab Spring uprisings—Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, for instance. In these experiences, the protagonists, those who had initiated and carried the uprisings forward, remained mostly marginal to the process of critical decisionmaking while the free-riders, counterrevolutionaries, and custodians of the status quo moved to the center.
No one knows where exactly the uprising in Iran will lead. Thus far, the ruling circle remains united even though signs of doubt and discord have appeared within the lower ranks. The traditional leaders and grand ayatollahs have mostly stayed silent. But reformist groups have increasingly been voicing their dissent, urging the rulers to undertake serious reforms to restore calm. None of them say that they want a regime change, but they seem to see themselves mediating a transition should such a time arrive. Former president Mohammad Khatami has admitted that the reformist path which he championed has reached a dead end, yet finds the remedy for the current crisis in amending and enforcing the constitution. But a growing number of reformist figures, led by the former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, are calling for a referendum and a new constitution. The hard-line rulers, however, remain defiant and show no sign of revisiting their policies let alone undertaking serious reforms. Resting on the support of their “people on the stage,” they aim to hold on to power through pacification, control, and coercion.
Whatever the endgame, a lot has changed already. Things are unlikely to go back to where they were before the uprising. A paradigm shift has occurred in the Iranian subjectivity, expressed most vividly in the recognition of women as transformative actors and the “woman question” as a strategic focus of struggle. Most Iranians now want a different kind of government. A discursive shift away from religion has been combined with a strong anticlericalism and resentment of state religion. New norms have been established on the ground and are likely to stay. The morality police, forced hijab, and sex-segregation in public might be things of the past. The once lethargic society plagued by a sense of impasse has gained a new energy. After years of anguish and despair, a kind of uncertain hope has emerged, a vague belief that things might really change for the better. Those who expect quick results will likely be dispirited. But the country seems to be on a new course. The people’s drive to live in dignity has thrown a wrench into the machine of subjugation. A new, though unknown, opening may well be on the horizon.
Asef Bayat is professor of sociology, and Catherine & Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His latest books include Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring (Harvard University Press, 2021).
Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy
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