Huge protests in Iran continue following the death of Mahsa Amini on the 16th of September 2022. Amini was a 22-year-old woman that had been arrested by the country’s morality police for not wearing her hijab correctly and then died in custody. Authorities claim that Amini died because of an “underlying illness”, while her family disagrees and says that she died after she had been beaten. Demonstrators in Iran back the family’s version: almost two weeks into the protests, they are determined to pursue their criticism of the regime.
To better understand the current prospects and the possible evolutions of these demonstrations, the OCC had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Maryam Esmaeilpour on the Madrid campus of SLU-Madrid. Dr Esmaeilpour is a Professor of Spanish at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, and an active observer of Iran’s social and political evolutions.
Outsiders hear little to nothing about Iranian civil society. Does it exist, and how is it structured and organized?
Civil society does exist in Iran. It is very vibrant and educated, especially when it comes to the younger population. The younger generation, or the so-called postrevolutionary generation, represents approximately 60% of the population. In Iran, youth are the motor of change. There is a disconnection between this generation and the regime in terms of values, which has steadily widened.
The youth of Iran live in a country where laws did not adapt to social evolutions or world changes. Thanks to the internet, young people can use social networks to interact with each other and to connect to the rest of the world: they are very aware of the changes abroad, and they also want to embrace notions such as freedom, political rights, and opportunities. Through online platforms, they are able to organize themselves in a way that allows them to claim their political and social rights. We see this happening today with the protests that are taking place in Iranian universities and high schools. On the other hand, we can also see how sport stars, actors and actresses or singers are currently being the voice of the population and are key to mobilizing people.
Regarding the demonstrations that have been ongoing for some weeks, do you think that they reflect the average condition women are enduring in Iran, or rather a more general state of social unrest that most people feel?
Women are playing a vital role in these protests. Women have been suffering the harsh laws imposed by the Islamic regime since it consolidated its power in the early 1980s. Iranian women symbolize one of the most vulnerable parts of society given that their basic rights were removed once the Islamic regime took control of the country. The law has not adapted to the social changes, and it was obvious that at some point any event that affected women would spark a popular uprise. In this sense, the murder of Mahsa Amini has created a social movement in which women, men, young and old generations are united by a social cause: freedom, justice, and human rights. The movement has also integrated many other grievances such as economic hardships or lack of opportunities.
Is the political elite siding fully with the state apparatus and the official ruling bodies, or are there divisions?
At first, the regime responded in a united and solid way given the nature and the composition of the regime. However, after 50 days of social unrest and repression, we see some fractures within the political system. For example, in the city of Zahedan, Sunni cleric Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi has been denouncing the repression carried out by the regime. Even though he is a Sunni leader, this is a direct challenge to the political Islam that the regime defends, as he is using Islam to condemn the regime’s actions. Also, there are reports that some Basijis in Zahedan – a paramilitary force that is at the service of the Iranian regime – have quit their positions.
We are also beginning to see some members of parliament denouncing the situation. Other relevant political figures from previous administrations have also called for a dialogue. All of this means that the regime is having problems controlling the situation. It seems that their only countermeasure is repression. However, this also has a cost: the more repression, the more possibilities of sparking new resistance and divisions. Repressive police encounters are now filmed and shared on social media. This helps mobilize people, reinforce motives to turn against the regime and continue to challenge the hegemony of the clerical power in Iran.
How do demonstrations look? What are the main slogans used, and what are the real aims of the demonstrators?
Demonstrations started against the morality police, but now it includes other social grievances that have been prevailing since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The objective of the movement is the end of the Islamic regime. The nature of the movement is a bottom-up uprise, with no specific leadership that is led by one individual. It has been evolving since its initial moment, as rendered evident with the fluid nature of the slogans, chants and anthems. The younger generations are the ones which are leading this movement, especially in universities, streets, and high schools, though it is also becoming transversal as more sectors and generations are siding and supporting it. Outside Iran, we are seeing how the Iranian diaspora is also playing a key role. Iranians who live outside of the country are trying to be the voice of Iran by organizing demonstrations and pronouncing public speeches in order to get the attention of the international community and encourage leaders to take political measures against the regime’s repression.
How powerful are women in today’s Iran?
In today’s Iran, women are very powerful as they are leading the protests and directly facing the armed forces. They are the symbol of this movement as they are directly challenging the pillars of the regime. Their injustices are now being felt by a huge part of the society who is mobilizing to their side in turn. Since 1979 and the Islamic Revolution, the regime didn’t want women to become powerful: it denied them important jobs, such as the possibility to become judges. Tellingly, the number of women that are in positions of power is very low. Mandatory hijab is also a symbol of oppression of the women who see themselves forced to wear them in public spaces from a very young age. This shows that women are always treated as second class citizens. A woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, her compensation is half that of a man’s and her inheritance is half a man’s. A woman cannot be a singer or a dancer. She cannot leave home or the country without her husband’s permission. She does not have the right to divorce, or the right to custody her children after the divorce. A woman may not enter a football stadium to watch a match, nor may she ride a motorcycle or bicycle on public roads.
What social – and political – changes do you expect to see occurring on the short and middle runs?
The regime has not changed its conservative policies towards citizens, nor did it put forward any changes. Instead, it has relied on repression and dividing the people between those who support the regime and those who do not. Given that there hasn’t been any change, many people keep protesting and demand the end of a regime that has no consideration for their demands. It is hard for this regime to carry out reforms, as any changes will force it to question its political revolutionary ideology. If there are no changes, the opposition will continue. Citizens are no longer afraid to counter the regime’s forces and the costs for joining the mobilizations have decreased. The regime has a problem of credibility and communication that is growing with time. It is urgent that the regime takes measures and listens to the population soon, as they will have to face three other impending crises: economic, political and generational. As time passes by, the chances of new leadership and opposition grow higher, which presents a great challenge for the regime, since the hopes and dreams of many Iranians rest on freedom and democracy.
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