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October 21, 2022 / Riskline Informer

A women-led protest movement has paralyzed Iran: What more can it do?

Protests led by female university students and professionals have succeeded in tapping into a broad swath of anti-government sentiment in Iran even as the regime’s crackdown intensifies.
Introduction

The women-led protests that have gripped Iran since Mahsa Amini, a young woman from Kurdistan province died in custody in Tehran in September, represent the biggest challenge to the theocratic rule of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei since the 2009 Green Revolution demonstrations. But despite the size and frequency of these rallies across the country, many say the movement is unlikely to unseat or dramatically change the regime’s domestic policies.

The protests began on 16 September, after Amini, 22, died in a hospital in Tehran due to head trauma sustained in police custody after her arrest on 13 September at a subway station with her family for “unsuitable attire.” The Iranian government denied all allegations of wrongdoing, insisting that the cause of death was a sudden heart attack.

The authorities have, as in the past, severely disrupted access to the internet and telecommunication services, while security forces fire tear gas and live ammunition, often indiscriminately. At times, the security forces have retreated from some urban areas, overwhelmed by the sheer number of demonstrations at night, but they often return in daylight hours to carry out mass arrests. At least 266 people have been killed, including 32 minors and 26 security officers, with over 2,000 others wounded and 8,000 more arrested.

What is unusual about the current episode of mass protests and strikes nationwide is that it is still led by women for women; many of these protest leaders are female university students and professionals. Some have even shaved their heads and burned their headscarves at the start of rallies in defiance of Iranian law, which makes the hijab mandatory for all women in public.

More importantly, the movement continues to enjoy a considerable degree of support and solidarity from young men and other national groups, including labour unions and associations representing key sectors, such as the oil and gas industry and the medical profession. In multiple cities, motorists have responded to calls by activists to obstruct traffic on roads leading to protest sites. This tactic was especially in evidence when a riot broke out at Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison overnight on 15-16 October and drivers clogged the streets to block paramilitary reinforcements from the facility.

The Security State

The success of the protests across class, age and gender lines is partly linked to the fact that the incident illustrated how ethnic minorities, such as the Kurdish and Baloch communities, are targeted with impunity by the security forces. In Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchestan province, for example, at least 66 people were shot dead during joint demonstrations over Amini’s death and the alleged rape of a female teenager by a police colonel in Chabahar; protesters were met with a fusillade of gunfire from a police station adjacent to the Grand Makki Mosque during Friday Prayers.

In the Kurdish-majority regions, the Amini protests have also been accompanied by widespread strikes as merchants shut down their shops to protest the violent repression of demonstrations in Sanandaj, Baneh and Saqqez, Amini’s place of birth. The security services have become increasingly unpopular over the past decade, discredited by credible allegations of war crimes and grave human rights abuses by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a paramilitary branch of the Iranian military and a United States (US)-designated terror group, both at home and abroad.

More and more of the budget has flowed into providing military training, drones and missiles to allies in the Middle East, defending the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen and more recently, selling weapons and providing training for hastily recruited Russian forces in Ukraine. These military accomplishments were achieved despite a string of assassinations of key leaders and officials by the Israeli and US intelligence agencies and extensive economic sanctions that isolated its economy from the rest of the world.

However, while these developments earned the regime greater respect abroad, they have not won hearts and mind in Iran itself. Rising water scarcity, unemployment, bank runs, official corruption and poverty, as well as recent government failures to contain multiple health and climate disasters, have sapped the regime’s legitimacy.

These developments have all triggered serious bouts of unrest in Iran from 2017 to 2021, met with deadly force by the IRGC and its plainclothes branch, the Basij, often with help and coordination with police and military forces, whose expanding control over the economy has sparked widespread concern among ordinary Iranians, reformist politicians and the business community. Further street violence is highly likely to persist if protests and strikes continue and safety fears may soon sap the morale of activists.

The Iranian authorities are experienced in suppressing demonstrations and they have successfully suppressed many anti-government movements since 1979. Only limited international support has materialised so far, almost all of it limited to solidarity rallies outside Iran, diplomatic pronouncements at the United Nations (UN) and some tentative steps to help Iranian activists circumvent internet restrictions. In addition, the diversity of the current movement leaves it vulnerable to the very same kind of infighting and division that reversed the gains of similar pro-democracy movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan and Libya after 2011.

Summary

Although many doubt that civilians, particularly young women, would succeed in bringing about dramatic positive change, relying solely on nonviolent protests, the Amini movement has gained support from all walks of Iranian society and demonstrated that feminists are no longer seen as a fringe group.

Foresight 2023
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