On Sept. 16, protests erupted in Iran when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died under police custody in the Vozara Detention Center, after being arrested for allegedly violating the government’s female dress code.
In response, demonstrators flooded the streets of cities across Iran to express anger towards the Iranian government after Amini’s parents posted about her death online. Students at Northwestern also protested in solidarity, painting the rock with supportive messages. The Iranian Student Association also hosted a vigil on Sept. 23 to honor Mahsa Amini and protestors.
But this wave of protests in Iran is about much more than anger for Amini’s story alone. To get an understanding of what’s going on, NBN is breaking down key questions surrounding the Iran protests.
What are Iranians protesting about?
Beyond the female dress code and women’s rights, demonstrators are calling out the Iranian political system’s corruption and inability to maintain living standards amid a failing economy. Here’s a historical breakdown of their concerns:
In the latest protests, women are demanding the right of choice and freedom from violent oppression by way of clothing choice, alongside other demands.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution replaced Reza Shah Pahlavi’s monarchy (1925-1979) with the Islamic Republic. Shah’s regime was an authoritarian state with Western policies. For women, this prohibited the use of the hijab and required participation in co-ed primary schools. The government also gave women equal capabilities to men in divorce and child custody, and opened several jobs for women in the economy.
Women’s lives were reshaped when the Iranian Revolution came to power. The government reintroduced a legal dress code – which requires women to wear a headscarf and loose fitting trousers under coats – and rescinded every single women’s rights law formed during Pahlavi's rule.
The Islamic Revolution Committees, formed in the 1980s, served as the organization for law enforcement. In 2005, they were succeeded by the Guidance Patrol (otherwise known as the morality police) with the same principles. Their enforcement manifests in arresting women for violating the dress code, placing them in detention centers. Its officers are notorious for physically abusing prisoners.
The Iranian economy
Since the Islamic Republic came to power, Iran had been the most sanctioned country in the world until Russia overtook it in February 2022. Sanctions are punishments countries impose on each other to condemn their behavior through trade restrictions a given country’s economy.
There’s a long history of sanctions against Iran, but the main takeaway is that the U.S. and United Nations have punished Iran’s nuclear program and acts of terrorism by banning their oil exports. They’ve also threatened “secondary sanctions” against companies that do business with them.
The consequences of sanctions on Iran have been sweeping on its economy and the living standards of its citizens. Iran is a country heavily reliant on oil, so the combined effects of limits on these exports, the pandemic and business at large have had a huge impact on the country’s economy. Iran is also experiencing hyperinflation, and an estimated 60 percent of the population lives either at or below the poverty line. The price of water and natural gas has also doubled in the last year, and prices for food necessities have skyrocketed.
Iran has a high level of corruption, according to the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The CPI measures how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be by experts and businesspeople. Iran International describes the Iranian economic system to be “controlled by the government, large religious and military conglomerates, largely based on political influence networks, nepotism and corrupt arrangements.” Few cases of corruption escape government-controlled media networks but instances like discrepancies in petrochemical exports and a $3 billion case regarding the semi-public Mobarakeh steel plant this year that has yet to end up in any arrests can give you an idea of Iran's financial story.
What’s Iran’s history of protests?
Interestingly, it was protests that brought the Islamic Republic into power. The Pahlavi dynasty was economically weak, violent to opposition and disregarded Islamic culture and the 1979 revolution protests led to the Shah fleeing the country. But protests in Iran are still often met with similar violence as was taken by the Pahlavi dynasty. This attempt to quell opposition has a temporary silencing effect and breeder of fear amongst citizens. It has also led to a cycle of surges and wanes of protesting as movements build up due to discontent then die off after facing violent repression.
One of the protests during the Islamic Republic is the 2009 Green Movement which mobilized three million peaceful protestors to Tehran. Protestors called out electoral rigging after incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the majority vote. In response, the Iranian police tear gassed and shot protestors, which led to the movement being called off by its leaders in 2010.
Iran has seen multiple waves of protest since the Green Movement. During the 2011 Arab Spring, the leaders of the 2009 Green Movement revitalized the protests by planning “The Day of Rage” on Feb. 14. which lasted for a year but amounted to no government concessions. The subsequent waves beginning in 2017 and continuing until now have called for the removal of the Islamic Republic and a demand for democracy due to worsening living standards, women’s policies and human rights abuses. The more recent waves of protests and the current one now do not have a unified leader at the helm of political opposition.
What’s unique about the current surge of protests?
Three things: women are at the forefront, its focus is broad and it has united vast sections of society.
Mobilized and grown with the help of the internet, young women in particular have gone great lengths to revolt as videos circulate online of them shouting “Death to the dictator!”, burning their headscarves and marching in the streets. This is particularly dangerous in the context of a country that is willing to kill anyone that does not follow the law, let alone publicly berate it. And because these protests are about females, it has united larger sections of society: the 2009 Green Movement mobilized the middle-class, while the 2017 wave mobilized the poorer sections of society more hard-hit by the weak economy. Now, anti-government demonstrations are taking place in more conservative Iranian cities and cross-cutting people of all ethnicities.
While womens’ rights are at the helm, protest demands have developed to the broader theme of freedom and secularization. This foundation undermines the Islamic Republic much more than protests just about economic policies or electoral fairness.
What does this suggest about the future of Iran?
Since Oct. 15, human rights organizations report at least 326 deaths during this current wave of protests, and Amnesty International says that 23 of these deaths happened to children. The monopoly of force in Iran makes it difficult to predict the outcome of the current protests: It is possible that the government’s method of extreme repression to quell opposition could end up in another surge and wane cycle. The Shah’s regime fell due to mass army defections and a highly organized centralized leadership that was able to form a new government but so far we are yet to see either in Iran.
It may be too early to tell what’s to come but the widespread support that Iranian discontent has received is a testament to the resolve these protestors have and will continue to express despite violent government crackdowns.