On 16 September 2022, 22-year old Mahsa (Jina) Amini died in Teheran after the police arrested her for allegedly breaking rules on wearing the hijab. Her death has led to a wave of protests across Iran, and to the regime’s harsh repression. An expert on Iran from the Department of Asian and North African Studies, who is using the pseudonym Y. Hoshivar, to preserve anonymity, has agreed to be interviewed.
On 16 September 2022, 22-year old Mahsa (Jina) Amini died in Teheran after the police arrested her for allegedly breaking rules on wearing the hijab. Her death has led to a wave of protests across Iran, and to the regime’s harsh repression. Numerous protests have been organised in countries all over the world to express solidarity with Iranian protesters.
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek commented as follows: “Iran is not part of the developed West, so Zan, Zendegi, Azadi [Women, Life, Freedom, TN] is very different from MeToo in Western countries: it mobilizes millions of ordinary women, and it is directly linked to the struggle of all, men included [...]. Men who participate in Zan,Zendegi,Azadi know well that the struggle for women’s rights is also the struggle for their own freedom: the oppression of women is not a special case, it is the moment in which the oppression that permeates the entire society is most visible. [...]”
An expert on Iran from Ca’ Foscari’s Department of Asian and North African Studies, who is using the pseudonym Y. Hoshivar, to preserve anonymity, has agreed to be interviewed.
What is the current political situation in Iran like, and how did the protests start?
We are now experiencing national and international protests for the third week in a row against the political legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the moment, the protests are rapidly transforming into radical revolts against the very existence of the government, with people chanting “it’s no longer a protest, it’s a revolution.” It is too early to establish what these protests will lead to or whether they will be successful, but they are the longest and the widest that have ever been seen in Iran.
The fact that ignited the protests was the killing of 22-year old Mahsa (Jina) Amini while she was in the custody of the “morality police” of the Islamic Republic — according to the regime, she died after multiple heart failures. Ms Amini was arrested in Tehran on the evening of 13 September and then transferred to hospital in a semi-conscious state only two hours after being detained. She died in a coma on 16 September and was buried the following day in her native town of Saqqez (Iranian Kurdistan). However, the atmosphere at the hospital and the first news that was released regarding her treatment mentioned horrific details of her being brutally beaten by the police and having likely experienced traumatic brain injury.
The government’s unwillingness to cooperate, and a series of lies and lack of transparency regarding what happened, contributed to convincing the Iranian population that Ms Amini was killed by the police. Her family bravely spoke about the truth, rejecting hurried cover-ups on the part of the government and asking for justice. The people of Iran took to the streets to protest not only against police brutality, but also against the entire system of oppression that has been dominating Iran for over four decades following the Iranian revolution.
What is the “morality police”?
The “morality police” was established in the early 2000s as to patrol the streets and ensure that the way women are dressed is in line with Islamic principles and official Islamic dress codes, such as wearing the hijab and covering their body and face.
At the time this was not a new phenomenon, because the Islamic Republic was known for creating and using various police forces for so-called Traffic Police, that are sometimes a separate police force, in order to safeguard people’s moral integrity. Following the Iranian revolution of 1979, these forces were created in parallel with official military forces in order to severely check people, hegemonising the public sphere and spreading terror. Initially they were made up of the Islamic Revolution Committees, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Basij militia.
What are the protesters demanding?
Over the last few weeks we have seen a combination of different fights against the oppression of women, against corruption and poverty, against ethnic discrimination, against religious fundamentalism, against the Islamic Republic, against intellectual conformity and in faviour of political freedom from state terror.
Iranians are demanding to live in a country that is free from religious and political dogmatism, in which human dignity and justice prevail, and in which every person can thrive in an egalitarian, non-discriminatory society. Their slogans clearly show this. Young people want to reconquer their country, they want freedom, they want their merits to be recognised, and they want to build an exemplary country with their own hands. This is why they keep chanting “We fight, we die, we reclaim Iran.”
We must remember that the Iranian people are fighting for freedom and justice on various levels and that this fight is not recent — it has been going on in modern and contemporary history. Since the end of the 19th century, Iranian women have been asking for justice, equality and democracy. They were among the pioneers of the Constitutional Revolution of Iran (1905-1911) with campaigns for the social emancipation of women and social-democratic values.
Right after the Iranian Revolution, Iranian women took to the streets to protest against the suppression of their rights by the young revolutionary government. Consider the protests on International Women’s Day in 1979 in Tehran. Consider, too, other facts that happened after the founding of the Islamic Republic, such as the student protests of 1999, the Green movement, the Girls of Enghelab Street and the Bloody Aban protests. Women have always played a fundamental role in these protests. All of these voices, which seemed to have been forgotten, were brutally repressed. Today they are rising from the ashes once again, with full force.
Is there a difference between the most recent protests and previous ones?
Yes, I believe that the main difference is in the degree of unity and diversity of the forces that are supporting this recent movement. Another two crucial factors are generational change and the centrality of women. After experiencing years of social frustration and of economic difficulties, people from all classes and social groups are now marching together in the streets. Protests have reached villages and cities, involving the most fragile classes in Iranian society, even in territories that are traditionally more conservative and religious. Many people are still struggling to comprehend the vastness of participation in these protests.
It has not always been like this. Many protests in the past were focused exclusively on the requests of some groups of people, such as students, workers, or the middle and high-middle classes in urban centres. Sometimes, past protesters unwillingly marginalised minorities, regional people, women, and the LGBTQ+ community. Sometimes these groups of people managed to become involved in the protests, but it was never to a degree as inclusive as it is today. This has happened because the greatest common enemy is the government, which is constantly trying to assert its power and control by undermining social cohesion and pitting people and social movements against each other. The Islamic Republic is trying to constrict Iranian national identities into its own vision of a universal Islamic community (Ummat), fostering ethnic sectarianism and weakening the very strength of Iran, which lies in its multiethnicity.
Another interesting difference between past and present protests is generational change. The majority of protesters are aged between 15 and 25. There is also an unprecedented degree of unity among various opposition groups that mainly live outside of Iran, as well as an extraordinary solidarity campaign from Iranians around the world — including in the Veneto region, where a protest was organised on 1 October.
The next global Freedom Rally will take place on 8 October. This time, the flag is in the hands of women whose primordial force has managed to shake and awaken the frustrated Iranian society. Today, Iranians are united under the banner “Women, Life, Freedom,” with women being at the forefront of protests, both as victims and as leaders. This essentially feminist component and the global outreach of the actions that have marked recent protests are more inclusive that ever before, uniting various demands for liberty and opposition groups in one.
Over the last few days we have read and listened to unilateral opinions that try to describe recent events exclusively as a fight that women are raging against Islam, or as a riot started by Kurdish people, Baloch people, or other political groups. I believe this message is misleading. In my view, all Iranians share the same cause, albeit for different reasons. Iranians of different ethnic groups are protesting in favour of everybody’s rights, and we need to understand how original and historically important their efforts are, on a global scale. As Slavoj Žižek rightly stated in his recent message to the Iranian people, “Iran is not part of the developed West, so Zan, Zendegi, Azadi [Women, Life, Freedom, TN] is very different from MeToo in Western countries: it mobilizes millions of ordinary women, and it is directly linked to the struggle of all, men included [...]. Men who participate in Zan, Zendegi, Azadi know well that the struggle for women’s rights is also the struggle for their own freedom: the oppression of women is not a special case, it is the moment in which the oppression that permeates the entire society is most visible. The protesters who are not Kurds also see it clearly that the oppression of Kurds puts limits on their own freedom: solidarity with Kurds is the only way towards freedom in Iran.”
What are the most recent developments?
So far, over one hundred innocent people have been killed and thousands have been injured. To speak of numbers in these situations is always complex. It seems that the majority of the victims are young, and many of them are women as young as Mahsa Amini. We remember Nika Shakarami (17), Hadis Najafi (20), Hannaneh Kia (23), Ghazaleh Chalavi (32), Mahsa Moguyi (18).
Hundreds of people including students, journalists, public figures and activists have been arrested. To paint a picture of the gravity of the situation, consider that only in the regions of Sistan and Baluchestan, according to local sources, at least 42 people were killed in protests after praying on Friday 30 September. Numbers are still uncertain because access to the Internet is limited in many areas, and other communication channels have been shut down. The victim’s families have been threatened — they cannot speak about what happened and must bury their children in silence, while many other families do not yet know what has happened to their loved ones who joined protesters.
Over the last few days, Iranian universities have been endorsing the protests, while workers and pensioners are beginning to strike. A recent and important development involves school children who have been actively participating in protests and rebelling against discrimination at school and in public. At the same time, the regime is trying to continue its violent campaign against protesters with every possible means — employing children-soldiers, arresting people in ambulances, requesting the help of its military allies from other areas of the Middle East, in an attempt to crush the protests. Clearly it is difficult to confirm all of this information at the moment, but nevertheless it conveys a sense of the graveness of the situation.
What are the possible future scenarios if the government should collapse? How many alternatives are there?
At the moment one cannot make this sort of forecast. This is the most complex phase, and ultimately, the Iranian people will decide. The opposition groups and political organisations that are making plans for the future of Iran are mainly outside of the country, and they have been distanced from the country’s everyday life experience for decades. The majority of them, including pro-monarchy, social democratic groups and left-wing groups, do not yet have a clear plan for the transition and are still fighting against their own past, as well as with other issues such as ideological and ethnic sectarianism. They clearly suffer because they lack credibility and are not ready to achieve national unity on a political level, even though they are united in their opposition towards the Islamic Republic and in their solidarity with protesters. They are also fragmented and suffer from a lack of charisma, since none of them seems able to win the hearts of the majority of the population. In this unclear scenario, the only hope is to gather in the streets and unite in people’s human, instinctive fight for their freedom, looking for every possible solution for an effective bottom-up organisation, trying to eradicate evil.
I think it is absurd for people to say — as some do — that without the Islamic Republic, Iran would become “another Libya.” The Islamic Republic itself is the main reason why the various forces in Iran have not yet found national unity.
Speaking of change, how could Iran reposition itself in the international arena?
We must wait and see where these protests take us. This does not mean that we should surrender to “destiny”. In fact, we will probably need to brace ourselves for a long fight. Could it be a civil war or something similar to what has happened in Syria? I do not know. Iran is in a different situation, it does not even have a complete configuration in the Western vision of the Arabic and Islamic East.
Changes are happening very quickly and tensions are rising by the hour. I think that the powerful message sent by Iranian women has already started to cause change in the Middle East and Africa.
As things are now, anything could happen. In my view, pressure on the Islamic Republic is gradually increasing due to the global protests of Iranians, who are prompting the international community to act more responsibly beyond the game of politics. Canada has extended its sanctions against the regime, Germany is asking the EU to adopt greater sanctions to show solidarity with Iranians. These signs are comforting, but they are still too rhetorical — they are not real game changers. At the same time, we see world leaders — such as President Macron — meet the Iranian President during the recent UN General Assembly and talk about Iran’s nuclear programme, while Iranian protesters are being killed in the streets.
If European countries and the US continue to regard the situation in Iran as not a priority, and as long as they continue to make agreements with dictators for their own interests, not enough will be done. At the moment it is crucial that Iranians have access to safe means of communication to make their voices heard. Protection and support of Iranian protesters abroad against sabotage and espionage on the part of the Iranian government is also vital. Iranian students living abroad are desperately trying to intervene in the debate on Iran, but they fear they will be inserted in a blacklist. On the other hand, the Islamic Republic is witnessing popular protests in solidarity with Iran even in countries that are part of its traditional area of influence, such as Iraq and Lebanon. I believe that what is happening in Iran is now inspiring other peoples in the region. Afghan women, in a spectacular demonstration of courage, took to the streets of Kabul to support the Iranian people as they ask that their rights be recognised. This fact in itself may indicate that, regardless of political speculation, a better future in the region is possible, if we try to stay united in protecting human rights. What is clear is the determination of the Iranian people to overcome the current situation at whatever cost. “Women, Life, Freedom” is the fight of every one of us.