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Why Do the Protests of Iranian Women Unsettle Us?

Why Do the Protests of Iranian Women Unsettle Us?

Thursday, 6 October, 2022 - 11:45

Let us be honest. Many of us, Arabs and Muslims of all stripes- liberal and conservative, moderate and pro-Axis of Resistance, religious and secular- are not comfortable with the demonstrations of Iranian women protesting against the authorities in power. Rather, we watch on awkward and disconcerted, if not skeptical and suspicious.

It goes without saying that many of them do not endorse the narrative put forward by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei about a Western plot prompting “a few traitors to riot.” Nor do they believe that foreign powers are pulling the strings, pushing hundreds of thousands of Iranian women to take to the streets, take off their veils, and stand up to the security forces and the representatives of the regime. Indeed, they believe that these protests have been propelled by internal factors tied to the evolution of Iranian society itself and the situation the country finds itself in after forty-three years under the Velayat-e-Faqih political system built on an interpretation of Twelver Shiite jurisprudence introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Several factors have coalesced; the failed economic policies of the regime, its costly imperial project that has left it sanctioned and isolated internationally, and the transformation of its nuclear program, which Iranian leaders had claimed would raise Iranians’ living standards as high as those of citizens of major countries once its final cycle was reached, into a dream whose outcomes have not felt by ordinary citizens. This is because the activation of this cycle and reaping its benefits, in terms of energy production or their use for medical purposes, are tied to integration in the global market and its financial and legal systems, which Iran has removed itself from. The repression of ethnic and religious minorities comes within the broader framework of the authorities’ efforts to impose a narrow view of the world and how to live in it.

But- and this is a big but- we have to say that the protests came from a place where the majority of Iran watchers had not expected. They came from a marginalized and vulnerable segment of Iranian society; they came from women, whom the Iranian regime claims have privileges unparalleled in any other Muslim society or any country neighboring Iran.

Each of these Muslim and Arab groups that have no love lost with the regime in Tehran, some of whom have an extremely steely relationship with it, have their own visions for how the regime “should” fall and their own criteria for its alternative. However, it seems that what happened was a glaring chapter of the “deceit of history.”

Economic pressures, heavy-handed hegemony over society, and implicating the country in military adventures in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, have all led to an implosion sparked by the young woman who had been tortured by the “morality police” tasked with enforcing the Khomeinist model of how people in a healthy society behave. Public hair cutting and burning of veils are equivocally acts of rebellion against the authorities. However, these acts also demonstrate that the feminist cause occupies an advanced position within the list of grievances toward the regime, especially among the middle class, which considers itself the primary victim of the Ayatollah’s rule.

We should remember that the previous uprisings we had seen since 1999, when security forces stormed the dormitories of Amirkabir University (throwing some of the students out of windows, it is claimed), including the Green Revolution of 2009 and the protests against inflation and the spike in fuel prices between 2017 and 2019, cities have always been their hubs and hotspots before they would expand to reach Arab and Kurdish regions, while the Baloch regions in the southeast have been chronically unstable. Thus, the middle class and ethnic minorities (whose ranks included Mahsa Amini, who was part of the Kurdish minority) are traditionally at the forefront. This time, it is women who dominate the scene.

If were are being honest, the fact that the feminist cause has been set at the top of the political agenda and has become considered a catalyst no less important than any of the other matters that could push to one protest against the Iranian regime and its domestic and foreign policies should compel traditional political forces to conduct a radical reassessment of their positions.

First, we have some political Islamists who resolutely refuse to put the feminist question forward from the angle of the veil. True, some clerics have recently cried out for addressing the feminist question with openness, but these figures remain isolated and can only be found within a few religious institutions in Arab and Muslim counties, where this idea is strongly opposed by conservatives.

Second, some within the left believe that the feminist question will work itself out once society in its entirety liberates itself from alienation and gets rid of exploitation. This issue, they argue, is inseparable from social justice as a whole and emphasizing it raises suspicions of “bourgeoisie politics” that risk muddling the struggle of the poor in Arab and Muslim societies.

Liberal Arabs and Muslims, for their part, stress their support for women attaining their rights, but they lack political effectiveness, and thus, their role is limited to elite circles. This portrait has a blank space, but it is the result of the narrowness with which we think of the feminist issue in our societies and the narrowness of the spaces in which we can advocate these ideas.

What is important is that Iranian women can’t take it anymore and that the matter cannot wait. And so they took the initiative, demanding their rights as women and citizens. In the meantime, we can calmly continue our debate.

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