In the last three months, protests broke out in Iranian cities and across the country. The nationwide uprising that is now ongoing has been called a women-led revolution

The Women-Led
Uprising in Iran

8 min read
Foto: Flickr/Alisdare Hickson

On September 13, 2022, Mahsa (Jina) Amini, a young Kurdish woman from the western city of Saqqez, in Iranian Kurdistan, was visiting Tehran with her family when she was stopped by the Gasht-e Ershad (Guidance Patrol), a special unit that enforces Iran’s obligatory Islamic dress codes (hijab) and sex segregation. Iranian women have been creatively defying compulsory veiling for some time by pushing their headscarves back and wearing colorful clothing, but last year, current president Ebrahim Raisi called for stricter enforcement measures. Mahsa Amini was detained and taken in for questioning. Shortly thereafter, she was hospitalized after losing consciousness and died at Kasra Hospital several days later. The authorities attributed her death to underlying health conditions, but her family denied that she had any.1

The day after her death was announced, protests broke out in cities across the country, and are now ongoing.  The nationwide uprising has been called a women-led revolution, unprecedented not only in Iran but across the world. It has been joined by countless men of all ages, social classes, and ethnicities in a bold show of shared anger over police brutality, the unjust targeting of the young Kurdish woman, and the Islamic regime’s authoritarian rule. These grievances are inscribed in the slogan heard across the country: “Woman, Life, Liberty” (Zan, Zendegi, Azadi).

The forms of collective action across the country have been dramatic: young women burning their headscarves and some cutting their hair in a display of mourning for Mahsa; others defacing images of clerical leaders; yet others defiantly walking about without hijab. From the start, young men joined the protests, and eventually began to throw stones at police and more recently attack police stations and vehicles. To date, the protests have been “horizontal,” that is, leaderless, often spontaneous, and without a defined program. The scale and persistence of the protests, however, raises the question: Is this the end of the road for the Islamic Republic?

Some historical context is important. Though the ongoing protests are distinctive and unprecedented in many ways, they are part of a longstanding cycle of dissent and collective action—much of which has been organized by women—that has been directed at the Islamic Republic since its founding. Women, for instance, organized the very first protest following the Islamic Revolution, gathering in Tehran on March 8, 1979, a day after Ayatollah Khomeini called on women to observe hijab. The 1980s were characterized by intense ideological pressures, the war with Iraq, and multiple executions at the end of the decade, just before Khomeini’s death.2 The 1990s saw some relaxation of restrictions on women’s dress and participation in society, the introduction of access to satellite TV and then the Internet, growing female university enrollments, and increased international travel.  The reformist era and emergence of an incipient civil society helped revive the student movement in the summer of 1999. However, the large student protests over the closure of a reformist newspaper were harshly repressed, as were the feminist campaigns in the early 2000s demanding legal and policy changes, such as the ratification of the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.3 Young and middle-class women were also a large presence in the 2009 Green Protests, which targeted what was seen as a rigged presidential election. Economic difficulties, generated by tough U.S. sanctions, the onset of austerities, and government mismanagement, were at the center of the protest wave of late 2017 through early 2018 and again in November 2019, which were dominated by working-class and lower-income men across the country.

This essay originally appeared on the website of Ethics & International Affairs, the quarterly journal of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.


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