With the recent surge of protests across Iran, many political observers were left bewildered, both by the timing and the nature of the grievances expressed throughout the country. Others, with ears closer to the ground, were quick to point out their mistake: Iran-watchers have long looked to Tehran’s cosmopolitan elite while neglecting concern for the country’s expansive working-class. Indeed, popular dissent first broke out in the city of Mashhad, Iran’s second most populous city, before spreading to places like Arak, Kermanshah and Takestan, reaching over 100 cities and towns whose names had been hitherto unfamiliar to global audiences.
What began as mounting dissatisfaction with rising food prices, corruption and government expenditures on proxy wars waged abroad, quickly turned into a wholesale rejection of the clerical and ruling elite. A rejection that challenged the very legitimacy of the ‘Islamic’ guardianship as well as the façade of popular sovereignty promised by Iran’s fraudulent presidential and parliamentary bodies.
Most promising was the demographic makeup of brave protesters, who, risking life and limb, poured into the streets for two consecutive weeks. This, despite the heavy-handed violence perpetuated by Iran’s security and paramilitary forces. The majority of demonstrators were incredibly young – with the average protester under the age of 25 – and belong to the generation born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Demanding radical, institutional change as well as the overthrow of the current regime, thousands could be heard chanting “Death to the dictator, death to Khamenei (the country’s Supreme Leader), death to Rouhani (the country’s President)”. Chants that were echoed by equally powerful rallies of “We don’t want an Islamic Republic, we want an Iranian Republic”.
While crowds appeared to predominantly include young, working-class men from some of Iran’s most traditional and religiously conservative regions, observers would be amiss to underestimate the weight and veracity of women’s contributions to the political unrest.
On the first day of protests, Thursday December 28th 2017, crowds began to gather in Masshad, lined with brave women and men alike. At the following day’s Friday Prayer gathering, the local Imam was recorded delivering a fervent speech in which he publicly chastised protesters for daring to follow a woman’s lead.
Some of the earliest coverage to go viral by way of social media included stunning videos of defiant Iranian women pouring their hearts out at the top of their lungs – some taking it upon themselves to motivate fellow demonstrators. Take, for example, this iconic video, shared on the second day of protests (Dec. 29th), featuring a young woman in a red headscarf who approaches armed security forces and challenges them to join the people while yelling: “What are we supposed to do?! You have to yell ‘Death to Khamenei, death to Khamenei!’” While her gesture may seem similar to the sorts of demonstrations familiar to the West, uttering such words often carries the death penalty in Iran.
As protests grew in scope and intensity, more videos were shared, this time, featuring courageous women declaring their most intimate and daily struggles with oppression and poverty. In this video, shared on January 1st, 2018, a young mother in Khorram-Abbad speaks candidly with protesters about the lengths to which she has had to go in order to survive and feed her children. Decrying the government’s embezzlement of oil-profits, she speaks of the hardships she’s endured in the course of a life of prostitution. This, while she avows her love of country and holds the image of her brother, a martyr of the Iran-Iraq war – a testament to how the government has failed her and the countless other families that have been left behind.
Tehran’s austerity measures, corrupt and failing banks, combined with a 17% inflation rate have been crippling, to say the least. And women, more than any other segment of the population, have born the incredible burden of unemployment, which stands at approximately 2-times the national average.
Elsewhere, videos arriving from Najaf Abad and Bandar Abbas, show the incredible diversity of those taking to the streets to decry the government. Even where visibility is poor, women’s channelled defiance can be heard in the traditional calls washing over the crowds (see 0:17s).
Scores of women have since been imprisoned by security forces for their roles in the demonstrations. Yasmin Mahboobi, Soha Mortezaii, Faezeh Abdipour, Leila Hosseinzadeh, Touran Mehrban, and Negin Arameshi (photographs shown below), are just a handful of those confirmed to be arbitrarily held behind bars. Abdipour has since announced her hunger strike, along with at least four other members of the Dervish minority who were arrested at the same time.
As news of the daily arrests roll-in, so too have the letters of support for demonstrators penned by female political prisoners, including Golrokh Ibrahimi Iraee and Atena Daemi, who are currently in detention in the women’s ward of Tehran’s Evin Prison. In the coming weeks and months, one related factor may help determine protester’s fates: whether they will succeed in securing the support of the international community. For our part, the women of the world must unite in defense of their rights and struggle for lasting change!
— Sara Hassani is a PhD Student and Fellow in Politics at The New School for Social Research