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Could women and Gen Z bring down the Iranian regime?

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP
In this picture released by the Iranian government, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with paramilitary forces in Tehran on Nov. 26, 2022, praising those tasked with quashing dissent in Iran’s streets.

The stunning courage shown by Iran’s young World Cup team in support of the ongoing protest movement exemplifies the bankruptcy of the regime’s legitimacy with the country’s most significant demographic: people under the age of 29.

The angry protester chants of “Women, Life, Freedom!” that have roiled the Iranian regime for more than two months pose perhaps the greatest test to the theocracy and its clerics in its history. This upheaval is the first large-scale confrontation between a militantly patriarchal regime and the young Iranians who have never been invested in its revolutionary mystique — and the outcome is by no means certain.

The protest movement was sparked by the killing of Mahsa Jina Amini in September, who was detained by the morality police for violating the hijab dress code and allegedly beaten to death. In the weeks following, demonstrations of outrage have spread to more than 200 cities across the country. Protestors also have upped the ante with brazen slogans aimed at the Supreme Leader, ransacking government offices and attacking regime symbols. Young Iranians are demonstrating enormous courage with full knowledge of the brutality they will face at the hands of the regime: To date nearly 500 protesters have been killed, some of them children, and more than 16,000 Iranians have been arrested.

Fury over the mandatory hijab has unleashed a much deeper rage over everything it represents. The hijab’s glorification has been part of a carefully crafted image of the ideal Iranian woman underpinning the theocracy’s hegemony, strictly enforced throughout the history of the Islamic Republic. It is the literal expression of a system that has relegated women to second-class citizens by limiting their essential freedoms, mandating strict sex segregation in universities, constraining employment opportunities, and depriving them of equal rights in marriage and child custody.

The current movement is not unprecedented: Iranian women rose up in 2009, wearing makeup and blue jeans and with their headscarves barely covering their heads, and were brutally assaulted; some were killed. Subsequent acts of resistance were made through innovative social media campaigns such as #MyStealthyFreedom or #WhiteWednesdays, which encouraged women to post images of themselves without the hijab or videos of them being attacked for not wearing it. 

The potency of this popular uprising lies in its contestation of totalitarian theocracy by the tech-savvy young men and women who have little-to-no connection to the ideological fervor of 1979. The 2009 Green Movement was led by reformist Iranians who called on leaders to “live up to the promise of the revolution.” The message from opposition activists to the regime today? “Go to Hell.”

This generational antipathy to Iran’s political system is reflected in the data on political engagement. The 2021 presidential election produced a historically low turnout, as well as a jump in spoiled ballots (widely interpreted as protest votes) from 1.2 million in 2017 to nearly 4 million. Given the fact that the ruling Guardian Council disqualified all but seven of the 592 candidates who sought to compete in the election, its unsurprising that so many Iranians chose not to participate in this farce.  

The Iranian regime is consequently facing a unique set of crises: Confronted with strident critique from the world community, it has failed to produce an anti-protest consensus internally and is now resorting to disinformation and diffusion that denounce foreign manipulation of these protests. The varied sectors of society joining the protests and their sheer breadth have made them difficult to control, and it is unclear if the regime can withstand this pressure using the same tactics. 

How will it all end? The protestors show no signs of giving up, and the regime shows no signs of capitulating. Yet, while the brutal crackdown ultimately could squash the protests, this will only fuel the anger of ordinary Iranians — women, first and foremost — who are fundamentally opposed to the core tenets of the Islamic Republic.

Patricia Karam is the regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Republican Institute. Follow her on Twitter @PatriciaJKaram.

Tags Human rights in Iran Iran Iran protests Islamic Republic of Iran Women's rights

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