Iran’s Hijab protest movement

Sep 30, 2022 | AIJAC staff

An image circulating on social media in support of the anti-hijab protests in Iran.
An image circulating on social media in support of the anti-hijab protests in Iran.

09/22 #03


This Update is devoted to the mass protest movement that has broken out in cities across Iran since Sept. 17, when 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini died, apparently from injuries she sustained in a beating by Iran’s morality police, who had arrested her because they said her headscarf, or hijab, was not being worn properly.

In addition to the articles below on the protest movement, we strongly recommend readers look at the blog by AIJAC’s Tammy Reznik who outlined how the death of Amini was part of a worsening crackdown on the rights of women in Iran under new ultra-hardline President Ebrahim Raisi.

We lead with Mehdi Khalaji, a top scholar of Iranian politics who actually trained at a Shi’ite seminary in Qom. Khalaji outlines why he believes the current wave of protests is quite different from the several significant mass protest movements that have arisen in Iran before – such as in 2009 and 2019. Among the differences he highlights are the deep and wide nature of the grievances sparking it, the domination of young people in the protest movement and its decentralised nature, and the absence of any role for clerics in the protest. He also offers some suggestions how governments and civil society outside Iran can help Iranians achieve their democratic and liberal aspirations. For Khalaji’s complete analysis, CLICK HERE.

Next, this Update brings you a heartfelt plea from Canada-based Iranian dissident and feminist Mariam Memarsadeghi. She says the Government in Teheran needs to be understood as a “Handmaid’s Tale regime that hates women,” run by “America-hating, Holocaust-denying, theocratic misogynists who beat women to death for exposing their hair.” She urges the world not to abandon the Iranian people in pursuit of an elusive return to the JCPOA nuclear deal with that regime. For Memarsadeghi’s passionate and powerful argument,  CLICK HERE. Similarly arguing that the Iran protests should mean an end to seeking “a nuclear deal that will enrich the men murdering women in the streets” is veteran Iran analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht.

Finally, Middle East columnist Bobby Ghosh looks at what the Iranian protestors will need to succeed in creating real change in Iran, despite the brutal repression of the security forces. He says outside support and attention are important, including help in getting Iranians access to the internet after the Government shut it down in many areas to prevent protesters organising. But he argues even more important will be solidarity from other elements of Iranian society, firstly unions, but ultimately at least elements of the security forces and regime. He says protestors have no choice but to “brave the truncheons and bullets of the security forces and stay in the streets – and pray that their sheer stamina emboldens first the unions and then voices within the regime to come to their aid.” For all the details of his analysis of the protestor’s prospects,  CLICK HERE.

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How Iran’s Protests Differ from Past Movements

by Mehdi Khalaji

Washington Institute PolicyWatch, Sep 28, 2022

The “Women, Life Freedom” slogan of the Iranian protest movement shows that the grievances fuelling this protest movement are both deeper and wider than the economic or specific political issues  that fuelled Iran’s many mass protest movements of the past (Photo: Alexandros Michailidis, Shutterstock). 

The unrest has shown the irrelevance of many long-time actors in Iran, as young people reject not only the regime, but also the clergy, reformers, and dissident politicians inside and outside the country.

Since erupting on September 16, Iran’s latest wave of street protests has begun to pose a serious security and political challenge to the Islamic Republic, placing regime leaders in a uniquely puzzling situation. Interestingly, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has not commented on the turmoil, which was ignited by the torture and death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, at the hands of the regime’s morality police (Gasht-e Ershad, or Guidance Patrol), reportedly for disrespecting regulations on wearing a hijab. Yet he and his circle are no doubt concerned about the movement’s novel aspects.

Anti-regime protests are nothing new in the Islamic Republic. The largest one was sparked by massive fraud in the 2009 presidential election, bringing millions of people to the street until authorities cracked down on the movement’s leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi (Mousavi is still under house arrest to this day). The most recent round of widespread protests took place in 2019, after the government’s sudden decision to raise gasoline prices. At the time, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and police forces killed more than 1,500 people, a shocking record even by the regime’s brutal standards.

The current uprising is distinguished by several notable features:

Unlike previous protests, the movement’s chief source of discontent is neither economic nor an isolated political decision. The protesters’ main slogan so far is “Women, Life, Freedom,” indicating a more generalized and profound opposition to the Islamic Republic’s entire totalitarian system. The regime’s comprehensive effort to “Islamize” Iranian society and engineer all aspects of citizens’ lives has steadily deprived people of freedoms in the private and public sphere. Women have been subjected to the worst of these human rights violations, with their very bodies becoming Iran’s most crucial political battleground. Hence, human dignity and freedom lie at the heart of the movement’s current demands, centering on recognition of women as the primary victims of the regime’s patriarchal tradition and authoritarian Islamist ideology. This foundation could make the movement a particularly powerful humanistic, egalitarian, liberal, and secular force in Iran, with tremendous potential for spurring fundamental change.

The movement is not tied to the clergy at all. This is not to say it is an anti-religious movement—in fact, protesters have deliberately avoided the use of any religious symbols or rhetoric. Yet it is also conspicuously cleric-free. In the past, all influential political movements in Iran, from the early twentieth century Constitutional Revolution to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, have included high-level participation by clerics. Even the 2009 Green Movement had a cleric, Karrubi, as one of its two main leaders.

The absence of clergy in today’s movement is not accidental. Many protesters see all Shia clerics—not just key regime supporters, but also silent critics and neutral authorities—as the foundation of the regime’s legitimacy, facilitating its initial emergence and justifying its principles, policies, and decisions ever since. Clerics represent sharia, an inherently discriminatory legal system that claims divine authority to abuse human rights and, in particular, subjugate women. Hence, this class cannot share in the movement’s main objectives or worldview—in the eyes of the clergy, demanding equal rights for women is the ultimate existential threat to sharia and their status as its guardian. Even clerics who might oppose the regime on other grounds would not be able to publicly shout “Women, Life, Freedom.” The movement may therefore represent a watershed moment in the Shia clergy’s gradual divorce from the leading forces in Iranian society.

The emphasis on the veil is no coincidence. As a totalitarian regime, the Islamic Republic has been hostile toward women since its inception, and mandating that they wear the hijab is a highly visible part of its efforts to control and marginalize them. Enforcement of the veil rule has only increased under President Ebrahim Raisi’s government. Yet prior to the current demonstrations, leading critics of the regime were reluctant to prioritize refusal of the “compulsory veil” as a political demand, often ignoring female activists’ justified pressure to include the unique forms of oppression suffered by half of society. In her 2011 book The Hijab and Intellectuals, prominent activist Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani showed how even the most secular and liberal political critics and dissidents have consistently avoided recognizing the regime’s systematic oppression of women’s freedom and dignity, focusing on the compulsory veil as a fundamental rather than secondary problem. Today’s movement has revealed a drastic change in the way many Iranians look at their plight and its potential solutions, with more citizens apparently seeing women’s rights as the best starting point for their democratic struggle against Islamist obscurantism.

The protests indicate that existing political opposition groups and figures—whether reformists inside the country or dissidents abroad—are irrelevant. One of the most astonishing aspects of the current movement is that it is overwhelmingly composed of young Iranians under age twenty-five who identify themselves as more than just opponents of Islamist ideology—they are also avowedly alien to the mindset of the older generation, including anti-regime politicians. This shows that real forces of change can emerge and self-organize without intervention by conventional dissident groups or personalities. It also raises the question of who is directing the movement, and whether it will be able to establish an organic leadership before becoming exhausted or crumbling under violent suppression.

Images from social media of Hadis Najafi, a young woman shot dead by Iranian security forces during the protests. Like Amini, she has also become a symbol of this protest movement dominated by young people. (Image: twitter)

In sum, the movement’s nature, organization style, leadership, and core ideals are sharply different from all previous political protests in the Islamic Republic. This courageous experiment could spur more significant developments in Iran over the coming days and weeks, though little is known about its ability to weather serious challenges in the long run.

Policy Recommendations
In general, foreign government statements supporting and sympathizing with Iran’s anti-regime protesters are less helpful than similar gestures from nongovernmental entities, including communication and digital companies (e.g., Google, Amazon, Apple), human rights institutions, famous civil resistance figures, foreign democratic movements, and individual academics, literary figures, and artists. Even so, U.S. and European officials can still play an exceptional role in helping the movement or, at least, avoiding harmful actions.

For example, now is not the time to implement financial arrangements that decrease pressure on the regime—including sanctions relief stemming from the ongoing nuclear talks. Any action that can be perceived as Western indifference toward the Iranian people’s longtime suffering should be consciously avoided. Their democratic, secular, and liberal aspirations are perhaps the best force for advancing peace and security in the Middle East, since they will be the ones responsible for establishing a government committed to those principles should the current regime fall.

Mehdi Khalaji, a Qom-trained Shiite theologian, is the Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute.

The Gender Apartheid State of Iran


Why does Joe Biden seek to align America with a violent ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ regime that beats women to death for exposing their hair?


Tablet, Sept. 22

A demonstrator in New York holds up a picture of Mahsa (Jeena) Amini, the young Kurdish women whose alleged murder by Iran’s  morality police has sparked widespread protests against the regime and across the globe. (Photo by John Lamparski/Sipa USAAlamy Live News)
Mahsa (Jeena) Amini died in a coma on Sept. 16 after repeated blows to her head by Islamist regime thugs enforcing mandatory Islamist hijab. She could have been any 22-year-old Iranian girl, killed because strands of her hair were showing from beneath her headscarf. We know her story only because her brave Kurdish family refused to cower, despite being surrounded by regime agents and threatened to be silent. Mahsa’s family has been bravely telling reporters their girl was healthy, that the regime’s fabricated video purportedly showing her collapsing from a heart condition is a lie. Her father, as well as girls who were arrested with her, testify that they saw bruises on her head, a fact confirmed by a leaked photograph of the bruised, unconscious girl in a hospital bed.

Officials from the hospital where Mahsa died have also spoken out, another courageous act, telling reporters Mahsa had 10 or 11 blows to her head, likely from it being bashed into a wall. The other women and girls who were arrested with Mahsa for violating the hijab have stated that Mahsa’s beatings began in the police van where they were all held.

Most striking is testimony via Twitter and submitted to regime officials from Hasan Shirazi, a first lieutenant in the “morality” police station to which Mahsa was brought. Mahsa was holding her head and screaming loudly when she was taken out of the police van, says Shirazi. A female guard told her she would be released soon, but Mahsa would not stop screaming.

Hearing her screams, a senior officer, Colonel Seyyed Abbas Hosseini, reportedly became very angry and approached the women. According to Shirazi’s testimony, Hosseini told Mahsa to shut up and punched her so hard that she fell to the ground, unconscious. Everyone at the station was apparently silent as Colonel Hosseini then began to kick Mahsa and ask that she be taken to basement level 2, the “darkest unit” of the detention center. The women guards could not lift Mahsa and one cried out in panic that her ear was bleeding. It took 20 minutes for an ambulance to come take Mahsa to the hospital.

Since the imposition of Sharia law in the 1979 revolution, there have been countless girls and women like Mahsa. Today the reality of this nightmare is being disseminated across the world because Iranians are rising up against the totalitarian evil of the regime and speaking out about the lashings, torture, rape, and killings. The actress Banafsheh Taherian is a striking example, showing her solidarity with Mahsa’s family by going public about receiving 60 lashes from regime police when she was 19-years-old. Her Twitter thread about this trauma is excruciating to read, in part because every Iranian has a loved one who has been on the receiving end of these blows and the verbal abuse and humiliation that accompanies them. These are very rare public admissions. Iranians have in large part stayed silent, particularly about torture and sexual abuse in prisons.

This week, all of Iran is aflame in protests sparked by the knowledge of Mahsa’s gruesome murder. Her eyes were hauntingly innocent, her smile gentle and kind in a land of horrors. The protests span the entire nation, all major cities and smaller towns. Online, too, the mobilization is as never before, a unity in discourse with film stars, athletes, and other celebrities breaking their silence and joining the people in their public revulsion against the barbaric cruelty and violence with which the regime treats the people of Iran in the name of Allah. On the streets, girls and women are burning their headscarves, dancing—acts punishable by lengthy prison sentences and even execution—as men young and old honor them, chanting for equality and promising vengeance for the killing of their sister Mahsa. These are scenes Iranians have seen in their dreams, a revolution of love for their true selves and hate for the armor-clad forces of darkness they surround and capture. It is the power of political action as Hannah Arendt described it, tethered to life by fear but also by transformative hope.

That Iranians are willing to brave the Islamic Republic’s repressive apparatus yet again is remarkable considering the massacre of over 1,500 protesters in 2019, the torture of many thousands more, and the execution of others including the champion wrestler from Shiraz, Navid Afkari, who was and is beloved for his honesty and passion for his people.
Yet this is a regime utterly committed to its brutality. Its current president, Ebrahim Raisi, protected by U.S. authorities and greeted at the United Nations with smiles and handshakes by French President Emmanuel Macron just as Iranians protest for their freedom—is among the most experienced killers of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s inner circle, personally culpable for the execution of thousands in a prison massacre in 1988.

Raisi is a hardline ideologue who is barely intelligible, with no university education. Even now, Raisi is proud of his role as one of four members of a death committee, sending political prisoners to be hanged after “trials” lasting a few minutes. He has called his massacre “divine punishment” and a “proud achievement” for the revolutionary regime. For him, mass killing is an act of God. Days ago, he denied the Holocaust in a 60 Minutes interview. Why does the United States insist on embracing this killer, and the regime he fronts, as the Iranian people risk their lives in the streets protesting for freedom?

When President Barack Obama promoted the original Iran deal, his pitch was that the normalization of ties with the Islamic Republic would improve the welfare and freedoms of ordinary Iranians. The exact opposite happened. Even with injections of billions in cash into the regime’s coffers, the people grew poorer and the state more repressive. The so-called “moderate” former President Hassan Rouhani presided over the killing of over 1,500 protesters. That President Joe Biden wants to obtain a watered-down version of that deal with Raisi in Rouhani’s office, and with the supreme leader still in power, shows the moral vacuity of a foreign policy that aligns itself with the most repressive tyrants on the planet, even as they murder women, gay people, political liberals, journalists, and anyone else who dares to assert the most basic claims to their own humanity.

The Biden Administration’s eagerness to return to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran amounts to an abandonment of Iran’s young people under the hell of a brutal regime, Memarsadeghi argues. (Photo: Alamy Stock Photo)

Biden has been willing to stick Americans with extortionate gas prices in order to fight for Ukraine and trash our alliance with India by sticking up for “human rights” in the subcontinent. But when it comes to Iran, the president of the United States and leading officials in his administration have been eager to abandon young Iranians, women especially, who have been fighting courageously for freedom since 2009. The greatest asset America has for a peaceful Middle East is the Iranian people, and yet the Obama-Biden playbook is predicated on their permanent oppression under the heel of a brutal regime of America-hating, Holocaust-denying, theocratic misogynists who beat women to death for exposing their hair.

There is no telling whether this time the Iranian people will finally win. What is certain is that the Handmaid’s Tale regime that hates women and hates America is still being courted by the Biden administration, which is a failure not just of our morality but of our national interest. When you look at the photographs of beautiful young Mahsa Amini tortured to death, and when you watch videos of the same thugs who killed her attempting to beat her young compatriots for protesting for her life, remember that these are the thugs the United States is attempting to equip with more power, more cash, and more prestige, at the expense of people who desperately want to be free of their tyranny.

Mariam Memarsadeghi is Founder and Director of the Cyrus Forum, Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a leading advocate for a democratic Iran.

Iran’s Protesters Need Some More Homegrown Support


International attention is important, but their chances of success depend on support closer at hand.

By Bobby Ghosh

Bloomberg, 28 September 2022

Regime figures like Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian insist that there is nothing going on in Iran, and that any riots are merely a foreign plot. (Photo: mfa.gov.ir). 

As the protests in Iran head toward their third week, the regime’s crackdown is intensifying. Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has been telling his Western counterparts that “there is not a big deal going on in Iran.” But Iran’s communications blackouts have not blinded the US, Canada and Europe’s leading powers to the regime’s escalating brutality, which they have roundly condemned, and in some cases sanctioned. The question now is whether the protesters can persuade other groups within Iran to join their ranks.

Since not even the Islamic Republic can persuade Iranians to reject the evidence of their eyes and ears, the regime is replaying its propaganda greatest hits: The protests are merely “riots,” instigated by the US to “to weaken Iran’s stability and security.”

Iranians aren’t fooled. They are circumventing the regime’s communications blackout to spread the word about the continuing demonstrations. We know that the protesters, who first took to the streets to express disgust at the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested for insufficiently covering her hair, are now calling for the dismantling of the Islamic Republic, root and branch. Their slogans target not only President Ebrahim Raisi but Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his son Mojtaba, thought by many to be the power behind the scenes.

Fears, mine included, that the wider world might be too distracted by events in Russia and Ukraine to pay attention to Iran have proved unfounded. Western leaders have rounded on the regime in Tehran. The US and Canada have announced sanctions against the morality police and individual officials involved in the crackdown. The Biden administration has also waived sanctions restrictions to allow companies like Elon Musk’s Starlink to offer Iranians internet services.

But if the regime can’t rely on its tools of dissimulation, its fearsome instruments of repression remain reliable. The security forces, ranging from regular police and Basij militia to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have a history of putting down protest movements. They killed more than 1,000 people in 2019, ending the last major outbreak of demonstrations.

And that was when the regime of President Hassan Rouhani was trying to showcase its supposedly moderate face. The protesters can expect even more cruelty from Raisi, a former hanging judge with an appetite for mass murder.

To keep going, then, the protesters will need more than international attention, important as that is. They will need domestic support, from within the establishment as well as without.

The first seems unlikely, at least in the short term. There are no signs of cracks in the regime. The so-called moderates — men like Rouhani and his then-foreign minister Jawad Zarif — have been mostly mum over the past two weeks. Only one grand ayatollah among dozens has issued a mildly-worded reproach of the crackdown, saying the government ought to listen to the people’s demands. The head of the judiciary has warned that public figures who support the protests must pay for the damage to public property.

The security forces, unlike their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring, have demonstrated little sympathy for the protesters or compunction about battering them.  In addition, they have been staging pro-regime demonstrations and using their own medias outlets to amplify regime propaganda.

The next best hope for the protesters is for solidarity from organized labor. Although a number of unions have demonstrated against the regime over the past two years, mostly for better pay amid soaring inflation, they have not yet mobilized behind the women who are at the vanguard of the current protests. One teachers’ union has called for a strike, but it has not had much traction. This may be because the unions, having recently been at the receiving end of the regime’s enforcers, are pessimistic about the chances of the mostly young, unemployed protesters now in the streets. Any regime figures who might disagree with Raisi and the Khameneis are likewise waiting to see if the protesters have more staying power than those who have gone before.

The only hope for the protest movement is if elements of Iran’s security forces, as well as unions, begin to side with the protestors (Photo: SemikArt, Shutterstock). 

The last time there was a significant rift within the elite of the Islamic Republic was in 2009, when a disputed presidential election led to nationwide rallies by factions collectively known as the Green Movement. It gained massive popular support, but the security forces sided with the Supreme Leader and crushed the protests, killing scores. The movement’s leaders, who had been regime stalwarts, were put under house arrest and have never been allowed back in from the cold.

The current protests, like those of the Arab Spring, are leaderless. This means the regime can’t shut them down simply by arresting individuals. But it also means there is no organization that can appeal to, and negotiate with, other actors and coordinate actions. Spontaneity can be a powerful political force, but it is hard to sustain.

The challenge for the protesters, then, is to brave the truncheons and bullets of the security forces and stay in the streets — and pray that their sheer stamina emboldens first the unions and then voices within the regime to come to their aid.

This task will require endurance of epic proportions. It will be hard to watch, but the world must not look away.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.



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