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Are Iran’s hijab protests different from past protest waves?

Broader and broader swaths of society are showing that they’re outraged, with grievances that won’t soon go away.

- September 22, 2022

Last week, Iran erupted with what has become an unusually powerful protest wave after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, died in police custody. Tehran’s morality police had arrested her for not wearing a proper hijab, the mandatory hair covering for Iranian women.

The first protest came with Amini’s funeral in Saghiz in Iran’s Kurdistan on Sept. 17, and quickly spread to other Kurdish cities. This Monday, female activists organized a protest in the capital Tehran, which continued and spread across the country. Despite the regime’s efforts to clamp down on both the protests and media coverage, soon tens of thousands of people were protesting in more than 40 cities, nearly every day, with police and government thugs attacking with batons, tear gas, and in some cases, live ammunition. In many cities, women have taken off their headscarves and set them on fire, while other women cut their hair in public – serious acts of defiance against the Islamic republic’s control.

Over the past five years, Iranians have increasingly taken to the streets to protest such things as rising gas prices, low-quality water and the removal of bread subsidies. But the current protests are bringing in far more support, not just on the streets but from key sectors of Iranian society. That matters.

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What are the protests about?

For four decades, the Iranian regime has tried to enforce mandatory hijab for women. Initially, women in Tehran protested, but as Islamists took over all government branches, they suppressed all opposition to their rule — including refusals to wear hijab — through patrols and violence. As educated young urban women have tried going out with only loosely covered hair, the government has harassed and detained them, most recently through the morality police.

Why have protests been erupting over the past five years?

These protests spring from four main causes: increasing government repression; less choice in representatives; endemic corruption; and weakened social services and welfare.

While many individual protests began because of economic grievances like inflation, they’ve been inflamed by several underlying causes. One has been the government’s violent and repressive response to unrest, including imprisoning activists, students and journalists. During the protests, many citizens were shocked when they learned that state security forces had killed at least 300 protesters in one week; since then they’ve witnessed violent crackdowns and mass arrests of thousands in 2018, 2019, 2021 and earlier in 2022. In this round, many have been particularly outraged by government violence against women.

Further, the government has reduced citizens’ choices for their representatives. While the Islamic republic’s elections have never been fair and free, for decades elections did include genuine competition between hard-liners and moderates or reformists. However, since 2019, only hard-line candidates have been allowed to run for office — and fewer Iranians have bothered to go to the polls. Now, all three government branches are run by people who have been responsible for violent crackdowns: President Ebrahim Raisi once helped authorize the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. The head of the Iranian parliament, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, is a former chief of police and member of the Revolutionary Guards. And Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, the chief justice, is a former prosecutor known for authorizing beatings, torture, and other abuses. The increasing government violence was a major reason many opposition activists campaigned to boycott Iran’s 2020 presidential election, which resulted in the lowest turnout since the regime took power.

Many Iranians are also outraged by rampant corruption among state officials, including embezzlement and awarding state contracts to cronies. Some high-ranking officials, such as former vice president Mohammad Reza Rahimi, have been imprisoned on such charges. Parliamentary leader Qalibaf is widely known for such corruption, but has stayed in power through strong political connections.

Finally, that corruption has been related to mismanagement and the failure of public services. In July 2022, for instance, a large building — built by a local businessman strongly connected to local and national elites — collapsed in the city of Abadan, killing dozens and setting off protests over rampant violations of safety regulations.

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How are these different from previous protest episodes?

The current wave of protests takes courage from those past protests, but goes beyond them in some significant ways. First, women are leading this round and finding creative ways to challenge the regime.

Second, across the country, athletes, artists and businesses have spoken out in support of the protesters — something that did not happen, for instance, in 2019, during widespread protests over rising gas prices. This suggests that the protests are expressing broader grievances within Iranian society that won’t be easily erased.

Third, the current protests have spread beyond the usual suspects. In addition to women and university students, merchants and shoppers in Tehran’s bazaar have been protesting. They’ve previously protested over worsening economic conditions and the decline of Iran’s currency exchange rate. But this may be the first time in decades they’ve protested not just over their immediate economic interests but are standing up in solidarity with Iranian women and others who’ve been mistreated by security forces — something they did during the 1979 revolution.

Fourth, the protests crossed the ordinary ethnic divisions, bringing together groups that are often divided. Last summer, during protests in the southwestern province of Khuzestan over polluted water and air, the region’s two ethnic groups — Bakhtiari Lors and Arabs — joined together. But that stayed confined to the province. This time, however, protests have spread nationwide, well beyond Kurdistan province. Protesters have emphasized that ethnic solidarity in such chants as “From Kurdistan to Tehran, oppression against women,” or in the Turkish-speaking Azerbaijan province, “Azerbaijan is awake and supports Kurdistan.”

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Government response

So far, officials have claimed that no one mistreated Amini and that foreign enemies are behind the protests. Videos of police and plainclothes violence have gone viral on the internet, and BBC Persian has reported 22 people killed, as of this writing. Still other videos show protesters fighting back.

Social science research has long debated whether repression crushes protests or fuels further protests. With escalated violence, the government may push protesters out of the streets. But since these protests are now embedded in broader social movements, such repression will likely add to mounting grievances that will ignite further protests in the near future.

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Mohammad Ali Kadivar (@MAliKadivar) is an assistant professor of sociology and international studies at Boston College, and author of the forthcoming Popular Politics and the Path to Durable Democracy (Princeton University Press 2022).