Is Iran headed for another revolution?
Protests over one woman’s death could loosen the Islamic regime’s grip on power
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Iran’s Revolutionary Courts sentenced five people to death this week in connection with the protests that have rocked the country for two months. Human rights groups estimate nearly 16,000 people have been arrested, and about 350 of them are charged with offenses punishable by death. At least 300 protesters have died already during clashes with security forces.
The protests have gone on so long and engulfed so much of the country, analysts are starting to speculate they could signal the beginning of the end for Iran’s repressive Islamic regime.
Why are Iranians protesting? On Sept. 13, Iran’s morality police arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for wearing her hijab, or head covering, improperly. A few days after police took her into custody for Islamic reeducation classes, Amini died. Many speculate officers beat her to death, igniting protests around the country that eventually engulfed about 160 cities.
Have Iranians protested like this before? Many protests have shaken the country during the past 40 years. In 2009, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to denounce election results. A decade later, rising fuel prices sparked protests, and police arrested about 7,000 people. But the protests that began in September have been the greatest in scale and duration of any to date.
This all started over a piece of women’s clothing. Have Iranian women always had to wear a hijab? No, but it’s long been a traditional part of women’s attire, as is the case in many Muslim-majority countries. In 1935, Iranian ruler Mohammad Reza Shah declared women should no longer wear the veil in public as part of his effort to Westernize the country.
Why are Iranian women now required to wear a hijab? In 1979, the uprising that became the Islamic Revolution forced Mohammad Reza Shah to flee the country. Shiite cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, who had encouraged the protests that eventually led to the shah’s ouster, became the self-declared supreme leader and helped to establish the Islamic Republic of Iran. Several years later, the new government mandated that women wear the hijab in public in compliance with the Quran. Islamic scholars disagree about whether the Quran specifically requires women to wear a hijab. But most say the practice aligns with the Islamic command of modesty.
What other countries mandate the hijab?
Only Afghanistan and one province in Indonesia. In other Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia, the hijab is encouraged but not required by law.
Iran’s current supreme leader has accused America and other Western countries of fueling the latest protests. Has Iran always been at odds with the United States? Anti-Western, and especially anti-U.S. sentiment, fed directly into the revolution because of the shah’s ties to Washington. After the revolution, Khomeini continued to encourage anti-American sentiment. Suzanne Maloney, vice president and director of foreign politics at the Brookings Institution, noted the mutual distrust fed a growing animosity: “This sense of conviction that the United States would do everything to remove the Islamic Republic led to a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy where Iranian policies that were designed to alienate the United States provoked, of course, counter-responses from Washington.” On Nov. 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage, cementing Iran’s position as a U.S. enemy.
So, are today’s protests mostly about hijabs? Most analysts say no, but they disagree on what else is driving the discontent.
Sara Hendrixson, an assistant professor of journalism at Seattle Pacific University and author of a new book on women in Iran, says nearly every Iranian woman has been confronted by the morality police. She believes the protests are about “bodily autonomy for women … it is a women’s revolution.” Others argue the protests suggest a deeper frustration with the political structure in Iran.
Saeed Ghasseminejad with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies agrees that the protests could be called a women’s revolution. “But at its core, it’s really a national revival … that has unified people of different genders, different classes, different ages, to get rid of this regime, and replace it with a democracy system based on human rights and free and fair election,” he said. Because the youth of Iran have joined the protests, Ghasseminejad believes the Islamic Republic has lost its support base and its future.
How has the Biden administration responded to the protests? On Nov. 3, President Joe Biden addressed the current crisis during a campaign rally in California. “We’re gonna free Iran,” he said, without offering any specific details. Ghasseminejad believes the administration should continue to publicly support Iranian protesters and even fund labor strikes so people can afford to take off work and protest the regime. He doesn’t think sending U.S. troops is an option but insists, “It helps our national security interests for this regime to fall.”
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