Mahsa Amini poster Mahsa (Jina) Amini. From poster by @Amanposters / Twitter

Protests and strikes against the Iranian government are growing. Where have they come from and where are they going?

Over the past four weeks, Iran has been gripped by protests, precipitated by the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, a Kurdish woman killed during detention by the ‘morality police’. This event has unleashed protests, under the slogan ‘Women, Life, Freedom’, which demonstrate a deep-seated anger against the government, and fused the fight for women’s liberation with calls for wider political change. A popular slogan of the protests, ‘death to the oppressor, whether it be the Shah or Rahbar [the Supreme Leader]’ demonstrates a rejection of the current Islamic Republic as well as the pre-1979 pro-Western dictatorship of the Shah that preceded it.

Protests have been sporadic, spontaneous and geographically diverse across the country, in working-class and urban centres and university campuses. Most inspiring has been the courageous actions of schoolgirls. More recently, the movement has also seen intervention from the bazaar with shops shutting, and oil workers’ strikes in Bushehr, Abadan, and Asaluyeh. A severe government crackdown has led to further deaths, adding the names of Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh as symbols of youthful resistance to government repression.

The immediate target of the protests has been state interference into women’s lives and restrictions on their freedoms, symbolised by the imposition of compulsory hijab. This opposition includes religious women who choose to wear the veil, but support the freedom to choose what to wear. Compulsory veiling was introduced by the post-revolutionary Islamic government in early 1980s, as part of other patriarchal policies.

However, women’s mass participation in the revolution, and then in education and the labour market, came into conflict with these restrictions. Out of these contradictions, women became central to social change, including the student and reform movements of the late 1990s that opened up freedoms as well deepened divisions in the fractured political elite. Over this period, the imposition of compulsory hijab was increasingly relaxed over time, partly through women’s everyday resistance in forcing concessions from the state.

President Raisi, elected recently on a historically low turnout and facing a stalled nuclear deal and economic instability, sought to implement a reversion to the imposition of strict hijab as a means of shoring up his conservative base. This has clearly backfired and instead turned the issue into a symbol of everything that is wrong with the government.

Underlying all this are economic grievances. Neoliberalisation since the 1990s has dismantled social welfare and increased inequality, as well as concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a ruling elite, including the Revolutionary Guards. Inflation, unemployment and inequality have sparked a number of significant strikes and protests in recent years, most notably in 2019, when unrest broke out across the country over economic issues.

The protests clearly represent one of the most significant challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 2009 Green Movement. However, the potential of the protests to develop into a significant threat to the system remains to be seen. A fear barrier has certainly been overcome: the collective defiant acts of burning the hijab, or schoolgirls chanting ‘get lost’ to a Revolutionary Guard and waving headscarves are examples of this. While the protests number in their tens of thousands, they are getting increasingly greater support from the wider population.

The protests have also united people across religious, ethnic and social divides, and penetrated sections of the establishment. Cultural figures from footballers to TV presenters have engaged in acts of resistance and solidarity. Importantly, there are divisions emerging in Iran’s fractured ruling elite, with the former speaker of the Iranian parliament and conservative figure Ali Larijani expressing criticisms, as have conversative newspapers. The intervention from the workers’ movement represents a significant positive development. Some groups such as the Haft Tappeh Sugar Syndicate are calling on workers to join in a general strike.

Thousands have also joined protests in solidarity with those in Iran in cities in the UK and worldwide. These are mostly driven by a genuine desire to support the Iranian people’s struggle against an oppressive government. However, there are also problematic elements and exile groups, such as Islamophobes, monarchists who supported the Shah, and those advocating Western intervention and sanctions.

Sanctions have had a crippling effect on the everyday life of Iranians, decreased women’s participation in the labour force, and limited the potential of workers’ resistance. We must therefore resist attempts by reactionary forces to shape the narrative and allow Iranians to fight for change without Western interference in their struggle.

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