“The current revolutionary movement is certainly the most serious challenge. Sustained emotionally-charged protests of this scale and spread have not been seen in Iran,” said Dr Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad.
Saeed is a Research Associate with SOAS University of London and associate editor of The British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. He has taught at SOAS, the Institute of Ismaili Studies (joint MA with UCL) and at the University of Roehampton. His publications include works such as the Routledge monograph The Politics of Iranian Cinema (2010). He spoke with Farooq Sulehria, who is based in Pakistan.
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Recently, it was reported that Iran is dismantling its morality police. In a social media post, you questioned the validity of this news. Could you explain the situation on the ground?
As I wrote in my post the reported "disbanding of [the so-called] morality police" was not confirmed at the time and, subsequent to my post, it was denied by the Islamic Republic (IR). My point was that even if there was such a confirmed announcement, it would not constitute real change.
Compulsory hijab is law in Iran and — as the experiences of many, including my own family members shows — it is enforced by many organisations such as IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], Basij [paramilitaries] and regular police force and even ordinary zealous supporters of the regime. Therefore, getting rid of one particular organisation is meaningless. If the IR disbands this force strategically in the near future, a similar force is likely to replace it when the time is right. Ad hoc mushrooming of organisations is common practice under the IR.
Like all armed forces, at the moment, the “morality police” members are very busy with the crackdown on anti-regime protests and, in effect, they are not focused on enforcing the hijab because the IR’s main concern is how to stop the protests. Videos of women walking without the hijab are very common these days but if the same women take part in protests, they are harshly and brutally punished, as the Guardian has exposed.
The question on everybody’s mind is: will the regime fall? Of course, nobody can say anything for certain. But do you agree that this movement is the most serious challenge to the regime?
The current revolutionary movement is certainly the most serious challenge. Sustained emotionally-charged protests of this scale and spread have not been seen in Iran. Of course, very many protests have taken place in recent years such as the Green Movement in 2009, anti-forced-hijab protests in 2014‒18, the 2017 protests, the 2019 protests sparked by the overnight tripling of the price of petrol, and labour protest in 2020‒21 have all been there. But the current protests have brought the broadest coalition of various groups together: university students’ movement, anti-ethnic-discrimination movements in Baluchistan and Kurdistan, the labour movement, artists, lawyers and various guilds and, of course, Iranian women. Outside Iran (at least) LGBTQ groups back the revolutionary movement as well.
The success of the movement in shaking the regime is palpable in some statistics as well: According to a BBC Persian piece, in the 82 days since the death of JÎna (Mahsa Amini) to December 9, there have been 544 protest rallies in 160 cities (each rally involved 30 persons and higher). This is a huge spread because the 1979 revolution was based very much in bigger cities only.
The number of dead in the 82 days until December 9 was 481, which is far fewer than the 2019 protests when in the space of seven days only 1500 people were reportedly killed. This is significant because if the scale of the killings were the same, instead of 481, we would have over 17,000 dead so far in the current movement. That this is not the same under the same regime, brings me to my next statistic.
On several days, in over 150 cities in the world the Iranian diaspora held simultaneous rallies in support of the movement in Iran. This unprecedented diasporic solidarity with the Iranian political scene has been key to focusing international attention on Iran. The Iranian diaspora’s great cultural and social capital has been key in lobbying western politicians. For example, President [Emmanuel] Macron of France and [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau of Canada as well as the German foreign minister, among a very large and growing number of top Western authorities, have issued a statement in condemnation of the IR after lobbying by Iranian activists in the diaspora. Of course, the IR’s military engagement with Russia has also helped in shining the spotlight on the Iranian regime.
My last statistic is about strikes that have been widely observed [amongst] the bazaar and the university students recently, each lasting three days. According to hacked Iranian regime data about the first period of strikes, 70‒100% of the bazaar businesses were shut down in 22 provinces in Iran. This is particularly significant because the bazaar were until now considered traditionally aligned with the regime and its support for the 1979 revolution has been widely acknowledged as key to its victory (see Ervand Abrahamian’s Iran between Two Revolutions).
How has the movement survived for three months organisationally? How are the citizens coordinating, networking etc., given there are no political parties and trade unions have their leadership imprisoned?
Iranian protesters are vastly experienced in the use of social media in various movements, such as the ones I listed above. For example Telegram messenger was used intensely in the labour guilds’ protests in the last few years. Twitter was used instrumentally in the 2009 protests, and Facebook in the 2014‒18 anti-forced-hijab movements, etc. In the current movement, Telegram and Instagram (followed by Twitter) are very widely used to organise protests. Last but not the least, Satellite TV stations, particularly two key London-based stations BBC Persian and Iran International are very widely followed in Iran where access to Satellite dishes are ubiquitous. For example, when the strikes were called on social media in recent months, both BBC Persian and Iran International announced the calls for the strikes days in advance.
Internet is often slowed down massively but generally not stopped. Stoppages are short and targeted. However, people have not forgotten the use of other non-electronic media such as printed pamphlets and graffiti, both of which were widely used for organisation and spreading information about the strikes, for example.
While there is no singular leadership, various informal networks that have existed among groups such as students, women activists and the labour movement have been revitalised for the current movement. Furthermore, the lack of known leaders has been helpful because it has made it impossible for the regime to affect the movement by eliminating its leadership.
The uprising in Iran can be described as history’s first “woman revolution”. How do you view it? And how in relation to gender, is it being viewed by Iranians themselves?
Women, especially younger ones, have been at the forefront of online and offline protests.
Women’s affective engagement has been deeply personal for a great number of women who have directly been discriminated against by the gender apartheid regime in Iran.
Many of the earliest victims of police brutality in this movement have been women and participants in the rallies have always included women prominently, even in Baluchistan where women’s presence at rallies is a new phenomenon.
To women, in Iran and in the diaspora, issues with patriarchy, including control of their own bodies (e.g. their choice to dress as they wish), have been very personal and political. They are not limited to issues to do with forced hijab either; women demand equal rights in all areas of public/private life.
Personally, in my own fieldwork, I experienced women’s passionate engagement with gender issues through the lens of Iranian cinema. As you can see in my book The Politics of Iranian Cinema (2010), I have spoken to a cross-section of women, from those in the film industry to women cinema spectators who are the most ardent advocates of women’s rights. The emergence of women as the key participants in this revolutionary movement this year, therefore, came as no surprise to me.
What can the rest of the world do to express solidarity with Iran?
Intersectional solidarity with the Iranian revolutionary movement has been expressed from very many corners of the world by students, medical doctors, artists and journalists, among others. I think it will be heartening for Iranian activists to have such expressions of solidarity from the Muslim majority countries where there are more similarities than differences in issues faced by various sections of society as in Iran.
You can sign petitions, pass the news to your own networks and be their voice, and take part in international rallies. Women Pakistani activists can highlight the similarities between patriarchal structures in Pakistan and express their solidarity with Iranian women as the struggles are also their own.