They have been taking to the streets across the country for days. Determined, angry and above all: courageous. Iranian women are at the forefront of the current protests. That’s not new. In all protest movements of the last 40 years, women have played a major role. Whether during the green movement in 2009 or during the last major nationwide protests in November 2019, which were brutally crushed after several weeks. Immediately after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, they demonstrated loudly against the compulsory headscarf introduced as part of the new Islamic constitution. Without success: they were forced to conform to the Islamic dress code. Since then, the so-called moral police have ensured compliance.
Daily battle for skin and hair
But the women fought on every day. For every inch of skin and hair. Despite all the arrests and humiliations, the headscarves slipped further and further back over the years, the clothes became tighter, the faces were made up, in short: the women became more visible again. This minimal right to self-determination is an achievement of Iranian women – and a threat to the Islamic rulers. Because it challenges what the system of the Islamic Republic is based on: the control of the female body.
Thus, even innocent young women like the totally apolitical Mahsa Amini are frightening to the vice squad. The outrage at the death of the 22-year-old also unites people from all walks of life and attitudes. She has become a symbol of the protest movement. Everyone can identify with her because it could just as easily have happened to any other woman. Because there are hardly any women in Iran who have not had humiliating and violent experiences with the moral police.
New dimension of the protests
And yet this time we see scenes that are unique in this form: women protest without a hijab or burn their headscarves in public. They demonstratively cut their hair and shouted “Down with the Islamic Republic” or “Death to the dictator”.
In contrast to the protests of previous years, the anger and determination of the demonstrators is greater. They confront security forces and sometimes even flee police officers who attack them. The people of Iran have less and less to lose. 2009 was about more freedoms and reforms, but within the system. 2018/19 was about the desolate economy, galloping inflation and horrendous petrol prices. Some of the slogans were already directed against the spiritual leadership and the Islamic Republic.
But what we are seeing today has reached a new dimension: demonstrators are tearing down posters of the revolutionary leaders Khamenei and Khomeini, burning them – and loudly demanding the overthrow of the entire political system. More and more people have turned their backs on the regime, its ideology, indeed Islam as a whole. And that is now also affecting more traditional classes of society.
The regime strikes back
According to initial reports, the regime in Tehran has already severely restricted Internet access. The experience of the last major wave of protests in 2019 teaches us that this is not a good thing. At that time, too, the Internet was throttled, in some cases shut down entirely. With the exclusion of the world public, brutal action was taken against the demonstrators. Several hundred people are said to have been shot and countless others arrested.
Such an approach is also emerging now. More than 20 people have already been killed, including children and young people. Protesters are beaten up and arrested in their homes.
Turning point or bloody crackdown
The mullahs’ crackdown has a valid reason: it is a turning point for the Iranian civilian population. For the first time, the demonstrators openly and collectively denounce a religious symbol of the Islamic Republic. The veiling of women is one of the most important foundations on which the Islamic Republic is founded. The rulers cannot and will not make any concessions here. Because abolishing the hijab requirement would be tantamount to the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic.
But without the pressure from the West and the international community on the Iranian government, they will have a free hand to brutally and bloodily crush these protests again in the end. Statements of solidarity alone will not suffice here. Even when it comes to the question of reviving the nuclear deal, Iran must be held accountable on these issues. The USA is leading the way, already sanctioning the vice squad. The federal government is also responsible for this.
The people, especially the women in Iran, are currently taking a lot of risks. Your courage needs our recognition. Their voices need to be heard. And their risk must pay off.