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The Six Things You Need to Know About the Hijab Protests in Iran

Women lead the charge.
September 21, 2022
The Six Things You Need to Know About the Hijab Protests in Iran
A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by the Islamic Republic's morality police, on Istiklal avenue in Istanbul on September 20, 2022. - Amini, 22, was on a visit with her family to the Iranian capital when she was detained on September 13 by the police unit responsible for enforcing Iran's strict dress code for women, including the wearing of the headscarf in public. She was declared dead on September 16 by state television after having spent three days in a coma. (Photo by Ozan KOSE / AFP) (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the last week, you may have seen videos of Iranian women cutting their hair or burning their hijabs. Here’s what’s going on—and why it matters.

1. What started the ‘hijab protests’?

Last Tuesday, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year old woman and an ethnic minority, was confiscated—I use the term intentionally; in Iran, the government treats women like property—by the morality police for violating a law requiring women to wear a hijab and loose clothes. They beat her during her arrest and again while transporting her after her arrest. At the notorious Vozara police station, the authorities refused to care for her, suggesting that she was feigning her injuries—just playacting so she would be let out. After Amini fainted, she was finally taken to a hospital, where she was declared brain dead. Days later, her heart beat for the last time.

Amini’s death sparked a powerful new wave of anti-regime protests. And this time, women are leading them. In addition to all the footage of Iranian women shearing off their own hair and burning their hijabs, Twitter, Instagram, and Telegram are full of videos of Iranian women confronting the police and yelling “fuck you!” Other videos appear to show people beating police officers in the streets.

2. These protests are about what it means to be Iranian.

It was around this time of the year in 1978 that, thanks to the brutality of the shah’s security guards, mass protests devolved into a cycle of violence that would give rise to the current regime. The coalition of dissent was split among the Communists, the nationalists, and the Islamists. But only the last group had a charismatic leader to offer, so the rest had to fall in line behind him. It helped that American and European media promoted Ruhollah Khomeini as a liberal democrat. Within months, the shah had fled his country forever, and Khomeini would be Iran’s ruler.

Although this event is commonly called the “Iranian Revolution,” it was anything but Iranian. Khomeini had condemned Iran’s national traditions as a divergence from Islam. The revolution of 1979 was Islamist—sacrificing national character on the altar of religious identity—and it established an Islamist regime. More precisely, it was an anti-Iranian Islamist revolution, and it led to an anti-Iranian Islamist non-hereditary monarchy. The nascent Islamic Republic even tried, with some success, to de-Iranize society. The shah had changed the calendar’s first year from that of Muhammad’s hijra to the year of Cyrus the Great’s coronation and the birth of the nation. The regime restored the Islamic calendar year. Iranian holidays were similarly replaced with Islamic ones. (Nowruz, the two-week celebration of the new year, survived, despite the regime’s efforts to quash it.)

But the antagonistic policy that would cause the greatest blowback for the regime was the women’s dress code. Men and women both have dress codes according to the Islamic law enforced by the regime, but the code for women is much stricter. The hijab requirement has long been a point of discontent, and in these protests, it has become a symbol for the attempted Islamification of a complex, ancient society.

3. These protests are led by women.

What is unique about these protests is that women are driving them. Minorities and women have suffered the most under this regime. So when Amini, a Kurdish-Iranian woman, was murdered by the police for violating hijab laws last week, it was the Kurds and the women who were the first to rise up in response.

Women’s rights are an unwelcome new dilemma for the regime. The heroic activism of Masih Alinejad, a Brooklyn-based journalist, has energized the movement. After several kidnapping and assassination attempts by the regime, Alinejad is currently at an FBI safehouse.

Allowing women into soccer stadiums has become another flashpoint. After FIFA’s threats to suspend Iranian soccer and maneuvering by the regime to buy enough time for the governing body to drop its demand, regime authorities finally began to give in last month to the women. For once, the leadership of FIFA did something right—noble, even—and pressured the regime to allow female spectators. This small concession has encouraged women to keep seeking change. And they are hungry for more.

Donning the chador, the ugly black cloak forced on women, became the symbol of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It would be appropriate for the reverse action—casting it off—to become the symbol of a new political future.

4. Iranians’ standard of living is dropping.

Over the past two decades, Iranians have experienced multiple sudden drops in their standard of living. Iranians anxiously hope for an inflation rate in the single digits. Poverty is rampant, to the point that anecdoes about child labor—sometimes involving children as young as six or seven—are becoming distressingly common. This is partially the result of the sanctions that are breaking the back of the country’s economy, but more credit should be given to the regime for creating an economy that is half Gosplan, half kleptocratic, and fully corrupt.

5. The hijab protests can be understood as a continuation of earlier protests.

The protests are not a new phenomenon. Since 2017, mass protests have become a frequent occurrence, save for the years the pandemic halted all public life in the country. Each time they return, they seem to have grown in size and in violence.

From compulsory hijab to soccer attendance, the causes of unrest mentioned above all speak to an important fundamental reality: The values of the increasingly secular people are sharply diverging from those of the increasingly conservative government. Average Iranians have started to see America as a savior and are warming toward Israel—make sure to check out this video of protesters taking down the sign for “Palestine Street”—while the regime is strengthening its ties with Russia and China. The regime keeps increasing internet censorship, cracking down on satellite networks, and ramping up the use of dangerous jamming signals, and the people keep getting around them all. The new generation has grown increasingly liberal, while the regime keeps replacing its personnel with ever more dedicated hardliners.

What’s happening in Iran is best understood not as a revolution, but as a counterrevolution, or a restoration. Iranians have tried Islamism, and they have hated it. They’d like to go back to being Iranian, restoring their millennia of traditions.While there is significant division between what in Farsi are called Iran’s monarchists and republicans, there is no division on the question of how to approach their shared national heritage. Just ask any of the pilgrims no longer en route to Mecca, but to Pasargadae, where they will visit the tomb of Cyrus the Great.

6. For the Islamic Republic to fall, things will have to get worse before they get better. 

As the economist Herb Stein observed, “If something cannot go forever, it will stop.” The Islamic Republic can’t go forever, but we don’t know how it will stop. The chances that it will fall peacefully are slight to the point of disappearing.

Lev Tikhomirov, a Russian tsarist, observed in 1911 that, “as a rule, a regime perishes, not because of the strength of its enemies, but the uselessness of its defenders.” That’s good news for the Islamic Republic, which, despite the intense hatred it has engendered in its neighbors and its own people, has committed and effective defenders. The Islamic Republic will not simply close up shop the way Gorbachev’s Soviet Union did. It will have to be toppled, and that will be violent. A sweeping revolution would be the best option, but it is more realistic to imagine a regime divided between dissenters and conservatives, and the prospect of a civil war.

Iranians have every right and reason to be violent against a regime that has been violent to them for four decades, just as Americans had every right to be violent against a tyrannical British government. Celebrate the violent bravery of the Iranian youth the same way you celebrate the violent bravery of Ukrainians.

The future of Iran won’t be written with ink. It will be written with blood.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.