Iran Protests Show The Depth Of Social And Economic Pain

The recent women-led demonstrations underscore just how isolated the country has become.
Iran Protests Show the Depth of Social and Economic Pain
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(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- There’s a small word that protesters in Iran are using on social media to show their anger goes far beyond the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old woman who died in mid-September after being in the custody of the country’s morality police.

Baraye is the Persian equivalent of the English word “for.” It’s a simple preposition that people are using to highlight the scale and scope of their grievances against the Islamic Republic as the country is shaken by some of the biggest demonstrations it’s seen since the 1979 revolution.

“For the victims of flight ps752,” reads one posting on Twitter, referring to the Ukrainian passenger plane that was shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in January 2020, killing 176 people. “For the Blue Girl,” reads another, a reference to Sahar Khodayeri, who set herself on fire and died in 2019 after being arrested for trying to attend a soccer match. Or “For Neda”: a reference to Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old woman shot to death by security forces during the 2009 protests against former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection.

“For not being able to kiss in the street.”

“For the fear of burning in hell instilled in us by religious teachers.”

The list goes on.

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the stream of posts—each soon replaced by something worse, pushing whatever came before to the recesses of memory: random acid attacks on women, laws that limit women’s freedom and economic rights, corrupt water policies that have destroyed rivers, the state murders of intellectuals in the 1990s, a ban on “Western” vaccines at a time when Iran was suffering the region’s deadliest Covid-19 outbreak.

The frustrations Iranians are reacting to go beyond state-backed violence, political repression, and social strictures. The country has been isolated from the global economy for as long as many of the protesters have been alive, with occasional flickers of hope that some kind of rapprochement could be at hand. The resulting economic malaise is taking a toll. Inflation surpassed 52% in June, and more than a quarter of those age 15 to 24 are out of work. That’s produced a volatile backdrop for potential unrest.

The women fronting the protests are demanding an end to Iran’s laws mandating how women can dress. They’re mostly members of the country’s Generation Z and young millennials—products of a digital age, exposed to the outside world to an extent unseen in previous years. They’re facing off against wizened clerics whose ideas have prevailed over women’s lives for almost half a century.

Hejab—the Arabic word for Islamic modesty that’s become synonymous with women’s veiling—is mandatory under Iranian law, and it’s long been a flashpoint in the battle between mainstream society and the country’s theocratic institutions. It was an alleged violation of those rules that led to Mahsa Amini’s detention by the Guidance Patrol on Sept. 13.

Known to family members by her Kurdish name Zhina and hailing from Saghez in the western province of Kurdistan, Amini was visiting the Iranian capital with her family when she was bundled into one of the Guidance Patrol’s notorious white and green minivans just outside a metro station in downtown Tehran.

“I begged them, don’t take my sister, we are strangers here,” her brother later recalled, according to the semiofficial news.

From there, Amini would’ve been driven to a police station that’s commonly referred to as “Vozara,” the name of the central Tehran street where it’s located. Her phone would’ve been confiscated before entering the main waiting area, and once there she would’ve been told to fill out forms and possibly stand for a mugshot.

The existence of the morality police has been so ingrained in people’s lives that being hauled into Vozara station has become a grim rite of passage for the country’s citizens—as well as a performative exercise for the police. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians have a story or anecdote of being held at the station for a moral misdemeanor or crime in their youth. People arrested at mixed-gender parties or found with alcohol (both officially banned in Iran) are often rounded up and taken here. Many are sentenced to lashes.

After the revolution in 1979, Islamic morality laws were heavily enforced, and cruel punishments were often meted out. Following a brief period of stability and economic growth in the 1990s, women gradually learned how to test the bounds of what was permissible, and it became normal to see them wear shawls loosely, especially in urban areas. In the more liberal enclaves of Tehran and other cities, they deftly blended the rules with their interest in fashion. To counter these trends, the government in 2006 (not long after Ahmadinejad became president) introduced the Guidance Patrol in its current iteration.

Today, critics of Iran’s social and moral laws say they not only violate civil liberties but are also a waste of resources. Aside from the control the morality police units exert on people’s lives, they also provide jobs to loyalists of the Islamic Republic and serve a purpose in reminding everybody else—particularly those who are either secular or not particularly devout—who’s in charge.

Iranian society was arguably more conservative when mandatory hejab was first enforced in 1979. A large proportion of the population lived outside the cities, and the Islamic Revolution itself was a reaction to the previous monarchical government’s efforts to secularize society.

The population has more than doubled since then, and the proportion of people living in urban areas has surged from under a third to 60% in the past 70 years. By 2016 female literacy was 81%, up from 24% in 1976, according to World Bank figures. Underscoring how out of step Iran’s leaders have become with Iranian society, some 60% of university graduates were women by 2015, according to figures ­published by the Ministry of Labor.

The extent to which the patrols are deployed has fluctuated over the years, but there’s been an aggressive crackdown since around 2017 when the first major public opposition to mandatory hejab laws started. The authorities now use car registrations and face-recognition technology to identify and prosecute women with “bad hejab.” Yet officials know that their policies are in conflict with public opinion: In a report published in 2018 by Iran’s Parliamentary Research Center, only 35% of those polled valued religious expressions of hejab, 55% preferred “secular manifestations,” and many were “ambivalent” about the concept altogether.

In the seconds before her collapse, CCTV footage shows Amini having a conversation with one of the female police officers in the waiting room at Vozara. The officer can be seen holding up and waving around the end of Amini’s shawl before gesturing at her to return to her chair. Amini then clasps her forehead with two hands, keels over a chair, and falls to the floor.

Her father, Amjad Amini, later told the BBC that the doctors at the hospital where she died said she was just left outside, with no information about who she was or what had happened to her. The coroner repeatedly denied the family access to her body, telling them on several occasions that it was none of their business, according to the BBC interview. State media disseminated lies about her health, her father said, falsely claiming that she’d had brain surgery as a child and that she frequently fainted.

This same freedom from accountability is in itself a potential threat to protesters, as the unpunished shooting of demonstrators by security forces back in November 2019 illustrates. Despite that threat, though, the current unrest stands out for the extent to which unarmed protesters, particularly women, have been willing to stand up to heavily armed police and militias.

Videos of the recent street demonstrations show women being forcefully thrown to the ground by uniformed antiriot police, people being rounded up by mobs of armed security forces, and even the beating of an elderly man. State media give detailed coverage of police casualties but little detail on the identity or fate of protestors, whom it portrays as rioters and terrorists. Thousands have already been arrested across the country, according to state media reports, while the Oslo-based organization Iran Human Rights says it’s confirmed 76 deaths.

Against these women and their male allies stands the government of President Ebrahim Raisi, a deeply conservative clergyman who’s accused by rights groups and exiled Iranian families of playing a key role in the mass executions of political prisoners in the late 1980s and who had little experience beyond Iran’s borders before ascending to his current role last year. Raisi has promised a “severe” crackdown on the “leaders of the riots.”

For establishment hard liners, any concession risks encouraging more efforts to push back on the country’s Islamic laws. Admitting defeat on something like the mandatory hejab, which is a central physical manifestation of the religious state’s power, would undermine its public supremacy. So the prospects of compromise look dim for the moment. Initial attempts by officials to discuss potential changes to the Guidance Patrol have been swiftly replaced by a “them and us” narrative that’s become a routine feature of the Islamic Republic’s framing of internal opposition and criticism.

Iran’s hard-line political factions have held power in the country since the revolution, periodically making space for reformists when it served their interests or helped them maintain a veneer of democratic choice. But those accommodations ceased after then-US President Donald Trump pulled out of the international deal on Iran’s nuclear program in May 2018 and targeted the nation’s economy with severe sanctions. The Persian Gulf country was plunged into crisis, and all the hopes about the economic recovery and political opening that might lie ahead dissolved in a matter of hours.

The economy contracted, and the currency went into free fall, stoking inflation. Government efforts to parry the damage backfired, while corruption thrived. Trump’s policy culminated with the killing of Iran’s most feted general, Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020. An Iranian missile strike on US bases in Iraq followed, along with the disastrous downing of Flight 752 by the IRGC. Raisi’s subsequent takeover of the government after the 2021 election was the consolidation of power by Iran’s political and religious hard-liners across all levers of the state.

Facing public anger and protests at home and unprecedented pressure from Washington, the clerical and security establishment in Tehran went on a war footing, brooking no criticism or opposition, targeting even dissidents exiled in France and luring them back to Iran to face the noose. The Islamic Republic has also moved more into the orbit of Russia following President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine this year, while economic ties with Europe, once its largest trade partner, have dwindled.

As the protests grow and security forces become more stretched, there are concerns that Iran could call for reinforcements from some of its allies in the region. The country’s leadership has spent decades and considerable resources developing proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, which could be marshaled to help quash this latest turbulence.

Reports on social media show protests are continuing across dozens of towns and cities, with people rallying in the streets well into the night. Unions, universities, and schools have pledged their support for the protesters and Amini’s family, as have celebrities and sporting figures. In Tehran, where authorities have flooded major public spaces with security forces to preempt gatherings, many people have taken to their cars, driving out to create gridlock in the streets and sounding their horns in support.

These protests are different from the convulsions Iran has witnessed in the past, not just because they are led by women, but because the unrest cuts across class and ethnic lines. Amini’s death prompted a particularly strong reaction in the country’s Kurdish region, which borders Iraq and Turkey and is home to a community that’s been marginalized by decision-makers in Tehran for decades.

In the coming days or months, we’ll know whether demonstrators will succeed in their attempts to set the country on a new course. Or whether they will become another painful entry in a litany of “for.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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