What to make of Iran's protests

The death in custody of a young woman has sparked some of the most intense clashes between people and the authorities in years

A protest against Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi outside the UN. Getty
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It is difficult, at this stage, to anticipate the long-term outcome of protests that have gripped cities throughout Iran this week.

They were sparked by the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who had been detained by the country's morality police for allegedly failing to wear her headscarf correctly. By law, all women must wear one in public.

The scale and severity of the protests point to intense, widespread anger. Women are cutting their hair in front of large crowds as an act of protest. Police vehicles are being overturned and their stations torched. Images of religious and government-affiliated officials are being torn down. The working and middle classes are marching together, as are the young and the old.

In response, authorities have stepped up their control of the internet, restricting WhatsApp and Instagram. The move is reminiscent of mass protests in 2009, after which Twitter was permanently blocked, even though the most senior Iranian government officials regularly post on the site, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

But however dramatic these developments might seem, protests happen fairly frequently in Iran. So far, in the more than four-decade history of the regime, they have led to few government concessions, with at best empty words from the government and brutal oppression at the worst times. This round, nine people have died so far. The sacrifices are significant, the main achievement is reminding the world of the will of the Iranian people.

The demonstrations are so intense and widespread because women’s rights affect everyone in Iran. This is not fundamentally about clothing. It is about how authorities police women and their affairs, treat them if they resist and then cover up scandals if they are harmed, abused or, in Amini’s case, die. At the moment the trauma is not just about how she died, but the government's inadequate, insulting response. At first, authorities blamed her sudden death on underlying health issues. Her family then came out saying she had none.

A society where deadly civil unrest can happen as a result of how far back a scarf sits on a woman’s head is not a stable one. The protests should in part be viewed as a continuation of a longer chain of demonstrations that have been taking place this year. Whether over water shortages or a cost of living crisis, Iranians have on a number of occasions made their intense anger at the government clear.

The situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon. Negotiations to find a new international deal regarding Iran's nuclear programme are stalling. Getting one would lead to an easing of sanctions and revive an economy that has been curtailed for more than 40 years. Instead, the government sticks belligerently to a regionally destabilising and very expensive foreign policy.

If there is any chance that the protests might bring tangible results, it could be down to the fact that Iran's arch-conservatives are in power, the camp that is most committed to restrictive policies on what women wear and Iran's isolation. The travesty of what happened to Amini that will be firmly laid at their feet and that could make anger at them overwhelming.

After all, they have had the option to do something about these abuses for a long time. They have done little to tackle them. In fact, at least in terms of the morality police, the situation seems to be getting worse. Their activity had been somewhat muted in recent years. Now, these authorities seem emboldened and more women are getting harassed.

Even if nothing changes in the near term, the protests still point to a fundamental problem for the government. After almost half century in which to convince Iranians that Ruhollah Khomeini's radical republic imposed in 1979 is the best way forward, many are still not convinced. They are willing to fight and endanger their lives to make that clear.

Published: September 23, 2022, 3:00 AM