The valiant protest by Iranian women may not topple the dictatorial regime or reverse regressive policies, but has tremendously unsettled the top brass
Are women in conservative Iran on the vanguard of a transformative change? Thousands of women across Iran have been demonstrating for nearly a month now, marching without headscarf, burning their hijabs, cutting their hair in public and chanting "death to the dictator" in rage, unmindful of the brutal force being used against them by the government.
The unprecedented protests against the theocratic regime have been ignited by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16 in the custody of the country's morality police, the Gasht-e-Ershad, for allegedly not wearing the headscarf properly. Police claimed that she died of a heart attack but her family says she was tortured.
The protests remind how a street vendor in Tunisia in 2010 set himself on fire, fed up with the harassment and humiliation by officials, which shocked the conscience of not just Tunisians but much of the Arab world, leading to the movement called Arab Spring. Unfortunately, the democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring for most of the people in the Arab world were never realized.
Just as Tunisians reacted with rage, Iranians, particularly women, are responding with protests — Iran's largest since 2009 green movement against inflation, which the government brutally crushed, killing more than a thousand people. The protest had spread out to as many as 80 cities including Teheran, Talesh, Kermanshah, Shiraz and Qom.
Iran has been witnessing protests of and on, with protesters taking to the streets to protest against issues like inflation, increase in the price of gasoline and rationing, state of economy and mismanagement.
The current crackdown on protesters — with police baton charging, using water cannons and open firing — has left dozens of people dead, hundreds other injured and over 1,000 arrested.
Despite global attention, and subsequent protests in several parts of the world, the regime has refused to yield to the protesters' demands. The government says protesters are a dangerous threat, and has blamed the US and Israel for spreading the unrest.
An Oslo-based group called Iran Human Rights estimates that at least 154 people have been killed, including about 63 people who died in violence in the eastern Iranian city of Zahedan, according to the Associated Press. Iranian authorities have described the Zahedan violence as involving unnamed separatists.
Iranians have plenty of grievances — soaring prices, high unemployment, corruption, political repression, and the law requiring women to dress modestly and cover their hair — an issue that set off the unrest after Amini's death.
Besides decrying the religious restrictions, Iranians are also protesting against economic misery brought on in part by US sanctions over Iran's potential nuclear weapons programme.
Observers say that mismanagement of the economy and corruption, compounded by two rounds of suffocating US-led sanctions as well as the Covid pandemic, have frozen Iran's economy at pre-2012 levels or worse.
Since the early 1980s when the ruling clergy consolidated power by virtually eliminating opposition groups, social regulation and strict rules around lifestyle have formed the basis of their policies. For women, the rules are highly discriminatory, with government enforcing dos and don'ts strictly.
Unlike previous protests, women are at the forefront of the current demonstrations. While previous protests concentrated more on economic or broader political issues, women's rights are at the centre of the current protests and are quite high and widespread.
Iran has a large youth population, many of whom are not very happy with the current political establishment. More than 60 per cent of Iran's 80 million population is under 30 years of age, educated and more internationally exposed. They aspire for good living conditions, employment and freedom from any kind of suppression. Amini's death seems to be the last straw that broke the camel's back.
The youth are the biggest challenge to the religious regime that took hold of the country after the Islamic revolution in 1979 by overthrowing the monarchy.
The country's dwindling economy is one of the main reasons spurring Iranians onto the streets to demand change.
Although Amini became the flashpoint for the widespread protests, tension had been building up for months among the youth. During the protests, they have been shouting "Death to the dictator!" and "Life, liberty and women!" They also call for an end to the Islamic regime's rule.
However, the regime so far has not been as brutal as in the past, and observers say this seems to be because the government is in two minds — one, use of an all-out crackdown could further aggravate the situation and second, factionalism in the power circles.
President Ebrahim Raisi is a hardliner, handpicked by the Spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei as successor to Hassan Rouhani who had a liberal approach towards the Iranian society. The Ayatollah, 83, is reported to be not keeping well and his successor has not been named so far.
Abdolreza Davari, a conservative analyst, in a tweet, denounced the protests but acknowledged that 95 per cent of Iranians, regardless of their political views, were "worried about their livelihoods today for their and their children's future.
It is apparent that the protests against Amini's death and religious laws governing dress and other fundamental aspects of day-to-day living demonstrate that there is dissatisfaction against the regime.
Iran is not the only country to have oppressive laws against women. In the neighbouring Afghanistan too, women have lost their hard-won rights to work, to get an education and to decide what to wear since the Taliban took control of the country in August last year.
However, it is too early to know or predict to what extent Amini's death will impact Iranian polity. Will this uprising set in motion the toppling of the regime? That seems unlikely at least in the coming future.
It will also be premature to think that the protests will force hardliners to reconsider their repressive policies. Iranian leaders have shown time and again they are not interested in yielding to the people's popular demands. They might be apprehensive of the idea that yielding to the protesters would encourage further demands and may even lead to their downfall.
One thing is sure that the demonstrations have disturbed the ruling clergy, even if there is no significant change in the repressive policies of the government.
World powers also need to send a clear message that they stand with the young Iranians and support their aspirations.
The US has been among the firsts to respond to the Iranian government's action by designating seven high-ranking leaders for financial penalties due to the shutdown of the internet, repression of speech and violence inflicted on protesters. The targets included Interior and Communication Ministers.
Canada slapped sanctions on 34 Iranian officials and entities including morality police, Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The European Union is also likely to take action against the regime. The EU had agreed to human rights sanctions on Teheran following the regime's 2019 violent crackdown on protest over economic conditions in the country.
The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as the West Asia correspondent for the same. Views expressed are personal