Iranian socialist S. Sepehri analyses the revolutionary potential of the demonstrations there against women’s oppression.
Widespread protests have broken out in Iran following the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old from the Kurdish town of Saqqez, who was arrested by the morality police for not wearing a hijab or head-covering ‘properly’. She collapsed at the morality-police centre in Tehran and later died. The protests have galvanised not only a movement of young women but many men in their support, and have become a challenge to the country’s conservative religious laws, and even to the state as a whole, encapsulating much wider economic and social grievances.
At their heart is a rebellion by women against the authorities’ control over their movement, body and expression. This in turn has focussed wider grievances against the callous, abusive and parasitic control the state has on everyone. Protest against the oppression of women is shared and reverberates with others, not just because they are family, but because the exploitative nature of the capitalist state in general, and its concrete form in Iran, is felt by all.
One major question is why so many men are supporting the protests. It is a revolt against the state and its authority: something we have not seen in the US with abortion rights, because so many activists are unfortunately wedded to part of the state through the Democratic Party. The reformists in Iran are against the morally authoritarian approach of the state, and are trying to position themselves to gather support on that basis. But they hold no part of the power of the state, since the social contract that gave a share to them was broken in 2009 and has been further trampled upon since.
In any case, the movement has passed beyond their confines. The economic situation, with the ruling faction’s incompetence and corruption, hovering up billions from the country, is the reason that fury against state authority has spread and has such wide support. There are still backward attitudes within many families, with men, fathers and brothers treating women in oppressive and even physically abusive ways. That doesn’t disappear overnight. But what has happened is that the sense of fighting the brutal authority of the state means that ‘a common pain has no individual solutions’. It has made men, even traditional ones, join in common cause with a movement started over and continuing to be spearheaded by women and women’s liberation issues.
The prospects for a revolutionary movement
The potential is great. This is the maturation of movements over many iterations. As the crisis of the system has been growing, protests have developed and receded, but the crisis then has come back at a higher level. In turn, the revolt has involved larger sections of the population, or more fundamental issues. And this is how you breakdown sexism, this is how women become empowered, this is how solidarity matures, old ideas breakdown, and the separation of issues melts away. Universality starts to develop. This is how classes become fit to rule.
This revolt is geographically widespread, it is involving more working-class and poor people, and is not just based in Tehran. But there are a number of issues. There have been numerous, repeated and on-going strikes and workers’ protests over the past number of years, which have fed the anger behind this rebellion. However, they have been fragmentary. While this new movement is involving working-class people, if it does not spread beyond the neighbourhoods and into the workplaces, there is a weakness there.
This weakness is one shared with all the previous rebellions against the current regime. In contrast, during the 1979 revolution, it was not just the protests, but the general strike after the killing in Jaleh Square in September 1978, which shifted everything. We are far closer to that today than we have been before. Something may trigger that generalisation into the economic sphere, but it has not happened yet. At the moment, things are fluid, and so strikes, and even a general strike, could develop from the new rebellion, but these are distinct moments in the unfolding of a revolutionary movement.
There will be and already is massive manipulation from outside the country, including from monarchists, and from the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and via the Mojahedin. One interesting note is that while more sanctions are being enacted by the US, and some from inside Iran are calling for outside help, the sanctions and limits on technology and social media are being lifted by the US and Europe to ‘help the movement communicate’. Great, but the Iranian regime has shut down the internet (the movement is trying to get around this even with local home-made nets). Elon Musk is at the forefront of getting the tech limitations lifted to use his satellite service in Iran. You figure who will own that message. And aside from Elon, this is propaganda saturation, not just a nice lifting of tech sanctions.
Our side and theirs
The regime itself has limited options. Really it has one: militarisation of the streets and widespread repression. This will be used against wider society, whether through the guard and security apparatus taking effective control over all government institutions, or, as some fear, a coup to suspend the reformists from making noise, and a suspension of parliament. The latter is less likely since the former is more attractive, but it cannot be ruled out.
This raises the question of what next. The rebellion will not go on forever. A massacre triggered the strikes in 1979. This could happen again, or we could see the protests spreading to workplaces on their own. That would be very hopeful sign. Even if strike action receded for a time, it would not be likely to be the end of the story.
The rulers of Iran are no longer able to govern in the old way, and the people are not willing to be ruled in the old way. This is usually what socialists have posited as the ingredients of revolution, following Lenin. However, this is not an automatic process. However, the role of women’s issues in spearheading and becoming the beacon in the fight against the authoritarian state is a huge gain. Things have shifted massively, ideologically and in the balance of forces in society. There is widespread solidarity, and women are leading a fight which has become a universal and common cause.
A point worth noting is that this is the opposite of the trajectory for what passes as individual identity politics in the US and the West; that is ‘Identity’ as ‘Politics’. Struggle in the form now appearing in Iran transforms all of us, in a common liberation. That does not erase our individual identity, it empowers and unifies, rather than fragmenting, activism. It clarifies a real sense of who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. It opens up the possibility of working-class transformation.