Death of young Iranian woman sparks anti-government protests

Raising complex questions of social change and revolution in the Islamist country


Ella Jennings

New wave of protests in Iran have erupted over the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody.

Anders Rosdahl, Staff writer

On Sept. 16, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman, was arrested by Iran’s Guidance Patrol, also referred to as morality police, for not following women’s dress code. According to Iranian authorities, the woman had a stroke in police custody and died in a hospital three days after falling into a coma. The family of Mahsa Amini has stridently denied the claims of the Iranian authorities, alleging that she was beaten and abused in police custody for not properly wearing the veil. In response, protests have erupted throughout Iran and dozens of protesters are believed to have been killed. 

The Iranian government has responded by cracking down on internet freedom, citing “security reasons,” and instigating counter-protestors. Despite this crackdown, videos of protesters chanting anti-establishment messages and women burning their veils have reached the outside world. 

The United States and countries in the European Union have responded by condemning the violence and have imposed further sanctions,  targeting Iran’s morality police. The Iranian government has dismissed charges of human rights abuses, arguing that the U.S.’s concern for human rights is grounded in hypocrisy, pointing to the U.S.’s long-standing policy of sanctioning Iran since the 1979 Hostage Crisis. The Iranian government has also alleged that the protestors represent a “foreign element” that is trying to destabilize Iran.

Despite loads of speculation on whether or not these protests could follow the path of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia during the Arab Spring of 2011 and 2012, the prospect of revolution and social change in Iran is complex. 

Dr. Heather Keaney — chair of Westmont’s  history department whose research focuses on the Middle East — briefly discussed the historical context and implications for change in Iran. Dr. Keaney cast doubts on the possibility of “opposition to the veil” being a sustainable rallying cry for protests in Iran. A key factor to this is that Iranian men would likely not be willing to sacrifice or die for the sake of women’s clothing. Instead, Dr. Keaney argued that the protestors might be more successful if they can make the protests about economic discontent and appeal to the poor, stating, “Almost all successful revolutions in history appeal to economic discontent.” 

Another unknown factor that may heavily impact the prospect of revolution is concessions by the Iranian government. Similar kinds of concessions and reforms have taken place in other more authoritarian nations like China and the former Soviet Union, with very different effects. In the case of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev embarked on a series of reforms known as “Glasnost” which opened up the country to the west, only for the Communist regime to eventually collapse by 1991. In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party managed to successfully embark on reforms while keeping the existing political regime intact. 

Iran’s history is very different from these nations. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian society has been transformed into an Islamic theocracy where rules surrounding women’s clothing are strictly enforced by the government.

However, in recent years, there have been some signs of greater resistance to the Islamic clerical establishment. In 2009, the Green Movement arose in Iran in response to Iran’s more hardline Islamic leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These protests were some of the largest in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. However, the Iranian government managed to successfully suppress these protests by arresting many of the demonstrators. The movement also largely failed to retain its momentum after protests turned violent.

Since then, Iran has shifted between more moderate reformist leaders and more hardline traditionalist leaders. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s more moderate and reformist former president, entered into an agreement known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. This deal essentially curtailed Iran’s nuclear program in return for America and many western countries lessening their sanctions. After the U.S. backed out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, Iran has returned to a more hardline traditionalist President, Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi has refused to make reforms or any deals with the west. 

As college students in the west, it can be easy to assume that people in other countries respond to calls for social change in a similar way. However, understanding the unique culture and history of other nations is a far greater harbinger for understanding the prospect of social change and revolution.

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