Iran amidst civil unrest and protests

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This placard looks like the answer to “What are things fascist theocratic regimes do not approve of?” Henrike Wilhelm via CBC

Will the death of Mahsa Amini usher in a more equitable society for Iran?

In Iran, they’re called the Guidance Patrol. It’s classic doublespeak. Iran’s morality police were established in 2005, though they have previous incarnations going back decades. The morality police were established for the main purpose of enforcing “Islamic virtue.” Unsurprisingly, the Guidance Patrol spends most of its time policing the behaviour and dress of Iranian women, specifically the “correct” usage of the hijab.

Each year, the Guidance Patrol stops millions of Iranians on the streets to issue “guidance” and “warnings” for not complying with dress code. Iran’s Ministry of Interior stated that in 2014 about 3.6 million people were stopped by the Guidance Patrol. Some of these escalate into fines, detainments, arrests, and even lashings. But, most of the time, the Guidance Patrol just stops women on the street and lectures them about the dress code and the virtue of modesty.

On September 13, the Guidance Patrol in Tehran arrested a young Kurdish woman named Mahsa Amini for failing to comply with the Islamic dress code. Allegedly, Amini had not concealed her hair properly. For this so-called crime, Amini was arrested, put in a van, and taken to a police station. Three days later, she was declared dead.

Iranian authorities claim that Amini was taken to the police station to undergo a “briefing class” on the Islamic dress code, and that she would be released in about an hour. Amini’s brother waited at the police station for several hours, then he was informed that his sister had collapsed, suffering a heart attack and brain seizure. Amini was taken to the intensive care unit of a Tehran hospital. She fell into a coma for two days, and on September 16, she died.

Amini’s family and those who were detained alongside her claim, to no one’s shock, that the Guidance Patrol had severely beaten Amini during her arrest. It is very uncommon for healthy 22-year-old women to suddenly die from a heart attack and brain seizure. So, the truth is that the Guidance Patrol beat a woman to death for wearing the hijab “incorrectly.”

Like any authoritarian government, the Islamic Republic of Iran expends a lot of state resources ensuring Iranians adhere to the theocracy’s version of reality: their version of politics, their version of history, and their version of Islam. And yet, the Guidance Patrol – which is effectively a kind of thought police – must stop millions of Iranians on the street to remind them what that reality is.

Until February of this year, Iran was the most sanctioned country in the world. Now, Iran is only surpassed by Russia as the most sanctioned country, whose invasion of Ukraine began on February 24. Try as they might, the so-called international community inevitably punishes the general population of Iran – or any country’s population, for that matter – when they impose sanctions. Add inflation and an increasingly insecure government, and the situation easily invites civil unrest and social turmoil.

Since Amini’s death, there have been widespread protests in Iran. When people found out Amini had died due to injuries she received from the Guidance Patrol, they gathered outside the Tehran hospital where she died. These protests have even spread to Amini’s home province, Kurdistan, in the northwest of Iran.

Although they are still unconfirmed, video footage indicates that protests in 16 of Iran’s 31 provinces have broken out. Iran Human Rights – a non-profit organization that observes human rights abuses in Iran – claims that over 90 people have been killed by the Iranian government during these protests. The organization also claims that thousands have been arrested. Since September 19, the government has imposed internet restrictions and even internet blackouts in order to quell the protests and undermine any effective organizing.

The government has responded to the protests with increasingly brutal measures, but some civilians have also come to support the Iranian government. The Guardian reported that pro-government demonstrators call the protestors “Israel’s soldiers,” along with chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” Chillingly, some of these pro-government demonstrations include chants saying that “Offenders of the Qur’an must be executed.”

On one hand, there are protestors hoping for the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They want, among other things, liberal democracy, secularism, and more personal freedom. On the other hand, there are people in the streets showing support for the government. Rallies in favour of the government indicate that, under the present Islamist regime, there are still people in the country with something to lose.

In the final analysis, this tragedy is not merely about women’s autonomy and the hijab. This is a symptom. It’s about a nation that, along with North Korea, is one of the most isolated and despised in the world. Iran’s status as a pariah state has only solidified since its revolution in 1979. Protests such as these happen at least once every few years. In fact, protests against compulsory hijab wearing have been pretty regular since the law was imposed on women in 1979, shortly after the revolution. Similar protests demanding secularism and democracy have erupted in recent years, notably in 2017.

It is easy for us westerners to collapse this issue into a simple morality play, where the Iranian government represents a reactionary version of Islam and the people represent a progressive force demanding secularism and democracy. A weakened economy, inflation, and sanctions exacerbate unrest. Dissatisfaction with the regime in Iran does not necessarily mean that the solution is to become more western in politics and values. It remains to be seen whether this recent wave of protests will prove to be different than previous waves.

One thing is for certain, though. The Islamic Republic of Iran, no matter how hard they try, is failing to enforce its version of reality on the Iranian people. The regime and its opponents are digging in their heels. The battle lines have been firmly drawn, and one side will have to budge eventually. If history is a teacher, then it has shown us that excessively authoritarian governments like Iran’s do not last.

Let’s remember what Voltaire wrote in his Treatise on Toleration. It was true when he wrote it in 1763, and it’s still true today: “It would be the height of folly to pretend to improve all [people] to the point that they think in a uniform manner about metaphysics. It would be easier to subjugate the entire universe through force of arms than to subjugate the minds of a single village.”

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