Iran’s Long Road To ‘Zen, Zendegi, Azadi’

Only a resistance movement that has both consistency and strength to endure the coercive regime’s aggression can bring about any tangible result

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise

— Maya Angelou

The twisted lies that brought thousands onto the streets of Saqqez following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16 have galvanised the formidable slogan of resistance — Zen, Zendegi, Azadi  — which resonates through every nook and corner of Iran till this day. Its English equivalent, ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’, inspires supporters the world over in equal measure, even as Iran’s parochial regime tries every trick in the book to trod protesters at home in the dirt.

Amini’s death was a tipping point where the disengaged Iranian girls and women gave voice to the impatience brewing within them for years together. Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women’s role in Iranian society has diminished to such an extent that they cannot appear in public without wearing a hijab. They can be married off at an early age of 13, but cannot divorce their husbands easily. Everything comes at a cost — be it employment, foreign travel, inheritance or child custody. 

Yet, these women chose to rise like dust for things that were denied to them. They now burn hijabs in the streets of Tehran, cut their hair in public, perform on stage to further their cause, flood social media with protest videos, and state their freedom by standing firmly on top of four-wheelers. 

In fact, two months before Amini’s death, hundreds of Iranian women had protested the Ebrahim Raisi government’s decision to celebrate July 12 as the National Day of Hijab and Chastity by removing their headscarves on the streets and posting those videos on Twitter under #No2Hijab.  

Post-Amini resistance was first tagged as an act of rebellion by Generation Zoomers (Gen Z), better known as Dahe Hashtadi in Iran in terms of the decade they were born in (1997-2010). But it has since spread across the Islamic Republic with oil and gas sector workers, merchants, teachers and many others joining the chorus. Business shutdowns have become increasingly common in Tehran.   

Anti-regime protests are nothing new to the country. The 2009 nationwide Green Movement against the presidential election fraud had brought millions to the streets before the authorities quelled it with an iron fist. The State apparatus was once again challenged in 2017-end by agitations against the skyrocketing prices of essential goods and alleged corruption. The Bloody November protest of 2019, in which almost 1,500 people were reportedly killed, was the result of a sudden increase in fuel prices by at least 50%.

Unlike in the past, neither economic hardship nor pro-reform calls fuel the present protest. The initial ire has been against Gasht-e-Ershad (Guardian Patrol or morality police), but it has panned out into a revolt against the systematic repression of women’s rights and equality. In recent days, the Shia clerics, who represent the sharia laws that mete out injustice against women, have faced backlash, with videos of protesters knocking off their turbans and wishing death upon them circulating on social media. 

The outsider theory

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has dubbed the protests as “riots” designed by the US and the occupying Zionist regime, and those paid by them. He claimed attempts were being made to stop Iran from progressing, despite the 2018 US sanctions that followed  Washington’s abandonment of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Of late, Tehran has been exploring ways to save itself from financial dire straits by showing its willingness for a new nuclear deal. This could have unlocked its frozen foreign assets and allowed greater access to financial markets globally, thus bringing some solace to its inflation-weary citizens.

But the present state of affairs has put the belligerent leadership in deep water. The US recently slapped sanctions against 14 Iranian higher-ups of organisations involved in the deadly crackdowns, and six senior members of state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. In September, it had imposed sanctions on Guidance Patrol and people occupying positions in Iranian intelligence, security and Army. On the other hand, the European Union has sanctioned 126 individuals and 11 entities, besides banning exports of equipment that could be used for internal repression and telecommunications monitoring to Iran.

The changing neighbourhood dynamics also puts the regime in a strange predicament. Lebanon, which Iran has always used as a shield against its arch-rival Israel, inked a maritime deal with Jerusalem on October 27. Regional foe Saudi Arabia, which has been conspicuously silent on the protests, has faced Iranian ire for “backing rioters”. The regime has reminded Saudis that their destinies were linked and any instability in Iran can be contagious.

Iran’s authoritarian regime has been using disproportionate force — live ammunition, metal pellets, teargas and batons — to suppress the protests. Though the forces deny killings, figures from the US-based Human Rights Activists News Agency say 328 people, including at least 50 minors, have been killed and nearly 15,000 have been arrested between September 17 and November 8. So far, five protesters have been sentenced to death on the charges of “enmity against God” and “spreading corruption on earth”. Taking note of the grim reality, the UN Human Rights Council has launched a fact-finding mission to investigate the rights abuses in the deadly violence.

The ultra-conservative stranglehold

Despite having a functional legislature and judiciary, the real power in Iran rests with Supreme Leader Khamenei. Even the President’s suitability to contest is vetted by the Council of Guardians, to which the Supreme Leader nominates half the members. The rest is nominated by the head of the judiciary, who is appointed by Khamenei himself. 

Besides deciding the suitability of candidates, the influential body also examines all the laws passed by Parliament and strikes down those that do not comply with the Islamic law. Undoubtedly, the council will scuttle any law that does not have the Supreme Leader’s stamp of approval. 

The President heads the Supreme National Security Council, which is tasked with the job of “preserving the Islamic Revolution, territorial integrity, and national sovereignty”. But he has a minimal role in shaping domestic and foreign security policies, where the Supreme Leader’s decisions are final. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security, which watches out for threats against the Islamic Republic, is usually headed by a cleric, which highlights the Supreme Leader’s influence over its functioning.    

The President has no control over the armed forces. The Army defends the country’s borders, whereas the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) protects the revolution and defends the regime from internal and external threats. Founded in 1979 by the first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the IRGC is a powerful paramilitary organisation that wields political and economic powers. It also secretly aids military groups in other countries.

As the commander of the armed forces, the Supreme Leader appoints the IRGC commanders and military chiefs. Hence, any revolt against the leadership will invite quick retribution unless the forces abandon their allegiance to the Supreme Leader. Protesters are unlikely to find favour with the judiciary also as Khamenei-chosen judiciary head appoints the Supreme Court head and chief public prosecutor. 

Riding high on the power of social media, restless Iranians have made their voices heard across the globe. #mahsaamini was tweeted and retweeted over 250 million times in Persian and over 50 million times in English in the first month after her death. Since then, the Iranian regime has also been targeting telecommunications infrastructure at every level. 

Besides the internet shutdowns, blocking access to free VPNs has been its major preoccupation. As promised, Elon Musk activated his SpaceX satellites over Iran in September, but the logistics and costs involved in smuggling Starlink receivers to the country make its operation in the Islamic Republic a near insurmountable task.

As of now, the future of protests seems very fluid. It cannot make tangible progress unless a resistance movement that has both consistency and strength to endure the regime’s aggression takes shape. But such a possibility seems bleak, as the coercive power centre is very particular at nipping dissent in the bud. And, if at all the fighting spirit in Iranians succeeds, will Afghanistan’s women be inspired to follow suit?


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