Women, Life, Freedom
The Iranian revolution of 1979 changed the world; so can the 2022 revolution
Social movements often give rise to many slogans which act not only as a catalogue of their demands but as a barometer of their mood. As movements develop, so do their slogans. The recent movement in Iran began with an incredible slogan, taken from the leftist Kurdish tradition in Turkey and Syria: “Women, Life, Freedom.” Having originated in a different context, it now succinctly captured the desire of Iranians for an end to the stifling rule of the Islamic Republic, one of the most bizarre regimes in world history, which has long lived in direct enmity to these very three concepts. As the protests spread and endured, despite the brutal repression meted out by the regime, other slogans emerged that showed the hardened mood. “Death to the Dictator,” a favorite of an earlier movement in 2009, targeted the regime’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A newer slogan tells us where things have gotten to: “Don’t call this a protest / it’s now called a revolution.”
Revolutions are notoriously hard to call when they are still in formation. But it’s not just the protesters who are now daring to use the term to refer to their nationwide movement. The R word is starting to pop up in online hashtags and pundit comments. In the world of academe, Asef Bayat, an Iranian-American sociologist known for his groundbreaking book on the Arab Spring, told the Tehran daily Etemad that the “uprising had now entered a revolutionary episode.” Bayat, like others, had been reluctant to issue such judgments during the previous rounds of nationwide protests in 2017–18 and 2019–20. What is different this time?
The spark that lit the fire
As with all revolutions, a specific event helped spark the current movement in Iran. On September 16, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman of Kurdish descent, died in police custody. She had been arrested by the so-called Guidance Patrol—sometimes translated as the “Morality Police’”—one of the many Orwellian neologisms coined by the Islamic Republic to describe its uniquely oppressive apparatus. Iran remains the only country in the world in which all women everywhere are forced to observe the Islamic rule of Hijab which mandates that they cover their hair and all of their body except for hands above the wrist. The Iranian police force patrols cities all over the country to enforce the mandatory Hijab rule. Thousands of women are arrested and sent to re-education classes just because their scarf was a little too loose or their manteau a little too tight. Mahsa was one of them. As evidence later proved, she had been beaten up in custody, including with blows to the head that brought about her death.
Mahsa’s killing struck a nerve for many across Iranian society for two reasons. First, it symbolized the burden of double oppression for half of Iranian society, i.e. its women. The fact that armed goons patrol streets to arrest women for infringement of a strict dress code is only the most visible sign of a much broader system of misogynistic exclusion and oppression. Iranian women aren’t just second-class citizens in abstraction; by the very letter of law, they count as half. If you are a woman in Iran, your testimony is worth half that of men in court and you will get half the inheritance received by men. Women are barred from traveling without their husband’s or father’s permission. They are banned from cycling, along with many other random activities.
Iranian women are more educated than their male counterparts and yet, as English historian Adam Tooze recently pointed out, “female participation in the formal labor market runs to only 14 percent, by the latest UN count, half the rate reported by Saudi Arabia and on a par with Afghanistan before the Taliban returned to power.”1 Mahsa’s killing was thus viewed by Iranian women as not just one wanton act of violence but as the pinnacle of a system.
Second, it was immediately realized by many Iranians that Mahsa could have been someone they knew. Even those Iranians who like to keep a tight Hijab surely have friends and family members who are likely to be victims of a raid by the Guidance Patrol. The fact that a young woman could be so brazenly killed by an unaccountable force was a chilling reminder to Iranians that they live under a state which seemingly regards much of the population as a hostile enemy. This idea might seem like rhetorical excess but some key figures within the regime have spoken in similar terms. In a recent interview, Mohammad Sadr, a former diplomat and a current member of the regime’s Expediency Council, accused the police forces of “turning people of entire cities against the government” by the contempt they show in their daily violence. Is it surprising that people would come out on the streets to fight against a regime that treats them like this?
43 years of crisis
Protests are nothing new for the Islamic Republic or for Khamenei, who has sat in his current position since 1989, when he replaced the regime’s founding Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, upon the latter’s death. In fact, what makes the history of the Islamic Republic extraordinary is its seemingly constant crisis mode. Defenders of the regime love to point out that the predictions of its demise have been constant ever since it was founded in 1979. But the regime has indeed survived on a shaky basis for almost its entire lifetime.
The Islamic Republic was founded in 1979 following a mass revolution that brought down the Shah and ended centuries of monarchical rule in Iran. The revolution had been made by a coalition of leftists, nationalists, and Islamists whose dreams for a fundamental break with the status quo bore the mark of the era now eulogized by historians as the Global Sixties. The revolution’s undisputed leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, was not just an Islamic cleric but a Sufi mystic poet whose seemingly other-worldly qualities gave him a special charisma and made many hope he would be a mere spiritual figurehead. The Mystic-Ayatollah, however, had other ideas and the revolution was swiftly followed by murderous marginalization of many of the forces that had brought it about. In its first decade, the Islamic Republic was busy executing thousands of its domestic opponents, fighting civil wars in several areas of the country and leading a war of national defense against Iraq which, led by then President Saddam Hussein, had invaded Iran in 1980. It was a decade full of crises but the regime was able to survive, owing to its revolutionary legitimacy and its wide-raging social programs that built it a strong base in society.
Even after Iran took back all its occupied territories in May 1982, Khomeini continued the war to use it as a legitimizing tool for his regime. In 1988, when he finally accepted the United Nations ceasefire offer to finish the war, he likened this compromise to “drinking a chalice of poison.” He had promised to keep the war going not only until Saddam was overthrown but until the Islamic Republic had liberated Jerusalem from Israel and gone on to “emancipate the world from all sedition.” The proverbial poison worked and he died in June 1989. In the last months of his life, Khomeini committed some of the most egregious crimes of the regime, including a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988 and issuing a fatwa against the author Salman Rushdie on February 14, 1989.
Khomeini’s death was followed by a change in posture by the regime. The new leadership, led by Khamenei and President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, brought about a postwar reconstruction program. There would be no political liberalization or free elections, but when it came to the economy, the new duo repudiated any socialist-tinged verbiage of the early years of the revolution and adopted an openly capitalist outlook. As the world witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc, and China’s turn to capitalism, proponents of Rafsanjani would champion a “Chinese model”—“capitalism without democracy,” as Slavoj iek would later call it.
But if the regime thought this new model would be a recipe for social peace, it was sorely mistaken. Riots of the poor against the new capitalist model occurred from the outset, most dramatically in Mashhad, Khamenei’s hometown, in 1992. They were put down in blood which soon proved to be the new Supreme Leader’s favorite method of dealing with social protest.
Repression was never enough. The Iranian yearning for civic rights and social emancipation has deep historical roots. It had helped motivate many previous movements, all the way back to the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905. It would now find new and surprising avenues. Although the Khomeinists had eliminated all their domestic opponents, differences over foreign policy and economy had led to factionalism amongst themselves. While only Khomeinists were allowed to run in the elections, this factionalism meant that the parliamentary elections were often not simple rubber-stamp affairs (as they were during most of the Shah’s rule) but genuine competitions between different wings of the regime. In 1997, for the first time since 1980, such limited yet competitive elections were held for the presidency. To everyone’s surprise, millions turned out to vote for Mohammad Khatami, a mild-mannered cleric and former culture minister. Thus started the Reformist Era, during which hundreds of thousands of Iranians, mostly led by women and youth, rose up to demand their rights and to battle the entrenched conservatism of the regime. Fighting a counter-reformation, Khamenei marshaled his powers to severely limit what Khatami and his Reformist allies could do. The eight years of Khatami presidency (1997–2005) were, once more, years of constant crisis for the regime, with millions believing that a democratic transition was possible. According to Khatami himself, he had a new crisis every nine days.
To the disappointment of millions, Khatami never relied on his massive popular support to confront Khamenei. In an angry meeting with students toward the end of his eight years in office, he reminded them that he had been a founder of the Islamic Republic and had no plan to get rid of it. In the 2005 presidential elections, as millions of disappointed voters stayed home, Khatami was replaced by Mahmood Ahmadinejad, a 48-year-old conservative. The plain-speaking populist regarded himself as a loyal follower of Khamenei. They had a common friend: the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a militia that had been founded shortly after the 1979 revolution and which had acted as something of a revanchist party against Khatami. It would now come to control much of the Iranian economy and state and be the material base for Khamenei’s increased power.
For the next presidential elections in 2009, reformists backed the candidacy of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the popular wartime prime minister of the 1980s, to unseat Ahmadinejad. When the regime officials declared that Ahmadinejad had won a second term in a landslide, a mass movement broke out in opposition. Largest in scope since 1979, the protests started with the slogan “Where is My Vote?” but soon went on toward broader goals. “Death to the Dictator” became a popular slogan. The 2009 movement would be crushed in blood with dozens killed and thousands arrested. One well-known martyr of the movement was Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old girl who was shot by an IRGC member on the streets of Tehran. Her gruesome death, captured on camera, became emblematic of the moral force of the Iranian protesters: ordinary men and women, machine-gunned while demanding their most basic rights. Although we didn’t know it at the time, Neda’s death would not be unique. Dozens more have met a similar fate since. In the most recent example, Ghazaleh Chalavi, a thirty-three-year-old woman from the northern city of Amol, was shot and killed on September 21, as she was recording a demonstration on her phone. The now viral footage morbidly records the moment she is shot`. We can see the resulting stream of blood on the street. We can hear the anguished cries of those around her.
In the years between 2009 and 2022, Iranians never remained still. But fighting on the streets wasn’t their only theory of change. They have used every tool in the political toolbox to better their lives. With reformists banned from elections, Iranians twice (in 2013 and 2017) voted for a conservative centrist, Hassan Rouhani, who ran on a platform of better economic relations with the West. Most importantly, we voted for him hoping he would wind down the nuclear program and reach a deal that could bring about the end of sanctions that had helped destroy much of the Iranian economy. On this count, Rouhani was successful and the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015, brought about after record hours of direct negotiations between Iran and the United States, seemed to promise a better future. Not only had Rouhani made the deal, he promised taking on the IRGC and introduced a Charter of Citizen Rights. Still, Khamenei held the real power in the country and the charter never meant much in practice. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the US. Having promised to repeal the 2015 deal in every one of his three debates with Hillary Clinton, he stood by his words. The deal was scuppered just as Khamenei closed up the political space again and amped up the oppression. Like Khatami before him, Rouhani stood not by the people who elected him but by the regime he had helped build, even when the regime wouldn’t let them play. In 2021, Ebrahim Raisi, a notorious hanging judge, was elected president in what was an entirely rubber-stamp affair; a first for presidential elections since 1993.
As the economy remains mired in a terrible state and with political space entirely closed, Iranians have been engaging in an almost constant campaign of street protests in the last few years. Workers, pensioners, and local communities have held actions on a regular basis while 2017–18 and 2019–20 saw mass nationwide protests, with slogans against the entirety of the regime. They only came to an end following a ferocious use of violence. Many now forget that during the entire 2009 movement only about seventy people had been killed. During the 2019–20, more than fifteen-hundred were killed, by one well-known estimate.
As this potted history shows, Iranian dissatisfaction with the Islamic Republic has been almost constant for about thirty years. The regime’s survival has come at the cost of continuous reduction of its social base.
Revolution as the last resort
This history also shows that Iranians have come to a revolution only as their last resort. They repeatedly tried bringing about change in less costly ways but were stymied at every turn. I was born in 1988; for many people of my generation, Iran’s problems were precisely the result of the revolutionary nature of the regime that had come about in 1979: they didn’t want to fight one revolution with another. Throughout the years of the Reform movement (1997–2005) and the Green Movement of 2009, there was something of a naive belief in the power of liberal ideas and peaceful methods of change. In line with a global trend, well spotted by sociologist Zeynep Tufekci,2 many seemed to believe that amassing the citizenry on the streets could replace traditional methods of political organizing. Hadn’t this helped bring down the Iron Curtain? Political parties were out, hashtags and street action were in.
The continued survival of the Islamic Republic has rested on two factors, both of which are linked to this misconception of the way power works. First, it has relied on the sheer brutality of its organized security forces. Second, it has relied on the fact that, while an ever increasing number of Iranians hate it, they’ve so far failed to build an organized political alternative. The Iranian regime is much more internationally isolated than Apartheid South Africa but the opposition has yet to found its African National Congress.
It would be short-sighted, and maybe even churlish, to attribute this primarily to ideological misconceptions. The Iranian regime makes sure that any semblance of organization inside Iran is snuffed out and the Iranian jails have long been filled with thousands of trade unionists, civil activists and human rights defenders. But it should be noted that millions of Iranians live abroad, where they can operate freely and have the benefit of several powerful Persian-language televisions broadcasting to Iran (funded by foreign states such as the US, the UK, and Saudi Arabia.) And yet we have so far failed to build effective political organizations abroad. The usual divisions and acrimonies of exile life have been accompanied by the regime’s organized covert campaign of sowing divisions within Iranians and preventing them from uniting with each other.
Divided as they may be, the scenes of heroic resistance on the streets of Iran have inspired Iranians across their many divisions. Some of the most awe-inspiring actions have been led by youngsters born in the 2000s, Iran’s Generation Z. By now an enduring image of the revolution is that of young schoolgirls taking their Hijabs off and flipping the bird to the pictures of Khamenei and Khomeini that adorn their classroom. We can get a more in-depth look at the mood of this generation by watching the YouTube account of Sarina Esmailzadeh, a 16-year-old girl whose candid posts have gone viral following her brutal killing on September 23.
“Now it’s not like 20 years ago when teenagers didn’t know how their counterparts around the world live,” she says in one YouTube video. “We ask ourselves: Why aren’t we like teenagers who live in New York or Los Angeles? I have personally always thought to myself: why should I be inferior to them?”
This encapsulates the outlook of a generation. If young people of the Reformist Era, the 2009 movement, or even the 2015 years, had real reasons to believe their lives would be better than their parents, the current Gen Zers see no such prospect. They are ruled by a regime that has brought them economic ruin, political exclusion, and civil repression; a deadly combination that kills all dreams and makes revolution the only way out.
The feeling of dead end is not limited to Gen Z. On October 14, Mahmoud Sadeqi, a sixty-year-old former reformist MP, said: “With the recent behavior and statements of the regime officials, I don’t see the slightest room for reform.” Sadeqi is a regime insider who has gone on record praising the IRGC. His admission of a dead end speaks volumes.
Revolution for a “Normal Life”?
Iranians of 2022 have now resorted to waging a revolution to bring down their previously revolutionary regime. But the 1979 and 2022 revolutions could hardly be more different.
Despite their incredible political diversity, the 1979 revolutionaries had something in common: a desire to fundamentally change the world and challenge the global order. Historians of the Global Sixties afford the revolution something of a paradoxical centrality: it is seen as the true endpoint of the Long Sixties, where an era of seemingly endless political possibility finally came to an end; and also the negation of its characteristics — a revolution that led to a puritanical tyranny following an age in which movements around the world had demanded the exact opposite.
But 1979 was, in fact, very much in line with the spirit of the Sixties. Around the world, the New Left and other revolutionaries had led an assault not just on capitalism and the authoritarian order but on the traditional Old Left, the Soviet Union, the Communist parties, and the very heritage of the Enlightenment that was the animating spirit behind both liberalism and Marxism. Iranians, too, had fast moved from the long-held demands of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905, the oil nationalization movement of the 1950s, and the mainline communist party (Tudeh), with its emphasis on the organized working class and strategic patience in struggle. In these movements, Iranians had long clamored for the rule of law, democratic liberties, and an end to the subjugation of women. The revolutionaries of the sixties sometimes spoke of the same demands but, in line with their counterparts elsewhere, they emphasized a revolutionary ethos that desired emancipatory adventures and incredulity toward established political narratives. A most attractive model for this generation was China’s so-called cultural revolution, a disastrous and murderous campaign by Mao Zedong to upend the Chinese state in order to keep personal power. Mao’s revolution was praised not just by Iranian Maoists but by many of the Islamists. What they most fervently wanted was for “everything that is solid” to “melt into air.”
Khomeini became the man of the hour because his uncompromising political stance toward the Shah was matched with a mystical ambiguity, in which a wide range of revolutionaries found their own dreams. Few bothered to read his blueprint for “Islamic Government,” which owed less to the Quran and more to Plato’s Republic and its anti-democratic design for a philosopher-king. Disappointed in the Enlightenment, the revolutionaries of different hues all hoped this spiritual leader could re-enchant their world. Not for nothing did the French philosopher Michel Foucault go to see Khomeini in his Parisian exile before also visiting Iran right before the revolution. When Iranian feminists warned him about the coming suppression of rights and liberties by Khomeini’s nascent regime, the French philosopher attacked their liberal illusions and continued praising the enchanted revolution. In an era when the genocidal regime of Cambodia was a model for many a Parisian leftist, this was of little surprise.
Iranian leftists, and many other 1979 revolutionaries, like to say that Khomeini bamboozled them and hijacked the revolution from them. They are right in a limited sense. Khomeini did indeed make promises about the inclusion of opponents and respect for civil rights that he surely didn’t keep upon assumption of power. But had they listened more closely to Khomeini, they’d have had little room for surprise. He had always been clear about his desire for an Islamic government that would bring about Islamic law. The problem was that Khomeini’s lack of commitment to liberal values and civic rights was shared with most 1979 revolutionaries. Did anyone expect proponents of Mao’s China, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Enver Hoxha’s Albania or Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya to bring about a regime committed to human rights?
In this sense, the 1979 revolution wasn’t hijacked—it was the tragic yet somewhat logical result of an adventurous political experiment. Iran did indeed get one of the most revolutionary and unique political constitutions anywhere in the world (a “platypus of humanity’s political evolution,” as scholar Ahmad Sadri puts it.) But it turned out that a revolutionary “leap into the unknown” and eschewing Enlightenment values can result in a ruinous disaster.
Things could hardly be more different this time around. One of the most striking slogans of the past few years in Iran has been #NormalLife. It started, as many slogans do, on Twitter: an Iranian migrant to the US used the hashtag to show his daily life in the United States as a skilled construction worker. Soon Iranians around the world used it to show what “a normal life” could look like. This involved the most basic elements of life denied to Iranians; something as simple as a woman cycling around, a couple holding hands, or people walking their dog or enjoying an alcoholic drink—all illegal acts under the Islamic Republic.
Shortly after the present movement began, Iranians started using the hashtag #ForTheSakeOf to explain what they were revolting for. This extensive survey of demands shows how different the 2022 revolution is from 1979. Instead of abstract concepts and a quest for changing the world order, Iranians were demanding a “normal life” in which workers could be paid adequately, children wouldn’t be poor, Afghan refugees won’t be mistreated, and students could imagine a future in their homeland instead of fleeing abroad. Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour wrote a song made up of many of these tweets which quickly became the anthem of the protests. He was soon thrown into jail but the song has since become a global sensation, translated into many languages. What it makes plain is that, if in 1979, Iranians wanted to make the world anew, in 2022 they want to get rid of their very unique regime which keeps on fighting the world order. They want a more ordinary life.
Travails of a leaderless revolution
As I write these lines, the revolution has gone past six weeks and it continues to march on despite ferocious repression. Revolutions often start in a carnivalesque mood with many excited at the apparent power of amassed people. But revolutionaries would do well to follow the advice Zizek once gave to the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York: “Don’t fall in love with yourself.” With more than two hundred dead, our revolution can’t afford feeling like a carnival. As incredible and inspiring as the movement has been, it won’t achieve its goals unless it develops strategies beyond street demonstrations—most importantly labor strikes. There have already been strike actions by some sections, most importantly contract workers in the oil and gas industry facilities on ports of the Persian Gulf. Much more needs to be done to bring out the masses of workers.
The revolution’s most important challenge remains lack of leadership and organization. With the diaspora-based political organizations in disarray, many hope that leaders will emerge from inside the country. Iranian jails are filled with thousands of talented would-be leaders. From behind bars and outside them, a leadership must emerge. Iranians need to do away with all naive beliefs in possibilities of a “leaderless” or “horizontal” revolution. As political scientist Ali Alfoneh recently tweeted: “Is it possible to overthrow a regime without an organized opposition with a leadership? Yes, if the regime in power lacks the will and ability to defend itself, but the Islamic Republic is not there yet. Those who want to overthrow it must organize and have a leadership.”
Emergence of such a leadership will not only give hope to the street protesters and help bring about the masses, it will also aid another necessary precondition for the fall of the Islamic Republic: defection of security forces.
If history is any guide, we will also see that revolutions are seldom pretty affairs. Many eggs will be broken and we can only hope to get an omelet at the end. If there is one lesson Iranians can learn from their previous revolution, it is to not leave things to chance, to struggle against temptation for blind revenge, and to strive for a democratic transition that prioritizes the rule of law, protection of rights, and a truth and reconciliation process. We must work hard so that this revolution won’t eat its children.
If there is one element that gives us hope, it must be the strong sense of patriotism amongst Iranians. This was evident in how quickly the protests spread from the Kurdish areas in the West to those in central cities such as Tehran and Isfahan, northern cities on the Caspian Coast as well as Azeri, Arab and Baluchi areas. Divided as Iranians are, their love for their nation and their long traditions of statehood should help avert scenarios of state collapse or even prolonged civil war.
The victory of the Iranian revolution of 2022 will be greeted with joy not just by Iranians but by many around the world. The people of Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria should rejoice in the overthrow of a regime that has used their countries as a battleground for their confrontations with the US and Israel. Both Palestinians and Israelis should take comfort in the fact that a regime that openly opposed any prospect of peace there will vanish. A democratic Iran will be a better neighbor for everyone—especially since one thing Iranians miss about the pre-1979 Iran is an independent foreign policy that meant good relations with all countries around the world and in the region. (Despite all his many faults, the Shah had excellent diplomatic relations not just with his Western allies but with the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc countries, and China. It also held strong, if informal, relations with Israel, Arab countries, and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which even received financial help from Tehran.)
We can also hope that this new revolution will change the world in another way. If 1979 came to be the nadir of an age of revolutionary possibilities, 2022 comes at a time when authoritarianism is on the rise everywhere and many seem either to take liberal democracies for granted or to care little for their defense. The Iranian yearning for freedom, civil liberties, and women’s emancipation, rooted in more than a hundred years of struggle, could help awaken new possibilities for democracy the world over. The Iranian revolution of 2022 can change the world.
Adam Tooze, Chartbook #161 Iran’s contested demographic revolution, October 15, 2022.
Zeynep Tufekci, I Was Wrong About Why Protests Work, New York Times, July 21, 2022.