Theocracy, a Few Strands of Hair, and Iran’s Democratic Future

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Is Iran experiencing a women’s revolution, or will these protests be supressed like previous ones? Some of the answer depends on how the West responds.

 

 

The murder of Kurdish Iranian 22-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini for a few strands of hair by the Islamic regime of Iran’s morality police on 16 September 2022 sparked a revolution that has shaken the very foundations of theocracy.

Whilst Iran has seen many protests since the establishment of the Islamic regime of Iran, these protests have been unprecedented, spreading to all parts of the country, including poverty-stricken regions such as Baluchistan and religious centres such as Qom.

The protests are strikingly modern, secular, anti-clerical and even anti-Islamic. It is led by women removing and burning their compulsory hijabs and a Generation Z with no illusions towards Islamism. The main slogans of the revolution are ‘Woman, Life, Freedom,’ ‘We don’t want an Islamic regime,’ ‘We don’t want a misogynist state.’

Undoubtedly, the Islamic regime of Iran’s widespread suppression of the Jina revolution has brought a lull in the mass street protests, what with the regime’s use of weapons of war, killing of over 500 protestors, imprisoning 18-20,000 protestors, gassing over 5,000 girls at schools across Iran, and stepping up executions in the hundreds.

Nonetheless, the revolutionary resistance continues in various forms. Its manifestations can be seen everywhere. For example, many women and girls are now walking the streets of Iran unveiled, even though the regime has threatened to prosecute them ‘without mercy.’ Other religious symbols are being targeted too, such as in the ‘turban-flying phenomenon,’ where a young person runs up behind a mullah and knocks off his turban.

Funerals or memorials are no longer sites of religious mourning but of protest dancing,  singing and slogans, hair cutting, applause to honour the person killed and sheer defiance. Political prisoners write open letters from their prison cells condemning the regime and shout slogans in support of the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ revolution as soon as they are released.

A case in point is labour activist Sepideh Qoliyan. Upon release in March 2023 after nearly 6 years in prison, she shouted ‘Khamenei the tyrant; we will bury you.’ She was promptly rearrested and is back at Evin Prison. Just this week, in July, she was ordered to wear the veil and chador to attend her court hearing on further trumped-up charges. She refusedcausing its cancellation. She is not the only one. The last words of one of the protestors Majidreza Rahnevard as he was being marched blindfolded to his execution on the charge of ‘enmity against God’ was: ‘Don’t mourn at my grave. Don’t read the Quran or pray. Celebrate.’

The protests are strikingly modern, secular, anti-clerical and even anti-Islamic. It is led by women removing and burning their compulsory hijabs and a Generation Z with no illusions towards Islamism. The main slogans of the revolution are ‘Woman, Life, Freedom,’ ‘We don’t want an Islamic regime,’ ‘We don’t want a misogynist state.’

At the funeral of nine-year-old Kian Pirfalak killed by the regime, his mother boomed to an applauding crowd, ‘Don’t read the Quran for my son. My son hated the Quran.’

The anti-Islamic backlash is also reflected in popular slogans like ‘Mullah, get Lost,’ and in the lyrics of revolutionary songs, such as: ‘I am fed up with your religion. I hate your tenets.’The Ballad of Leilas, sings: ‘On your pulpit/War, bigotry, separation/Atheist, Jew, Baha’i/Have had a lonely life!’

Significantly, 20 Independent Trade Unions and Civic Organisations have issued an historic  Woman, Life, Freedom Charter of Minimum Demands  in February calling for unconditional freedom of belief, expression, thought and secularism. The Charter states: ‘Religion is a private matter for individuals and must not play a role in the country’s political, economic, social and cultural decisions and laws.’

A Charter of Progressive Women published on 8 March, International Women’s Day, calls for an end to sex apartheid, the right to safe abortions, prohibition of child veiling, and equality in all spheres. It demands: ‘The separation of religion from the state, the judiciary and education; abolition of religious classes and prohibition of religious ceremonies, including (the Islamic) Taklif ceremonies (performed particularly for girls at age 9, regarding them now as adults with Islamic duties, such as marriage)’ as well as ‘Freedom of thought, belief and expression; freedom of religion, of not having a religion and being an atheist; abolition of official religion.’

As I have said many times before, no one opposes theocracy more than those who are forced to live under it. The women-led revolution heralds a new dawn for the women and people of Iran and the region. With  Rojava, a centre of feminism in a war zone banning Sharia courts, polygamy, and compulsory veiling, one could say it is raining women’s revolutions in the region. The centre of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the world today can become a centre for a new enlightenment.

Clearly, the women-led revolution in Iran challenges racist post-modernist cultural relativism that conflates the oppressed with the oppressor. For far too long, apologists have hidden behind ‘respect for culture’ and accusations of Islamophobia to legitimise violence and the suppression of rights and dissent in complete disregard of the empirical evidence of plurality. Iran shows clearly that no society is homogenous, and that the regime’s culture is at odds with people’s demands and desires. If, for example, the veil was people’s culture, would the Islamic regime need to arrest, harass, and threaten millions of women and even kill them for improper veiling? The Jina revolution shows that universal rights and secularism are not Western nor a neo-colonial project but very much eastern and indigenous to Iranian society.

There are, of course, forces at work endeavouring to hijack the revolution. A major concern is Reza Pahlavi, the former dictator’s son who is putting himself forward as the only alternative. His Charter (repugnantly named the Mahsa Charter even though it is an attempt at derailing the Mahsa revolution) is a manifesto of empty promises and opportunism, issued with a handful of other like-minded personalities.

Compare Pahlavi’s Charter with those that have come out of the long struggles of women’s liberation, civil and trade union organisations in Iran. The Iranian charters are a battle cry for revolution and fundamental change. Pahlavi’s is addressed to Western governments to plead his case as their alternative. It’s an exercise in manipulation.

He wants the protests to take a backseat so he can focus on regime change from above with the help of Western governments that have a history of interventions in Iran. It was this very intervention in 1979 that   paved the way for an Islamic regime; during the Cold War, US-led foreign policy was arming and training Islamist forces as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. Faced with a left-leaning revolution in Iran at the time, Western powers decided in Guadeloupe that they would no longer support their Shah’s dictatorship and instead welcome Khomeini and an Islamic Republic. The Shah’s strengthening of Islamist forces to suppress progressive movements in Iran made this a viable option.

His grandfather Reza Shah and his father Mohammad Reza Shah came to power via coups supported by Western governments, so why not him? The Pahlavi reign had been a reign of coups, maintained via suppressing, imprisoning, and murdering progressive voices. Many of the former Shah’s SAVAK secret service were integrated into the Islamic regime’s SAVAMA.

This explains why Reza Pahlavi’s Charter calls for the integration of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) into the army. In interviews, he has said that he will rely on the Pasdaran and Basij to secure the country after the ‘collapse’ of the regime, forces that are despised and at the forefront of suppression. This is in direct contradiction to calls inside and outside Iran to proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist body. The Woman, Life, Freedom Charter of Minimum Demands of 20 Independent Trade Unions and Civic Organisations in Iran has called for ‘the dissolution of all repressive apparatus.’  Reza Pahlavi wants to integrate them into his army. Repressive forces will be useful to him as they were to his family. Like grandfather and father, like son.

Reza Pahlavi’s dream of regime change from above is so great that he has even asked for people’s power of attorney, which has embarrassingly (for him) backfired. Only 450,000 handed him power of attorney, out of a population of 88 million in Iran and 4 million in the Diaspora. Why would those fighting for a revolution give their decision-making authority to anyone, let alone someone whose only claim to fame is that his dad was a former dictator?

This doesn’t stop the Iranian media abroad like Voice of America, Manoto, Iran International, and Independent Persian from shamelessly aiding in manufacturing consent and engineering regime change from above. (BBC Persian is still promoting factions of the Islamic regime.)

Anyone critical of this engineering from above is met with threats by Pahlavi’s supporters. He and his cohorts have singlehandedly ended the biggest mass protests in Diaspora history after his supporters drowned out defence for the Mahsa Jina revolution with ‘Long Live the Shah’ and flooded protests with his and his family’s photos. His supporters regularly push out those with flags of other political groups, Leftists or Kurdish and LGBT flags. They destroy the PA systems of those opposed to the monarchy… and these are only examples of what I have seen myself at protests in London. See some of the  online threats I have received as an example. Pahlavi’s catchword ‘unity’ really means united behind his rule – or else his goons will make sure to take care of things for him.  His wife Yasmine Pahlavi is one such figure. She has been heard inciting ‘death to the left’ during demonstrations and arguing for the denial of justice and accountability for the regime’s victims  who are not monarchists.

It’s no wonder Parviz Sabeti, a notorious SAVAK intelligence chief (the Shah’s secret police), made his first US public appearance at an LA rally or that Reza Pahlavi’s supporters have been glorifying SAVAK’s role in suppressing dissent during the former dictatorship. A slogan that monarchists are shouting at rallies in various cities is telling: ‘Our leader is Pahlavi; whoever doesn’t say it is a foreigner’ (Rahbar e ma Pahlavi e, Har ky nageh, ajnabie).

His cohorts in ‘unity,’ namely Masih Alinejad’s historical revisionism, help to aid this manufacturing from above. She blames those who fought for the 1979 revolution against the Shah’s dictatorship for bringing the Islamic regime of Iran to power without any reference to Western government intervention or the former Shah’s promotion of religion and clericalism whilst she works with Pahlavi to whip up Western government support for his agenda. Always an opportunist that gravitates towards sources of power, it wasn’t very long ago when she was opposing boycotting the Islamic regime’s farcical ‘elections.’ All this, even before Reza Pahlavi is in power.

For those of us who remember the 1979 revolution and how it was expropriated and suppressed, this is all very déjà vu. But it is also a different Iran, one in which women’s civic and trade organisations issue historic rights charters, and young revolutionaries know the society they want. In an age of social media, the mainstream pro-Pahlavi media are not the only ones that have access to public opinion.

The revolution cannot be easily confined and distorted.

Needless to say, the Mahsa Jina revolution is too important for the women and people of Iran, the region, and world to be suppressed or derailed. All those in favour of an end to theocracy must remain vigilant by keeping the focus on women, life, freedom, and exposing attempts at regime change from above. A priority now too is putting pressure on Western governments to stop supporting the Islamic regime but also to stop them from any interventions in favour of regime change from above.

As we near the first anniversary of Mahsa Jina Amini’s murder and the start of the women’s revolution in Iran, it is crucial to reiterate the importance of defending this revolution, not just for the women and people of Iran but for people everywhere. For the future of freedom of conscience and belief in the region. For the right to secular, equal, and free societies.

The rise of the Islamic regime in Iran saw a corresponding rise of fundamentalism across many parts of the world, including Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist extremism. Imagine if a women’s revolution ends this anti-woman theocracy. It can herald a new dawn if we dare to stand with the women and people of Iran. It is within our grasp. A regime that came to power by imposing the veil with acid attacks and violence will come to an end with free women tearing off their veils and lighting them ablaze. When the Islamists imposed the veil, their slogan was ‘Either veil or get punched.’ Now schoolgirls shout: ‘Neither veil, nor a punch; freedom and equality.’

The question each of us must answer is, as Florence Reece once sang, which side are you on ? There is only one right answer: on the side of the women’s revolution in Iran.

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