Every Iranian knows that in 1988 the Islamic Republic murdered up to 30,000 political prisoners seen as the ‘enemy within’ during its war with Saddam Hussain’s Iraq. Many had been in detention since the early days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
So horrific was the violent abuse wrought that even Ayatollah Komeini’s deputy, Ayatollah Montazeri, wrote to him protesting:
“A large number of prisoners have been killed under torture by interrogators … in some prisons of the Islamic Republic young girls are being raped … As a result of unruly torture, many prisoners have become deaf or paralyzed or afflicted with chronic diseases.”
The current Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, was a principal member of the “Judges of Death” committee who decided what fate would befall whom. Every Iranian knows this too. Ruthless brutality is the rock that every wave of resistance has broken on – until now.
The current wave of unrest has been growing and spreading since the police murder of 22 year old Mahsa(Jina) Amini on September 16th. So far, despite 300 deaths, 14,000 arrests and 1,000 already charged with capital offences, rather than break, the wave has flooded from Iranian Kurdistan in the west to Baluchistan in the east, uniting the ethnic diversity of Iran’s youth besieging its urban centre’s with creative rebellious protests.
The spontaneously unifying momentum of events presents a radically different challenge to the dictatorship than it has faced before. Several spells have already been broken.
The first is cultural racism. Ethnically diverse Iran has effectively been a ‘greater Persia’ (first language Farsi speakers are just over 50% of the population). It’s repressive domination of minorities has been through a ‘strategy of tension’ provoking revolt to harness xenophobic Persian nationalism.
Now Kurds, Awaz Arabs, Baluchis and Azeris chant in solidarity with each other as well as Farsi speakers, sharing the unifying slogans of “Death to the Dictator” (Ayatollah Khamenei), and “Woman, Life, Freedom!” originating in the Kurdish resistance in Turkey and Rojava.
The second is the ‘Islamic’ element of the republic. Mahsa Amini was killed by a Guardian Patrol (morality police) for failing to cover her hair correctly with the hijab. These patrols have largely been driven off the streets as thousands of women discard their hijabs and even cut their hair – an Islamic symbol of their immodesty – in public. This is an uncompromising refusal of authority as the hijab is one of the 3 founding pillars of the Islamic Republic.
The potency of this was first seen in the anti-austerity riots of 2017 when Vida Movahed raised herself up to wave her headscarf flag-like from a stick. This protest act, not seen since the first days of the hijab’s imposition in ‘79, has continued on and off, primarily online until now, stepping boldly out into 3D.
65% Iranians are young, still more have no living memory of the Shahs regime or the revolution and protesters show no sign of seeking concessions or compromise.
The regime had that opportunity in 2009 when the election offered the choice between Ayatollah-u-so and Mullah lite. A cosmetic tinkering at the edges of power seeking some institutional rebalancing. The Dictator chose repression revealing an ideological edifice as seemingly immovable as fascism or Stalinism.
The breaking point was the ending of state subsidies on fuel in winter 2019/20 and the 1500 deaths in the suppression of dissent. Episodic eruptions of protest and violence have continued ever since, over water shortages; pay and conditions in the oil industry, in the regions and over inflation.
All or nothing now appears the most unifying position against the regime in its history. Students have occupied and genders mixing, school students have driven state propagandists off their grounds and industrial unrest is spreading with strikes at several oil refineries in October. The slogans assert themselves in all of Iran’s languages and dialects: Death to the Dictator, Woman, Life, Freedom!
This is more than just challenge to the centrality to Islam of the subjugation of women, but a de facto challenge to its culture of patriarchy. A central feature of the cellular organisation of capitalist reproductive social relations. Iranian women are transcending feminism to the root of class power.