Iran’s Protests Are the First Counter-Revolution Led by Women

Robin Wright in The New Yorker: The girls and women of Iran are just bitchin’ brave, flipping the bird at its Supreme Leader in a challenge to one of the most significant revolutions in modern history. Day after dangerous day, on open streets and in gated schools, in a flood of tweets and brazen videos, they have ridiculed a theocracy that deems itself the government of God. The average age of the protesters who have been arrested is just fifteen, the Revolutionary Guard’s deputy commander claimed last week. In the process, they have captured the world’s imagination; sympathy rallies have been held from London to Los Angeles, Sydney to Seoul, and Tokyo to Tunis.

Iran’s protests may well be the first time in history that women have been both the spark and engine for an attempted counter-revolution. “The role played by Iranian women right now seems very unprecedented,” Daniel Edelstein, a political scientist at Stanford and an expert on revolutions, told me. One of the few possible parallels was the role of Parisian female poissonières, or market workers, who stormed Versailles to prevent the king from turning against the National Assembly and crushing the nascent French Revolution, he said. In that case, however, “the women were seeking to prevent counter-revolution, not contributing to it.” During the Russian Revolution, bread riots led by women in Petrograd played a pivotal role in the tsarist empire’s collapse, Anne O’Donnell, a Russia historian at New York University, told me. But Iran’s protests have been unique because, she said, “this is not just an upheaval involving women, it is an upheaval about women and women’s freedom, and that makes it very special.”

Despite the dangers of arrest and death, Iranian women of disparate ethnicities have united in imaginative ways. The spark was the abrupt death of Mahsa Amini, a twenty-two-year-old Kurd, after she was sent to a reëducation center for “inappropriate attire”—too much hair protruding from a head scarf—in Tehran. She ended up in a coma on a ventilator and died three days later, on September 16th. Protest chants about her death quickly evolved into calls to oust the regime: “Death to the Dictator,” and “Our disgrace is our incompetent leader,” and “We don’t want the Islamic Republic.” The slogan—and hashtag—of the protests became #WomanLifeFreedom.

On Wednesday, a video widely shared on social media captured schoolgirls in Tehran giggling at their audacity as they stomped on a framed photo of the two Supreme Leaders—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—who have ruled since the 1979 Revolution against the Shah. They ripped up the photo and threw pieces joyously into the air. With their backs to the camera, the girls formed a line and pulled off their head scarves. “Don’t let fear in, we stand united,” they shouted. In multiple tweets, other girls were photographed—from the back to hide their identities—raising their middle fingers at pictures of the two Supreme Leaders. In a video last week from Karaj, schoolgirls gathered in front of a male official, ripped off their hijabs, and shouted, in unison, “Get lost.” They tossed empty water bottles as he fled through the school gates. In historic Isfahan last week, three young women unfurled a blanket-size banner over a highway bridge. It featured a painting of a woman with long black hair; it warned, “One of us will be next.” The girls then whipped off their head scarves and dashed away; the banner remained. In northwestern Sanandaj and southern Shiraz, young women have marched down streets—chanting anti-government slogans and removing their head scarves—and called for drivers to join them. Many cars could be heard honking in support.

Other girls and women have been killed or arrested during more than three weeks of the protests. Nika Shakarami, a young art student, was last heard from on September 20th, when she called a friend to say that security forces were chasing her down the street. Ten days later, her family was summoned to retrieve her body from a detention center in Tehran. Shakarami’s head appeared battered, her aunt told the BBC. The government claimed that she died after falling from a rooftop. She was buried—secretly, to avoid a new flashpoint for protests—on her seventeenth birthday. Funerals have long been pivotal to political mobilization in Iran. In Shiite Islam, deaths are commemorated again forty days later, often sparking emotive processions that turn into new protests—and new confrontations with security forces, followed by more deaths, and a prolonged cycle of demonstrations. Funerals generated the rhythm of Iran’s Revolution in 1978 that prompted the Shah to flee in 1979. More here.

Honorary contributors to DesPardes: Adil Khan, Ajaz Ahmed, Anwar Abbas, Arif Mirza, Aziz Ahmed, Bawar Tawfik, Dr. Razzak Ladha, Dr. Syed M. Ali, G. R. Baloch, Haseeb Warsi, Hasham Saddique, Jamil Usman, Jawed Ahmed, Ishaq Saqi, Khalid Sharif, Majid Ahmed, Masroor Ali, Md. Ahmed, Md. Najibullah, Mushtaq Siddiqui,, Mustafa Jivanjee, Nusrat Jamshed, Shahbaz Ali, Shahid Hamza, Shahid Nayeem, Shareer Alam, Syed Ali Ammaar Jafrey, Syed Hamza Gilani, Shaheer Alam, Syed Hasan Javed, Syed M. Ali, Tahir Sohail, Tariq Chaudhry, Usman Nazir