More than 500 protesters, including women and children, have been killed during the past several months of ongoing unrest in Iran, according to human rights groups inside and outside the country. Meanwhile, thousands of Iranians have been arrested—including at least 20 who could face a death sentence—for taking part in protests that have engulfed the entire country. Iran has had other recent mass protests and uprisings in recent years that did not result in changes to the country’s fundamentalist religious government, but some scholars and analysts are now saying that due to its widespread and sustained nature, the current uprising could be different. Peyman Asadzade, a postdoctoral fellow at the Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative answers questions about the protest movement, which began in September with the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini. Amini died in the custody of the Iranian morality police after being arrested for violating the country’s strict laws on women wearing the hijab.
Q: Mahsa Amini’s death seemed to catalyze some long-simmering discontent among Iranian women—why did it reach a tipping point now?
The Islamic Republic has enacted strict cultural policies since its inception following the 1979 revolution. Women’s dressing especially has been subject to strict regulations and the morality police have been in force in different forms since 1979. Progressive women activists and professionals did protest mandatory veiling right after the revolution with a big rally, but in the end religious forces consolidated their power and began implementing their authoritarian and restrictive cultural policies. They did not face any significant public backlash in the 1980s; back then Iranian society was generally conservative with a significant portion of the population being rural and illiterate. Additionally, eight years of war with Iraq provided the newly established government with an opportunity to crack down on any oppositional activism.
Nevertheless, Iran’s educated middle class has expanded over the last three decades. Today we have more than 2,000 higher education institutions in the country and 60% of students are women. With a 76% urbanization rate, 84% internet access, and a relatively young population (the median age is 32), Iranian society has become increasingly liberal, globalized, and less religious. Such a cultural discrepancy between an increasingly liberal society and the conservative establishment has created tensions between citizens and the state. The Rouhani administration (2013-2021) tried to take less strict policies toward women and the youth, however, conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi won the 2021 election, and the restrictive cultural policies were resumed. In July, Raisi demanded all government agencies enforce the hijab law, and the news reported that women with improperly worn hijabs would be barred from government offices, banks, and public transportation. The Guidance Patrol also became more active and violent in enforcing the law during the summer. Long story short, the government got on people’s nerves—then when the news of the death of Mahsa Amini broke out, frustrated people spontaneously poured into the streets across the country.
Q: What other underlying issues are driving the unrest in Iran?
The 2010s were Iran’s lost decade. Iran’s per capita GDP went from $7,800 in 2011 to $2,300 in 2020. Economic sanctions have significantly harmed the Iranian economy—especially, the U.S. reimposition of economic sanctions after the 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear deal—and have made life difficult for Iranian citizens across all social classes. Millions of Iranians who used to be middle class have been slipping out of it, so now we have a middle class with high expectations but limited economic opportunities. This has also contributed to people’s frustration.
Q: We’ve seen a number of protest waves over the past four years in Iran. What if anything makes these different?
Anti-government protest movements have been part of Iran’s post-revolutionary history since 1979. We have witnessed a significant increase in the number of protests in the last four years. The two major protests in 2017-2018 and 2019 were mostly concentrated in small cities and dominated by low-income young men. The urban middle class did not play an active role. However, we have seen greater participation of middle-class urbanites in the current movement. University campuses have also become a key battleground. Students, university professors, athletes, actors, and professionals have expressed their support for the protesters. Many citizens in north Tehran, a more affluent and educated section of the capital city, have also joined the protests. At the same time, working-class neighborhoods have also participated in the protests, although it seems their presence is less pronounced compared to the 2019 protests. The current protest is definitely more feminine. The ratio of killed men to killed women was 22 to 1 in the 2019 protests, but that ratio is 8 to 1 in the current protests. This suggests a very significant difference in the gender aspects of the uprising.
“Millions of Iranians who used to be in the middle class have been slipping out of it, so now we have a middle class with high expectations but limited economic opportunities.”
Q: To what extent are the protests being driven by younger Iranians, and do you think there is a generational shift underway that could drive change in the future?
On average, the protesters are younger than those in the 2019 protests. The average age of the protesters who have so far been killed is 20, while the average age of the protesters who were killed in 2019 was 27. We have even seen high school students joining the protests. In general, youth are at the forefront of the protest movement, and younger Iranians are more liberal, better connected to the world, and less religious. They compare their lives to the lives of other youth in other countries, especially, in the West, and expect to have the same life quality. The existing policies do not meet their expectations. This gap between expectations and actual experience is one of the driving factors of youth frustration.
Q: Is the regime really in peril? If not, what do you think is realistically possible for the protesters to achieve?
The current wave of protests is unique because of the reasons I pointed out earlier: youth and women’s central role, strong support from public figures, the presence of a cross-class alliance, and the participation of large and small cities. Micro-protests—protests by a small number of people and often in a short time period—have become more common and have helped keep momentum going. The government has not been able to effectively end the uprising, but the crowd sizes have not been big enough to overwhelm security forces, which remain cohesive and organized. Especially, the protests in Tehran have been concentrated in highly educated and relatively affluent neighborhoods. Working class neighborhoods of south Tehran have not actively participated in the protests. Tehran is the capital and largest city in the country. Given its political significance, it is difficult to imagine any revolutionary success without Tehran's serious participation.
A leadership able to offer a viable alternative to the Islamic Republic and a vision for the future is still absent at this point. After the unsuccessful experiences of the 1979 revolution and the Arab Spring, it is necessary for the protest movement to provide a political roadmap for Iranian citizens, since many of them are uncertain about a transition process and a new political order. Yet the protests have definitely shaken the conservative establishment. It will be very difficult for the government to continue its restrictive policies that are frustrating youth and especially women. Another important factor is the economy and whether the government will be able to ensure high or even moderate economic growth in the next few years. If they can—which is a big if given the current international sanctions and domestic mismanagement—it could help them prevent the convergence of political and economic discontent. The fusion of political and economic discontent could create a broad cross-class alliance across the country resulting in an existential threat to the Islamic Republic.
Banner image by AP Photo/Middle East Images