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The Women’s Revolution in Iran

Giovanni Sale, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, Feb 14th 2023

The Women’s Revolution in Iran

Iranian women against the compulsory veil

The recent “women’s uprisings” in Iran, which erupted almost by accident in a very sensitive political and economic context, have brought turmoil to the country for months now. With each passing day, they have protested against  the mandatory wearing of the hijab,[1] and this has become  a global protest against the Islamic Republic and its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Some analysts, perhaps anticipating further developments, even speak of a new political and cultural revolution.

It all stemmed from a seemingly isolated incident, but one that, in reality, affected millions of women. Keep in mind that the Arab Springs of 2011 arose from the self-immolation of a street vendor whose cart had been confiscated in the village of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia. This gave rise to numerous demonstrations and popular uprisings, which quickly spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East.

It was September 13, 2022, when 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini was stopped in Tehran by a morality police patrol, which arrested her for wearing her headscarf in an “inappropriate” manner, leaving some strands of hair free. Taken to the barracks, she was tortured and beaten to death. The photo showing her in a coma in a hospital bed set the country ablaze. Mahsa died on September 16 from the violence she suffered, although a government statement read: “Mahsa Amini died of illness, and during her brief detention she was not beaten.”[2]

Since that time tens of thousands of women, joined by men, have poured on to the streets in many cities of Iran for several weeks,[3] uncovering their heads and often improvising hijab bonfires, shouting, “Woman, life, freedom!”

This slogan was soon joined by more radical ones, which alarmed the political leadership. These included “Death to the dictator!” “Death to Khamenei!” while a few decades ago the same protesters shouted, “Death to Israel!” and burned the Stars and Stripes. This indicates that many Iranians want more than justice for Mahsa’s death or the release of the thousands of students imprisoned in the regime’s jails. In the December 7 demonstrations, after some minor concessions by the ayatollahs on matters of dress and moral policing, students at Tehran Polytechnic insistently shouted the incendiary slogan against the political police force, “With or without the hijab, forward the revolution!”[4]

Young people, particularly students, who comprise one-third of Iran’s 86 million people,[5] are the real driving force behind the ongoing demonstrations, also gaining the sympathy and support of a large segment of the population. In fact, today the protesters are calling for the overthrow of a regime perceived by most as corrupt and brutal, a regime that spends more on armaments than on useful public works. During his 33 years in power, the Supreme Leader, who replaced the charismatic founder of the Islamic Republic, has ruled with an iron fist. His followers in The Guardian Council, at election time, excluded any candidate they disapproved of. In 2021, they organized the presidential race so that Ebrahim Raisi, an obedient hardliner, would be elected president. On that occasion, voter turnout was the lowest in the recent history of the republic, which was not a good sign. For his part, Khamenei in recent years has  worked to purge both the complicated constitutional structures of the state and the top Shiite clergy of its more moderate members. This has made life for young Iranians – who on social media follow the role models of their Western peers – untenable.

The uprisings of 2009 and 2019 and the revolution of 2022

In this century, two other major uprisings have marked Iran’s history: that of 2009 and 2019. The first was a predominantly urban, middle-class uprising in which several thousand people demonstrated in large cities against the presidential election of conservative Mahmud Ahmadinejad, which they believed was rigged. Seventy people were killed on that occasion. More substantial and popular were the 2019 street demonstrations, which mainly involved workers and farmers in small towns, people from the lower social classes. They mobilized against subsidy cuts and the sudden rise in oil prices. The protest was harshly repressed by the political police, who killed more than 1,500 people in the clashes in less than a week. The memory of those events and the murderous rampage of state agents is still very much alive in the population and has influenced  the uprisings of recent months.

First, it should be mentioned that so far security forces have been reluctant to fire on crowds of protesters, and particularly on women who uncovered their heads in protest and sometimes burned their hijabs.[6] On the other hand, it appears that the regime promised double pay to military personnel who complied with orders to attack protesters. The number of those killed during the demonstrations was very high: more than 500 people, including 70 minors. In addition, the regime has intensified surveillance: police frequently raid at night the homes of protesters – who are filmed during the demonstrations, either to arrest them (about 20,000 people, mostly young people, are held in jails, where they are often tortured or raped), or to confiscate their cell phones in order to gain access to more information. The authorities have also set up an ultra-supervised domestic Internet, and hermetically sealed the international one; they have  turned off street lighting, plunging entire city neighborhoods into darkness.

The demands of the protesters in 2022 are not directly economic, although this issue has prompted many people to take to the streets.[7] The protesters are not calling for greater prosperity – although inflation has risen to 50 percent and most young people are unemployed – but for an end to the ayatollahs’ theocratic regime or, as many students stated, to be able to “live in a normal country,” where elections are free and state institutions democratic. However, to realize this goal, they “will have to not only shake off the regime but also avoid a civil war.”[8]  This , for the time being, will not be easy to achieve.

Another characteristic of these insurgencies is that they have no recognized leader or even a political party supporting them.[9] They are sparking a movement of “horizontal protest,” with hundreds of small and disparate networks organizing on social media, which are increasingly controlled or “blacked out” by the regime. The lack of a center is both a strength and a weakness. Indeed, it should be remembered that all the leaders of the movements that organized the 2009 and 2019 uprisings were arrested, killed, or silenced. Now, the regime is targeting the masses, the thousands of women who for weeks bravely defied the regime and the constant threats of the military and religious authorities. Moreover, according to some independent polls, it appears that the protesters have the support of the majority of the Iranian people, from 60 to 80 percent.[10]

In any case, as an editorial in The Economist reports, there is still a long and uncertain road ahead for protesters. Major demonstrations are made up of tens of thousands, but not the millions that toppled the shah in 1979. “If the uprising is to succeed, more middle-class and middle-aged Iranians must join the young protesters. So far, the security forces and police of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime’s praetorian body, have remained loyal. There have been no significant defections from the regime.”[11]

It should also be mentioned that silence has prevailed in high places, despite Khamenei’s constant call for public denunciation of the – mostly peaceful – street demonstrations. Not even former presidents have spoken in support of the regime. Previously, in the face of protests, the regime had called on its supporters to organize counter-demonstrations. This had been especially the case in 2009. This time the repeated calls for action fell on deaf ears. But it should also be remembered that army generals and cadres have declared their support for Khamenei. According to some analysts, if the latter’s regime were to fall, few, even from his circle, would regret it. Many of them, in fact, are opposed to the religious leader’s desire to leave the highest office in the Islamic State to his son, who is considered uncharismatic. The more moderate, even among members of the Shiite clergy, disagree with the domestic policy measures taken by the ayatollah in recent years, both in the areas of morals and in economics, as well as with many of his foreign policy decisions. In fact, Iranian militia forces are currently present in Lebanon, destabilizing Iraq and conducting proxy wars in several countries, such as Syria and Yemen. It should also not be forgotten that Iran is one of the few countries that supports and supplies arms to the Russians.

In recent months Supreme Leader Khamenei has repeatedly spoken out against the demonstrations, denouncing Western countries for wanting to destabilize Iran in various ways after penalizing it with economic sanctions. In recent weeks, the government and its supporters have tried to convince the public “that they have not yet used all the means at their disposal to suppress the uprisings, and have declared that, if they wanted to, they could easily end them.”[12] The reality, however, is different: the security forces did their utmost to counter the street protests, arresting and torturing several thousand young people, but they failed to do so. It is true that they did not fire on the crowd, although in some places this had been requested. The rulers are well aware that this could lead to civil war, and probably to the end of the ayatollahs’ regime.

According to some analysts, Western countries during these months merely observed what was happening in Iran.[13] The silence of the “greater part of the world” continued. For geopolitical and business reasons, the consensus of democratic nations “merely expressed concern, disappointment,” but did not take decisive action through international organizations in defense of “women’s protests.”[14] This is the case in both Iran and Afghanistan, where there is now a real gender apartheid.

Iranian Kurdistan and the demonstrations

Iran’s Kurdistan region in the northwest of the country has mobilized against the regime in recent months – in part because Masha Amini was of Kurdish descent – both to support young people demonstrating in other parts of the country and to claim greater autonomy from Tehran. According to many witnesses, on this occasion the government used weapons of war to suppress demonstrations carried out by women and men of all ages and social classes. The death toll appears to have been substantial. The central government media accused Kurdish political parties of fueling protests, using firearms and promoting separatism. In fact, Kurdish parties have called on people to protest peacefully, “despite the fact that missiles from the Iranian army have hit their targets in the regions of Iraqi Kurdistan.”[15]

What is the West – regarded by the Iranian regime as the Islamic Republic’s enemy number one – doing to support the cause of Iranian women and youth in revolt? According to some observers, the West can do little in this situation, especially at a time when the major Western democracies are engaged in the new “European war.” Past economic sanctions have already weakened the country’s real economy; to impose new ones would be ruinous  to the lives of the people, without, moreover, weakening the power of the regime. The most effective help Western governments can give to courageous opponents is to “ensure that sanctions do not prevent them from accessing internet services or tools such as a VPN, which could help them evade state interference and surveillance.”[16]

In Europe, civil society – particularly intellectuals and students – has been mobilizing for weeks in a variety of demonstrations to support the cause of Iran’s young activists; in addition, several humanitarian organizations have collected millions of signatures calling on the Iranian government to release imprisoned protesters and for the death sentences already handed down by the courts to be overturned.[17] The chancelleries of many European countries have officially protested the regime’s repeated human rights violations against civilians, who are often denied the right to a fair trial in criminal proceedings.[18] They also stated that it is necessary to support in every way the protest of Iranian youth and demand in all international forums, starting with the UN, an immediate amnesty for those arrested and the release of all women imprisoned for violating the rules on the so-called “Islamic veil.”

In response to continued demonstrations by youth and protests by Western governments, Iranian President Raisi, in a speech on December 27, toughened his stance, saying, “We will not show mercy to the enemy. Our arms are open to all those who have been deceived.”[19] In short, the message from the regime is direct and discouraging: no dissent whatsoever is allowed, and the machinery of state repression, as had been the case in the past, still operates.

The December 4 statement

As noted above, there had been, in the preceding weeks, some openness on the part of the regime. On December 4, Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri had announced the creation of a joint commission of the Parliament and the Supreme Council of the Revolution to “re-examine” the headscarf issue. The fact is that part of the Iranian leadership, while accusing the West of instrumentalizing the youth uprising, is aware that they are facing a real cultural revolution and that repression cannot last forever. They know well that Iran is not Afghanistan, where women were recently deprived of the right to education. A country where the average age is 32 cannot, according to moderates, fail to review the current provisions regarding the strict Islamic dress code for women.

During the same conference, the Chief Justice was asked why the Gasht-e-Ershad, the so-called “moral police,”[20] was no longer seen on the streets of Iran; he replied that it does not depend on the judiciary and that “whoever created it closed it down.”[21] Eloquent words, which raised hopes, but as time has passed, things have not changed; there has been no official announcement of an abolition or dissolution of the moral police. In fact, it is a “de facto suspension,”[22] so the veil requirement legally remains, especially in government offices.

The Iranian youth’s struggle against the ayatollahs’ regime continues, and will probably, in time, somehow succeed in changing the country, though not in bringing down the Islamic Republic. Some intellectuals argue that it is the spirit of the Arab spring that continues to blow over the Islamic  – even the Shiite world – and animates Iranian resistance.[23]

However, the current regime in Iran, which is denounced as corrupt and fundamentalist, could be succeeded by an even worse regime, as has happened in some Arab countries, i.e., a nationalist military regime, which, having removed religious devotions and restrictions, would continue  to rob Iranian citizens, arm foreign militias and launch itself toward the production of nuclear weapons.[24] The world, which is watching this tragedy unfolding, almost helplessly, should support what the protesters want: a government that reflects the will of Iranians in everything.

One hopes the day will come when the citizens of Iran can see their rights protected. Pope Francis’ appeal to the diplomatic corps resonates today, “The death penalty cannot be used for supposed state justice, because it does not constitute a deterrent,” but “only fuels the thirst for revenge.”

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 7, no.2 art. 11, 0223: 10.32009/22072446.0223.11

[1].      The Qur’an does not prescribe anything about the hijab, the so-called “Islamic veil.” It only enjoins Muslims to “command good and forbid evil.” In the early days of Islam, there was no real “moral police.” In Muhammad’s time, public morality was overseen by a muhtasib, or market inspector, appointed by the government to prevent fraud and protect peddlers. Over the centuries the figure assumed greater responsibility for policing  the moral code of citizens, including women’s dress. The first modern moral police force was established in Saudi Arabia – a majority Wahhabi kingdom – in 1926. By 2016, one-third of Islamic countries had some form of religious police. In Iran, it was first introduced in 2005, by conservative President Ahmadinejad. Cf. “Who are Iran’s hated morality police?” in The Economist, September 26, 2022.

[2]. P. Cordova, “La tesi di Teheran: “Mahsa Amini morta per malattia, non fu picchiata”, in La Voce di New York (, October 7, 2022.

[3]. From September 16 onward, more than 1,200 marches were held in 160 Iranian cities, in which mostly young women participated, but also men of all ages. In this regard, there was talk of a “women’s revolution against gender apartheid.”

[4].      “Iran’s rattled government may be backing down”, in The Economist, December 8, 2022.

[5].      They have expelled  Khamenei’s officials from  their schools, “thrown Molotov cocktails at security forces, burned billboards with images of the supreme leader, torn down signs at moral police centers, and assaulted lone policemen and clerics” (“Could Iran’s regime fall?” in The Economist, October 27, 2022). In defiance of the authority of the ayatollahs, many young people enjoyed throwing off the turbans of clerics and fleeing, which was unthinkable in previous years.

[6].      Effigies of the ayatollahs were also burned at times; in addition, Khomeini’s birthplace was set on fire. Several Iranian sports and movie stars expressed solidarity with the protesters. Cf. “La protesta scuote il regime”, in Internazionale, September 30, 2022, 30.

[7]. Cf. A. Moaveni, “Il destino delle proteste”, in Internazionale, November 11, 2022, 71.

[8]. “Will Iran’s women win?” in The Economist, October 26, 2022.

[9]. Cf. A. Moaveni, “Il destino delle proteste”, in Internazionale, November 11, 2022, 69.

[10]. Cf. F. Magri, “Iran, il cappio del regime”, in La Stampa, December 6, 2022.

[11]. “Could Iran’s regime fall?” in The Economist, October 27, 2022.

[12].    F. Davar, “Il regime vuole ignorare le forze del cambiamento”, in Internazionale, November 15, 2022, 21.

[13].     Intellectuals have urged European women to take to the streets in 2023, “to support en masse the women’s revolution in Iran” and make Afghan girls feel less alone. Gender freedom, in fact, “does not belong only to the West, it is not synonymous with the values of this part of the world, but is a planetary conquest,” which concerns everyone: cf. C. Comencini, “Europei, se non ora quando?” in la Repubblica, January 3, 2023.

[14].     C. Verdelli, “Teheran, Kabul, l’inverno delle ragazze”, in Corriere della Sera, December 30, 2022.

[15].    K. Mukhtar, “La resistenza curda delle città iraniane”, in Internazionale, December 2, 2022, 27.

[16].    “Iran’s tired regime is living on borrowed time”, in The Economist, September 29, 2022.

[17].     Four of these have already been executed. Majidreza Rahnavard was hanged in public at dawn December 12 in Mashab, in the northeast of the country. He was 23 years old and had been found guilty of “hostility against God” for stabbing two Basij militia members to death. On December 8, Moshsen Shekari, also 23, had been put to death on the same charge. On January 7, two other young protesters (Mohammad Karami and Mohammad Hosseini) were hanged for the killing of a Basij militiaman during a demonstration (G. Privitera, “Due giovani impiccati. Iran, orrore senza fine”, in Corriere della Sera, January 8, 2023). Iran’s judiciary has handed down 17 more death sentences to youths linked to the protests, which are to be carried out soon (see “Le prime due impiccagioni”, in Internazionale, December 16, 2022, 32). A former pharmacy student living in Italy also died in early 2023, as a result of police beatings, after 20 days of agony (cf. F. Ventura, “La Bologna persiana piange per Mehdi”, in la Repubblica, January 3, 2023).

[18].     In Italy, the foreign minister summoned the new Iranian ambassador, to whom he made three specific demands: an immediate halt to executions; a halt to the violent repression of protests; and the opening of a dialogue with the protesters. The Iranian government, in turn, protested, saying it would not tolerate other countries’ intervention in domestic affairs (see A. Muglia, “La risposta di Teheran all’Italia: convocato il nostro ambasciatore”, in Corriere della Sera, December 30, 2022). On January 11, 2023, receiving Iran’s ambassador at the Quirinale for the presentation of Letters of Credence, President Sergio Mattarella expressed the Italian Republic’s strong condemnation and personal outrage at the brutal repression of demonstrations and the death sentences and execution of many demonstrators (see

[19].    G. Privitera, “Iran: si muove il Governo italiano. Tajani convoca l’ambasciatore iraniano”, in Corriere della Sera, December 28, 2022. On December 29, the head of Iran’s judiciary, at a meeting of the Supreme Council, called for “deterrent punishments” against arrested protesters. In addition, it appears that the parliament has no plans for any review on the mandatory wearing of the hijab.

[20]. The moral police was established in 2005 by Ahmadinejad to oversee compliance with strict dress codes imposed on women. It had been sidelined during the years of moderate Hassan Rouhani and reappointed by conservative Raisi, the current president.

[21]. G. Colarusso – P. Mastrolilli, “Una crepa nel muro iraniano, sospesa la polizia morale”, in la Repubblica, December 5, 2022.

[22]. Ibid.

[23]. Cf. G. Stabile, “Alaa al-Aswani: Le iraniane alla fine vinceranno, sono dal lato giusto della storia”, in La Stampa, December 27, 2022.

[24]. Cf. G. Guetta, “L’autunno delle autocrazie”, in la Repubblica, December 1, 2022.

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