The protests in Iran over the death of a young woman in police custody will continue as long as the demands of the people remain unsatisfied, according to several Northeastern experts.
“We are talking about a population that has been mobilizing, sometimes extremely successfully, for 130 years, if not more,” said Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, associate professor of history. “They no longer are asking for reforms, but they want to change the regime and they want a revolution.”
They are reclaiming the whole notion of revolution, seizing and taking it away from the rhetoric and the discourse, and the language of the Iranian state, she said.
Khuri-Makdisi was one of three panelists in a discussion that drew a full house at the Cabral Center at John D. O’Bryant African American Institute on Northeastern’s Boston campus last Wednesday evening. The other two experts on the panel were Valentine Moghadam, professor of sociology and international affairs, and Gordana Rabrenovic, associate professor of sociology and director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict. Mai’a Cross, dean’s professor of political science, international affairs and diplomacy and director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures, moderated the conversation.
“This nationwide series of protests has been called a female-led revolution,” said Moghadam. “And this is unprecedented, not only in Iran, but also throughout the region, throughout the world.”
The timing of the discussion coincided with the 40th day after the death of Mahsa Amini, which is believed to be the day when the soul of the deceased leaves the world in the Islamic and Iranian mourning tradition.
Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, was detained on Sept. 13 in Tehran for allegedly violating the country’s hijab (headscarf) rules, lost consciousness while in police custody and died at a hospital on Sept. 16, after three days in coma. Iranian women, outraged by Amini’s death, took it to the streets.
Women had participated in protests in Iran before, Moghadam said. They came out to fight the obligatory hijab in 1979, when the idea was first introduced in the newly-formed Islamic Republic of Iran. Young middle-class women were a large part of the Green Movement in 2009.
Today women continue to burn scarfs and cut their hair, which is both the sign of mourning of Amini and anger, Moghadam said.
“Today’s protests are actually the cumulative effect of years, if not decades of grievances of various structures of Iranian society against the regime,” Moghadam said.
Since Sept. 17 when the protests started, they have spread across the country, social classes, religious groups and genders, despite the violent crackdown of the government.
“The very fact that there has been so much solidarity with this one young woman, a Sunni, really tells you a lot about the political maturity of Iranian society. But it also shows the depth and the extent of the grievances towards the Islamic regime,” Moghadam said.
Khuri-Makdisi suggested that Iranian women have taken the lead because they realized that it could have been them instead of Amini or their sisters. Generation Z has played a big role in the protests as well, she said.
Regardless of whether the protesters are able to overturn the Iranian regime, protests always profoundly transform society, Khuri-Makdisi said. Rabrenovich confirmed that the 2011-2012 Occupy movement in the U.S., for example, brought forward the issue of social inequality and helped develop and spread that vocabulary.
When protests start as grassroots uprisings, like in Iran, they usually don’t have a plan, Rabrenovic said. With further development of the protests, political consciousness of participants grows, they learn to be leaders. As a result, protesters develop common identity and consciousness, Rabrenovic said.
“What we see here is that people are not dispersing,” she said. “It takes tremendous courage to stay engaged under the threat of being killed.”
If the Iranian government had arrested and prosecuted those involved in Amini’s death, then the situation may not have become so widespread, Moghadam said. But that scenario is almost out of the question now, she said. The regime didn’t do that and lost the opportunity to enact a reform and re-legitimize itself.
The protests might be followed with more repressions and a tougher crackdown, she said.
“It would be most unfortunate but it wouldn’t be unprecedented,” Moghadam said.
In another possible scenario the Iranian military could intervene, she said. The military could come out against clerics saying that not much has been done to quell the situation, that they are concerned about border security and foreign intervention and they don’t care about hijabs, she said.
Members of the audience were skeptical about this scenario, because Iran has three branches of military and two of them—Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Sepah) and the Basij Resistance Force—are loyal to the regime.
“There are two things that are needed for a successful revolution,” Moghadam said. “One is, of course, strategy, organization leadership and a plan of action.”
The other is cracks in the system, she said, accompanied by defections on the part of the ruling classes or the elites. “I really haven’t seen any [cracks] yet,” she said.
There have been statements issued by former government officials, politicians, actors, but there are no cracks in the system itself, she said.
At the same time, current protests lack thorough organization and leadership, Moghadam said.
Protesters need to solidify a common plan and determine a common understanding of the future they are building, Rabrenovich said.
“Things do not look good,” she said. “But we have a hope that something will happen. The change is possible and will occur.”
Khuri-Makdisi said that she didn’t think that absence of a leader in this movement was a bad thing.
“It is leaderless because all of the other leaders actually have been persecuted, gotten rid of or thrown in prison,” she said. “It would just take more time for the things to settle if they are going to settle.”
The panelists took a negative stance on the U.S. and EU sanctions imposed on Iran.
“I share the view that sanctions have not worked, and they don’t work,” Khuri-Makdisi said. “They just increase the misery of the population.”
“Sanctions are a bullies’ game,” Moghadam said. “The U.S. applies sanctions because it can.”
The U.S. sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, North Korea turned out to be ineffective, because these regimes remain in place, she said. The Islamic regime uses sanctions to justify repression and accuse the West in inspiring and encouraging the protests.
The panelists agreed that a foreign intervention would not be a good idea either as it won’t be popular among Iranians and had rather poor outcomes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Expansion and demonstration of solidarity abroad, however, gives hope both to people inside the country and outside.
People outside of the country can also help with spreading the information and explaining the situation in Iran, while Western academia and educational institutions could help save people at risk by getting them outside of the country, Khuri-Makdisi said.
Another example of useful help from the outside world is the hacking that the group Anonymous has been doing to help Iranians circumvent the government, Moghadam said.
The final scenario of what could come out of the protests in Iran, Moghadam said, would be a second Iranian revolution that would result in a “liberal, social-democratic Iran, that would actually be a model to the region.”