Nothing new about women protesting for their rights in Iran. But, the protests raging across the theocratic state now are fast becoming a watershed moment for Iranian women. As a highhanded theocracy cracks down on defenceless Iranian women, the brutality is compounding manifold. Compounding because the crackdown is theocracy’s reply to women protesting over the mindless death of a young woman in the custody of the dubious moral police. What began as a natural protest of women is convulsing into a huge quake threatening to shake the entire theocracy.

Threatening quake, undoubtedly. Outraged by the brutal death of a 22year-old Kurdish student Mahsa Amini, the protesting women are letting their uncovered hair down, literally. Amini died in custody of Iran’s moral police on 16 September. Earlier, Amini was taken in because she had her hair covered ‘improperly’ with a head scarf. If Iranian women do not have the simple right to cover their hair the way they want to, what cover do they have against absolute discrimination by the State?

Fierce Internal Conflict

Such is the outrage, the protests of Iranian women are metastasising throughout Iran, enveloping men and youth too in its explosive wake and spreading to the whole of 31 provinces. As Iran’s hardcore theocrats watch in consternation, the protests are threatening to yank the roots of a theocracy. As women cast their hijabs away and tear their tresses apart in public, Iranian theocracy and its diktats lay reduced to tatters.

As is their wont, Iran’s theocrats are blaming an unseen foreign hand, read America and Israel, behind the protests. But, Iranian women care little. They are already upset over the slew of fundamentalist diktats flowing from a coterie of clerics with vested interests. Today, these disgruntled women are transforming Amini’s death into a fearsome vent for their anger which is boiling over.

Topping them all, the regime is remorselessly killing people, men and women, those who have dared to protest. The old are not sulking either, they are cheering the youth to soldier on. In many provinces, they are seen protesting. This is fast becoming a classic case of how a protest against an innocent woman’s custodial death could convulse into huge social unrest, leading to a fierce internal conflict consuming a whole nation.  

Floundering Over Quicksands

This internal conflict is prodding Iran-watchers to ask one loaded question: are these protests a forerunner of a coming civil war aimed to replace theocracy in Iran? As Iranian women rally their people together, cutting across ethnic lines, their protests could be Iran’s Arab Spring moment. The theory is quite believable. While during the 2019 protests, the Iranian Arabs, Turks and Kurds did not stand together, this time around they are together as Amini’s death is bridging the divide between them, bringing them closer and united.

Meanwhile, Amini’s death is bringing out the muffled frustrations of the Iranian youth. Seeing a bleak future ahead, the youth are turning furious. With the economy in a shambles, with the Rial on a losing spree, with inflation soaring and with poverty sinking its murderous teeth into their daily lives, young Iranians are floundering over multiple quicksands.

Truly, the Rial has shed more than 75 per cent of its value since 2018 and real inflation is hovering around 60 per cent. The Iranian economy continues to reel under killing sanctions, which were imposed when Iran violated its nuclear pact with America. The average Iranian is not able to make his ends meet as his nation is soaked in corruption and graft.

Darling of Iran’s Theocrats

Surely, Iranians are not happy about their country being run by a hardline president Ebrahim Raisi. He is slow-poisoning Iran with his staggered reversals of reforms brought in by his predecessor Hassan Rouhani. The strict enforcement of the head-scarf law, which ended in Amini’s death, is a classic example of his hardline approach. Quite natural, Raisi is a darling of Iran’s theocrats.

Such is their love, Raisi was anointed because he is a kowtowing hardliner. He is more fundamentalist than his masters. Though Raisi is the head of the government, he reports to the supreme leader and governs as per his wishes. Willy-nilly, he is a stooge of the supreme leader today. His fawning servility is letting theocracy and fundamentalism percolate down into every aspect of Iranian daily lives. Raisi is determined to take Iran back to the pre-Revolution days. He is serious about ushering in xenophobia and theocratical rhetoric. The theocrats could not have got a more ideal person for the top job.

Plus, Raisi prefers a tough stand against America. His whataboutery questioning deaths in America warms the cockles of theocrats. Raisi’s tough stand against America extends to the nuclear deal as well. During negotiations, Raisi proved to be adamant, inflexible and a hard nut to crack. At the end of it, Iran got neither the nuclear deal nor the anticipated employment opportunities. Thus, Raisi has neither been able to resuscitate the abrogated nuclear agreement with America nor has he been able to revive the Iranian economy. Such examples of nonperformance are leaving Raisi mired in deep despair. Amini’s death and the raging nationwide protests could not have come at a worse time.

Neither Redressal Nor Reforms

Worsening the matters further, the supreme leader Ali Khamenei is in his eighties and in poor health. He is yet to name his successor. Thus, the field is open for Raisi and Khamenei’s son Mojtaba. Iranians are against dynastic rule and so they reject Mojtaba. Ironically, a government which came in replacing monarchy is trying to foist a dynast on Iranians. Political analysts in Iran say both Raisi and Mojtaba would lose popular polls.

Unpopular as they are, Iranians see Raisi and Mojtaba as power-hungry self-aggrandizers. As the current protests boil over, the Iranian women are sending a strong signal: they will not hesitate to go the whole hog for larger protests if democracy gets into a danger zone in Iran. Expecting neither redressal nor reforms, Iranian women are already digging in now for a longer haul. Desperate to escape their fury, Iranian rulers are shutting the internet, denying access to messaging platforms and banning social media. Over the long haul, knee-jerk actions do not work.

The Malicious Moral Police

The blame for this sorry state of affairs should be squarely laid at the doorsteps of the theocrats, who are running Iran as their god-granted fiefdom. They have erected smokescreens and built facades of democracy to mislead their own people. Polls are hardly free. Contenders to high office are handpicked. Sad, Raisi himself was theocracy’s choice.

In practice, the supreme leader runs the country unilaterally through his moral police, pompously called the Guidance Patrols. The moral police   enforces the supreme law and monitors its compliance. As commanders of the right and forbidders of the wrong, the moral police remains a scary aspect in Iranian lives. After all, they sent Amini to the dark recesses of the Hades, for nothing more than wearing her hijab loosely.

Does the moral police understand the true intent behind Islamic tenets? Can they interpret the tenets rightly in their true spirit? Sadly, no. Blocking the internet, clamping down on social media and hampering mobile communication are usual tactics of autocrats. Iranian theocrats are proving they are no different. Not surprising, Iran is rated as a ‘not free’ nation in Freedom in the World 2022 index.

In Conclusion

On Amini’s death, Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and women’s rights activist in America, said: “For the Islamic Republic, the murder of Mahsa Amini is becoming a tipping point because compulsory hijab is not just a small piece of cloth. It is like the Berlin Wall. If the Iranian women manage to tear this wall down, the Islamic Republic won’t exist.” Events following Amini’s death show Iranian women can tear this wall down. They are strong and determined. This is not good news for Iranian autocrats hiding behind the wall of theocracy.