I would like to be enthusiastic about the protests in my country. But even if they could overthrow the regime—a doubtful prospect—what follows could be worse.
In Tehran, another night falls on enraged streets. Tehran is never completely silent at night, but these nights the streets are exceptionally loud. A cacophony of people shouting slogans—“death to the dictator”, most frequently of all—pierces the darkness. People are shouting from the rooftops, refusing to let the city forget the traumas of the day, when protests, fires, bullets, tear gas, and other agents of chaos kept terror and uncertainty alive.
Like all people called to witness the unraveling of history as it happens, I am plagued more than anything by anxiety, a child of uncertainty. The tidy parade of events in history books belies the fact that those living through it do not know how their chapter will end. Will chaos breed anything but further chaos? Will everything fall apart? Is it too naïve to hope for a better order? Or will the old order, evil and uncompromising, assert its bloodshed will once again?
I can’t pretend to know.
But if it’s impossible for us to predict the future, can we at least understand the past? How did we get here? What is the pain beneath this anger?
These protests were touched off by the death on 16 September of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman killed by the morality police, or “Guidance Patrol,” attempting to enforce the law of mandatory hijab. Like a snowball barreling down a steep mountain, it didn’t take long for the aim of the protesters to radicalize: Before sunset on the third day, it was no longer about mandatory hijab—they were demanding the overthrow of the regime.
But I want to take a step back and look at the first lit match of the forest fire I’m living through. Why did the issue of hijab have such potential (now realized) to create a situation like this? What does it mean to the protesters, and what does it mean to the police, the military, and the militia who are repressing them? Why does the Islamic Republic of Iran court its own possible death when it comes to this?
Side One: The protesters
Before talking about the current situation, we need to talk about the previous ones. It seems that the history of Iran owes one massive political upheaval to every generation. Each can be categorized and understood by age and class. The 1979 revolution was a movement of all ages and an alliance between the middle and the working classes. The next mass movement was the 2009 protest of the fraudulent “re-election” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by the young middle class. 2019 and 2020 saw the “Bloody November” movement. Violent and maximalist in its demands, this uprising took place in response to a hike in petroleum prices and was mostly comprised of working-class people. Now, in 2022, we are back once again to the young middle class—but one generation younger.
Translated this into the shoddy and inaccurate but convenient shorthand of American generations, 2009 was a movement of middle-class millennials, 2019 of working-class millennials, and 2022 of middle-class Gen Z.
To understand why this matters, we need to talk about the political affiliations of these generations. The 2009 protestors were mostly liberal reformists, and those who were not reformists mostly cared for such liberal values as democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. The movement was largely concerned with the integrity of an election. The 2009 election remains to this day the highest turnout election in Iranian history. issues like feminism and hijab were important to us, but secondary to political freedoms. We always prioritized issues like elections and foreign policy over personal privacy and social freedoms, which included the hijab. Our 2019 counterparts were completely focused on economic issues and largely indifferent to political processes. They didn’t distinguish between the reformists and the conservatives, or between moderates and hardliners. They conceived of the Islamic Republic as one monolithic evil entity, and they were a generation crushed under the pressure of decades of high inflation and unemployment. Their rage was a destructive one, not following any specific goals.
The generation protesting today
The generation at the heart of 2022 is also different. They are mostly apolitical, uninterested in issues like democracy and freedom of speech. An authoritarian regime with any other ideology might have loved this younger generation. But they too had their great difference with the regime. Not politics or economics, but lifestyle. They didn’t want hijab, they loved parties and alcohol and dancing, and they felt no shame or repression when it came to sexual relationships with their partners. This was the generation that began wearing clothes that were increasingly immodest, if not forgoing hijab completely. And these were the people who brought domestic partnership (known here as “white marriage”) and destroyed the taboo of losing one’s virginity.
I don’t mean to portray this generation as feminists per se. In fact, I think we of the previous generation are better described as feminists. These young people have generally regressed in some aspects in comparison with our generation, embracing gender stereotypes and roles, often glorifying male jealousy and advocating an aggressive version of monogamy. Their relationships seem as a whole to be more often toxic and openly proud of their toxicity. They were also largely indifferent to the advancement of feminist causes in politics and society—not opposed, just indifferent. They were truly apolitical, content to live their lives in individualistic bubbles, indifferent to the storms raging in the nation in which they lived, under the theocracy whose reign they seemed to deem mostly nominal.
Many people my age predicted that these apolitical younger people would never clash with the regime, that they would finally end both the reformist and the revolutionary struggles. But these predictions relied on the Islamic Republic to be much more pragmatic and rational, acting in its own self-interest rather than out of ideological fervor. Maybe these young people would have grown to be more politically active on their own, or maybe they’d remain forever apolitical. But for the second scenario to become true, the regime should have let them be.
But they weren’t left to their own devices. They weren’t bothering the regime, but the regime chose to bother them.
These young people came to their late teens or early 20s during the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate reformist who had almost shut down the morality police. The president, of course, does not have complete authority over this, but since the police technically answer to him, he’s not completely powerless and the morality police was not completely absent during Rouhani’s eight years but they were almost invisible. And any Iranian who has lived through these years can tell you that from 2013 to 2021, the standards of modesty and hijab shifted considerably. People began wearing loose hijab to universities, clothes became increasingly tight and form-fitting, socks began to disappear, and even a complete lack of hijab became an ordinary outlier—if never the norm.
But then, thanks to the lowest turnout in an Iranian presidential election, Ebrahim Raisi became the president. They increased the presence of the morality police to pre-Rouhani levels. This caused dissatisfaction and many violent clashes between ordinary people and the morality police. Before the murder of Mahsa Amini, a woman went to prison after she was bitten by someone who had tried to lecture them about hijab and had received insults instead. The van of the morality police almost ran over a mother begging for her daughter to be released.
These incidents and similar ones made the public increasingly angry, until 16 September, when the morality police killed a young innocent Kurdish girl more than 400 kilometers from her home.
Mehdi Bazargan, the first prime minister after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the leader of its liberal moderate wing, used to say that the Islamic Revolution had two leaders—Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Shah, who had inadvertently started the movement against him with his own policies. But this round of mass protests has only one leader: the Islamic Republic’s apparatus, who somehow managed to politicize and activate the only apolitical and passive demographic in their country.
What do we talk about when we talk about hijab? For protesters, we are talking about an assault on their identity, their lifestyle, on their very being. For them, hijab is not really a religious issue or a political one. They are not revolting against Islam or authoritarianism or patriarchy. Their revolting against a regime that’s acting like an abusive parent, denying them their agency and individuality and wants to stop them from creating their own path in life.
Side Two: The oppressors
I don’t remember the times when VHS tapes were illegal in Iran. I was too young. I do remember a time when high-speed internet was unavailable, and I do remember when that changed. Satellite dishes and receivers are still technically illegal but I don’t remember anyone complaining about the cops invading their rooftops to confiscate them for years. It used to be a very regular occurrence and a legitimate source of fear. The internet is still heavily censored, but everyone has access to VPNs. The Islamic Republic fought the good fight in its attempts to block us from the pop culture and media of the outside world, but it lost and we won.
The Islamic Republic is accustomed to giving up on its values. It went from the proud anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist champion of the world to the feckless crony and craven cheerleader of Vladimir Putin. It went from the staunch defender of the world’s oppressed to butchering Syrian children in order to keep Bashar Assad in power. It went from the populist voice of the working class to one of the most corrupt oligarchic regimes in the world. It went from boasting about providing an alternative to liberal democracies (a religious democracy) to pathetically fearing its own citizens voting. It went from being the leader of all Muslims to censoring its own media when they want to mention that China is committing genocide against its Muslim minority.
So why insist on perseverance when it comes to hijab, in particular? Why shoulder so much cost? What’s so important about that? It’s not only because hijab is an integral part of Islam—no, they have given up on many aspects of the sharia law, such as bans on usury. It’s not only because they are uniquely afraid of women getting power—they have also given up a great deal of ground to women, mostly in higher education and the workplace. It’s not only because the large ultra-religious minority who are its base of support care about this issue—no, they equally and maybe even more passionately care about economic injustice and corruption.
All of these reasons are true, but they’re not the reason that hijab has become such an important issue for the regime.
My answer to this question is simple and mundane: I believe that the regime has chosen to draw a line in the sand over hijab simply because it’s very visible. Nothing symbolizes the erosion of the regime’s authority and legitimacy as much as hijab. People consume alcohol and drugs and banned media, but they do it in the privacy of their homes. Corruption, inequality, and injustice are at the end of the day abstract concepts that no one can point to in the physical realm. But you can’t escape from the sight of the gradual public deconstruction of modesty norms. If you are motivated to remain loyal to the Islamic Republic, you can’t rationalize it away nor can you live in denial of it. And since you (the ultra-religious supporter of the regime) are raised to think that it is the duty of women to prevent you from sensing arousal and being tempted to sin, you cannot ignore the fact that the city has become much more titillating, which you will interpret as directly hostile to your own spiritual well-being.
So is the regime unwilling or unable to prevent this traumatizing bout of horniness? Whichever option is true, you have to doubt it, and support it a bit less.
Now, if you ask me, I think the regime should have let go of hijab too, even if we consider nothing but its self-interest in surviving. The younger generation would have persisted in their blissful political inactivity, and the poor horny basijis would have soon learned to acclimate to the new situation, their libido subconsciously adjusting to the new normal.
But they never ask me. If they were in the habit of asking me, lots of things would have been different.
No side: Me, an observer
To be quite honest, I am not following these protests with much enthusiasm. I don’t think that they have a realistic chance of overthrowing the regime. More fundamentally, I’m far from certain that would be a good thing even if it were possible.
I fear the repercussions of regime collapse in Iran. I fear that the rise of another authoritarian regime might be the best-case scenario, while a terrifying power vacuum and its resulting instability might be more probable. On a more personal level, the idea of protests and revolution does not reinvigorate me. I confess that I spend long minutes looking at the faces of those who are killed, young and beautiful, and I cannot help feeling that this loss is senseless, that these deaths are in vain.
I was 20 years old when a bullet missed my face by an inch and killed someone behind me. When I look back and think of all the things I have accomplished and experienced in these past 13 years, I cannot say that the world would have been a better place if I had perished that day. And I am not sure how the world is a better place when 20-year-old men and women die now.
I am tired of death.
I don’t know if this betrayal of my feeling makes me an unreliable narrator in your estimation, but you have a right to know my bias in order to better weigh my judgment and analysis. I am not a fan of revolutions. I am not a fan of martyrdom. I’m afraid all that will remain of these revolts for the younger generation is despair. Their revolutionary fervor scares me, their hope scares me, their faith that victory is imminent scares me. I know that guns are more powerful than words. And I know that nothing but hopelessness can remain when hopeful idealism is destroyed. How many of these young people will learn that politics is the stuff of patient incremental progress, and how many of them will relapse into passivity and inaction, but this time angry and bitter instead of happy and oblivious? I don’t know.
There is one thing I know: no matter what happens, the dead are dead, forever trapped in their youthful images, their years mostly unlived. Their beauty is captured in their photos, but it is a lie to say that they will remain beautiful forever. Nothing is uglier than a corpse.