Can a woman’s hair set off a revolution? In Iran, maybe. Today the country is afire with passionate protest. The spark was the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by “morality police” because too much hair was showing from beneath her head scarf.
Her death set off an explosion of outrage. In dozens of cities, women defiantly pulled off their scarves. Some burned them. Others chanted calls for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic and the death of the country’s leaders.
The intensity of this new wave of protest can be understood only against the background of recent Iranian history. Dour mullahs who rule the country have fiercely resisted repeated appeals, both in politics and on the streets, for social and political reform. Their refusal to evolve, and their decades of corruption and mismanagement, have created a powder keg of frustration and anger. Today’s protests are only superficially about head scarves. Their real source is the government’s refusal to listen to demands from a rising generation.
Governments and private citizens around the world have jumped to condemn this new round of repression. That’s wonderful, but in some cases it’s blindingly hypocritical. Senator Tom Cotton, for example, called Mahsa Amini’s death a “reprehensible crime.” This same senator has supported a sweeping ban on abortion on the grounds that a fetus has constitutional rights from the moment of conception. In both Iran and the United States, as in many other countries, the female body is sometimes seen as property women cannot control, to be regulated as political leaders see fit. Iranian women are rejecting that idea.
Most of today’s protesters in Iran are too young to remember the 1979 revolution that brought clerics to power. They scorn its platitudes. Defiance is their heritage; Iranians are heirs to a rich protest tradition that stretches back more than a century.
At several points over the last 20 years, Iranians have poured onto the streets. Most of these protests were set off by economic grievances. The government responded by insisting that much blame for the parlous economy lies with the United States, which has made Iran one of the most sanctioned countries in history. That is a potent argument. These current protests, however, are focused on the regime’s refusal to allow women to decide how to dress. Many of Iran’s troubles may be blamed on outsiders, but not this one.
The latest protests have come at an especially delicate time. The country’s leaders are debating whether to accept American conditions for returning to the nuclear accord that President Trump tore up in 2018. Meanwhile, the Supreme Leader — supposedly the country’s top authority — is reported to be ill. If he seeks to impose his unpopular son as his successor, as has been speculated, that could set off another uprising.
Behind this new wave of protests, and those that have come before, lies a glaring contradiction. Iranians are products of one of the world’s oldest and richest civilizations. No other country in the world, with the arguable exception of China, can boast such a long history of political and cultural achievement. Today Iran is one of the world’s 20 most populous nations. Its people are among the world’s most sophisticated and highly educated. Iran has all the assets it needs to thrive. Instead, it is isolated, angry, and consumed by strife. What happened?
The 1979 revolution that brought mullahs to power was a reaction against 25 years of royal dictatorship under Mohammad Reza Shah. His dictatorship was established after the 1953 British-American coup that deposed a nationalist prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and put a bloody end to Iranian democracy. That coup has led to seven decades of dictatorship, first royal and then religious.
Repression crushed previous protests against Iran’s Islamic government. It will probably crush this one too. That won’t end the story. Radical rejection of change will lead young people to radicalize in response.
Yet despite the Islamic Republic’s atrocious human rights record, it has deep roots, especially in rural areas where religious belief is strong. It is not a small clique of tyrants that can easily be deposed and chased away. Repression is its chief weapon but hardly its only one. An irresistible force may be meeting an immovable object — always a dangerous scenario.
Iran’s emerging generation is not disposed to accept this governing system indefinitely. If the government does not allow space for reform, there will be more protests. They may be angrier and more violent. In the worst-case scenario, foreign powers jump in to support a rebellion and Iran turns into a collapsed state like Libya. That would remind Iranians of something they have learned painfully in the decades since Mohammad Reza Shah was overthrown: No matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.
On Sept. 21, President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran appeared at the United Nations and offered a plan to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. He would be wiser to try resolving the conflict that is tearing his own country apart.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.