Friday, 24 March, 2023
HomeOpinionNewsmaker of the WeekUnlike Karnataka hijab row, Iran's goes beyond Islam. The regime is under...

Unlike Karnataka hijab row, Iran’s goes beyond Islam. The regime is under attack

The protests in Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini have morphed into anti-government demonstrations with calls to end the Islamic Republic and remove Ali Khamenei from power.

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New Delhi: In India, conversations about the ongoing protests in Iran have harked back to what happened in January in Karnataka, during which some female students of a junior college were denied entry on the grounds that their hijab was a violation of the college’s uniform policy.

Comparison of India and Iran’s protests has led people to remark that women, whether or not they wear a hijab, should be allowed to make their own choices. It’s an important observation but doesn’t capture the whole picture in Iran.

Unlike the Karnataka hijab row, Iran’s protest goes beyond the hijab and religion.

It’s obvious in the fact that despite the suspension of the head of Iran’s morality police — the body responsible for putting 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in jail in the first place — as well as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s calls for an investigation into the young woman’s death, the protests rage on.

They continue in dozens of cities, have claimed at least nine lives and, in Raisi’s own words, invited “acts of chaos”.

Iranians have been angry for a while and Amini’s death appears to have been the catalyst. The ongoing demonstrations are also reminiscent of the protests against the results of the 2009 Iran presidential election, led by the country’s women. The words of experts like Nayereh Tohidi, professor at the US’ California State University, still ring true. “Women have become primary agents of change in Iran,” she had told CNN then.

The relentless protests and the way they have exposed cracks between the Iranian regime and its people, are why they are ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.

Also read: How activists are getting around the internet blackout in Iran

Taking the baton from 2019 protesters

The protests in Iran have morphed into anti-government demonstrations with calls to end the Islamic Republic and remove 83-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei from power. The regime’s crackdown—from blocking internet access to security forces firing at protesters—is reminiscent of what happened in 2019.

In November that year, protests erupted after the government decided to radically raise petrol prices by 50 percent in a bid to reduce the effects of crippling US sanctions, which the Trump administration had reinstated a year before. The Biden administration lifted some of the sanctions amid ongoing Iran nuclear deal talks.

You may be thinking: ‘So, it was Trump’s fault.’ But, arguably, it was the way the Iranian government, led by then-President Hassan Rouhani, ambushed the public with a steep fuel price hike that triggered the protests. Brookings described the fuel hike as “sudden and utterly mismanaged”.

Naturally, people protested. But the crackdown in November 2019 was so brutal that it came to be known as “Bloody November”. Amnesty International documented 321 deaths.

It’s almost as though today’s protesters, common Iranians including women, are taking the baton from those in 2019.

The question now is whether the Iranian regime’s tried and tested measure of cracking down on dissent will work this time around or backfire? As it is, these protests have come at a time when Iran is negotiating with Western powers for the revival of a nuclear deal, which could result in more sanctions relief for Tehran.

Then again, Iran’s plans to supply Russia with drones for its war in Ukraine seems like the kind of decision that would not only stifle the ongoing nuclear deal talks but further economically isolate Tehran from the rest of the world. Ordinary Iranians are clearly bearing the brunt of that.

Also read: Iranian women say ‘no to hijab’, publicly remove veil to protest draconian chastity laws

Public resentment, religious decline

Forty years ago, 98.2 percent of Iranians had, through a referendum, agreed to the formation of an Islamic Republic. But the Iran of today is not the Iran of 1979, as evident in the decline of religiosity in the country.

In June, the Netherlands-based Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN (GAMAAN) conducted a survey of over 50,000 respondents and found that while state propaganda portrays Iran as a Shia nation, only 32 percent of Iranians identify as such. Moreover, 68 percent were found to be in favour of excluding religious prescriptions from state legislation.

In terms of public resentment, how different is today’s Iran from what it was just five years ago? A poll of 1,004 Iranians in June 2017 found that Iranians stood firmly behind their government’s threats to take counter measures against the US if the White House imposed new sanctions (which it eventually did). Back then, 55 percent of Iranians said their country should retaliate by restarting aspects of its nuclear programme that it suspended under the nuclear deal.

Could it be that these views have changed, what with the squeeze of sanctions exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and now an energy and food crisis brought on by the Russia-Ukraine war?

The anger visible on Iranian streets today clearly suggests so.

We’re seeing extreme acts of dissent like never before. Women are burning hijabs and cutting their hair in public — acts that could lead to years of jail-time, flogging or massive fines. People are scaling municipality buildings to tear down posters of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The combination of public resentment over economic conditions and the decline of religiosity in Iran is what’s sustaining the ongoing protests. By adopting arguably wrongheaded foreign and domestic policies, the Iranian regime seems to have alienated itself not just from the world order but also from its own people.

This disconnect was palpable when on Thursday, at the UN General Assembly, Raisi held up a photo of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, who died in a US drone strike in January 2020, and demanded those behind his killing be brought to justice.

Meanwhile at home, Iranians were burning banners of Soleimani, once viewed as the right hand man of Khamenei.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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