Bessma Momani is a professor at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Saturday marked 44 years since frustrated young people took to the streets of Iran’s capital to protest Mohammad Reza Shah’s lavish and out-of-touch rule. At the time, the 13 months of protests and workers strikes seemed unlikely to morph into a revolution, and few analysts recognized it for the watershed moment it was for Iranian society and the Middle East. But those marches birthed the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Similarly, today’s protests in Iran have also forever changed this country.
Throughout the 1978-79 revolution, young Iranians used placards and slogans of defiance to protest a dynastic ruler backed by the world’s superpowers. Leaning on his brutal security force – the Savak – to contain and repress protesters, the shah was funded and supported by the Americans and British, who were trying to stem the tide of communism spreading in the Middle East. It was an exiled Shia Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who would change the course of history by recording speeches of revolution on smuggled-in cassette tapes that made their way to the Iranian masses.
To the chagrin of many of these revolutionaries, the ayatollah filled a power vacuum and built a theocracy that was already out of sync with the lives of many Iranians – and has become anathema to much of Iranian society of today. The increasingly impoverished public watched indignantly as the theocratic regime – which continued even after Mr. Khomeini’s death in 1989 – spared no expense in militarizing society and the region, lining the pockets of clerics through semi-public foundations, and suppressing women’s rights and free movement.
Iran has seen mass mobilization against this regime – and since the 2009 Green Movement, which brought up to three million people to the streets of Tehran, there have been near-yearly protest movements calling for votes to be counted, subsidies to be reinstated and the government’s incompetence and corruption to be exposed. But it was the September, 2022, death of Kurdish-Iranian Jina Mahsa Amini – after she was arrested by the so-called morality police for not “properly” wearing her hijab – that ushered in a societal awakening that cannot be turned back. Now, there are no more demands for reforms or tinkering with policy, just calls for a wholesale upending of the entire regime.
After Ms. Amini’s death, protests spread like wildfire across the country, with university and high-school students and other Iranians of various social classes and ethnic communities shouting for “women, life, freedom.” The frequency of these protests has diminished over the winter months, but only after great repression. According to Human Rights Activists News Agency, approximately 500 people, of which 69 were minors, were killed by security forces for participating in feminist and anti-regime protests. Thousands of others were maimed, some purposely shot in the eye in an act of cruel punishment well-known to Iranian authorities.
An estimated 18,000 to 20,000 protesters have been arrested since September, adding to the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Iran’s notorious prisons, and several high-profile protesters have been executed, reinstating Iran as the world leader in known state executions. Recent announcements of amnesty or pardons for a small number of prisoners will not temper the expectations of Iranians wanting change.
Today, it is the TikTok generation recording their defiance to theocratic rule by proudly removing their hijabs in public, walking behind religious clerics to toss off their turbans and singing Baraye – an ode to why Iranians want freedom from their regime. (The song title translates to “because of.”) Using VPNs to bypass state censors, revolutionaries are leaning on the diaspora to amplify their messages and bring international attention to the plight of the Iranian people. In response, the diaspora has been formidable in pressing Western governments to hold the regime accountable. The protest movement is leaderless, making it nimble and difficult to stamp out, but it is not without its sympathizers.
Throughout this past weekend’s 44th anniversary, Iranians called for nothing short of the downfall of the regime’s geriatric and theocratic clerics. Banners meant to celebrate the anniversary were burned, festive fireworks in the capital were drowned out by chants of, “Death to the dictator,” shouted from apartment windows, and the state broadcast of President Ebrahim Raisi’s speech was hacked with slogans calling for the regime’s demise.
It is easy to underestimate the tenacity of Iranian society, and the regime appears to be strong. Yet, as the renowned Iranian-American sociologist Asef Bayat poignantly reminds us, revolution can happen without revolutionaries. We should pay attention to these everyday protests, which are a powerful force driving social change.