OVERWHELMINGLY, MOST movements don’t turn violent simply because the state controls the arsenal. It has all the guns, soldiers, and policemen. Change builds up gradually like steam inside a pressure cooker, until there is enough popular support for a revolution, or the recognition of this process makes the state take preemptive action with reform. This is a forced concession but the most popular response in modern times because even totalitarian societies know the upsetting of the balance is just around the corner. It is why China is forced to bend on its zero-Covid policy. It is why Iran has just disbanded its morality police. This was following months of defiance and street protests after a 22-year-old girl was killed in custody after being arrested for not wearing a hijab. It soon snowballed into a countrywide agitation, and Iran’s belated yielding is not enough now. The New York Times reported: “Disbanding the morality police is not likely to appease the protesters, whose demands have gone far beyond just doing away with the mandatory head scarf or hijab, and who have kept up confrontations with the security forces across the country for nearly three months.”
There are some historical phenomena at work here. No one thinks that ruthless societies based on fundamentalism can be opposed until it happens, and then the question that remains is why did it take so long. When Galileo was forced to recant his finding that the earth revolved around the sun, the Catholic church had absolute control over bodies and minds, but just around the corner, there was Reformation and Enlightenment. Old ideas and institutions that seem entrenched fade away and it is as if they were always being hollowed out even while looking whole from the outside. A prime reason for this is just entropy, or what time does to everything. The Islamic revolution might have been led by the mullahs but in the late 1970s, it was the young men who took to the streets and made it a mass movement. They are senior citizens now. Young Iranians today need more than religion for their lives and it is not possible to keep the world away when the internet is easily accessible. New ideas and cultures come without invitation before their eyes. And the regime itself loses the ability to be extraordinarily cruel the longer they are in power. It is harder to order the shooting of thousands of citizens. And so those in power start giving up a little of the hold on the rope, and then they pull it back in panic and then they give a little more, until suddenly even they are surprised the rope is no longer in their hands. That is how morality, which seems so key to a culture, ends up being a relic. Take what Indians once held sacred and enforced with such rigour—caste and its taboos. Could anyone 200 years ago have imagined the elimination of untouchability here? Iran will not change in 2022 or 2023 to be a society where women have equal rights, but it is on its way.