A hijabless woman on her way to Aichi cemetery in Saqez to mark 40 days since Mahsa Amini’s death, October 2022 (Photo: AFP)
IN JANUARY 2020, I WAS MEETING A professor at the University of Tehran as part of field research for a book I was writing on Iran’s geopolitics. As I made my way to the Faculty of World Studies, I couldn’t help but notice that almost every young woman I passed by was wearing jeans. It was not the epic blue denim that became the symbol of cultural dissent and Western influence in the Soviet Union, prompting Ulrich Plenzdorf to write that “the way I see it, jeans are an attitude, not just trousers.” Instead, to me, those young women in their curious ensemble of dark-grey or black figure-hugging denims paired with manto coats that extend up to lower waist, complete with the mandatory hijab, symbolised the cultural discrepancy rampant in contemporary Iran.
Living under a regime that obsesses over the Western ‘cultural challenge’ and ‘social corruption’, these young women, like the eponymous protagonist Werther in Plenzdorf’s The New Sorrows of Young W, dream of freedom, of being able to define their own life, and not being forced to live a life that the state expects of them. Therefore, when a young Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the ‘morality police’, young Iranian women and men, united by a sense of injustice, raised the call of Zan-Zendegi-Azadi (women, life, freedom) in their striking protest against mandatory hijab. The nationwide unrest once again underscored Iranian youth’s steadfastness on the path of freedom as they define it.
In recent months, the political and security establishments, confident that they have overcome the latest civil unrest, are busy managing the festering crisis of legitimacy left in its wake. President Ebrahim Raisi, in his address on the 44th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on February 11, once again blamed the unrest on the West and its allies, arguing that having failed to stop Iran’s progress, they have turned to a “project of chaos”. Similarly, commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Hossein Salami spoke of “detailed plots” of hybrid warfare by Iran’s enemies, before warning that those who follow the West by backing further unrest, aim to “ruin the country and impede its prosperity”. Such a discourse strips citizens of their agency to engage in political action, and at the same time by arguing that enemies are seeking regime collapse and even disintegration of the nation, a claim buttressed by pointing to failed US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the argument seeks to claim security legitimacy for the regime. In other words, the Islamic Republic is no longer seeking democratic/ republican legitimacy through genuinely competitive elections, by deepening civil society or even by focusing on meeting its population’s aspirations for improved economic conditions. Instead, the conservative-hardliners, who control the presidency, the parliament and the judiciary, in unison with the Revolutionary Guards, have made security, defined in terms of protecting the Islamic Republic from ‘internal’ and external enemies, the ultimate virtue and interest of the state.
When a young Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the ‘morality police’, Iranian young women and men, united by a sense of injustice, raised the call of Zan-Zendegi-Azadi (women, life, freedom) in their striking protest against mandatory hijab. The nationwide unrest once again underscored Iranian youth’s steadfastness on the path of freedom as they define it
Share this on
Ayatollah Khamenei, addressing a large gathering of commanders and officers of the Iranian Army’s Air Force on National Air Force Day on February 8, warned that enemies are seeking to destroy the Islamic Republic by sowing discord and distrust between political groups, people’s distrust of one another, the people’s distrust of the government and the government’s distrust of the people. And they have done so by bringing up issues of ‘women’, the ‘Shi’i-Sunni issues’ and the ‘differences between generations.’ At the source of this enmity, Khamenei maintained, is the Islamic Republic’s commitment to independence from the “global arrogance” (US), which is not a mere policy but steeped in its religious beliefs and convictions and, therefore, unchangeable. Further, giving away his vision of society and political system, going forward, Khamenei noted that “one who is willing to give up his faith, no longer has the qualifications to work in this system.” This heralds a return to the early decades of revolution when ideology was in command and those who were not seen as pious or ideologically committed were treated as second-class citizens. Reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s call of ‘Iran for all Iranians’, equal rights and rule of law had sought to change this state of affairs by furthering the republican legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. At the same time, his dialogue with the West had challenged the rigid ideological worldview that has now once again come to dominate Iran’s political system. Under doctrinaire administrations, whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Raisi, the dismal state of nuclear negotiations with the West and their ready securitisation of social and political issues has gone hand-in-hand with an expanding role for the Revolutionary Guards in Iran’s economy and politics, and a consequent diminishing of political freedoms.
Furthermore, Revolutionary Guards in their role as the ‘Guardians of the Islamic Revolution’ are also tasked with upholding the state’s revolutionary ideology in the face of a challenging ideational and cultural landscape. Narges Bajoghli’s Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic (2019), an ethnographic study of the media production role of the Guards over a decade since the 2009 Green Movement, underscores that a key strategy to reach out to the new generation has been to recast the revolutionary ideology in nationalist, rather than religious terms. In doing so, a key goal has been to recast the image of the Revolutionary Guard as defenders of the Iranian nation against the threat posed by ISIS, Israel and the US, and as champions of Iranian nationalism, rather than Islam alone. Yet, the confounding socio-political reality of Iran is that of the million Tehranis who spontaneously turned up for the funeral procession of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani assassinated in a US drone strike in January 2020, many may have as well rallied for Zan-Zendegi-Azadi last autumn.
The Islamic Republic’s politico-religious project of deriving legitimacy from political Islam or nationalism will continue to encounter resistance from the popular Iranian nationalism shaped by more than a century-old struggle against imperial domination as well as the country’s own authoritarian institutions, whether monarchy or theocracy. The abysmal failure of the state’s efforts towards ideological control of the society through strategies of dissimulation is laid bare by the way the ideal of freedom performed an ideological function during the latest protests. We may debate whether the youth who took to the streets last September were seeking to overthrow the system or demand social freedoms, but what is beyond doubt is that they put their lives on the line because they saw that their very being (Zendegi), their self-perceived identities as free individuals were at stake. Their worldview is not populated by imaginaries of enemies, nor is ‘resistance’ the mainstay of their politics. At the same time, it is nothing but wishful thinking of regime-change enthusiasts that young Iranians will join forces with them, especially when they are resorting to self-defeating policies such as the bipartisan resolution in the US Congress endorsing exiled cultish Mojahedin-e Khalq Organisation, which has virtually no supporters in Iran.
It is better to keep an ear to the ground, or better still, listen to Shervin Hajipour’s Grammy-winning song, and you will know that Iranians are striving for an ‘ordinary life’, not a ‘heaven’ that is forced from within or without.