Monday, February 6, 2023
HomeOpinionSecurity CodeIran’s people have begun an irreversible process—tearing off the theocratic veil

Iran’s people have begun an irreversible process—tearing off the theocratic veil

Iran’s ruling establishment will fight to the end. Locked in confrontation with the West, its leaders know they are on the edge of an existential threat.

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The Ayatollahs called it The Devil’s Feast: great rulers of the world assembled in the ancient Iranian city of Persepolis to gorge won quail eggs with caviar, mousse of crayfish tails, imperial peacock, sixty-year-old champagne and vintage cognac. The catering was by Maxims of Paris, the tents sourced from a Swiss interior design firm, and the toiletries from Guerlain. The poorer sections of the town had been hidden behind high walls, one visitor observed, and local beggars were chased away by the secret police.

For the most part of the five-day gathering, the world made its peace with the petroleum-dollar fuelled excess. The avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis—a battle-hardened Communist almost blinded in combat against British tanks sent into Greece to stamp out a Left-wing revolution—even produced a special rendition for the 1971 Persepolis celebrations.

Eight years later, Iran’s urban poor and middle class united to revolt against the lurid decadence of their rulers and draped themselves in the dull monochrome of theocracy. Through its decades in power, the Islamic Republic has seen off multiple challenges to its authority: Ethnic mobilisations in the early 1980s, urban riots in the next decade, reformist youth movements in the 2000s, and economic protests in 2017-2018 and again in 2019.

The explosion of anger since the killing of student Mahsa Amini in police custody is powering the deepest challenge the regime has yet had to confront.

Four hundred and thirty-four people, including dozens of children, are estimated by human rights organisations to have been killed, and tens of thousands arrested in the protests so far. Ethnic-Kurdish demonstrators in Boukan, and Baluch Sunnis in Zahedan, have stormed government buildings. Elites linked to the regime also seem seized by anger. Football players refused to sing the national anthem in Doha. Film star Taraneh Alidoosti—who earlier said Iranians were “millions of prisoners”—posted pictures of herself without a veil.

Even bazaar merchants, the bedrock of the regime’s power base, closed their stores in Tehran, Mashhad and Isfahan. A wing of the seminary in Qom—the regime’s theological powerhouse, and childhood home of the Islamic Republic’s founding patriarch, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—was torched.


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The gender-apartheid state

The story of how the anti-hijab protests catalysed a generalised political rebellion begins with the fetishisation of gender in Iranian politics. From the outset, Khomeini linked the piety of women to the new political order in Iran. “The women who contributed to the revolution were, and are, women with the Islamic dress, he told the journalist Oriana Fallaci. “Not elegant women all made up like you, who go around all uncovered, dragging behind them a tail of men.” The Islamic State was, at its core, a gender-apartheid state.

For the regime of the Shah, the unveiling of women—often secured through brutal violence—was a metaphor for the wider process of Westernisation he sought to push through. The Ayatollahs made the veil the symbol of their project.

The first postage stamp ever issued of an Iranian woman consisted of a round-faced woman set inside a black, oval shell. The background contained a gun: The New Woman was not a traditionalist, but a desexualised vessel for bearing the values of the Islamic revolution.

Large numbers of women—disillusioned by westernisation that had, in practice, meant immiseration—supported this new ideology, scholar Hamideh Sedghi records. Led, appropriately, by a phalanx of men, hundreds of women marched in Tehran to vow “Death to the Unveiled Woman and her Cowardly Husband.” To some women from poor neighbourhoods, Sedghi suggests, participation in religious-enforcement squads might also have offered a sense of agency and power over élites.

Fatwas ordained by clerics institutionalised hijab, by variously mandating the use of the all-enveloping chador, the loose-fitting rupush tunic, and the rusari scarf. The law of Qisas, or retribution, institutionalised these mandates in 1983, condemning women who defied the rules to 74 lashes. The law also mandated that the testimony of a woman in adultery cases was worth just half that of a man.

Through the coming years, gender apartheid hardened. From offices to sports complexes and even medical facilities, public infrastructure was segregated by gender. Educational institutions saw the same process. Even in public transport, women were assigned separate seats—at the back. The consent of husbands was required for married women to travel, and single women were denied the right to study overseas.


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The cracks within

From at least 2007, evidence emerged that the regime was congealing into a theocratic nightmare. That year, Iran’s supreme court upheld the acquittal of militia members who admitted to having killed individuals they believed to be engaged in crimes like drug peddling, extramarital sex and prostitution. To kill to enforce Islam, the court held, citing a constitutional provision, was legitimate. There had been several other similar cases—one involving the hanging of a teenage girl for “chastity crimes.”

Efforts to ease the enforcement of theocratic norms began under President Mohammed Khatami, who ruled from 1997 to 2005. The rise of the authoritarian-populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though, saw the gains reversed, as the regime sought to consolidate its authority with religious nationalism.

Late in 2017, though, the regime’s social base began to disintegrate, amid an economic crisis in part brought on by Western sanctions against Iran’s nuclear-weapons programme. Fuel price hikes in 2019 led to attacks on government offices and banks, as well as the looting of supermarkets. The one-third of Iranians who continued to live under the poverty line, despite the regime’s promises to ensure equality, were beginning to lose patience, journalist Maryam Sinaiee observed.

The latest protests have opened up deep cracks within the establishment. In several cities, protestors have chanted harsh—sometimes obscene—slogans against the country’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Elements in the hard-Right establishment have tried to signal a willingness to reform, in a bid to still the crisis. Ali Reza Panahian, a cleric close to Khamenei, has called for greater popular participation in government. The chief of Iran’s judiciary, Gholamhosein Mohseni Ejei and security boss Ali Shamkhani, notably, met with prominent reformist politician Fatemeh Rakei. “It may be too late for reconciliation,” Rakei later said, “but we still have time to stop bloodshed and violence.

A high-ranking cleric, the pro-reform Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat-Zanjani, asserted that “demonstrators have the right to defend themselves against agents in civilian clothes who attack [them].” Ethnic minorities are also increasingly alienated. Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, spiritual head of Iran’s Sunni population, and a long-standing regime supporter alleged the government had “resorted to threats and intimidation, rather than asking for forgiveness from the families of the victims and the wounded.”


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A long struggle ahead?

“The Shah lives in a morbid dreamworld,” Khomeini proclaimed early in 1979. Within days, The Light of the Aryans—as the king called himself—left Iran for the last time, claiming to be travelling for a holiday. Scholar Ali Ansari, in a magisterial history of modern Iran, recorded that 2,781 people were killed in the bloody year that preceded his exit. Following a curious speech claiming leadership of the rebellion against his state, Ansari writes, the king ordered the arrest of many establishment figures—leading the élite to lose faith in his ability to protect them.

Iran’s ruling establishment will likely fight to the end. Locked in confrontation with the West, its leaders know they are on the edge of an existential threat to their power. The theocratic circle which rules the country, along with the military, has no escape-route overseas. “This ominous sedition will bring no happy ending to you,” the head of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, General Hossein Salami warned protestors this week.

To some, it seems clear coercion will not succeed. The eminent economist Mohsen Renani has argued that “the government is trying to stop a flood by shooting at it, thinking that bullets can stop the deadly torrent.” The protests might be crushed—but Iran’s people have begun an irreversible process of tearing off the theocratic veil. 

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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