Protests resulting from the death of a young woman, almost certainly at the hands of police, have Iranian reformers hopeful that this time, the Islamic regime will fall and clear the way for something better.
Anybody with memories of the Arab Spring of 2011 and the limited gains—and often, outright chaos—that resulted knows to keep expectations in check. Still, there are reasons for hope in the current protests, and Iran's history of greater cultural breathing room before the Islamic regime took power raises the possibility that something better could result.
"Current protests in Iran point to prospects for new revolution," the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the France- and Albania-based main opposition group to the Islamic regime, optimistically announced just days after the latest round of protests broke out in mid-September. "The profound injustice of Mahsa Amini's death may have been all that was needed to spark another uprising in pursuit of regime change."
Protests have continued and spread since then, even as the body count rises. The arrest of 22-year-old Amini for failing to wear a hijab, and her subsequent death almost certainly at the hands of the morality police, really does seem to have tapped a deep well of discontent that starts with the treatment of women and encompasses the full range of the regime's illiberalism and brutality.
"The current protests in Iran sound the death knell of the Islamic Republic," Iranian-American journalist and activist Masih Alinejad insisted this week in Foreign Affairs. "With women leading the way, Iran's transformation from theocracy to a democracy will be remarkable."
Well, that's hopefully true. But experience tells us that even the most passionate and widespread protests aren't guaranteed to end well. In 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, killed himself in response to repeated harassment by police. Protests against corruption and authoritarianism erupted and spread to other countries in a phenomenon dubbed "the Arab Spring." Regimes toppled, but not always for the better, and some places just descended into violence.
"Ten years after the mass popular uprising known as the Arab Spring began in January of 2011, optimism can be hard to find," the Harvard Gazette concluded in a 2021 piece drawing on the university's scholars and analysts. "Despite the participation of thousands of people—particularly young people—in protests against the autocratic rulers of Middle Eastern countries, little seems to have changed."
In the wake of the 1979 revolution that replaced the autocratic shah with a theocratic Islamic regime, Iran has also experienced waves of protest that achieved little. As recently as the winter of 2019-2020, thousands of people took to the streets in demonstrations that frightened the government without ending its control. But those protests were broader than the ones that came before, and the latest wave may achieve critical mass, having spread to industrial workers with separate but related concerns.
"Protests have spread widely and morphed from calls to abolish mandatory veiling to the ouster of the Islamic Republic leadership," The Wall Street Journal reported last week. Whatever is happening is picking up momentum that goes far beyond the death that set it off.
"Having studied history, having lived through the 1979 revolution, this time feels different," comments Iranian-American scholar Reza Aslan. "There is a fearlessness that we are seeing on the streets, particularly by young women, by teenage women, who simply have had enough."
Women have particular reason to seek change in Iran, since their own mothers and grandmothers tell them of times when things were better, and they had more liberty to do as they pleased.
"Before the revolution, Iranian women had some of the most liberal laws in the Middle East," Kamin Mohammadi wrote in The Guardian of life before the 1979 Islamist revolution. "They could wear what they liked, they could work and even rise to be judges, they had equal rights to divorce and the custody of children, and they had been voting since 1963."
That's not to say that women were treated entirely equally to men, but their circumstances were improving before the revolution reversed many of their gains. Under the current regime, "married women can't even leave the country without their husband's permission," notes Human Rights Watch in its assessment of the sad status on women in the country. That said, the organization adds, "across the board, Iran's human rights situation is dire. It's hard to say what tops the list of abuses, but there are severe restrictions on free speech in Iran."
The old monarchy was deeply authoritarian, but it actually offered expanding breathing room for those who didn't challenge its power.
"The Shah's crucial decade from 1965 to 1975 was also critical for the regime's cultural politics. Iran in this period was a discordant combination of cultural freedoms and political despotism—of increasing censorship against the opposition but increasing freedoms for everyone else," Abbas Milani wrote in his 2012 book, The Shah. "It is far from hyperbole to claim that during the sixties and seventies, Iran was one of the most liberal societies in the Muslim world in terms of cultural and religious tolerance, and in the state's aversion to interfere in the private lives of its citizens—so long as they did not politically oppose the Shah."
Ultimately, the Iranian people ejected the Shah in a popular uprising in 1979. But in doing so, they replaced the authoritarian monarchy with a totalitarian Islamist regime that reaches into all areas of life. From enjoying a relative degree of cultural freedom, they transitioned to a government capable of employing morality police that arrest and kill people for how they dress.
With the history of the 1979 revolution in mind, and of the later Arab Spring, the questions now are: First, will the protests currently engulfing Iran result in change; and, second, will that change result in increased liberty, or will it make things worse? Observers have every reason to be both wary and hopeful.
The death of Mahsa Amini has unleashed a vast amount of discontent in Iran. We don't know where that unleashed rage will take that country. But, despite the danger of the moment, the Iranian people have an opportunity to reclaim what freedom they once had, and to stake out much more.