The death of Mahsa Amini–in custody–became a focal point for opposition to Iran’s theocracy. A twenty-two year old Kurdish woman, Amini was arrested for the offense of not wearing her hijab properly. It’s still not quite clear what happened to her in detention, but that’s where her life ended. Protests erupted across Iran.
It’s a common, easy, and inaccurate story to report that the incident awakened dormant dissatisfaction with the state, leading to an unanticipated round of street protests.
In fact, protests against the Iranian government are persistent, if limited, sometimes reaching the attention of Western media. The government has faced protests about the imposition of harsh restrictions on public and private life, to be sure, but also to corruption, repression and poor economic performance, resulting in high prices for food. American sanctions are part of this story, a reaction to Iran’s foreign policies and an apparent project to develop nuclear weapons.
A Green Movement erupted in Iran in 2009–before the wave of protests across the Middle East that defined the Arab Spring. In the last few years, M. Ali Kadivar notes at the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage, protests on a variety of issues have increased across the country, and faced harsh repression.
Police repress in the streets, beating, teargassing, and shooting demonstrators. And arrested protesters can face not only long prison sentences, but brutality in custody. As the protests increased, the repression has become more severe.
Repression often works, Kadivar notes, deterring public dissent. But sometimes, branded as state misconduct, repression becomes another grievance that builds broader alliances among dissenters. The current wave of protests, he argues, unites a range of ethnic groups, students and businesses, and has drawn visible support from cultural elites like athletes and artists. Dissidents upset with corruption or economic failures are now supporting women protesters mistreated by the state–for the first time, Kadivar says, since the successful revolutionary movement of 1979 which toppled the Shah.
It takes more than a grievance to get most people to protest. They need to believe that regular politics won’t deliver the reforms they want, and that their efforts, including participation in protest might help. More action and more allies feed a sense of possibility, encouraging more activism.
Will state repression succeed in shutting down enough of those protests to stifle hope and activism? It usually does, but sometimes it intensifies grievances and commitment. It’s important to recognize this wave of dissent in Iran builds upon years of less visible efforts. And the key thing to watch is the nature of emergent alliances.
The same issues are attendant to disruptive challenges to governments elsewhere–like the antiwar/antidraft protesters in Russia–and also right wing racist movements across the West.