A photot of a protest in solidarity with the Iranian people that took place in Santa Barbra, CA on October 1, 2022.
A protest in solidarity with the Iranian people that took place in Santa Barbra, CA on October 1, 2022. Credit: Brett Morrison / Wikimedia Commons

Days after the 1979 revolution in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a decree making the veiling of women mandatory.

Women flooded the streets in protest and, despite being attacked by many who supported the leadership and revolution, managed to force the religious leadership to temporarily retreat from their position on the veil.

This was one of the first protests against the religious leadership of Iran in the wake of the revolution.

Today, the rights of women have, again, ignited protests across the country of Iran and are now being seen as the start of a new revolution. Two particular crimes ignited the decades of anger.

In early September, in the majority Sunni province of Sistan Balochistan, a 15-year-old girl was raped by Col. Ebrahim Khouchakzai, the commander of the police in her city. At first the case was surpressed and now, according to Iran International “the police forces of the city have taken hostage three relatives of the rape victim to force her family to publicly deny the reports and promise not to file complaint against Colonel Khouchakzai.”

On September 16, 2022, in Tehran a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, 22, was visiting her brother in Tehran when she was murdered for allegedly breaking rules on headscarves.  In the wake of her death in custody, protests started across the country.

On September 30, 2022, on a day now known as Zahedan’s Bloody Friday, protesters in Zahedan (in Sistan-Balochistan) were protesting the rape by the police commander and the murder of Mahsa Amini after Friday prayers. Live ammunition was used against them by government forces. Amnesty International says that at least 82 protesters and bystanders were killed.

As of October 14, 222 people have been killed across the country while protesting or as a result of crackdowns after the widespread demonstrations. The government has now intensified its crackdown in Kurdish areas.

Despite the horrific crackdowns, the protests continue across the country. I interviewed Kaveh Shahrooz, lawyer, human rights activist who has written widely on international affairs and human rights, with a particular focus on Iran, to learn more about the dynamics of the protest and what we can do in support of protestors.

Q: How is this protest different from the protests in the past in Iran?

Shahrooz: Iran has a long history of protests which predate the current regime and one of the earliest protests against the current regime was led by women standing against the mandatory hijab rule. In terms of large scale protests, probably the largest one happened in 2009, followed by other protests in 2017 and 2019.

The logic and discourse of these protests has shifted over time.

At the outset, the basis of the 2009 protests was a stolen election. What came to be called the Green Movement tried to use the very limited levers of power available within the constraints of the Islamic Republic to demand reform. The two candidates who stood for election under this banner remain under house arrest to this day. These are not radicals, these are not people who wanted to overthrow the system. Some of the leaders are people who are loyal servants of the regime to this day.

There has been a growing realisation that the reform project has been a failure for a variety of reasons. The regime is has become increasingly inflexible and repressive. The economy has collapsed as a result of corruption, mismanagement, and sanctions.

The messages have radicalised and people have radicalised. It is no longer “where is my vote,” it is no longer “I want to work within the system.” Over time, you’re hearing more and more messages of “down with the dictator”, “death to the Islamic Republic” No one is talking about reforming the system anymore. No one’s talking about working through the electoral system. It’s a wholesale rejection of the cruelty and barbarism of the Islamic Republic.

These latest protests are cross cutting across gender, across ethnicity, religion. Frankly, I can’t think of very many segments that are not involved in these protests. A lot of them are youth, and a lot of them are people who had been young when the Green Movement happened in 2009. The leaders of the Green Movement are not involved in this because they remained loyal to the system, but I think many of the rank-and-file have outgrown the reform movement.

This is also a woman led movement and for good reason. Every segment of this country has been deeply affected by the cruelty of this regime, but women have been particularly impacted. The daily indignities that they have to deal with, where even the most basic, intimate choices in their lives are made by the State, where agency is taken from them in law, where they are deemed to be half of men. This is not just a matter of interpretation of law, literally in law, and a lot of matters, women are worth half of men.

You can only live with this indignity for so long, especially in a globalizing world, where you can see other young people and women enjoying freedoms that have been stripped from you. Many people are tired of ideological beliefs, or anything of that sort. All they want is freedom. All they want is a normal life. I mean, a normal life was actually a trending hashtag in Iran for a long time. You know, the stuff that you and I take for granted going out in the street and running and, you know, holding our boyfriend or girlfriend’s hand. I mean, these are really normal ordinary things in life that that Iranian youth have been denied.

I have also never seen this level of unity among people from all different segments, different classes, different genders, and different ethnic groups.  A lot of people marching are chanting Kurdish chants, even though they’re not Kurdish. The main chant of these protests has been “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” which is Kurdish for Woman, Life, Freedom. People have spoken about the bravery of Kurdistan and the cruelty that Kurdistan has been subjected to as a result of Islamic Republic.

I think everybody’s united and they understand who their common enemy is. And the common enemy is the Islamic regime that has repressed them for years.

Q: Let’s compare sanction tactics. Before the nuclear deal, there were countrywide sanctions. In recent conflicts, sanctions have been developed which try to target the cabal in power. How did these two types of sanctions feed into this revolutionary spirit? And what do you think of Canada’s current stance?

Shahrooz: Sure, yeah, so the sanctions debate is a really contentious one.  I will say that the financial problems have come in part, I won’t say entirely but in part, as a result of the sanctions and have actually increased people’s anger. However, we should be clear, people inside the country are actually very smart. They know that the source of the sanctions is the Iranian regime’s irresponsible pursuit of nuclear weapons. They know that during an economic crisis, money is being shipped out to fund proxy fights in Israel and Lebanon and elsewhere.

So you hear a couple of common chants on the streets in Iran. One is, “our enemy is right here; they lie when they say ‘it’s America’.”  The second chant that you often hear on the streets is “not for Gaza, not for Lebanon, I give my life for Iran.”  This is one of those points that I would say the international left has been very, very wrong. Viewing Iran purely through an anti-imperialist lens, they have ended up perhaps unwittingly parroting the talking points of the Islamic regime where they have put all the blame on the United States, on Israel, on Canada and other countries in the West.

Now, let’s speak to your question about Canada sanctions. Canada recently announced that it was going to sanction 10,000 top members of the brutal IRGC, the Revolutionary Guard Corps. I think it’s very much a step in the right direction and a step that should have been taken long ago.

These sanctions should be extended to Iran civilian leadership. Obviously, the IRGC is incredibly cruel, but it’s not the only cruel institution in the country. Iran’s President is implicated in crimes against humanity and should be standing trial at The Hague. A lot of the top leadership of the country should be under sanction. There is significant evidence to suggest that they have sent their families abroad and they’ve sent their money abroad. There should be an effort, not just in Canada but across the world, to diplomatically isolate them to freeze their assets and to, again, as I said, increase the cost of working with this regime.

The other thing is more complicated. Many activists and people, victims, groups, are asking for a total listing of the IRGC as a terrorist organisation. The benefit of that is that it ends up catching a lot more collaborators with the regime in its net. Anyone collaborating with the IRGC would be charged with aiding and abetting terrorism. It is complicated because collaboration is not always voluntary, some are conscripted and coerced. And so obviously, the design has to not harm those people. However, the goal of the West should be to recognise the IRGC for what it is, which is just a brutal force of repression, and terrorism. It’s engaged in repression domestically, and it’s engaged in a lot of terrorism abroad. It is responsible for killings, both in the region, and also places the far away as Thailand or Argentina, or elsewhere.

Q: What is a good way for a person who wants to get involved in to help? What should they not do? And what should they do?

Shahrooz: What a great question. Those outside the country are limited in terms of what they can do. Primarily, the global community ought to stand in solidarity.

There are some people putting out narratives saying, “Well, you know, maybe this regime isn’t so bad. Maybe it has now learned, it’s less dangerous, and these protests are about hijab or a precarious economy.”

Part of solidarity is a correct analysis of the situation. People on the streets in Iran are not asking for cosmetic changes. They’re not even asking that much about the hijab anymore. They’re rejecting the regime in its entirety. So having the correct mindset, I think helps you come up with methods of solidarity.

Second, I would say, continue to be the voice of the Iranian people. Every message I get from inside the country is, “we’re going out to protest, but please, please don’t let the West forget about what’s happening.” As long as there is sustained political and media attention, the regime tends to be a little bit more reticent to unleash its violence. This is an incredibly violent regime, it will do terrible things. Perhaps do less awful things, if the entire attention of the international community is on it.

This means two things, use the regular tools that activists like marches and rallies, writing to your members of parliament or members of Congress to continue to pressure Iran’s regime. Secondly, don’t conflate fights. A lot of people try to connect Iranian women’s demands to other demands globally, you know, for reproductive rights, for gender rights and other issues. And I understand that all these things are connected. But I think one important lesson from the Black Lives Matter movement is that specific injustice requires specific focus.

In an effort to link the Iranian struggle to the larger struggle, it ends up kind of diluting the deaths and danger and horrific violence being faced in Iran by the protestors.

Q: Finally, what are some sources that people should look to for stories that are coming out by people from Iran?

Shahrooz: I don’t want to overwhelm people with too many recommendations. So I will give just two recommendations.

One is an association of victims of flight PS752. PS752 was a civilian flight which was shot down by the Revolutionary Guard over Iran’s airspace. 176 people were killed, many of them with links to other countries, Canada, the UK and elsewhere. The families of those victims have formed an association that’s been a really powerful organisation in terms of pushing for justice and truth, but also of sharing information. They have a lot of great links on their social media accounts.

The other is Iranian-American journalist and activist Masih Alinejad. Masih has been living in hiding in the United States because Iran’s regime has tried to kill her on more than one occasion. Several years ago, she began a few different campaigns, one was called My Stealthy Freedom She started by asking women in Iran to film themselves living their daily lives and send the videos to her and she would disseminate. She also began something called the White Wednesdays campaign where women would just wear white to protest the repression by the regime, this was their form of resistance. She also began this campaign called ‘My Camera, My Weapon’ in which people would record their daily interactions with regime officials.  These are stories from within Iran. Follow her work.

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Maya Bhullar

Maya Bhullar has over 15 years of professional experience in such diverse areas as migration, labour, urban planning and community mobilization. She has a particular interest in grassroots engagement,...