Are Iran protests turning into the first female-led revolution?


Sepideh Alassi Januar 2023

What goes on in Iran is the start of the first-ever female-led revolution in history. Iranian women are risking their lives on the streets fighting for their basic human rights together with the supporting men. This article will explore the unique and strong aspects of the current protests, how they started, and what they aim for. We will then look into the continuous protests at the universities and women’s leading role in the campus protests despite the brutal invasions of the universities by the regime forces.

We are indeed currently witnessing the start of a revolution led by women against gender apartheid and religious theocracy in Iran. Over the last 43 years, there have been many protests in Iran, the first one of which was a protest of thousands of Iranian women against changes in women’s rights and the enforcement of hijab following the 1979 revolution. The compulsory hijab was legalized in 1983 and since then, a chain of laws followed to degrade women to second-level citizens. Women lost not only the freedom of choice over their clothing, but also other fundamental rights: to initiate a divorce, to have custody of their children, to inherit equal to the men of the family, and freely travel abroad requires the permission of the husband. In the current judicial system of Iran, the word of a woman is half worth compared to a man’s, and killing a woman would result in half the sentence one would receive for killing a man. Since the 1979 revolution, Iranian women can no longer have prominent jobs like being a judge or assuming a ruling position in the government. These are to count only a few of many laws, the Islamic regime legalized to restrict women. For the regime in Iran, women only exist to give birth and raise kids; an ideology that the regime dedicates a considerable amount of funding to advertise even on national TV. Over time, the hijab has become an essential tool for the regime to suppress women to kill insubordination will within them.

In the 1980s, the regime initiated the notorious morality police to enforce the Islamic dress code: headscarf, long coat, restrictions on applying make-up, etc. Women would be detained, humiliated, beaten, and even punished with lashes and imprisonment for slight deviation from the hijab rules. Many Iranian women, like me and all my friends, who do not believe in Islamic clothing, have had the experience of being detained by the morality forces. The current president Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative Islamist, increased the funding of the morality police to harshen the control over the appearance of women in public. In September 2022, these forces went as far as killing a 22-year-old girl, Mahsa Jina Amini, for not wearing her headscarf “properly”. This incident inflamed the piled-up anger in the Iranian women; they rose believing enough is enough and went to the streets with one slogan “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”; i.e., “Woman, Life, Freedom”.

This slogan encapsulates the entire message of this revolution: demanding basic human rights for women, the right to live a normal life, and freedom of choice and expression for all. This slogan is such an influential one that every person in the world can relate to it resulting in global compassion and sympathy. Most Iranian men do not agree with the restrictions forced on women by the regime; they stand by women in this movement and fight on the streets for the same values. The regime, however, does not tolerate any demonstration or criticism; hence it started brutally oppressing the protests killing many, including children and teenagers. This act of regime was like throwing fuel on a fire, the flames of anger in demonstrators increased to the state that the protestors no longer demand reform but a change of the regime. Besides “Woman, Life, Freedom”, they chant “we don’t want the Islamic republic” and “Down with the dictator” targeting the religious supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

You might ask yourself, what makes these protests different from the previous ones? Many factors make these protests stronger and with a high potential to overthrow the regime. In each of the previous protests, a certain class of people was involved. In 1979, only women were on the streets barely supported by men. In 1999, only university students were involved asking for reform. In the green movement of 2009, after the presidential election fraud, the middle and educated class were on the streets peacefully asking for their votes back having lost their hopes in any effective reform in the government. In 2019, the working class protested against the drastically increased fuel prices. This time, however, people from all classes are involved, from rich to poor, from academics to the working class, all asking for freedom and the right to live a normal life.

Another unique aspect of these protests is that it is based on a decentralized leadership concept. In the absence of a central leading figure, every person is a leader. When one is arrested or killed, others lead the local protesting groups. In the 2009 protests, Mahdi Kahroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi were central opposition leaders of the green movement whose arrest discontinued the protests. This time, however, the regime cannot follow the same strategy of ending the protests by removing the leader from the picture.

People are now strongly determined to bring this revolution to success. This is the result of years of frustration -  mismanagement of resources, corruption of the regime, inflation, distrust in the regime after the reveal of huge scandals such as the disappearance of an oil rig worth millions of dollars over a night, embezzlement of the regime figures, disastrous foreign policies such as involving the country into conflicts with the west that resulted in nothing other than poverty for the people, misuse of nation’s wealth for supporting terrorist groups in the region like Hezbollah and for building hospitals and schools outside Iran to please the allies even though some provinces in Iran are in severe need of medical facilities, schools, drinking water and gas pipelines.

That this regime is not trustworthy and is deceitful became clearer to people over time, but when Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot the passenger plane PS752 on January 2020, people yet saw another level of criminality of this regime they could neither forgive nor forget. 167 innocent individuals were murdered in that plane most of whom were highly educated Iranians who had immigrated abroad like me to follow their dreams. The entire Iranian diaspora and those in Iran were shocked by this incident and could empathize with the victims and their families. The regime, however, did not even apologize for this crime, and sufficed to say: “it was a mistake, oopsie.”

The protests have been peaceful and mostly based on civil disobedience for example by chanting, cutting hair, burning head scarfs (which is a symbol of suppression for Iranian women), walking on the streets without the compulsory hijab, writing slogans, and painting graffiti of the fallen heroines and heroes of the movement on the walls. Influential resistance art pieces are created every day such as songs, drawings, installments in the streets and campuses, turning water fountains into blood fountains, etc. As Chenoweth has discovered, civil disobedience is more successful in effecting change than violent campaigns. Iranian protestors believe in a higher chance of successfully pursuing their goal through civil disobedience than turning to violence which would also result in a loss of global support.

Furthermore, I strongly believe that the unity people from all ethnicities show in these protests is a key to its success. Over the decades, the regime has tried a divide-and-conquer strategy turning ethnicities against each other to prevent any unity. This time, all ethnicities in Iran: Kurd, Baluch, Turk, Arab, etc. unite against the regime. When the regime killed hundreds of Baluchis on the bloody Friday in Zahedan; thousands of Arabs in Ahvaz and Kurds in Kurdistan rose in solidarity. When the regime oppressed the protests in Kurdistan and Ahvaz, Azerbaijan rose to show solidarity with them. This unity shakes the basis of the regime.

In the current protests, women are on the front line of the street protests. Years of repression have brought up marvelous courage in them to free themselves from all the limitations and to lead the country into the change it desperately needs. We see daily demonstrations in universities also mainly led by women despite the invasions of campuses by IRGC, police, and civil forces, the so-called Basijis (read how female students reacted to the president’s recent visit to a university here). As a female academic, I can understand the reason for the bravery the students, especially female ones, depict. On campuses, female students are strictly controlled and face daily problems solely based on their appearance. As an undergraduate student in Iran, I was once running on the campus site to get to a lecture on time. The campus control forces, called Herasat, stopped and prohibited me from attending the lecture because as they said, I quote “A girl does not have any right to run in the campus!” I not only missed my lecture but was humiliated for hours in the office of those forces and was obliged to sign an agreement that I will never run on the campus again. On that day, it became clear to me that I could never reach my dream of becoming an academic within that system, and had to leave, especially because the chances of finding a job in the industry were slim. Even though nearly 60% of university graduates in Iran are women (mostly educated in engineering fields), there are hardly any job opportunities for women after graduation. Most of the vacancies are specifically for men; another strategy of the regime to force women to stay at home. Getting an academic position for a young, single woman is nearly impossible and those who manage the impossible might lose their positions based on arbitrary reasons like accidentally showing hair. Even male faculty members have been fired for illogical reasons like having a feminine voice. Female university students are now protesting within campus risking everything they have for a better future.

Academics abroad support them by becoming a member of initiatives like faculty for women, life, freedom which intends to empower these students. This initiative is one of the many Iranians abroad have recently organized to support the Iran revolution even though risking their chances of returning to Iran. They have taken on the responsibility to weaken the regime from outside the country through demonstrations aiming at amplifying the voice of protestors and increasing global awareness about this revolution. This global attention prevents the massacre of the protestors similar to the 2019 protests with over 1500 killed. Through a petition which has been signed and promoted by prominent figures such peace Nobel laureates, they are asking western governments to isolate the regime (like in Berne on 05.11.2022), they are requiring official investigations on the oppression of protestors, the murder of children, and teenagers, as well as torture and imprisonment of activists and protestors, and demanded the removal of Iran from UN’s commission on the status of women (Iran was expelled from this commission on 14.12.2022).

All Iranians have put all their political, religious, and ethnic differences aside and are united for a single goal, a free Iran. We believe in this goal, we fight for it, and we will win together!


24. Januar 2023


Sepideh Alassi