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How civil disobedience is driving Iran's protest movement

How civil disobedience is driving Iran's protest movement
8 min read
20 October, 2022
In-depth: More than a month on, Iranian protesters remain steadfast, as universities, commercial centres, and the vital oil industry all join civil disobedience actions in a rare show of collective insubordination towards the Islamic Republic.

One month since the death of 22-year-old Jina (Mahsa) Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police ignited the ongoing protest movement, female-led demonstrations that erupted in the Kurdish region have spread to dozens of cities across all of the country’s 31 provinces.

Across Iran, women are removing and burning headscarves, cutting their hair, and raising slogans against the Islamic Republic's regime.

Frequent and widespread protests that originally focussed on ending mandatory veiling - a key pillar of the Islamic Republic - quickly morphed into a broader movement calling for the ousting of Iran’s clerical leadership, which is deeply unpopular among large sections of society.

There is wider frustration with the hard-line rulers over the faltering economy battered by sanctions, ingrained corruption, state oppression, and the government’s crackdown on demonstrators.

The demonstrations have witnessed unprecedented support from Iranians across class, gender, age, ethnic, and regional backgrounds. Men and women are on the streets in several towns and cities chanting 'Woman, Life, Freedom', the banner of the uprising, along with anti-government slogans such as “death to the dictator”.

“The grievances are varied but almost everyone in the Iranian street says that any kind of real change has to start with bringing down this regime,” Maral Karimi, a Toronto-based author and PhD candidate with a special interest in Iranian politics, told The New Arab.

Beyond the mass protests that began in mid-September, civil disobedience has become an everyday practice in a variety of forms.

Fearless women have been seen in their normal public life without wearing the compulsory hijab. Female students of all ages have been openly defying the hijab rules, taking them off and waving them in the air.

Videos show young girls taking down and tearing up pictures of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini in their classrooms. In some very striking images, preteens have appeared telling education ministry officials and paramilitary commanders to “get lost” from school buildings. All unlikely sights before the current protests.

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Students and teachers have been staging strikes, holding sit-ins, and walkouts at university campuses across the country - historic hotbeds of anti-regime dissent - and have been violently confronted by state security forces. Iran’s main teachers’ union was among the first to start nationwide strikes, calling on all teachers and students not to go into classrooms.

Even as the government continues to brutally suppress the protest actions steered by female students, who are risking arrest, expulsion from school, and even death for rallying, young demonstrators in schools and universities seem determined to keep protesting despite warnings and threats from the regime.

Vahid Yucesoy, a PhD candidate in political science based in Montreal specialising in Iranian politics, observed that Iran’s more up-to-date generation Z, who forms a sizeable component of the protesters, is proving not to be afraid of the government’s decades-long fear tactics.

“They see a huge gap between their lives and life around the world, so they’ve had enough,” the political scientist told TNA. “Many of them see this uprising as a matter of life and death, some of them are literally going to death.”

Yucesoy said that today’s scattered, cross-sectional protests are testing the security forces’ ability to quash the unrest that has reached every province of Iran.

Iranian demonstrators taking to the streets of the capital Tehran during a protest for Jina Mahsa Amini days after she died in police custody, on 21 September 2022. [Getty]

“For the first time since the revolution Iranians are united in asking for the downfall of the Islamic Republic regime,” adding that, “the momentum is likely to continue”.

Among other expressions of civil disobedience, people have been holding commercial strikes in several urban centres, particularly in Kurdish cities and towns in the north and northwest where the repression of the country’s ethnic group has been especially harsh. Businesses in the Kurdistan provincial capital Sanandaj, Saqqez (Jina Amini’s hometown), and Marivan have shuttered their shops.

In Tehran’s bazaar, various stores have closed in recent days with merchants and retail workers joining the protests and protecting their shops from damage.

Oil contract workers have gone on strike in support of the anti-regime rallies at several sites along the Persian Gulf coast, including the Bushehr, Hemgan, Borzovieh and Asaluyeh petrochemical plants. Abadan refinery in the Khuzestan province - one of Iran’s largest oil hubs - and several other facilities were subsequently hit by labour action in the critical energy sector, a lifeline of the national economy.

In dramatic videos circulated on social media, angry labourers in Asaluyeh could be heard chanting “death to the dictator” and “Seyed Ali Khamenei is done!” while workers in Bushehr chanted “Do not fear, do not fear, we are all together”.

A statement by the Council of Oil Contract Workers issued last week urged all oil, gas and petrochemical workers of every employment status to start demonstrating and prepare for country-wide strikes. The Council had previously warned that labourers would go on strike if security forces continued to suppress the protests.

The involvement of the oil industry in the uprising is symbolically significant given the pivotal role striking oil workers played in the 1979 Islamic Revolution that led to the fall of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Karimi, author of 'The Iranian Green Movement of 2009: Reverberating Echoes of Resistance', noted several key factors. Firstly, among oil workers there are permanent staff who have secure jobs and benefits, are economically better off than contract or temporary labourers, and therefore have little incentive to take part in the strikes.

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Furthermore, the petroleum industry is a highly securitised and surveilled sector whereby the state prevents and represses any labour activity. For many of these workers, operating long working hours on rotating shifts in remote areas, there is very little chance to meet with their co-workers in the same physical space.

“But as these oil workers watch the protest movement evolving, they are more likely to join, not necessarily for economic reasons but because they want to achieve freedom and democracy,” Karimi explained. 

As protests persist across Iran in spite of the regime’s use of force and cutting off the internet for intermittent long periods, industrial strikes may spread to more sectors and pose a continuing threat to the stability of the current regime.

“A general strike would paralyse the Islamic Republic and show the powerlessness of the state in the face of this movement,” Roham Alvandi, an associate professor of history at the London School of Economics with expertise in Iranian history recently tweeted.

Nasibe Samsaei, an Iranian woman living in Turkey, cuts her ponytail off during a protest outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul on 21 September 2022. [Getty]

“The prospect of a general strike that will cripple the Islamic Republic becomes more likely every day,” he wrote in another tweet.

Karimi noted that, while many workers may be expressing solidarity with the protests, they may not yet be ready to protest unless their specific demands are reflected in those of the broader movement. “The longer the demonstrations go on, the more chances workers will have to coordinate their efforts and come to some form of collective labour action,” she anticipated.

Widely speaking, in her opinion, whichever direction the current street movement is going to take, “things won’t go back to normal” after so many Iranians, especially the younger generation, have experienced a glimpse of limited freedom, and public figures within the country and abroad have voiced widespread sympathy with the uprising and criticism at the ruling theocratic regime for its heavy clampdown.

Yucesoy pointed out that there is much reticence among protesting Iranians to negotiate with the government after enduring “continuous repression” and “intransigence” over the past 43 years on the part of the clerical establishment as well as an unwillingness to open up to reform. He also expressed concern that any sanction relief now would likely be spent on its security apparatus and against the population.

The demonstrations have been largely leaderless, driven by a range of common demands and a thirst for fundamental political change. Nonetheless, Yucesoy identified three “potential leaders” among the most influential voices in the Iranian diaspora supporting the protests. The first is exiled Prince Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late Shah, who called for a future secular and democratic Iran.

The second is Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and women’s rights activist exiled in the US, who launched in 2017 the “White Wednesdays” campaign urging Iranian women to wear white headscarves on Wednesdays to protest against compulsory hijab.

Finally, the third potential leader is Canada-based activist Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesman for the association of families of victims of Ukrainian flight PS752 shot down by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 2020, who is now organising global rallies and mobilising international action. 

For Yucesoy, whether the spontaneous movement can advance with or without a leadership is not what really matters as long as there is a “synergy of demands” while Iranians are seizing the opportunity to change their country’s future after over four decades of suffocating tyranny, with core issues like the economy and human freedom becoming more pressing than ever.

“People are so fed up that, in their minds, anything that will come after cannot be worse than this regime,” the scholar added, “they just cannot live their lives normally”.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec