Woman, Life, Freedom: Growing Dissent in Iran

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

A new journal article examines the massive protest movement and its potential to bring change
to the Islamic Republic.

On October 19, 2023, Mahsa Amini and Iran’s Woman, Life, Freedom movement were awarded the European Union’s Sakharov Prize For Freedom of Thought a little over a year after protests swept Iran following Amini’s death. 

Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, died in police custody after being arrested for allegedly flouting the Islamic Republic’s mandatory dress code. Authorities claimed she died due to existing medical issues, but Amini’s family hold that she was killed by blows to her head and limbs. Her death sparked the largest wave of protests in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution; over a year later, the regime’s security forces are still attempting to crack down on dissent as citizens continue to protest.

At the head of the movement are Iran’s young women, engaging in large-scale protest as well as everyday defiance against the restrictive mandatory hijab rule that likely resulted in Amini’s death. The movement is also backed by a growing number of men, even as the government has begun targeting them. In an interview, diaspora-Iranian Mahsa Piraei posited that it seems “the regime wants to scare men to stop them from supporting the women of Iran. I don’t think it’s succeeding.”

The engagement of Iranian society across gender is only one of the many facets that make this movement unique to earlier ones. The remarkable nature of the movement is at the center of Mahmood Monshipouri and Ramtin Zamiri’s article in Middle East Policy’s Winter 2023 issue, as they explore the dimensionality of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement and its capacity to create lasting change in Iran. 

The authors assert that the movement is fundamentally changing the methods of dissent in Iran, shifting from appeals to Islam towards a more confrontational rhetoric and outright refusal to engage with hard-liners and reformists. 

Part of the reason for these significant changes in approach appears to be an increasingly large generational gap. Monshipouri and Zamiri claim that “this new cohort has completely divorced itself from the previous generation, which sought to effect change by working within the system. The divergence signifies a growing lack of confidence, with the young activists seeking alternative ways to voice their grievances.”

The root causes of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement also differ from the grievances of past protests. “Generation Z” Iranians, born between 1997 and 2012, are increasingly voicing their dissatisfaction with the status quo of severe poverty and inequality. The youth “bear witness to the world beyond Iran, a world where limits exist on the involvement of democratic governments in their citizens’ daily lives.” Young Iranians have taken interest in democracy, secularism, and freedom of expression, which are seen as ways to precipitate a strong social and economic future. Also growing among the youth’s new identity is a fundamental concern with gender issues, with men backing the “woman question” for the first time.

The authors note the uncertain nature of the future of the movement and the country itself, warning that “it is not clear whether we will see transformation, a reversion to the status quo, or a collapse followed by unpredictable consequences like quasi-military rule.” 

Still, they hesitate to predict only negatives, arguing that “over time, defiance bolstered by the moral high ground has the potential to pave the way toward a more democratic future.” This future, however, is based on “whether and how the gray class, known as the ‘silent majority,’ joins the struggle. Until the struggle is joined by this older generation of Iranians, no significant movement will be possible.” 

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Mahmood Monshipouri and Ramtin Zamiri’s Middle East Policy article, “Woman, Life, Freedom, One Year Later: Will the Iran Protests Succeed?”:

  • The rise of the Woman, Life, Freedom (WLF) movement following Mahsa Amini’s death in 2022 is an indicator of a larger, and growing, civil dissatisfaction in Iran.
  • The WLF movement is transforming the method of dissent in Iran:
    • Protest have shifted towards confrontational rhetoric and refusal to engage with hard-liners, reformists, and even moderates.
    • Women play a key role in the movement in a way that has not been seen before in the region, while men are also increasingly concerned with the gender issue.
  • Protesters appear to no longer believe that reform can occur from within the existing regime given its complete unwillingness to acknowledge grievances and adjust.
  • The protests are challenging leaders because regime policy is designed to be isolated from public pressure.
  • Modern grievances are different than those of previous movements, expanding to now include democracy, secularism, and rational solutions to issues.
    • A 2022 online survey found 60% wanted a regime change, with 41% favoring a regime overthrow.
  • Generation Z is at the forefront of the protests, with concerns over their future rampant as they grapple with high unemployment and inflation.
    • Access to the internet has enabled greater self-expression, socio-political communication, and connection to the broader world.
    • The youth, particularly young women, increasingly possess a unique identity shaped by their access to other cultures and viewpoints such as the separation of ideology from the state.
  • A newer additional driver is a “deep generational gap”: the “grey class” of those 30 and older tend to be pro-reform but unwilling to engage in civil society activity.
  • Protesters hope for the Western world to engage, but not militarily.
    • Sanctions and hostility from the West have allowed the regime to defy international norms and become propped up by China and Russia.
    • 73% of Iranians think the West should defend protester rights by pressuring the regime with actions like individualized sanctions and the expelling of ambassadors serving outside the country.
    • Analysts believe that a renewal of the nuclear deal with Iran is also critical for limiting the regime’s power.
  • The future of protests and the regime is unclear.
    • Extreme suppression could transform the movement into an ethno-sectarian conflict, but a more gradual response could reduce the regime’s control.
    • Even if the clerical authority was to collapse, uncertainty about the government that would follow creates hesitancy.
    • It is unclear if this round of protests will create significant reform, but it still appears to be an existential threat to the regime.

You can read “Woman, Life, Freedom, One Year Later: Will the Iran Protests Succeed?” by Mahmood Monshipouri and Ramtin Zamiri in the Winter 2023 issue of Middle East Policy.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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