The killing of a young Kurdish woman in Iran has triggered a massive wave of upheaval, protests and strikes, threatening the whole regime.
Nina Mo, ISA in Austria
(This article was firstly published on 2 October, and last edited on 12 October 2022)
The killing of a young Kurdish woman in Iran has triggered a massive wave of upheaval, protests and strikes, threatening the whole regime. With global instability for the ruling classes growing, the whole region might once again become the epicenter of revolution and counterrevolution.
“All or nothing” expresses the mood of the masses in Iran, Kurdistan and beyond. They have not left the streets despite brutal repression, killings and arrests. Most recently, women in Afghanistan gathered to show their solidarity in a rally which was dissolved by the Taliban who, like other Islamist forces in the region, fear the protest wave spreading. The deadly attacks by the Iraqi regime against Kurdish groups there show their fear that the movement could spread throughout the whole Kurdish region. The protests have already shown the potential to overcome ethnic, national and gender divisions which is a key element to hit the heart of the Islamic Regime. The Regime must be overthrown by the working-class, moving towards a socialist alternative to guarantee women’s liberation, bodily autonomy, freedom, and equality.
Regime reacts with desperation while protests continue
The Islamic regime has brought nearly everything it has to the field, they have sent their forces to the protesting cities, they have given weapons, including machine guns to children recruited to the Basij, a repressive military force. Security forces have been explicitly ordered to “mercilessly confront” the protesters. While the regime is hiding the real death toll, some estimates put it at already over 200. There is no end to the arrest of groups of people, and the internet continues to be cut off.
But the “disturbance” as they call it is now passing its twelfth night, continuing to expand across the country and beyond. Women, youth, workers have lost all their fear, not only burning their hijabs, but also setting Basij offices on fire.
Widespread strikes have paralyzed the universities, in some cities in classes that should normally have around two hundred students, no more than five attend, with professors and teachers joining the students. Teachers are calling for further strike action, and most recently, contract oil-workers have threatened to go on strike if the government continues the repression. This would be a massive blow.
News from Ashnoye, in West Azerbaijan/Kurdistan, indicates that small shops and markets have been on strike for the 10th day in a row. Security forces continue to maneuver in the streets and neighborhoods, but at night, people come out onto the streets in small groups, they disperse, they gather again in another place, they chant slogans from the roofs and windows such as “Woman, Life, Freedom”, “Death to the dictator”, and “This is the last message — our target is the whole system”.
The drone attacks by Iran against Kurdish groups in Iraq’s Southern Kurdistan represent a recent escalation and the willingness of the regime to crack down specifically on the militant Kurdish movement. At the same time, the regime is clearly divided. Raisi is maneuvering between “soft words” and a hard line. The voices of clerics who want to react with some concessions, at least in words, are getting louder. One influential cleric from the “Holy City” of Qom just stated that “it was a strategic mistake to deal with religious and cultural issues using security and police measures‘’. Some conservative politicians and prominent religious leaders have also expressed criticism of the actions of the morality police because, they argue, they have driven women away from religion.
The arrest of Faeseh Hashemi, daughter of the former president Rafsanjani adds to the development of growing divisions. It is not the first time that moderate, “reformist” forces try to gain influence in such situations. But this is now a different period than 2009. The whole regime, the whole establishment is in a deep crisis of legitimacy, and it will be nearly impossible for them to regain a new stage of stability by only replacing Raisi and his wing with other wings representing the Islamic regime.
Additionally, the regime’s security forces seem to be in deep crisis and exhausted. They are losing people, there are even some reports of soldiers switching over to support the movements. They need to look for forces outside the country, in some cities there is literally a lack of Basij/police/military on the ground to be able to crack down on the protests and gatherings.
Student movement on the rise
One of the most dominant features of the movement at this stage is the leading role of youth, spontaneously rioting on the streets but also protesting in a more coordinated way. Despite the widespread arrests of students, protests continue in the form of strikes, gatherings, and marches in the country’s universities. Dozens of universities in the country are on strike and their students have announced that they will not participate in virtual and face-to-face classes. A number of professors in different universities have refused to participate in the classes by declaring solidarity with the students and protesting the repression and killing that is going on in Iran.
At Shiraz Medical College, students protested with the slogans “We will fight, we will die, we will take back Iran” and “I will kill the one who killed my sister”. The students of Sepehr University of Isfahan also joined the nationwide student strike by holding a rally. The students marched in the university campus with slogans like “The imprisoned student must be freed”. The latest list of universities that have boycotted classrooms was published on Wednesday. According to this list, students have boycotted classrooms in more than eighty universities across the country.
The radical mood amongst the youth is clearly an inspiring element amongst broader layers of the working class as well. This is a generation that has suffered from repression, violence, and inequality even more brutally under Raisi’s new government. From the ongoing economic crisis, poverty, hunger, and desperation. It is not the first time inflation is exploding, last year it was 45%. Youth are confronted with a dark present and future which is culminating in this explosive mood and anger.
Broader strikes on the horizon — Working class has to take the lead
The hashtag demanding a general strike is flooding social media at the moment. Especially young people see the need to broaden the movement and that the next steps should be broader strike actions. The announcement by contract oil-workers is a warning to the regime, a significant step that could lead to an actual general strike. At the same time, some worker’s associations seem to be quite hesitant to join in the movement. Many of them — bus drivers, oil workers, the Haft Tappeh sugar factory workers etc. have stated that they support the movement and are prepared to join it on the streets, but it is clear that this is not enough.
It is not a coincidence that teachers were the first outside the Kurdish regions to organize strike action. It is overwhelmingly women who work as teachers in Iran, and they have been at the forefront of a series of militant strike actions over the last years. In their struggles against repression, unpaid wages, better working conditions etc. in recent years they always had demands specifically around women’s oppression at central stage. Their initiative should serve as an example for broader working class, independent associations as well. The working-class movement needs to link with the students and women to take the lead in the uprising to make sure that the necessary next steps are taken to break the rule of the mullahs. This includes establishing self-defense committees in neighborhoods and workplaces to be able to resist the massive repression, as a first step to establishing democratically organized councils to take over the big industries, economy and the whole of society.
Women’s oppression as a key element
Jina’s killing was an act of state-violence, and more specifically, of state violence against women and LGBTQI+ people. Since then, other women who have been killed during the uprising have become new symbols of the movement. It is clear that the fact that the movement started with a rebellion against mandatory hijab wearing and from the very first moment turned into a rebellion against the whole regime and system is because the oppression of women is one of the most important pillars of the regime.
Over decades, this massive oppression has become deeply rooted into all the institutions of the system as well as the whole of society, culture, families and heads. The Islamic republic is built on the necessity to divide women and men, push women into the households to exploit them even more. Over 2000 women are killed every year. The unreported numbers are probably much higher. This is not only at the hands of their men and other family members, but also at those of police officers, Basij and other security forces. Death sentences are the most extreme form of this state-violence, but it is something women experience in various forms on a daily basis.
In recent years, online and offline, an Iranian #metoo movement has began to develop, breaking all the dangerous taboos about the ongoing rapes, violence, abuse. This has been a crucial development in consciousness adding to the fact that women have been on the frontlines of revolutionary movements throughout the whole region in the last period — from Sudan to Lebanon. This rising feminist consciousness has come into sharp contrast with the regime’s attempts, since President Raisi came to power in 2021, to clamp down further on women’s rights and enforce a more draconian approach to women’s dress code and hijab guidelines by the morality police.
There is also a growing self-confidence amongst working-class and young women, reinforced through the ongoing urbanization and the fact that now the majority of university students in Iran are female. These changes in the structures of the female population constantly clash with the reality of being pushed back into the homes, being confronted with limited rights, violence, and misogyny.
When the women rise, the Islamic regime is immediately threatened, because their ideology is built on misogyny, oppression, and the exploitation of women in particular. Controlling women’s bodies and how they dress has been a pillar of the regime from the very first moment after the stolen and betrayed revolution of 1979. They have also done this in an attempt to criminalize a big part of the former activists and literally clear them off the streets. They have needed this ideology, based on the maintenance of rigid gender roles, to break the revolutionary potential of women who have always been at the forefront of the struggle, and to build their base beyond the IRGC, military, clerics and so on, using the divide and rule tactic amongst the working class. Religious dictatorship means that this deep-seated misogyny has to be reproduced in every sphere of people’s lives, and especially in the heads and minds of men.
It should not be underestimated how crucial it is that men and women throughout the country, beyond the Kurdish regions, are coming together to chant “Woman, Life, Freedom”, to consciously put the demands for women’s liberation at the center stage of the movement. A video has been circulated which showed a man hitting a woman on the streets and in the following seconds, a group of people, mainly men, attacking him for that. This is not just an exceptional scene, it is a reflection of what is going on in many, many neighborhoods, workplaces, and in consciousness.
Women are no longer accepting the brutal misogyny, harassment, and violence they experience on a daily basis. They resist and often they inspire others with their individual actions, may it be taking off their hijab or defending themselves physically. 2017, 2019 and in other periods of rising upheaval, women taking off their hijab played a role in the movement but this is now a new quality of widespread willingness to risk one’s life by doing so.
Whatever the outcome of the current movement, it has brought a historic blow to the regime’s authority and ideological foundations, and the situation will never be the same again. This is the reason why this movement is so explosive: to demand an end of mandatory hijab wearing, and all the religious and reactionary laws and restrictions is a direct demand to end the whole Islamic republic. Already in recent years we have seen, how the support for the religious institutions and Islam itself has fallen further and further in Iran, especially amongst young people. The fact that these religious leaders are also the ones who are the super-rich, with the Revolutionary Guards controlling the largest and most important parts of the economy, profiting from the exploitation of the whole working-class is clearly a reason why and how we see the combination of political and economic demands going hand in hand.
The Kurdish question and lessons from revolutionary history
This upheaval that has the clear potential to develop into a mass revolutionary movement didn’t fall from the sky. In recent years, the regime has been shaken over and over again, from the biggest strike waves for 40 years, to the explosive uprisings of the working class, youth and poor against water shortages, sky-rocketing food and energy prices and so on. Since the pandemic, this generation has been experiencing crisis after crisis and been radicalized even more. Already in 2019, they had lost their fear in confrontation with the security forces, this has now developed further. There is a broad decrease in support for the regime and everything it represents. In all these movements, women and the most oppressed layers of the working class have been at the forefront.
Kurdish people, but also many, many other groups and ethnic, religious and other minorities throughout the country, experience brutal oppression like Jina, who wasn’t allowed to use her real name. The regime always uses chauvinism, racism, and nationalism to portray all these groups as “second-class” citizens, refusing them all sorts of rights, and discriminating against them in various forms.
It is clear that Jina’s killing was a spark that provoked an uprising against this type of oppression as well. By taking up the famous slogan of the revolutionary struggle in Rojava “Woman, Life, Freedom” and translating it into Farsi, the movement has already shown its potential to build a united struggle against these divisions. For instance, it is crucial that in Tabris, the capital of East Azerbaijan, people are shouting this slogan in Kurdish! This is a clear statement in a region where the Kurdish minority is suffering from deep-seated hate.
It is critical that the movement develop a clear programme and approach to the question of national and ethnic minorities and to put demands for self-determination center stage. It is very dangerous that nationalist, monarchist and liberal forces, especially inside the international solidarity movement, try to ignore or even erase these issues as well as demands specifically around women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.
Monarchist forces have most recently tried to add to the Slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” — “Man, Homeland, Prosperity” which was taken up in some of the student’s assemblies. This is a dangerous attempt to spread nationalist ideas and to undermine key elements of the movement. In order to create unity amongst the working masses in the whole region, the struggle against national and ethnic oppression, and any form of chauvinist, racist attitudes, laws and policies need to be linked with a broader programme for worker’s rights, democratic rights, women’s rights and economic demands for decent jobs, wages, against poverty, hunger and austerity.
This type of united struggle which needs to have demands to end oppression at its core is necessary to resist the division the regime needs for its rule. In a sense, this is one of the key lessons of revolutionary history in Iran as well. The mistakes of the left in Iran that led to the counterrevolution in the period after 1979, the revolution which brought down the Shah, are very much linked to this question.
Within months of the establishment of the Islamic Republic women, ethnic, religious minorities and workers were brutally attacked. Women workers were forced to adhere to the Islamic dress code to keep their jobs. Women were not allowed to become judges. Beaches and sports were segregated by gender. The legal age of marriage for girls was lowered to 9 and married women were not allowed to attend regular schools.
The Shah had not granted these rights that were now under attack, they had been gained by bitter struggle in the years before. The reversal of these gains was not amongst the goals of the revolution of the workers and the poor. Women, especially poor women and working-class women, were in the forefront of the movement against the Shah, including the ban on the hijab even in the years before 1979.
The Shah represented an enormous, incredible concentration of wealth in the hands of the ruling elite while unemployment exploded in this period, huge slums sprang up in Tehran, diseases spread etc. This was the social background for the opposition to the Shah and the revolutionary uprisings where women placed their demands for autonomy and freedom at the center.
The mullahs, Khomeini and his followers managed to turn back the clock and take the lead in the movement between 1979 and 1981, despite the enormous workers movement, workers councils and so on. This was mainly due to massive mistakes of the (Stalinist and Maoist) left and the major workers organizations. They subordinated themselves to the Islamist forces, accepted the attacks on women and minorities in order to ally themselves with the mullahs against the Shah. They accepted the mandatory hijab and other measures which were some of the first steps of the counterrevolution. This is linked to a blind spot around questions of oppression and understanding how these are inseparable from a revolutionary movement.
The idea that “all forces have to unite” against a specific enemy and the so-called “theory of stages” these forces had adapted is still a threat to the movement today. While in 1979 the “unity” with the mullahs against the Shah led to a brutal counterrevolution, with mass executions, arrests, and a crackdown on the whole workers and socialist movement. This time there is the threat of the idea of unity between “all political forces‘’ against the mullahs. It is extremely dangerous that the family of the former Shah, led by his son Reza Pahlavi, is trying to influence the movement and to regain support. These are the forces that want to re-install their rule which will not lead to a real liberation of women, Kurdish people, oppressed, workers and poor.
Imperialist interests and global impact
While this scenario is not the most likely, the links between the Shah family and Western imperialism show that this scenario is an option for them. Western imperialism is actually more reserved in its reactions than in the past, as they are looking for alternatives to Russian oil and gas. Iran has the world’s second biggest gas reserves and fifth biggest oil reserves. They are also in fear of the growing movement since it seems to have, unlike in 2009 for example, no real illusions in the West at this stage. The economic impacts of the Western sanctions on ordinary people and poor have only worsened during the last years. This is also why the regime’s propaganda about the movement being a plot from the West is increasingly less effective.
While the Iranian Regime is trying to position itself in the context of the new Cold war, Western imperialism, in particular the US, has been moving towards a more normalized relation with the regime, coming closer towards a Nuclear deal. On the other side, attempts to include Iran and Argentina in BRICS (Alliance of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) show how in the context of new imperialist tensions and the increased threat of wars the different blocs are increasing efforts to tighten their alliances and build new ones.
At the same time, it is clear that none of these forces have a real interest in a massive destabilization inside Iran, especially not through this type of potential revolutionary movement. A potential feminist outburst of anger amongst women in Saudi Arabia for instance would be a blow to the interests of Western imperialism as well. This is not an unlikely scenario since we have already seen important impacts throughout the region. Women in Afghanistan, who are facing brutal repression and oppression, recently rallied to show their solidarity with the movement in Iran and were immediately attacked by the Taliban. Women in Kurdistan, Syria, Iraq, Sudan and other countries have shown their solidarity in some cities with rallies and demonstrations.
Large solidarity protests from London to Paris, from the US to Sweden are impressive and show a radicalization not only amongst the Kurdish and Iranian community but beyond. The wave of solidarity on social media (the Persian hashtag used in support of Jina Amini has reached over 100 million!) is a clear sign that the developments in Iran are increasing the general radicalization of women and youth resisting any form of misogyny, sexism, and violence against the oppressed.
For many, the movement in Iran and the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” is an example of that fact that we need radical action against the oppression and exploitation we face — from femicide to abortion restrictions, from unpaid work to harassment. The heroic struggle of Kurdish, Iranian, Afghan and other women in the region against dictatorship is in the minds of many around the world the kind of resistance they want to see in the context of a general rise of far-right forces and attacks on women and LGBTQI+ rights from the US to Italy.
A programme and leadership to move forward
While the mood of solidarity is spreading across the world, the movement on the ground needs an actual perspective and political programme to move forward. At the moment, it is still very spontaneous, explosive and heterogeneous and confused in terms of concrete demands and perspectives. The drone attacks by the regime in Kurdistan for instance also show the danger that the regime may respond using the military, of a militarization of the movement if there is no clear, coordinated action to broaden the movement and move it on a higher level. Despite the heroic sacrifices of the Kurdish people, it is clear that the regime will not be won through military struggle but through mass action by the working class, which has a huge economic power in Iran.
Earlier protest waves such as those in 2017 or 2019 have shown that spontaneous outbursts of anger can quickly be cracked down on if there is no further escalation of the movement and a programme which can actually unite the working class around key demands and methods of struggle. Instinctively, the masses link up political and economic demands which have to be developed into a socialist programme as an alternative to the current political and economic system in Iran.
While the regime is talking about investigating Jina’s case, it is clear that there can be no trust in any of its institutions. They are built to defend the interests of the capitalist class in Iran, which are deeply rooted in religious fundamentalism, misogyny and reactionary ideology, and in order to stabilize the system. There can only be a real investigation if conducted by democratic structures of the working class, growing out of a revolutionary movement. To end this form of state-violence against women and femicide, the whole system of women’s oppression has to be overthrown. Women must have equal rights, the freedom of choice over what to wear, including the right to wear a hijab if they wish, over where to work and live — but not only on paper. During the pandemic, it was mainly women in Iran who lost their jobs. In the context of the deep economic crisis and poverty, many women have no perspective of being able to live an independent life. Instead, they are forced into marriage and economic dependence, experiencing daily violence and extremely low wages.
Demands like an end to any form of discrimination against ethnic, national or religious minorities, full democratic and women’s rights like the dissolution of the morality police, the liberation of all political prisoners, the freedom of assembly and so on are linked to demands that pose the question of economic power. The economic power of the mullahs and, for instance, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), and the fact that big parts of the economy are state-owned or in the hands of individual religious institutions or people makes very clear that it is the same individuals who are responsible for killings like Jina’s. They are also directly responsible for the desperate situation of workers and poor. These are the first who should be expropriated and their wealth needs to be used for decent housing, jobs to end hunger and poverty, to fund social services, education and so on.
The system of capitalism only serves the interests of a small minority of the super-rich in Iran. They didn’t suffer under the impacts of the pandemic or the economic crisis. They are also not affected by the religious laws and rules — they have their private parties in their massive mansions, inside and outside the country, without living in fear of being arrested by the morality police. Their system needs to be completely replaced by a socialist system based on the needs of the masses, the working class, peasants and poor.
Attempts by both the former Shah’s family, as well as liberal feminists like Masih Alinejad and others to portray themselves as “leaders” of the movement have clearly not been successful. The opposite is the case, a big layer of protesting youth is extremely skeptical about any type of “leadership” of the movement. This reflects a positive rejection of those forces that cannot be trusted or built on. At the same time, a discussion is needed about the type of revolutionary leadership that is necessary to develop the movement further.
The huge desire in the movement for self-determination and liberation is inextricably linked to the need for democratic structures and coordination. A real, revolutionary leadership must be developed out of exactly the layers of women, workers, youth and oppressed that have drawn revolutionary conclusions and see the need to break with the state apparatus, as well as with the whole economic and social system of the Islamic Republic.
The potential for such a leadership is there if we look, for example, at the militant Haft Tappeh workers’ union, where the workers have been able to not only lead important strikes but actually win a massive victory — the renationalization of the massive sugar factory last year. At the same time, the example of the Haft Tappeh workers also shows the necessity to fight for real workers’ control over the economy. A necessary next step for that must be the creation of democratically organized, multi-ethnic self-defense committees in order to be able to defend the movement and the masses against state repression, but also to use these committees to fight for this type of control over the economy.
If a socialist, revolutionary leadership is not formed in time, there is the massive threat of counterrevolution, and even a threat of civil war maybe in the Kurdish regions. In order to build an organization, a revolutionary party which can anchor such a socialist programme within the movement on the ground, coordinate nationally and internationally, and become the political and organizational center of this movement it is critical the potential for the developing international solidarity movement is used. In the face of the internet blockade, this solidarity movement has a huge responsibility: To not limit itself to general solidarity, but to actually discuss, develop and spread political clarity, a perspective and programme. The exile community, as well as the broader working-class movement internationally, can play a role having a real impact on the movement in Iran, by using the freedom of speech and organization to fight for a socialist perspective in Iran and in the whole world.