The Iranian people’s uprising against the misogynist theocracy celebrates its third week. Despite a brutal state onslaught, protests are surging, shaking the theocracy’s fragile foundations. Indeed, Iran is on the precipice of change, with women and youth leading the way toward democracy.
The protests foster a powerful spirit that is markedly human. The Iranian people’s calls for democratic change have captured the world’s imagination, and basic demands like freedom, individual rights and women’s empowerment animate slogans of “death to the dictator” now echoing around the world.
The heartbreaking murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini by regime agents mirrors what women in Iran have had to endure for 43 dark years. It was the spark for an uprising that has now swelled to cover more than 170 cities in all 31 provinces. According to field reports, at least 400 have been killed and 20,000 detained so far. One hundred and thirty-one of the dead protesters have been identified by the main opposition.
Last week, protests and strikes in at least 100 major universities rattled the regime. General strikes have been announced by businesses in Kurdish regions and in Isfahan. In the southeastern city of Zahedan, the regime massacred more than 40 protesters on Friday. Yet the uprising has shown no signs of dissipating.
These powerful protests did not emerge spontaneously. They are a manifestation of deep-seated and simmering dissent. The list of grievances is painfully long. Decades of astronomical corruption and endemic mismanagement have battered the economy. The middle class is nearly extinct, and the working class has sunk into misery. According to last year’s statistics from the regime’s Ministry of Labor, 1 in 3 Iranians live in abject poverty. Raging inflation and unemployment have tragically extinguished young dreams of a better future.
Add to this catastrophe the regime’s omnipresent political repression, abysmal human rights abuses and systematic misogyny, and you’ll get the main ingredients for a popular revolution. The people of Iran demand the overthrow of the theocracy.
Women are a major force for change for good reason. Misogyny is ingrained in the ruling religious tyranny. Since the first day that the mullahs usurped power after Iran‘s anti-monarchical revolution in 1979, they made it clear that the suppression of women is a strategic priority. Thus, Iranian women’s struggle for equality has been for decades and remains key to obtaining freedom and democracy for the broader population.
Importantly, Iranian women’s struggle has been long and bloody. They played a major role in overthrowing the dictatorship of the shah, and just a short month into the mullahs’ rule, “thousands of women protested against forced hijab,” according to the daily Kayhan. Reflecting the social angst, on March 11, 1979, the leading democratic opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) issued a statement saying, “Any form of forced hijab is unacceptable. … Our revolution must not deny women any of their political, legal, and social rights.”
Since the 1980s, the regime has killed thousands of brave women and tortured tens of thousands more in jails. In 1988 alone, female activists from the MEK and other democratic organizations were among the 30,000 massacred by the regime in Iranian prisons because they refused to abandon their calls for freedom and equality.
Today’s young girls standing up to the regime’s monstrous repressive forces have inherited the same pedigree of courage and resilience. The Iranian woman, as a historical identity, did not emerge yesterday; her steely character has been forged through 150 years of struggle for democracy in Iran. Her eyes are laser-focused on overthrowing a regime that has grown terrified of her resolve.
It is no accident that women are leading the charge. And it is no accident that the president-elect of the main democratic opposition coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran is a woman, Maryam Rajavi. She has inspired generations of women to learn about their rights, to empower themselves, and to persevere in their struggle at all costs.
The amplification of this struggle by the international community can strengthen the spirit of democracy and equality everywhere. Instead of appeasing the misogynist mullahs, Washington and other Western capitals should adopt meaningful measures to support Iranian protesters. They should include launching international investigations into the regime’s crimes, including the 1988 massacre, and holding its leaders accountable. The age of impunity should end now. And any relations with the regime should be predicated on the immediate release of all detained protesters and a halt to executions and torture.
Most importantly, as a bipartisan resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives (H. Res. 1397), introduced in late September, rightly declares, the world must recognize “the right to self-determination for the Iranian people struggling to establish a democratic, secular, and nonnuclear Republic of Iran.” The Iranian people, striving to overcome decades of dictatorship, deserve nothing less.
What is happening in the streets of Iran is a celebration of the strength of the young generation of women. More than ever, the Iranian people deserve international recognition of their right to self-defense to be able to bring change in Iran.
• Soona Samsami is the representative in the United States for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which is dedicated to the establishment of a democratic, secular republic in Iran.