Anti-hijab movement of Iran expresses urge of suffering women to be liberated from thraldom of patriarchy and religious orthodoxy
Iran is in ferment. 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was detained in Tehran after Iran’s so-called ‘‘morality police’’ found fault with her trousers and headscarf, or hijab, was found dead in police custody on 16 September 2022. Amini’s death triggered an outcry against the morality police from celebrities and prominent figures on social media. The claim of the Iranian government that Amini had died of heart attack has no takers. The protesters are of firm belief that she was mercilessly tortured and killed by the police. The remonstration was so massive and undaunted that the police had to fire tear gas to disperse a protest rally in western Iran following the funeral ceremony. But the protesting Iranians are not unnerved and have been continuing their movement for last three months. More than 450 people are reportedly killed in Iran since protests erupted because of brutal crackdown by Iranian security forces using live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas. Around 18,000 have been arrested. Of late, Iran government hanged a man after pronouncing him guilty of injuring a security guard with a knife and blocking a street in Tehran during the movement. It is also reported that Iranian police shot the agitating women targeting delicate parts of their bodies. Yet, the people’s wrath could not be curbed. The protests have spread across the country and drawn support from artists, athletes and other public figures. The unrest has even cast a shadow over the World Cup, with some Iranians actively rooting against their own national team because they see it as being linked to the government. Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and activist, on her social media account shared a video of women cutting their hair and wrote, ‘‘Iranian women show their anger by cutting their hair and burning their hijab to protest against the killing of Mahsa Amini by hijab police.’’ ‘‘From the age of 7 if we do not cover our hair, we won’t be able to go to school or get a job. We are fed up with this gender apartheid regime,’’ she had written.
Finally, sensing people’s mood against the Islamic fundamentalist Iranian government, a senior Iranian official said that Iran had abolished the morality police. However, it was unclear whether the statement amounted to a final decision by the theocratic government, which has neither announced the abolition of the morality police nor denied it. But protesting Iranian women and activists took to social media to dismiss talk of disbanding the force as a propaganda tactic by the government. In fact, as the situation stands today, even if the moral police is abolished, it would hardly please the protesters who are still clashing with other security forces and are calling for an end of the Islamic Republic. Hence the talk of dismantling the moral police, according to the protesting Iranians, is a ploy to distract from the larger demands for an end to the Islamic Republic’s rule.
The crocodile tears shed by the US and its allies over ‘‘torture on women’’ in Iran and pretended wrath against Iranian moral police are typical of the imperialist deceptions. In fact, a large section of US citizens is going to take up cudgels against the so called ‘moral policing’ of their own country. The patriarchal, white-supremacist, Christian-nation folks, who are now the majority on SCOTUS and in the legislatures of many states are using laws instead of guns to condemn people to death—physical, intellectual and emotional death. To punish any woman, gender-nonconforming people, and children pregnant through rape, to attack trans people who need medical treatment to stay strong against bigotry and physical attack, to deny school children factual information about history and health the ‘‘morality police’’ are stalking through every state in the US. (Workers’ World 26-09-2022) Hence, whipping up so much high-toned indignation and scorn toward the ‘‘theocratic government’’ of Iran by the monopoly-controlled western media is nothing but a hoax.
Iranian Revolution of 1979
Before we proceed to dwell on the backdrop of the current movement, it will perhaps warrant a brief recall of the 1979 Iranian revolution which brought the present regime to power. Iranian revolution refers to the popular movement in Iran to overthrow the autocratic rule of Mohamed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the country’s monarch since 1941. Shah Pahlavi was supported by Western Countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. As a result of the Revolution, Iran became an Islamic Republic.
The 1979 Revolution had its roots in Iran’s long history. Historically the Shi’a clergy (Ulema) had a significant influence on Iranian society. However, the society had many different social groups including clergy, landowners, intellectuals, and merchants. These social groups earlier came together in 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution. But those efforts were stifled amid reemerging social tensions as well as foreign intervention. Insecurity and chaos created after the Constitutional Revolution led to the rise of General Reza Khan.
The UK helped Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to establish a monarchy in 1921. But in 1941, the Soviet Union and Great Britain, fearing that Shah Pahlavi would cooperate with Nazi Germany to rid himself of the tutelage of the allied forces, occupied Iran and forced Reza Shah into exile, and his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi took the throne. In 1953, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq nationalized British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil and his supporters ousted Mohammad Reza Shah. At that the US and the UK orchestrated a coup against Mosaddeq’s government and restored Reza Shah Pallavi. Reza Shah dismissed parliament and launched a modernization programme that upended the wealth and influence of the landowners and clerics, disrupted rural economies, led to rapid urbanization and Westernization.
Soon, it was found that the benefits of the economic development, whatever had taken place, were skewed in favour of Reza’s close circle. But though Reza sought to model the economy based on the capitalist system in US and UK, he, for obvious reasons, did not seek to democratize the society. Hence, a cultural vacuum prevailed in modern urban Iran which pushed the common people, tormented by economic distress, to turn to the Ulema (Islamic religious cleric) for guidance. Opposition to the Shah’s policies was accentuated in the 1970s when world monetary instability and fluctuations in Western oil consumption threatened the country’s economy. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a former professor in Qom in north-central Iran, who had been in exile in 1964 after speaking out against the Shah’s reform programme, gained popular support. In the 1970s the notion was popularized that Iranians should return to their cultural roots by resisting the hegemonic influence of the West.
In January 1978 thousands of youths, mostly unemployed, took to the streets to protest the regime’s excesses.
This time it was a national upheaval. The oppressed Iranian people desperately rose to break the wall of the prison-house to which their country was converted during the tyrannical rule of the Shah. The people of Iran were on the crest of bringing about a true revolutionary change of the society after having achieved the first round of victories with the Shah having fled the country while a moderate bourgeoisie had assumed power with the promise to ensure democracy and freedom.
But there was difference between the Iranian bourgeoisie and Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shia religious leader, over the Constitution of an Islamic Republic. The people of the country were in great expectation of a freer life. But the forces of history must have been working behind. The movement was first initiated by the fighting workers, students and youths with all ingredients for turning the movement into an anti-capitalist revolution. But in absence of a correct revolutionary party, that golden opportunity slipped out of their hand.
It ought to be understood that Iran remained under the rule of the same Iranian bourgeoisie who immensely benefitted from the Shah’s modernization programmed in association with the Western imperialist forces, particularly the US and UK. Initially, temporarily, through a marriage of convenience between a religious zealot like Khomeini and the moderate Iranian bourgeoisie with some sprinklings of socialist and pro-communist elements including the underground Tude Party which was a follower of the revisionist leadership of the Soviet Union, a national front was formed. The constituents of the National Front were also involved in a power struggle. Despite the basic limitation of the leadership, this national upheaval had brought into sharp relief the great heroism, courage and organizational capabilities and, above all, a death-defying spirit of the Iranian working class. This was rejoiced over by the working class of the world. But this joy was short-lived.
Haunted by the fear-complex of anti-capitalist revolution and threatened by the growth of leftist forces within the movement, the Iranian bourgeoisie in alliance with the fundamentalist Khomeini, played all the tricks to contain the momentum of the movement and wipe out the leftists from the colleges and universities and began patronizing all orthodox, fanatic, obscurantist forces and Islamic fundamentalism. It was a fact that notwithstanding heroic struggle against the Shah regime, the Iranian people were not free from influence of these bigoted forces and were dominated by orthodox religious codes. Even though there was a cultural movement based on scientific and secular outlook, it was too weak to create an impression on the socio-cultural horizon of the country. Secondly, in reaction over a definite tilt towards pro-western life style and Yankee culture during the Shah regime, people tended to fear abolition of their traditional religious values, and hence the orthodox forces got an opportunity to keep the people within their fold. As students of Marxism-Leninism-Shibdas Ghosh Thought we know that both Yankee culture, i.e. consumerist and self-centric rotten imperialist culture as well as all forms of orthodoxy, fanaticism, obscurantism breeding communal-racial hatred serve the ruling bourgeoisie equally well, not only in Iran but in the whole world including India. Because both these trends drive wedge into the struggling unity of the toiling masses and hence throw a spanner into the process of development of class and mass struggles. In course of that, the ruling dispensation of Islamic Republic of Iran, in order to stabilize their class rule, took recourse to such tactics that would divert the people from the main objective of their struggle. After establishment of Khomeini rule, the US somewhat got frozen out of the picture. Though the US certainly had a role in supporting and bringing back Khomeini from exile to establish him in power as a counter-force to people’s democratic, revolutionary upsurge, but then he took Islamization much farther than anticipated and turned against his erstwhile mentor, and began to befriend Soviet Union under revisionist leadership. As a result, both US imperialist leadership and Soviet revisionist leadership were trying to transform Iran into the amphitheatre of their performance of the drama of superpower politics. On the other hand, this provided the Khomeini regime scope to earn as much dividend as possible by bargaining with both camps of superpower i.e. the US and the revisionist-led Soviet Union. The tragedy of Iran once more attested to the fact that no struggle for social transformation can reach its desired end if it is not integrated with the struggle to establish correct revolutionary line and higher culture, moral and ethics. And in this era of imperialism and proletarian revolution, this desired social transformation can come by only through revolutionary overthrow of the decrepit capitalist system irrespective of what the form of its political superstructure is, by developing anti-capitalist revolutionary movement based on higher proletarian culture, ethics and morality and led by a truly revolutionary party of the proletariat. That is the reason, in Iran, the attempt to bring about a social transformation and abolition of oppression and repression using religion as a changing tool failed and the predicament of the people instead of being abated, intensified more and more.
Backdrop of the ongoing movement
The Iranian people over the last four decades have experienced the cruel autocratic face of the Khomeini regime. As we know, religion and fundamentalism are not the same. When religion is used to serve narrow sectarian interest of lucre and power of the bourgeois rulers, it is called fundamentalism. It is true for both Hindu or Islamic or any other kind of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism rests on bigoted religious orthodoxy, fanaticism and patriarchal domination. Hence, it tries to keep the women under subjugation, shackles them with a variety of fetters in the name religious customs, curtails their freedom and virtually enslaves them with a slew of injunctions. True, there are many who wish to see religion and state as separate. This includes also some of those who are true followers of Islam. They are advocating ‘secularization’ of the state to preserve the purity of the Islamic faith in social life without understanding that secularism means state and social life is independent of religion, so adherence or non-adherence to religious faith remains purely the personal affair of an individual. Hence dreaming of a secular country with the customs of Islamic faith patterning social life is akin to a square peg in a round hole. ‘‘Since the Islamic Revolution, all efforts to quell women’s resistance have paradoxically only strengthened and widened it,’’ said one woman protester who was held in solitary confinement and subjected to torture and beatings. ‘‘What started out as a protest movement by secular middle-class women, has now spread to the less affluent, religious social strata, which had served as the backbone of the Islamic regime in the past.’’
The barbaric attack on the rights of the women of Iran, women who have been militantly struggling for freedom and democratic reforms in the country as well as opposing religious fiats to keep them subjugated, is by no means an accidental matter. Attempts to incorporate modern political and social concepts into Islamic canon began since 1950 with the preaching of Islam as a way of life, just like the way the Hindu fundamentalists of India are preaching that Hindutva is a way of life.
Headscarves and a loose tunic or coat worn over regular clothing have been compulsory for women in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and members of the morality police enforce the strict dress code. Refusal to submit to its medieval models for women is considered to be a ‘‘sin’’ by the present Iranian rulers. It is five years since Iranian Masih Alinejad in 2017 started a movement protesting against the compulsory wearing of the hijab, or headscarf, in her country. Since then, after dozens of women publicly took off their headscarves in a wave of protests, authorities have adopted tougher measures. The police had warned that women who participate in demonstrations against the hijab could face up to 10 years in prison. In recent months, human rights activists in Iran have been urging women to protest the dress code by removing their veils in public, an act which is likely to lead to their arrest by the authorities.
After Amini’s death, the movement has escalated and spread across the country, with women taking to the streets to burn their hijabs in defiance. Agitators have burnt the statue of Iran’s supreme religious leader Khomene in his own hometown Mashhad amid rising protests after he refrained from commenting on ongoing protests in his first public appearance. ‘‘It is pertinent to mention that the Quran instructs Muslim women and men to dress modestly as concern had been about both men’s and women’s ‘‘gaze, gait, garments, and genitalia’’. (cited by Karnataka High Court in a case and reported in livelaw15-03-22) The holy Quran, as opined by the informed section, therefore, does not mandate wearing of hijab. Yet the religious orthodoxy thrusts such bindings upon women in the name of religious code.
New ray of hope
But history has its own laws. No more the suppressed, persecuted Iranian women are ready to tolerate such inhuman dictates and compromise with their freedom. So, they are out in the street braving all odds. Amina’s martyrdom, instead of restraining them, has provided momentum to the struggle for upholding the cause of the movement. Not only women, but even enlightened men are also joining them in this just struggle facing police atrocities. We wholeheartedly support this movement.
No doubt this stir has shaken the Iranian rulers. But then struggling Iranians particularly the women need to keep in mind that the struggle for emancipation of women is inseparably linked with the broader struggle of revolutionary overthrow of capitalist regime which is wearing a religious cloak in their country. This struggle can only succeed if it is developed on the edifice of true secular values, cultivation of higher morality and culture and in fraternity with their struggling counterparts round the world. Let not any bourgeois trickery or handiwork of religious fundamentalists enfeeble them from within or channelize them along the wrong path to fizzle out with passage of time. Win they must! Tortured women of the world are looking at their struggle to gain sustenance to build up similar struggles in their respective countries.