It’s impossible not be astonished and humbled by the bravery of the Iranian people. From bus drivers to university teachers, once again a cross-section of Iranian society has taken to the streets of Tehran and other cities in a fresh round of protests against the brutal Islamist regime that has ruled them since 1979.
The immediate trigger for these latest demonstrations was the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, 22. Amini was arrested in Tehran by the regime’s so-called “Morality Police”—uniformed thugs whose job would correctly be understood as engaging in sexual harassment in a western context—for the crime of wearing her hijab, or headscarf, improperly.
Since the major wave of anti-regime protests in 2009, many Iranian women have consciously pushed the envelope on the Islamic Republic’s austere, misogynistic dress code, adjusting their hijabs to show strands of hair or applying light makeup to their faces. Since Amini allegedly did something along these lines with her head covering, she was savagely beaten while in police custody, losing consciousness and dying of her injuries on Sept. 16, having spent three days in a coma.
The regime’s official explanation is that Amini—by all accounts, a healthy young woman with no pre-existing respiratory or cardiac conditions—died of a heart attack after “suddenly” developing a problem. Few people are buying that, of course, least of all Amini’s family. In a heartbreaking interview with the BBC’s Persian language service, Amini’s grieving father, Amjad, accused the regime of “telling lies,” adding, “No matter how much I begged, they wouldn’t let me see my daughter.”
When Amjad Amini was finally allowed to see Mahsa’s lifeless body, it had been covered entirely from neck to toe, although he noticed the bruising on her feet. “I have no idea what they did to her,” he wept, with the unique agony of a bereaved parent.
So far, hundreds of protestors have been wounded and several killed during the demonstrations that erupted in the wake of Amini’s death, but as in the past, the regime’s methodical violence against its own citizens hasn’t yet quelled their spirit. While the regime’s President Ebrahim Raisi—known as the “Butcher of Tehran” for his service to the regime’s terrifying post-revolutionary “Death Committees”—was attending the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, during which time he denied the Holocaust in an interview with “60 Minutes” and petulantly canceled an interview with CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour because of her refusal to wear a headscarf, back home protestors were chanting “Death to Raisi” and wishing the same fate on other regime figureheads, such as Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the ailing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his potential successor.
The willingness of the Iranian people to confront the regime has been on display time and again during the last 13 years. Sadly, Western publics, who should really be inspired by such scenes, have tended to look the other way, while our governments have been dutiful about expressing verbal solidarity without doing anything meaningful to help dislodge the ruling mullahs.
There are many reasons for this. On the left, there is a strong sense of colonial guilt, emanating from the 1953 CIA-backed coup against the nationalist prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, that leaves Western liberals nervous about criticizing domestic repression, even when the victim is a young woman. On both left and right, in recent years there has been a greater acceptance of cultural relativism, with both “woke” and conservative rationalizations readily available, alongside a broader disillusionment with the idea that liberal democracy should be a universal system.
The hijab, in particular, has proved perplexing. In America and Europe, where Muslim communities often face racism and discrimination, the hijab has virtually become a civil rights symbol, because many Muslim women freely and proudly wear one despite countless cases of physical assaults upon those who do. But in the hands of the Iranian regime, the hijab is a symbol of repression, something imposed on all women regardless of whether they are Muslims or whether they come from the Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish, Baha’i or other religious minorities.
If we accept the principle that it is for Muslim women themselves, and not the state authorities, to decide whether or not they cover their heads, then we cannot fail to be moved by the protests in Iran—and particularly the spectacle of women of all ages tearing off their hijabs and waving them defiantly at armed security forces.
The U.S. government has expressed its support for the protests, although President Joe Biden’s address to the U.N. General Assembly was disappointingly thin on Iran, saluting the “brave women” who had taken to the streets, but saying no more. Last Thursday, the U.S. announced sanctions on the Morality Police, citing the killing of Amini, as well as sanctions targeting specific officials who “oversee organizations that routinely employ violence to suppress peaceful protesters and members of Iranian civil society, political dissidents, women’s rights activists, and members of the Iranian Baha’i community,” according to a Treasury Department statement.
These are welcome measures, but they will not eject the regime from power in and of themselves. As demonstrated by the example of Venezuela, Iran’s main ally in the western hemisphere, opposition parties can even get themselves recognized as the legitimate government by foreign nations and still not oust their rulers from their palaces.
Arguably, the most vulnerable area for Iran’s rulers is their attempt to control the supply and flow of information, denying internet coverage to entire neighborhoods of Tehran and blocking Instagram, one of the more popular apps used by young Iranians. One of the factors behind this decision stems from the regime’s unease with the world’s citizens viewing unedited footage of the protests and their corresponding repression on computer screens and cellphones.
The often-eccentric Elon Musk had a sensible suggestion in this regard: To exempt Starlink, which provides satellite internet access, from the tough sanctions already imposed on Iran. Doing so would enable the continued uploading of videos and photos taken by protestors, making the regime’s propaganda all the more feeble and laughable. We need to encourage more initiatives like this, so that control of the narrative lies with the protestors, and not those attempting to crush them.
For Jews, there is a natural sympathy with a protest movement seeking to overthrow a regime that denies the Holocaust and advocates for Israel’s violent destruction. As we celebrate the Rosh Hashanah holiday, munching on apples sweetened with honey in the hope of a good year ahead, perhaps we can also offer a prayer to relieve the salty tears of the Iranian mothers and fathers who have lost their children during these protests. To them, as to all of you reading this, I wish a heartfelt Shana Tovah.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.
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