The civil unrest that erupted in Iran after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was allegedly beaten to death by the Islamic Republic’s morality police in September continues to spread across the country. Demonstrations initially aimed at abolishing compulsory hijab laws are now calling for a complete dismantling of the republic itself. Overnight, protestors went from taking off their headscarves to lighting them on fire, from tearing down portraits of their Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, to shouting, “Death to the Oppressor!” in the streets.
Many reports present these developments as unprecedented, and for good reason. As Assal Rad, a research director at the National Iranian American Council, says in a Zoom call, the current level of civil disobedience would have been “unimaginable” a few months ago.
At the same time, it is important to recognize that today’s protests are not entirely unique in the context of Iranian history. They are firmly rooted in a century-old tradition of collective action against authoritarianism—a tradition which created “one of the most robust protest cultures in the world,” as Reza Aslan writes in An American Martyr in Persia: The Epic Life and Tragic Death of Howard Baskerville, set during the 1905-1911 Persian Constitutional Revolution.
According to Middle East historian Ervand Abrahamian, Iran’s protest culture emerged during the late 19th century in the bazaars. This was no coincidence; the bazaar—a marketplace, bank, school, and religious center all rolled into one—was the nexus of Iranian public life. Shopkeepers and guild members elected their leaders independently of the shah. Lacking a say in government, the only way for them to protect their interests was through petitions and demonstrations.
The first Iranians to organize mass protests were the merchants and bankers, who in 1905 led a procession to the state treasury to demand payment on loans and object to economic policies that favored Russian traders over Persian ones. When the monarchy did not comply, the protestors shut down the bazaar and took refuge at a nearby mosque, where they remained until, five days later, their demands were reconsidered.
Ensuing demonstrations, which involved not just businessmen but students and clerics as well, were dispersed with gunfire, much to the horror of Iran’s religious leadership. Before long, opposition to the shah’s rule had grown so large that his own forces refused to fight, leaving him no choice but to sign a constitution that would limit his hitherto limitless power.
As a French contemporary cited by Abrahamian triumphantly concluded: “Events in Persia prove that the general strike and mass action in the streets can produce a successful revolution.”
Tracing the evolution of collective action in Iran—or any country for that matter—is easier said than done. For one, crowds are shapeless and faceless entities that are sometimes written off as impressionable mobs, sometimes glorified as a collection of freedom fighters. On top of this, protest cultures evolve at a staggering pace, adapting to shifts in the social hierarchy and the emergence of new technologies as quickly as (if not quicker than) the individual people they’re made up of.
Of course, one can still identify characteristics that connect Iranian demonstrators across space and time, such as their diverse makeup and refusal to be intimidated by violence. During the Persian Constitutional Revolution, students, laborers, and clerics worked together to defend the city of Tabriz against the shah’s armies. Baskerville, the Nebraskan missionary at the heart of Aslan’s book, considered it his duty as both an American and a Christian to participate in the struggle for constitutional democracy.
During the years leading up to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s westernization programs, which alienated workers and threatened the future of the clergy, produced an equally colorful coalition of protestors. “A large educated and student class and newly politicized class of urban poor,” writes historian Nikki Keddie “aided and influenced by the mosque network, provided the backbone for a new mass politics.”
Finally, there are today’s protests, which are not confined to the urban, middle-class environment in which they originated, but have since moved to Chahar Mahal, Bakhtiari, and other small towns in rural areas throughout the country. Over Zoom, both Aslan and Rad talk enthusiastically about religious citizens joining secular youths in their battle against the Islamic Republic, and the juxtaposition of traditionally dressed women in headscarves protesting alongside girls in jeans and t-shirts.
Unilaterally condemning the demonstrations, Khamenei’s regime has turned to excessive, lethal force to stop them. Video footage reviewed by Human Rights Watch shows security forces firing shotguns and assault rifles into fleeing crowds. One Iranian activist group placed the mounting death toll, difficult to determine due to internet shutdowns, north of 233 people by mid-October 2022. A number of the confirmed casualties are students, including young women who suffered a fate similar to Amini’s.
But instead of scaring the protestors into submission, the Islamic Republic is fanning the flames of its own funeral pyre. As Tara Sepehri Far, a senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, put it: “The Iranian authorities’ brutal response to protests across many cities indicates concerted action by the government to crush dissent with cruel disregard for life. The security forces’ widespread shooting of protesters only serves to fuel anger against a corrupt and autocratic government.”
The way in which modern-day Iranians deal with fear for and threats of extreme violence mirror that of their ancestors. Writing about the deadly clashes between students, clergymen, and soldiers that ultimately led to the adoption of Persia’s constitution in 1906, Abrahamian keenly noted that the monarchy’s use of force “cleared the demonstrators off the streets but, at the same time, increased the resistance of the demonstrators.”
Aslan describes a similar turn of events in An American Martyr. When royalists besieged Tabriz during the Constitutional Revolution, they implemented a reign of terror. Residents—with the exception of religious minorities, who bore the brunt of the shah’s wrath—were told that they would be spared from the carnage if they surrendered and waved a white flag from their homes. Before long, these flags popped up everywhere in the city—except at the dwelling of Sattar Khan, the commander of Tabriz’s constitutionalist movement.
Waving off his last chance for a pardon, Khan refused to submit. In the dark of night, he and a few of his men went through the neighborhood taking flags and gathering them into a pile. Although this stunt did nothing to change their slim odds of victory, the commander’s bravery in the face of death proved infectious. “We have come to fight,” the people declared the next morning, “to kill or be killed.” With their fears dispelled, the spirit of resistance was reborn.
Sociologists typically turn to one of two theories to explain the dynamics of collective action: social breakdown and social movement. The former holds that people take to the streets in response to major changes in the established order, like an economic depression. The latter treats the crowd as a proactive rather than reactive force, identifying ideas—i.e., ideology—as the primary driver behind protest cultures.
Sociologist Misagh Parsa argues that social breakdown fails to explain the downfall of Reza Shah. “Rising stress and strain do not necessarily generate the solidarity structures and resources required for collective action,” he writes. “Hence, although uprooted populations may have many grievances, they are unlikely to possess sufficient solidarity structures and networks to act collectively.”
To illustrate his point, Parsa points to a 1979 Washington Post interview with Iranians who remained politically inactive during the Islamic Revolution. “We have heard about the demonstrations,” one said, “but we don’t take part; to demonstrate you have to have a full stomach.” In this instance, social breakdown appears to have prevented rather than encouraged collective action in the country.
Clearly, Iranians needed something else to get out into the streets. Social movement arguments often highlight the leading role of the clergy, who called on the defense of cultural and religious traditions endangered by westernization. As far as Parsa is concerned, however, these interpretations give undue credit to Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republic. “The authority of the clergy,” he concludes, was “insufficient to mobilize the vast majority of Iranians.”
Gene Burns, author of “Ideology, Culture, and Ambiguity: The Revolutionary Process in Iran,” looks beyond the Islamic Revival, arguing the country’s students, workers, and clergymen were held together by a small selection of ambiguous cultural concepts that, although interpreted differently by each subgroup, were recognized as paramount by all.
An example of one such concept is the farr, a symbol of royal glory and Persian nationalism that originated in Zoroastrian times and was used by both Reza Shah and Khomeini to establish their legitimacy. During the Constitutional Revolution, protestors united under the banner of democracy and popular sovereignty, demands which—it should be noted—never changed; as Aslan asserts: “For 116 years, Iranians have been asking for the exact same thing: a say in the decisions that rule their lives.”
Also worth mentioning is martyrdom, a concept that was deeply embedded in Iran’s psyche through classic Persian literature as well as Islamic mythology. Aside from the many tragic tales presented in Ferdowsi’s Book of Kings, the Shi’ite legend of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad whose faith compelled him to fight and die in a battle he could never have won, has left a particularly noticeable impact on Iranian politics and public life.
A regional variation on David and Goliath or Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, the story of Husayn’s martyrdom is a story about standing tall against a stronger foe and sacrificing your life for a greater cause. From Persian constitutionalists to Khomeini’s Islamic Republic to the pious citizens that this republic went on to oppress, countless protest groups have identified themselves with Husayn in order to motivate their followers and convince them they were doing the right thing.
And yet, today’s protestors, especially the younger ones, want nothing to do with Imam Husayn. Not only because his legend has been appropriated by the Islamic Republic, which now sees itself as fighting for survival in an increasingly pagan world, but also because he belongs to a long line of hypermasculine Iranian folk heroes who, frankly, are out of place in a movement ignited by and focused on the suffering and mistreatment of women.
Husayn may have receded into the background, but martyrdom itself—defined by Manochehr Dorraj as “the struggle against social injustice and oppression (…) the noblest of all causes”—is as relevant to Iranian protest culture as ever. Written on Amini’s tombstone are the words, “You will not die, your name will be a symbol.” And in the popular imagination, her memory is joined by that of other girls killed by the state, including Nike Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh.
But today’s protests, despite being intricately tied up in this history of collective action, are also fundamentally different from everything that’s come before. This is partly due to the rise of the internet and social media platforms, which were nonexistent during the Constitutional and Iranian Revolutions, and still in their infancy during the tumultuous presidential election of 2009; since then, Iran’s online population has grown from 27.9 million to 71.94 million.
Internet access, even when blocked by the government, encourages collective action in a variety of ways. Through the web—specifically social media platforms—citizens can share news, display evidence, neutralize propaganda, organize protests, connect with people from foreign countries, and compare their own living conditions to the rest of the world. Most importantly, perhaps, the internet increases the speed with which people like Mahsa Amini are turned into symbols, into martyrs.
Mainly, though, it’s the involvement of female demonstrators that make today’s protest unique. Writing for The New Yorker, Robin Wright declares that we are witnessing the first mass uprising in Iranian history in which women, marching together under the Kurdish feminist slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom,” serve as “both the spark and engine.” Whether this unprecedented movement will succeed remains to be seen, but the fact that it is indeed unprecedented gives reason to hope.