On Monday, the 18th day of Iran’s intense protests against oppressive clerical rule and its numerous failures, schoolgirls with backpacks and black Converse sneakers joined the revolt. They marched down a street in a suburb of Tehran, the capital, waving their school uniform veils in the air. They jeered a male education official off school grounds in the same suburb, chanting the Persian word for lacking honor: “Bisharaf! Bisharaf!” They blocked traffic in the southern city of Shiraz, waving their head scarves in circles. They tore up images of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, hurled the fragments in the air and shrieked with passion, “Death to the dictator!”
The fury and desperation in their chants, and the confident arrival of Iran’s insurgent girls into the dangerous public sphere of protest is exceptional and extraordinary. They are fighting pre-emptively against a future where their bodies will continue to be controlled by the Islamic Republic. Whatever the fate of Iran’s protest movement, now entering its third week, the authorities’ feminist opposition now includes schoolchildren.
The outpouring of anger took the Iranian government off guard when it exploded on Sept. 16 across dozens of cities, in protest of the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody. Iran’s morality police detained Ms. Amini for wearing “improper hijab,” though her precise violation of the state’s Islamic dress codes was unclear. In video footage of Ms. Amini in detention, her attire is, by Iranian standards of compliance with the rules, uncontroversial.
But her unremarkable appearance is, in fact, the point. A distinguishing feature of Iranian life in recent years has been the selective enforcement of the hijab laws. The pockets of society that have managed to flourish in spite of the economy’s overall decline have lived in relative freedom from such restrictions for years, protected by their wealth, exclusive neighborhoods and regime connections. This partly explains the speed at which protests about Ms. Amini’s death accelerated into a wholesale rejection of the Islamic Republic, its leaders and its management of the country. The gap between the freedoms and opportunities enjoyed by the system’s affiliated elite and those of ordinary Iranians has never been so wide — and never have so many people expressed so much anger about it.
This fundamental repudiation of the system is what makes these protests so different from other restive moments in Iran’s recent past: In 1999, students demonstrated against the closing of a reformist newspaper; in 2009, millions marched against an allegedly rigged presidential election, demanding the ascent of different leaders within the system. Today, many despair of any prospect for change and feel a sense of bleak, collective loss. [Continue reading…]