September 29, 2022 | Flash Brief

Iranian People’s Demand for Freedom Threatens Regime’s Identity and Survival

September 29, 2022 | Flash Brief

Iranian People’s Demand for Freedom Threatens Regime’s Identity and Survival

Tehran’s security forces have killed at least 76 protesters and wounded hundreds more in some 140 cities across Iran over the past two weeks. The demonstrations, triggered by the arrest and murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly transgressing strict mandatory veiling (hijab) laws, show no end in sight. Ongoing protests highlight the Iranian people’s increasing willingness to contest the clerical regime at every possible opportunity. The regime’s brutal repression of protestors underscores its vulnerability and fear of the street, as well as the depth of the challenge to its Islamist identity.

Expert Analysis

“Far from a symbol of observance, the mandatory hijab in the Islamic Republic is about control over women, which the regime has scaled-up to the societal level and is sustained through brute force. Iranian women have been at the forefront of several iterations of past protests, each time using the hijab issue to make a larger political point.” – Behnam Ben Taleblu, FDD Senior Fellow

Women Are Second-Class Citizens in Iran

Women hold a second-class role across the Islamic Republic, where they face a range of discriminatory laws. For example, in court, a woman’s testimony has half the value of a man’s. The law consistently favors men in marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. A married woman may not leave the country without her husband’s permission. Tehran routinely bars women from entering stadiums to watch soccer matches, Iran’s most popular sport. Tehran also restricts women from running for president and other higher offices.

Tehran Views Hijab Law as Bulwark Against Western Values

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has described the headscarf law as a religious imperative rooted in the regime’s larger ideological war against the West. In a 2014 speech, he denounced the West for allegedly regarding women solely “as a means for satisfying lust.” This perspective, he continued, arises from the West’s misguided commitment to “sexual equality,” which obscures the natural differences between the sexes and leads to the objectification and humiliation of women.

Consequently, Khamenei argued, Tehran’s treatment of women constitutes not subjugation but immunization from “fossilized and pseudo-progressive” Western values that threaten the Islamic Republic’s spiritual identity. In a 2017 speech, Khamenei declared, “Making women a commodity and an object of gratification in the Western world is most likely among Zionist plots aiming to destroy the [Iranian] society.”

Protests Make Larger Political Point

The latest protests follow uprisings against the regime earlier this May triggered by soaring food prices. Those protests, much like the November 2019 protests when the regime reportedly killed more than 1,500 demonstrators, were triggered by economic grievances but sustained by a larger political one. The current unrest builds on these evolving patterns. In so doing, it challenges a key pillar of the regime’s values while representing the fundamental grievances and fault lines that exist in Iran between state and society.

“For the Islamic Republic, the murder of Mahsa Amini is becoming a tipping point because compulsory hijab is not just a small piece of cloth,” said Iranian journalist and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad on Tuesday. “It’s like the Berlin Wall. And if Iranian women manage to tear this wall down, the Islamic Republic won’t exist.”

Related Analysis

Biden’s Iran Policy After the Protests,” by Behnam Ben Taleblu and Saeed Ghasseminejad

Evolution Toward Revolution: The Development of Street Protests in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” by Saeed Ghasseminejad, Behnam Ben Taleblu, and Eliora Katz

What Washington Can Learn From the Iran Protests,” by Behnam Ben Taleblu


Iran Iran Human Rights Iran Politics and Economy