As the nationwide uprising in Iran enters its eighth month, the bewildered mullahs, bereft of ideas on how to control their infuriated population, have reverted to their time-worn acts of vicious oppression.
The inappropriate wearing of the hijab by women has become front and center the key issue of the uprising, which began with the killing in custody by the morality police, last September, of the young Kurdish girl, Mahsa Amini, for not wearing her hijab properly. For the theocratic regime, the oppression of women and their status as second-class citizens, is fundamental to their survival.
Schoolgirls who joined the demonstrations led to a sharp rebuke from the Supreme Leader, the elderly and deluded Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who told a Friday prayer meeting that the girls should be punished for their disrespectful behaviour. Hardliners have interpreted this as an open invitation to act and there have been repeated reports of toxic chemical attacks on primary and secondary schools in towns and cities throughout Iran. Thousands of girls have been hospitalized with nausea and severe breathing problems, while two young girls have died.
In an attempt to appease the demonstrators, it even seemed as if the morality police had been reined in for a few weeks. Their notorious green and white vans, which regularly patrol the streets, had disappeared from view. But the new police chief – Ahmadreza Radan, appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in January after his predecessor was sacked, has reversed those commands, and ordered a renewed crackdown on women who violate the hijab rules.
CCTV cameras have been installed in public spaces and shopping malls to identify unveiled women. The mullahs have announced the closure of dozens of businesses that served women not wearing the hijab. Last week, the state-linked Tasnim news website reported that the sprawling Opal Shopping Center in western Tehran was facing closure because it had become a common meeting place for young women not wearing the hijab.
Tasnim also said that three pharmacies in Tehran have been shut down and several restaurants owned by celebrity footballers and actors had received warnings and could face closure, for allowing unveiled women to use their facilities.
Banners and billboards are now appearing across Tehran bearing images of young daughters and their mothers wearing the type of hijab that is accepted by the authorities. They carry the message: “Hijab is the legacy of mothers.”
In retaliation to the defiance of Iranian women, the regime has ordered the arrest of two renowned actresses in an attempt to send shockwaves through the public ranks. Iranian state media reported that Tehran police have referred Katayoun Riahi and Pantea Bahram to the judiciary, accused of “the crime of removing their hijab in public and publishing its images in the virtual space”.
The clerical regime has also turned its anger on students who participated in the uprising. Following widespread arrests during the early months of the protests, the mullahs have begun depriving students of education, suspending many male and female students from their classes in colleges and universities across the nation.
In one case, reports on social media indicated that four named female students had been banned from studying for one semester on the orders of the disciplinary council of Damghan University.
In another case, a young female student called Niloufar Mirzaii was arrested in the early weeks of the nationwide protests in November 2022 and held in the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran. She was released during a general amnesty in February, but immediately suspended by Al-Zahra University for two semesters (2.5 years). There are hundreds of similar cases reported on social media.
Despite the killing of hundreds of protesters and mass arrests, the protests continue, coordinated by brave Resistance Units of the main democratic opposition movement, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), that have burgeoned across Iran.
Although support for the MEK carries the mandatory death penalty in the Iranian constitution, last week MEK activists marched in four separate parts of Tehran and in 3 other cities, openly chanting “We are the MEK” and “Death to Khamenei, death to Raisi.” The release of tens of thousands of prisoners as part of a general amnesty for Ramadan, did not include any of the 3,600 MEK supporters who are currently being held and who face the potential death penalty.
As the nationwide uprising continues, there can be no doubt about the Iranian people’s long-standing discontent toward the current theocratic fascist regime that has brutalized the country for four decades, causing poverty, hardship and tyranny. The protests have brought to the surface the deep frustration and rage that has been brewing under the surface for many years. The Iranian regime has typically responded with violence, suppression, and economic policies that have led to economic collapse.
Despite these challenges, the Iranian people are demanding change and are determined as never before to continue the fight for the establishment of a free and secular republic in Iran. It is now time for the West to show their open support for the protests and to demand that the regime’s criminal leaders like Khamenei and Raisi be held to account for their crimes against humanity and human rights abuse.
Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). Struan is also Chair of the ‘In Search of Justice’ committee on the protection of political freedoms in Iran. He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and is also president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association. His latest book is titled ‘Dictatorship and Revolution. Iran – A Contemporary History.’