Najma Minhas, Managing Editor of Global Village Space, sat down for an exclusive discussion with Fatemeh Aman, a non-resident senior fellow at Middle East Institute, Washington.
Najma Minhas: In the past couple of weeks, we have seen a lot of protests across Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini and over the mandatory wearing of the hijab for Iranian women. Fatemeh, can you explain what is happening in Iran? For example, in the last 40 years, we have seen a relaxation in some laws in Iran. For example, the severity of punishment for drinking alcohol has gone down, yet there’s been no real movement on the hijab. So, what is the significance of the hijab in Iranian politics?
Fatemeh Aman: As you just mentioned, there are many restrictive laws in Iran. Sometimes really silly restrictions are imposed. For example, at some point, playing backgammon and chess was considered haram, as was eating some kinds of fish, but these things have changed. The mandatory hijab has basically changed and eased compared to the early years of the Revolution, but that is something that I believe will not change too much by the establishment.
In my opinion, there are two very basic characteristics of the Islamic Republic: one is the mandatory hijab and the other is anti-US sentiment. These two have worked as a means and a tool to suppress anyone who is opposed to the establishment or who they believe is acting against them. However, the protests against the mandatory hijab are broad and across party lines in Iran.
My hope before yesterday (Khamenei blaming Israel and the US for the protests) was that many grand Ayatollahs would come out and ask the government to ease the laws and take away the morality police. The “Moral Police” is a kind of police that tells you what you should and shouldn’t do, like your hijab is not proper or that you should not put nail polish on, etc. Unfortunately, the crackdown has even expanded more than when it began almost two weeks ago.
Najma Minhas: So, you are suggesting that these two things—the death to America and women’s hijab—are two issues that the regime uses to keep the people focused together?
Fatemeh Aman: It’s more to control people and to control the direction the protests may go. The establishment wants to decide what is important and what is not, what is essential and what is not. Hijab is a very effective way to control women and to restrict them because I believe that the regime is really afraid of women, rightfully so, as we have seen in these protests. Women are the majority of people in Iran with higher education and even better jobs, so they really want to control these women, and the hijab is one effective tool to do so.
Najma Minhas: We have seen that a lot of these protests have been led by women, who are taking a huge part in the protest, and in fact, the protests go against what a lot of experts have traditionally said—that young people in Iran are just not interested in politics. Has this surprised you?
Fatemeh Aman: Absolutely, that is very true. A lot of people thought that the generation of the 90s and 2000s was really not interested in politics, but as we saw in these protests, they are highly intelligent and would act when they felt it would bear fruit without being reckless. They really want changes, and they will look into any possible effective means they have. At this point, there is desperation in Iran, and this generation really feels the need to act. There are restrictive laws beyond the hijab—there are limitations and restrictions on reproductive health, there are child marriages, there are restrictions on higher education of women, and even on their personal and individual lives on issues as small as even how you do your makeup and other such matters.
Najma Minhas: Do you think that these protests are all about women’s issues, or do you think there is something else underlying the protest?
Fatemeh Aman: There is absolutely (something underlying the protests) because this is not something that happened overnight. Two years ago, we had mass demonstrations, which were followed by a massive crackdown on around 2,000 protestors. Since the Green Movement (2009), the regime has suppressed any kind of demonstration or protest. This time, it was just led by women, and I think it has been more effective in getting solidarity and emotional support across the board from people.
Najma Minhas: Do you think there’s something about these protests that is different from the Green Movement or earlier protests that we saw in 2019?
Fatemeh Aman: The Green movement was mostly about politics. It was about a presidential election that people felt was fraudulent, and there was a gentleman leading that protest who has been under house arrest since then. The current movement is non-political and based on human rights and individual freedom. I think that is the reason why it has lasted so long and it may even go on longer.
Najma Minhas: Is that why you think that it spread so much because it has to do more with basic individual rights rather than politics?
Fatemeh Aman: Yes, and for the first time, women are leading it. In the early years of the Revolution, maybe a year after it, the regime put this mandatory hijab on women, and there was a mass protest back then by mostly women and also some men. Everyone was against it. However, all political parties, all men, all leftists, and seculars were trying to convince women that it was not the right timing and that the issue of hijab should not be a priority. Then came the Iran-Iraq war, and the issue of mandatory hijab was once again sidelined. Women were told not to do this or that all the time, but now they are leading the movement and are expressing themselves.
Najma Minhas: Do you think this particular mass protest may actually achieve something earlier movements haven’t?
Fatemeh Aman: I was hoping that the government, especially Ayatollah Khamenei, would come out and would take a more considerate and softer tone, but with what he said yesterday, he made it a security issue and kind of encouraged more crackdown. My guess is that this feeling will not go away and it is going to be really hard to suppress this movement even if the regime does manage to calm things down. I cannot imagine how things would turn out in the coming days, but I was hoping that Khamenei or other senior members of the government would come out to side with the women and ask the security forces to slow down and not act so brutally.
Najma Minhas: As you mentioned, Khamenei’s speech has turned this into a security issue, and before long, it will become a ‘Western’ supported issue. Do you think that will put a nail in the protest movements because that’s the excuse that’s always used to suppress protesters across the world?
Fatemeh Aman: Unfortunately, the regime is going to treat the situation very violently and brutally. It will use the same slogans that have been used in the last 43 years—that Americans and Israelis are behind the protest and that there is nothing wrong with what the regime does to women and to everyone.
Najma Minhas: There are a lot of questions about Khamenei and his successor that are starting to arise in Iran. Do you think that the transition between Khamenei and his successor will be a stable one? How do you see that affecting the JCPOA talks with the US?
Fatemeh Aman: It depends on when the Supreme Leader is gone and somebody else has to take over the leadership. There are talks of his son being his successor, which everyone rejects, and the Guardian Council needs to assign a new leader, which is a more complicated process. I do think that the establishment is going to be very worried about the security situation because the moment is very critical to them. European states are calling for more sanctions to be placed on the regime for the violent crackdown on protesters, so I think that would also make the JCPOA discussions more complicated.