The revolt in Iran, one year on

17 September 2023
Bella Beiraghi

The murder of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police last September sparked the largest revolt in Iran since the 1979 revolution. What began as a protest in Gina Mahsa Amini’s home town of Saqqez soon developed into a nationwide revolt against the Iranian state. Over the course of six months, hundreds of thousands of students, workers, the young and the old, took to the streets with the battle cry “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi!” (Women, life, freedom).

On the eve of the first anniversary of the rebellion, it’s important to reflect on one of the most inspiring struggles of this century. It stands as a testament to the potential of radical movements to challenge exploitation and oppression. It demonstrates how struggle raises the confidence and consciousness of the oppressed. Most importantly, it points us to the potential power of the working class to win a world without oppression.

Women played a leading role in the uprising. They were the first to protest—at Amini’s funeral in Saqqez—waving their headscarves in their hands as they chanted “Death to the dictator!”. Schoolgirls bravely challenged principals who refused to support the protests, in some instances chasing them off school grounds while chanting “bi sharaf!” (disgrace!).

Ethnic minorities organised the largest and most militant demonstrations. In the province of Sistan and Baluchestan, weekly rallies of thousands continue to this day, despite fierce state repression.

Oppression is not just something that breeds anguish and suffering. It can also give rise to resistance. By standing up and fighting back, the oppressed can gain the confidence to challenge their oppression. A group of Baloch women described their experience in the uprising as transformative:

“Before the struggle we were trying to improve aspects of the law, we asked the clergy not to prevent girls’ education and asked our fathers not to force us into marriage as children ... but after Mahsa’s death we found ourselves in the forefront of struggle. All of a sudden, with indescribable passion and energy, we Baloch women demand life and freedom. A life free of all chains, of all forms of oppression.”

No longer were these women pleading for the easing of the worst aspects of their oppression. They began demanding, in their own words, “nothing less than total liberation”.

The struggle also transformed the way that Iranian people related to one another, challenging the divide-and-rule tactics of the ruling class. The regime tried to sow divisions in the movement from the outset. After security forces massacred more than 90 protesters in Sistan-Baluchestan, officials claimed that it was the fault of Saudi-backed Sunni militia.

But the attempt to stoke the flames of sectarianism backfired as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in solidarity with the slain protesters. The chants “Long live the Kurds, the Arabs, the Balochis!” and “From Kurdistan to Tehran!” became widespread as the movement took on an explicitly anti-sectarian character.

The rebellion also stands as a testament to the capacity of students to act as a social detonator. Young people are often the most creative and dynamic force in mass movements. In the days following Amini’s murder, students erupted in revolt. The universities were transformed into hubs of resistance and organising. Students defied gender segregation rules, organised huge occupations and urged their teachers to support the movement by going on strike. The state mobilised to crush the students, but this only inflamed their anger.

Following an attack on Sharif University, students in Tehran called for nationwide campus occupations. They warned that government repression wouldn’t stop them: “We will continue to fight ... even when you pull our hair and knock our heads to the ground, it is you who are afraid of us!”

Students were at the centre of the rebellion. But as a social layer, students do not have the capacity to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Only the working class has the power to strike at the heart of capitalist profits and bring to their knees those responsible for all forms of oppression.

So it was inspiring to see that begin to happen across the country. Independent teachers’ unions initiated a series of nationwide strikes in response to the regime’s persecution of university students. Oil, gas and petrochemical workers followed, announcing rolling strikes across refineries in the south of the country. They cried “We are all Mahsa!” as they downed their tools and joined the movement. Workers raised the stakes of the struggle by combining the political demands of the uprising with long-held economic grievances.

The minority of revolutionary workers argued that the fight against oppression is inseparable from the struggle against exploitation. For liberation to be achieved, the economic roots of oppression must be destroyed. In the words of sugar cane workers, “To have bread and freedom, let us not leave the women of the revolution alone”.

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, oil workers called for a full mobilisation. “We know how religion and gender discrimination have always been tools in the hands of the government to oppress the entire society”, they wrote. “March 8 is the day to struggle against this injustice. The Organising Council calls all workers in oil and all other labour centres to this nationwide protest. March 8 is the day of women, life and freedom.”

Unfortunately, the participation of workers was confined to the most politically conscious and organised sections, most importantly teachers and oil workers. While many individually participated in the protests, wider layers of workers did not join the uprising as a class. This limited the capacity for the struggle to challenge the regime. As in most recent mass movements, liberal and reformist ideas and strategies predominated, while the forces of the revolutionary left were too weak to influence events. The struggle had reached an impasse. Eventually, the government regained control and defeated the uprising.

This is not to suggest that the struggle is over. On the contrary, the women, life, freedom rebellion has deepened the ongoing economic and political crisis gripping the Islamic Republic. It should be understood as the latest rupture in an ongoing revolutionary process.

Inside Iran, recurring periods of social revolt since 2018 have contributed to an ongoing radicalisation among layers of students and workers. The regime’s increasingly repressive response to rebellions has only fuelled its growing crisis of legitimacy. And the new forms of organisation born from this rebellion, particularly the neighbourhood committees and teachers’ unions, will help lay the basis for future struggles to deepen.

This has implications beyond Iran. The regime is a force of counter-revolution in the region: movements that threaten the regional order are butchered with bullets and bombs. This means that any serious challenge to the Islamic Republic would also rock the foundations of many despotic Arab dictators and factions the regime supports.

Out of it all, hopefully, a socialist left can build itself for the struggles of the future. On the eve of the first anniversary of Amini’s death, a group of neighbourhood committees published a statement declaring their commitment to rebuilding a current of Marxist politics in Iran:

“Our vision is to build a society where production is driven not by the profit-seeking of a privileged few, but by the collective needs of the community ... in essence, a free and socialist society where every individual contributes according to their abilities and receives according to their needs.”

These are all hopeful signs in the struggle for women, life and freedom to come.

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