‘Women, Life, Freedom’ revolt continues

8 March 2023
Bella Beiraghi

“Basij guards, you are our Daesh!”, chanted parents outside an Education Ministry building in western Tehran on 4 March, likening Iran’s security forces to the Islamic State.

They had gathered to protest against a series of schoolgirl poisonings, which began in November in the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran. Poisonings have occurred in more than 58 schools across at least ten provinces. While there are no confirmed figures, the Centre for Human Rights in Iran estimates that at least 400 students have been poisoned in the last three months. Poisonings are also reported to have occurred at several university campuses in December.

Many inside Iran accuse the regime of intentionally poisoning students in a bid to crush ongoing protests. “These attacks on schools are revenge against the revolutionary students ... to control and restrain the movement”, the Revolutionary Student Organisation of Tehran said in a media release. The Union Council of Iranian students similarly described the poisonings as a form of “collective punishment” enacted by the regime on dissenting students.

Authorities in the Health Ministry and governors’ offices had for months dismissed the incidents as “rumours”, but this changed last week when President Ebrahim Raisi ordered the Interior Ministry to investigate.

Speaking to a crowd in southern Iran on 3 March, Raisi described the attacks as the work of “foes that are trying to create unrest ... to disappoint the Iranian nation”. State media quickly followed suit. The Islamic Republic News Agency accused Western powers of poisoning students to “revive the riots”. This is in keeping with the regime’s narrative that the rebellion is a Western conspiracy hell bent on destroying the Islamic Republic.

Schoolgirls and university students have been at the forefront of protests against the regime. Sparked by the murder of Gina (Mahsa) Amini last September, the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement is the deepest ongoing struggle against the capitalist theocracy since the 1979 revolution.

Tanks, tear gas and bullets have been used against protesters. More than 500 people have been killed and at least 20,000 arrested, according to the US-based Human Rights Activist News Agency. Torture is widespread and official executions continue. Repression is the weapon of choice for Iran’s rulers, who face a worsening economic situation and an acute crisis of legitimacy.

Inflation is running at more than 50 percent, according to the Statistical Centre of Iran. The cost of food has increased by 70 percent in the last twelve months and the value of the Iranian Rial (the currency) hit an all-time low at the end of February. Political corruption, compounded by US sanctions and global economic shocks have sent poverty levels soaring. The Middle East Institute estimates that almost two-thirds of Iranians live on or below the poverty line, while 18 percent endure absolute poverty.

The regime’s political legitimacy had already hit a new low before the rebellion began. Less than half of the population voted in the 2021 presidential election—many viewed it as a farce because hardliner Raisi was handpicked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Despite the regime’s best efforts, the fight against the Islamic Republic remains defiant. In January, an audio clip of women in Tehran’s Evin prison went viral. “All for one and one for all!”, they sang in a Persian rendition of the Italian protest song “Bella Ciao”. The laughter emanating from inside the notorious torture facility highlights the defiant courage of women at the forefront of the movement.

The Coordinating Council for Teachers Trade Unions called a nationwide strike for 7 March in response to the mass poisoning. In its Telegram channel, the Council described the poisoning as an “organised terrorist” attack orchestrated by the regime, warning that “students are the teachers’ red line”.

Workers across a variety of industries have similarly expressed solidarity with students. In the last month, they’ve taken to the streets with their own demands. Retirees want a 25 percent pension increase and the payment of stolen funds from the Social Security Organisation. Videos posted on social media captured hundreds marching in the provinces of Khuzestan and Isfahan last week, chanting, “Leave Syria, think about us!” and “Death to the dictator!”

Iron smelter workers in Isfahan announced a round-the-clock strike on 25 February, demanding payment of stolen wages. They were quickly joined by power plant workers in Ardabil, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad, petrochemical and oil workers in the south, and engineers in Sistan and Baluchestan, demanding the payment of stolen wages, improved health and safety conditions and wage rises in line with inflation.

The solidarity forged between workers and students has deepened with the recent announcement of the Charter of Minimum Demands of the Independent Trade Unions and Civil Organisations of Iran. Published on the eve of the 44th anniversary of the 1979 revolution, the Charter outlines twelve minimal demands of the movement. Some demands concern civil liberties, including the right to independent trade union organisation, the right to protest and freedom of speech. Others take up questions of oppression and environmental justice.

Notable is the call for the confiscation of private property and wealth of Iranian capitalists. The authors of the Charter write that “governmental, semi-governmental and private institutions have taken the social wealth of the Iranian people”, and argue that this wealth should be put back into the hands of the people for the “modernisation and reconstruction of education, pension funds and environment”.

The Charter is a political smorgasbord. There are explicit anti-rich and anti-capitalist demands, alongside a concluding plea to world powers for international cooperation in the interests of “striving for world peace”. Twenty student and worker organisations signed off on the Charter, including historically militant unions like the Haft Tappeh Syndicate and the Ahvaz National Steel Workers’ Group.

But soon after the Charter was published, a debate broke out in the Telegram channel of the Haft Tappeh Syndicate. Some workers criticised the Charter for its “reformist program” and its failure to argue for class struggle as the means to achieve their demands. “The text promotes the idea that these demands can be achieved inside the existing political structure”, wrote one worker. “There is no indication of the need to organise workers as the means to transform society.”

The publication of the Charter reflects a process of deepening struggle. Key organisations in the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement are organising around a set of both progressive and radical demands. But the Charter also reflects a political unevenness in the struggle. Mass movements open the arena of political debate, in which the revolutionary left battles with liberal and reformist currents for leadership. In Iran, the minority of revolutionary workers and students continue to wage the key argument: that the fight for “Woman, Life, Freedom” depends on the working class.

The most radical workers argue that only the working class has the power to topple the Islamic Republic. They understand that the struggle against economic inequality is connected to the fight against oppression. In the lead up to International Women’s Day, these militant workers were arguing for a full-scale mobilisation. And the Council for Organising the Protests of Oil Contract Workers published a call to action:

“We know how religion and gender discrimination have always been tools in the hands of the government to oppress the entire society, to blacken the lives of the working class as a whole ... for us workers, March 8 is the day to struggle against this injustice. The Organising Council calls all workers in oil and all other labor centres to this nationwide protest. March 8 is the day of women, life, and freedom.”

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