How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
There is no sign that the protest movement led by women in Iran is slowing down, despite violent crackdowns by Iranian security forces. Just last week, thousands of Iranians marched to the city of Saghez, the hometown of Mahsa “Zina” Amini, whose death in custody 40 days earlier had sparked an outpouring of public grief and outrage that has evolved into a mass movement. Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian, had been visiting family members in Tehran when she was arrested by the morality police for allegedly violating Iran’s hijab law. Witnesses claim that the police severely beat her; she died three days later in a hospital after slipping into a coma.
Her death has catalyzed one of the largest and most sustained uprisings in Iran in a generation, mobilizing thousands of Iranians and supporters globally. Protesters have adopted the Kurdish slogan “Woman, life, freedom!” as their rallying cry and have taken to the streets to demand political freedom in the face of Internet blackouts, mass arrests, and live-fire attacks by security services. The remarkable size and resilience of these protests are directly tied to the central participation of women. When women are on the frontlines, mass movements have a higher chance of succeeding and are likelier to lead to more egalitarian democracy. This is one of the reasons today’s protests are so threatening to the Iranian regime. As two of us (Chenoweth and Marks) wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this year, “Fully free, politically active women are a threat to authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning leaders—and so those leaders have a strategic reason to be sexist.”
Over the past year in Iran, the government’s control over women’s lives has tightened, especially regarding the hijab law. Viral videos of the morality police violently enforcing the law have generated a swell of anger and defiance. Amini’s death was arguably the tipping point.
From the start, women have set the tone of these protests and have found innovative ways to register their anger with the government. Although men have also participated in large numbers, they have done so in the name of Amini and by embracing more feminist rhetoric than ever before. In this way, women’s organizing and outrage have laid the groundwork for a much wider pro-democratic uprising.
This is a moment of great hope but also great worry. Although the extensive frontline participation of women in protest movements often makes them more effective, it also raises the stakes dramatically. Should the Iranian regime defeat today’s protesters, an even deeper patriarchal backlash could follow, potentially setting back Iranian women’s rights and political freedom by decades.
In the months before Amini was killed, pent-up anger was building in Iran. A woman named Sepideh Rashno was arrested, beaten, and forced to “confess” on state-run TV after an altercation with a female hijab-enforcer on a city bus that went viral in July. In another incident, a viral video showed a mother trying to stop a police van, crying: “Please release my daughter! She is sick!” The van proceeded, ignoring her pleas. In addition to the hijab-related attacks, the government recently implemented a natalist population policy that imposes social control over women and families and is poised to further marginalize women from the public sphere. The policy, denounced by the UN high commissioner on human rights, criminalizes abortion and restricts family planning and reproductive health care, such as fetal monitoring, access to contraceptives, and voluntary vasectomies.
Mona Tajali, a scholar of women’s political representation, has noted that during the past two decades, Iranian women working inside and outside the government have made some progress in opening up political space and increasing inclusion. For example, Tajali notes that there have been numerous nonviolent protests against mandatory hijab since its introduction in 1979. And in 2018, female members of Iran’s parliament arranged for the first official government survey on the state’s religious decrees on women’s dress, revealing that a solid majority of Iranians disapproved of such measures. But in 2020, a conservative crackdown began to reverse these hard-won gains, with fundamentalist leaders banning outspoken women from running for office, persecuting them with frivolous lawsuits, throwing their support behind hard-line candidates of both genders, and brutally enforcing Islamic dress code. Now, Iranian women—and men—are fighting back.
Women have long been agents of change in Iran. Women’s high turnout in the 1997 presidential election brought President Mohammad Khatami to office and helped usher in an era of reform. Women played highly visible roles in the 2009 Green Movement against state-sponsored election fraud and constituted a substantial proportion, if not a majority, of frontline activists. Women developed several initiatives to keep the movement on the streets, such as Mothers in Mourning and Mothers for Peace, groups for women who had either lost their children during the protests or seen them arrested, prompting their loved ones to demand justice and their release.
But the centrality of women’s rights in today’s uprising makes it different from those earlier instances of women’s political mobilization in Iran, and unique among recent mass movements in the broader Middle East. From the Arab Spring in 2010–11 through Sudan’s 2019 revolution, protests in the region have often erupted in the wake of the deaths of young men. This is the first time in the region’s recent history that a nationwide uprising has been ignited by the death of a young woman—and one from an ethnic minority group, no less. The wave of protests in Amini’s name signifies broad-based support for women’s political power and agency as central to political change in Iran while underscoring the gendered nature of repression by the regime. And her Kurdish identity has evoked multiethnic solidarity.
This uprising is also different from other recent campaigns because it is being led, visibly and persistently, by women. From protesting in traffic circles to spearheading massive demonstrations, women are not just symbolizing freedom but also taking tremendous risks—in some cases, losing their lives—to demand it. This has made it more difficult for the regime to put a stop to the uprising and has increased the movement’s chances of producing change. Movements in which women play a prominent role tend to attract much larger numbers of participants. On average, they are about seven times as large as movements that sideline women—and larger movements are more likely to succeed. Because of information blackouts, it is impossible to know just how many people have been active in the movement so far. As the sociologist Mohammad Ali Kadivar has noted, however, today’s movement has attracted far broader support than other recent protests, both in the streets and from key sectors of Iranian society. Beyond reformists, students, and intellectuals in major cities, the movement has engaged diverse bases of support from oil workers to prominent athletes and artists to merchants from Tehran’s bazaar.
Movements with large numbers of female participants also tend to be perceived as more legitimate in the eyes of observers, who often respond to the symbolic power of grandmothers and schoolgirls protesting bravely. In Iran, news of students being killed or detained—often during raids of all-girls schools suspected of defying the hijab law—has catalyzed the teachers union to go on strike and demand the resignation of the education minister. Women’s involvement in mass movements also allows activists to gain access to social levers of change that women influence within their families and communities, where they can draw on different networks and norms than those dominated by men. For instance, in families and communities, women are often able to make moral claims and wield social power in ways that shape the behavior and attitudes of those around them. As a result, gender-inclusive protest movements are often better at chipping away at the loyalties of regime elites, empowering reformers, and sidelining hard-liners as a conflict intensifies.
There is footage of an elderly mother taking her son away from a group of policemen preparing to crack down on protesters. And female celebrities have objected to being portrayed on state-sponsored billboards with the slogan “Women of My Land.” The award-winning actor Fatemeh Motamed-Arya was among the first to publicly protest, releasing a video in which she appeared without a hijab and said, “I am not considered a woman in a land where young children, little girls, and freedom-loving youths are killed in its fields.”
Worldwide, movements led by women also tend to be more innovative—particularly in tactics of noncooperation—than those that sideline women. In Iran, some protest tactics have been uniquely gendered. Women have taken off their hijabs, burning them or waving them while chanting slogans, as with the female students who were filmed shouting “Get out!” at a representative of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps at their school. Women are cutting their hair publicly, invoking an ancient Persian motif of mourning and outrage over injustice and launching a new symbol of international protest. An 80-year-old mother whose son was killed in prison unveiled and cut her hair to support the movement after a lifetime of veiling publicly. From the streets of Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s Kurdistan Province, to neighboring Afghanistan and Turkey, to the EU and Belgian Parliaments, women worldwide are wielding scissors on hair of all colors and textures to symbolize violence against women’s bodies and the rejection of conservative standards for beauty and morals.
Finally, campaigns with women participating prominently are more resilient in the face of repression, in part because inclusive protests are more likely to remain nonviolent. State violence against female protesters can backfire; attacking women and children is often seen as illegitimate and a sign of government weakness. This was poignantly seen in Iran’s 2009 protests, when Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old woman, was shot and killed, becoming a martyr for the movement. During the current unrest, reports suggest that the Iranian regime has arrested over 8,000 people, including hundreds of children, and killed more than 200 protesters. When young and old, women and children are treated this way, it poses a serious risk to the perceived legitimacy of the security forces’ use of force.
Historically, movements that feature women in large numbers are more likely than those that are male dominated to lead to democratic breakthroughs. Examples include democracy campaigns in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Philippines, and Poland in the 1980s. Where campaigns succeed, increased democratization also typically leads to greater respect for civil liberties and gender equality in the years that follow.
As a result, such movements raise the stakes for authoritarian regimes. And when they are defeated, an intense patriarchal backlash often follows, setting back women’s rights to levels lower than before the movement started.
Iran already restricts women’s freedom of expression and bodily autonomy in ways that have downstream effects on their freedom of movement, personal and professional opportunities, and self-determination. This is twinned with legal gender discrimination that has significant economic and political consequences: women in Iran make up more than 50 percent of university graduates but just 14 percent of the labor market. If the current movement falters, Iranian women are likely to face harsher enforcement of already repressive patriarchal policies.
No one can predict whether the movement in Iran will succeed or whether the ruling regime will prevail. Some changes now seem inevitable. The sense of the regime’s invincibility, and women’s marginalization from politics, has been shattered. But the struggle against patriarchal policies and values will likely continue regardless of what happens. Even if the protests do not lead to the collapse of the regime, the current cries for “Woman, life, freedom!” may have already shifted the social and political landscape. And alliances between constituents as diverse as schoolgirls, oil workers, and Kurdish nationalists have emerged. Moreover, the demands of the movement have resonated around the world—including in the United States—where renewed restrictions on reproductive autonomy and violence against women in politics have generated a sense of common cause.
Going forward, the movement will have to weather organizational obstacles and transcend the information blackout imposed by the Iranian government. International actors could help protesters by providing alternative means of accessing the Internet, enabling them to circumvent government shutdowns to communicate with one another and with the rest of the world. But even without such assistance, the videos and photographs that have made it through Iran’s media blackout demonstrate how women can act as powerful agents of change even—perhaps, particularly—under patriarchal authoritarian politics.