“An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted,” writes the American playwright and essayist Arthur Miller in his contribution to an issue of the New York Magazine to reflect on 1949, “The Year it Came Apart.” This is the case with Iran in the aftermath of the 2018 nationwide protests. Since then, the country has witnessed major waves of spontaneous protests (the bloody November of 2019- February 2020, the ‘uprising of the thirsty’ in July 2021, farmers’ protests in Isfahan in November 2021, May 2022 protests over hiking food prices), and the steady demonstrations of teachers, pensioners, and workers, with their activists behind the bars for months and even years.
It reached a revolutionary peak, however, in mid-September 2022 when Mahsa (Zhina) Amini, a 22 year-old Kurdish young woman, was murdered by the so-called mor(t)ality police in custody, and magnified the quotidian contempt and repression half of the population, the women, undergo on a daily basis because of the compulsory hijab. The ensuing nationwide protests turned into an unprecedented ongoing uprising to end the Islamist regime.
The basic illusion that helped the Islamic Republic maintain its ideological edifice for decades has been rooted in its base coming from the downtrodden (Mostazafan) who call supposedly for an Islamization of the country and eradication of the Western culture. Understanding their social role and political allure for the regime helps elucidate why and how the 1979 Revolution that toppled a monarchic despotism turned into an Islamic one, a mere replacement of a crown with a turban.
An unfulfilled revolution
The 1979 revolution was an advance on two fronts: social injustice and political despotism. The latter originated from the fact that the Shah’s regime did not have public support because of its 1953 coup, backed by the U.S., against the elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh. The former, however, emanated from an uneven development that went underway after land reforms in 1962.
The early 1960s saw a period of full-blown modernization, industrialization, and militarization programs in Iran. Following the coup, vanquishing all the oppositions, the Shah began to consolidate his power through a socio-political and economic program, including land reforms. The aim was to redistribute lands to small-scale cultivators and do away with big landowners. Instead, it ushered in a mass of peasants and rural workers who found themselves unemployed and at the mercy of the government, storming the large cities and industrial centers. The 1973 oil crisis and the subsequent boom in Iran’s oil revenue further intensified unprecedented urban development projects. The construction industry accelerated drastically, particularly in Tehran, incentivizing farmers and agricultural workers to leave for the cities.
While the revolution was carried out by diverse forces demanding civil liberties and social justice, from liberals and leftists to secular nationalists, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Islamists gained the upper hand by capitalizing on this indefinite mass. It consisted of slum dwellers, the unemployed, immigrants from the countryside, seasonal labourers – A whole bevy of the disintegrated populace, displaced and marginalized as a result of the Shah’s modernization, that would be referred to as the ‘urban poor’ or the subalterns by some leftists. What made them distinct from industrial and wage labourers was their in-between class position, neither belonging to their former social status nor getting a new one, and their inability to unionize and involve in politics. Having no political affiliation, they could be easily moulded into ideological manipulation.
With a touch of Islamic discourse, this category was co-opted by Khomeini as Mostazafan, the downtrodden. Yet, they were still defined in terms of their economic reach, while colored with the alleged ideological aspirations for an Islamic community (ummah) which mandate hijab for women and Sharia for all citizens. The Islamists promised to elevate Mostazafan and make them the real beneficiaries of the new regime. Khomeini also issued a decree to confiscate the Pahlavi Foundation with all the Shah and his family’s assets, as well as the property of fifty millionaires, in favour of redistributing them to the downtrodden. Thereafter, it was called Mostazafan Foundation (also known as the Foundation for the Oppressed).
A discrimination triangle
In reality, however, what has been implemented is not much different from what had been before. Keeping political despotism intact, not only didn’t the Islamists bring about social justice, but also they encroached on civil liberties by implementing a strict Sharia law. An apartheid regime was born that has consolidated a discrimination triangle against socio-politico-economic “outsiders” – women as well as ethnics, political dissidents, and the downtrodden – in which gender, racial and ethnic segregation intersects with religious, and class discrimination.
More broadly, it institutionalized a friend-enemy differentiation between regime “insiders” (those who are loyal to the Islamic Republic) and “outsiders” (those who transgress, even inwardly, obedience to it). Though most Iranians were defined as the outsiders, women in particular were the first targeted group of continual harassment by the new regime. The imposition of the compulsory hijab inscribed the “insider/outsider” line on their bodies. It is, in this sense, the prototype of all other discriminations in being historically and structurally associated with diverse mechanisms for excluding the majority of the population from active public life.
The social deprivation of Iranian women constitutes the very act of exclusion throughout the Islamic Republic, rather than just the elimination of a minority or majority of the population. It has to be understood as the first in a series of other structuring socio-political exclusions, including physically executing all the political dissidents – culminating in the 1988 massacre – and symbolically excluding all those forces that have hindered the effort to call the 1979 Revolution an Islamic one. Throughout such an exclusionary process, the Islamists fortified their hegemony by including a mass of downtrodden, whose potential Islamic concerns were to overcome Westernized outsiders, in their social base.
The exclusion of the downtrodden, however, has more steadily taken place. As early as the Iraq-Iran war ended, the country’s reconstruction was started by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) economic arm Khatam al-Anbiya. It undertook the construction of much of Iran’s infrastructure and has been involved in economic, industrial, and financial sectors – in projects as enormous as energy resources, crude oil, natural gas, and dam building – with a lack of long-term environmental sensitivities, which turned the whole country into a complete desert. Rivers and lakeshave dried up, and a concomitant ecological degradation has followed. The uneven development went unabated and brought into life new marginalized masses.
Simultaneously, a structural adjustment program has been conducted for more than three decades. Here again, the main force benefiting from such policies of unfettered privatization and deregulations was the IRGC conglomerates. The outcome has been the collapse of the labour market, the mounting of contractor companies, the growth of the informal and gig economies, and the prevalence of precarious labour, all of which undermined the ability of wage labourers to organize collectively and widened class differences.
An existential threat
The social, political, and economic “outsiders” all have resisted their exclusion in their own turn. However, what has been a structural shift in the past few years is the total disillusionment of the downtrodden with the Islamist regime as its power base. Although there were violent protests by them on the outskirts of large cities like Mashhad and Tehranafter the end of the Iraq-Iran war, Mostazafan has long been a pillar of legitimacy that held the Islamist regime aloft. The 2017-18 uprisings, nonetheless, marked a turning point in their disenchantment with the government. They poured into the cities of the four corners of the country rejecting the whole political establishment, its economic policies, and its value systems (most importantly the compulsory hijab with the concurrent advent of “The Girls of Enghelab Street”). The fact that it reached the small cities and villages proves their entire disillusionment with the system. This reversed relationship between the downtrodden and the Islamic Republic has been an existential threat to the regime’s survival.
This is why Leader Khamenei, ordering the bloody 2019 crackdown with 1500 killed in the streets, reformulated his predecessor’s definition of Mostazafan by referring to its origin in the Quran. Accordingly, they have been defined as Imams, Shi’ite figures, and their followers, i.e., he himself and those loyal to him, with no economic references to the urban poor. No wonder Bonyad Mostazafan, the foundation that was alleged to be for the benefit of the oppressed, ended up being in the hands of the oppressors and turned to become a powerful economic conglomerate in Iran.
For the urban poor, little has changed since the 1979 Revolution. Their living conditions deteriorated even more. The regime’s promises have been exposed as a charade. Not only have the suburban slums in Iran’s big cities not disappeared. The country also witnessed new phenomena among marginalized people like highway dwelling, Connex sleeping, rooftop sleeping, grave dwelling, living in bathrooms and unused broken supermarket fridges – The abysmal forms of homelessness beyond cardboard box sleepers for people living in abject poverty, while empty apartments have mushroomed over the past two decades in Tehran.
For women, the patriarchal hierarchy of Sharia law meant losing control over their body and their free choice. They have to observe the strict hijab law from the very first grade in school. They have had no independent right to education, abortion, work, traveling, or getting divorce. And now they want all of them back.
More than four decades after the 1979 Revolution, the discrimination triangle is falling apart. The “outsiders” in all their socio-politico-economic forms have come together to topple the regime. Their rallying cry “Women, Life, Freedom” speaks to that triangle. The very downtrodden that were to be backing the regime are turning their back on it. The basic illusion has slipped away. Women will succumb no more. Political despotism has become unbearable. The entire society has been exhausted. There remains a nation rising up once again.