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The hijab is not the real issue in sanction-hit Iran

Almost a thousand of people are gathered outside of Wheeler Hall Auditorium of UC Berkeley in California, United States on September 23, 2022. [ Tayfun Coşkun - Anadolu Agency]
Almost a thousand of people are gathered outside of Wheeler Hall Auditorium of UC Berkeley in California, United States on September 23, 2022. [ Tayfun Coşkun - Anadolu Agency]

Ordinary people have risen up against the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran a few times since its inception more than 40 years ago. Historically, that is not unusual in the normal way of revolutions. Like earthquakes, there are always aftershocks and second waves, and to that extent Iran is no different from any other country in which the people challenged the status quo of brutality and tyranny.

And make no mistake, brutality and tyranny were very much in evidence when Iran was ruled by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi from 1941 to 1979. Like many Western-supported puppets today, his reign of terror was enabled by brutal secret police while politicians in Europe and America were happy to look the other way. In the Shah's case, his secret police, SAVAK, came into being in 1957, and protected his regime by arresting, torturing and executing dissidents.

Historians whose work is used to promote pro-Western foreign policies are often prepared to overlook the level of brutality enforced by the Shah, while others look back on that period in Iran through a distorted, romantic lens that bears no relation to the grim reality on the ground. However, this false narrative is kept alive by the Iranian diaspora and Western journalists who are either too blind or too lazy to question the motives of the privileged elite who call for regime change through Western intervention and support. I genuinely don't know of anyone overseas who really wants to see their country trashed in the way that Iraq was following the US-led invasion of 2003, apart from such elites. You will also hear the same narrative today from the privileged elite in the Syrian and Afghan diaspora. Yes, they exist.

The situation in Iran is unlike that of any other country in the Middle East and beyond into Asia. The unrest we are seeing today has quite a different flavour to it than previous uprisings, largely because it is being led by women; brave women whose courage I've witnessed over the years during many trips to Iran.

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Women were very much a part of the 1979 Iranian revolution and have a history of activism going back to the 19th century; they continue to form the backbone of civil unrest today. Sadly this courage is rarely acknowledged by the Western media which today is blindly following a lazy narrative of believing that this uprising is about Islam, the hijab and the oppressive religious police. The truth has more to do with more than 40 years of US-imposed sanctions, rather than hijab.

The trigger for the unrest was the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last month. She died in the custody of religious police for allegedly wearing a hijab improperly. Nevertheless, if the Iranian diaspora cared anything about the people they left behind when they fled with the Shah then they would have risen up against the crippling sanctions which have almost paralysed Iran's development economically, culturally and socially. If they cared anything for their country they would not want to see a NATO-led regime change turn it into another Iraq or Syria, and yet this is what they're calling for and have done for decades. It is worth remembering that this section of the diaspora represents about five per cent of the Iranian population, but they speak English and know how to get the attention of the BBC and other mainstream media.

This is not about secularism versus Islam, although that is what the Islamophobic West is trying to portray. So are those members of the diaspora who have lived long enough in the West to know what buttons to press. What a pity that such exiles have not been as vocal about the sanctions which have seen the regime in Tehran being unable to develop in a productive way like fledgling revolutionary movements elsewhere in the world. Iran is on the verge of economic collapse and America has ensured that it has remained like that ever since the first Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini — Ayatollah Khomeini — came out of exile to take over in 1979.

The Supreme Leader since 1989 has been Ali Khamenei, who was Iran's third President from 1981 before taking the top job. He inherited the US sanctions making it impossible for the country to evolve, grow and develop.

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I doubt that any government could implement a fully functioning state, Islamic or otherwise, under such sanctions. Now a third generation of Iranians is feeling the frustrations of living in a country that is isolated from the rest of the world. These youngsters cannot enjoy foreign travel and access to the fashions and lifestyles that they see in Western movies, social media and the internet. Is it any wonder that Iranian youth are rebelling against petty-minded religious police who enforce hijab-wearing and punish those who do not lead a 100 per cent Islamic way of life? (Who does?)

Ironically, it is the regime clerics in Tehran who are making young people hate Islam. The Iranians have found themselves within a multi-faceted pressure cooker because of external forces pushing for regime change even as the government is unable to implement its own plans because of sanctions. Does anyone seriously think that the regime would have been as strict as it is if it had been able to flourish economically without trade sanctions?

I've spent the past few weeks speaking to members of the Iranian diaspora as well as those inside the country. While it is clear that today's turmoil is quite different from that of 2009, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Tehran, the actions of young Iranian women are proving far more of a challenge to the regime.

I'm not sure who came up with the nonsense that the average age of the protesters is 15; such accurate statistics could only come from the authorities within Iran, not some dollar-funded Iranian think tank in Washington, Wellington, London or Paris. I'm reliably informed, though, that the women are in their late teens or early 20s, and while the protests are barely touching the 10,000 mark — nothing when compared with the million+ marches of 2009 — the escalation towards instability is taking place much quicker than has been seen before.

"Iran is facing the same challenges as Iraq did at the height of the US sanctions under Saddam Hussein and all the Iranian diaspora can do is call for regime change," Sara (name changed) told me. She lives in northern Tehran. "They have no imagination and no love for Iran to shout about this. Have they not seen what has happened to Iraq and all the countless lives lost? Where were they when America imposed the sanctions? If they can call for regime change then they can use their voice to end the sanctions and come up with another revolutionary movement instead of lazily asking the West to sort out their problems."

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Sara pointed out that regime change certainly didn't work in Iraq; that much is obvious. "So they are not breaking our resolve in Iran. However, I'm not blind to the regime's faults either and they have to ease off the pressure somehow for it to make a difference. The younger generation is beginning to hate their own faith because everything to them seems to be implemented by threat and force. They think the West is supporting them but they have no idea what Western Islamophobia is or what drives it."

One academic from Mashhad in north-eastern Iran also spoke to me on condition of anonymity. "In Britain," he said, "you had Brexit which split the country. Similarly, the issue of the religious police is polarising people in Iran. However, our parties are made up differently from the left and right politics of the UK. Our culturally conservative parties are also liberal in terms of the distribution of wealth and welfare whereas our liberal parties are capitalist in their outlook."

He believes that the Western media is trying to oversimplify the situation by making it purely about the hijab and the death of the Kurdish Amini. "But it is far more complex than that. Some Muslims in the West criticise our girls for burning the hijab thinking they are protesting against Islam but they are protesting against a regime that is forcing Islam on the young. What Muslims in Europe and America fail to realise is that they are practising their religion without fear or force. It is their choice. It is too simplistic to blame the behaviour of these girls on growing secularism or secularist movements."

As any parent of teenage children knows, he added, it is far easier to get them to follow the rules by gentle persuasion and not by force. "Iran has been grappling for the past 43 years with the formation of an Islamic state. If they had given Iranians a choice the hijab wouldn't be an issue today. The regime is causing young people to hate their Islam; it should not be implemented by force."

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Khamenei's intervention in a message to the youth was expected to calm things but this time the Supreme Leader's words appear to have fuelled the unrest further. "These scattered riots are the passive and clumsy design of the enemy against the great and innovative developments and movements of the Iranian nation. We made great moves in a short period of time, which were 180 degrees opposite to the global arrogance's policies, and they were forced to react," he said, referring to the US and other Western powers.

The protests may be smaller than those in 2009, but those running the regime in Tehran must wake up and start listening to this new generation of Iranians. If not, they face the very real prospect of the kind of consequences which led to millions in Iraq and Syria being killed in two of the most futile and destructive wars in the region.

It's quite clear the selfish elements of Iran's diaspora couldn't care less about what happens inside the country otherwise they would have come up with solutions of their own by now. All we've had from them is four decades of procrastination.

Would it be so wrong to give Iranians a choice over the hijab and disband the divisive religious police? Or release all the political prisoners, including journalists and give them something positive to write about?

The Qur'an, chapter two (Surah Al-Baqara), verse 256 — which I'm sure all of Iran's legal scholars and clerics are aware — which makes it very clear that, "There is no compulsion in religion." This surely makes the very notion of a "religious police" force un-Islamic. Tehran should take heed of this and ease the pressure on young Iranians. It certainly wouldn't be the end of the world, and could well lead to the easing or even end of sanctions. And who doesn't want that?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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