What differentiates the current protests from the past is that they have been female led, perhaps for the first time in history. Women have been both the spark and engine driving the protests

Those watching TV in Iran last Saturday had a huge surprise. As the presenter of the 9 p.m. bulletin read out the normal pro-regime-biased news, a mask suddenly appeared on the screen, followed by an image of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei with flames around him and a target on his head. Alongside were images of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian Kurd who had been detained by Iran’s morality police for not covering her hair properly and who died in custody on 16 September. Also on the screen were photos of three other women killed in recent protests. Two captions accompanied the images, one saying “join us and rise up”, the other “our youths’ blood is dripping off your paws”. The interruption lasted only a few seconds before being cut off, but the message was clear: join the insurrection. A group called “Adalat Ali”, or “Ali’s Justice” had hacked the state-run broadcast, much to the fury of Iran’s theocratic regime.
Mahsa Amini’s death had sparked an unprecedented wave of protests across the country in which, according to the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights, at least 201 people, including 28 children, have been killed across 17 of Iran’s 31 provinces. As the regime has shut down the internet, verification of the numbers massacred has been difficult. The protestors initially sought to push back on what people saw as the morality police’s heavy-handed enforcement of Iran’s dress code and violent treatment of young women. But now, after four weeks, the protestors could even bring down the regime itself.
Since Iran’s popular uprising in 1978-79, which resulted in the toppling of the monarchy and led to the establishment of an Islamic republic, women have been second-class citizens in the country. They have no laws to protect them from gender-based violence. They cannot travel without the permission of their husbands or next-of-kin male. Women cannot become judges serving on the Guardian Council, nor can they become president or supreme leader of the country. Most shocking of all, the inception of the Islamic Republic, saw the legal age of marriage for girls lowered from 18 to 9. This was later raised to 12, but girls as young as 9 can still be married with the permission of their father or a judge. For more than 40 years, women in Iran have not only been fighting against compulsory hijab, but also for their right to choose what they study and what jobs they can hold. Despite all this, women are far more educated than men, a testament to their tenacity and a driving force in their fight for freedom.
The bitter reality is that the Islamic Revolution in Iran has created an apartheid state for women, who are separated from men in the workplace, in classrooms and on beaches. They are banned from attending sports arenas, riding bicycles and even singing solo in public.
Women in Iran must even sit at the back of buses. According to the World Economic Global Gender Gap Report of 2022, Iran ranks 143 out of 146 countries, with only the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Afghanistan performing worse.
While Iran has become accustomed to mass protests every decade or so, neither the student protests of 1999, which called for the replacement of the Islamic Republic with a government that upheld the ideas of a secular democracy, nor the protest in 2009 against the rigged elections which brought the brutal Mahmood Ahmadinejad to power, or even the “Bloody November” protests of 2019 when according to Amnesty International 321 people died, has there been such fighting back against the security forces. Police patrol vans have been toppled, government bill-boards have been torn down, and pictures of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, have been set on fire. The movement’s slogan, “Women, Life, Freedom” is being chanted loudly around the country—the first time in Iranian history that a chant is demanding something positive, rather than the end to, or the death of, someone or something.
What differentiates the current protests from the past is that they have been female led, perhaps for the first time in history. Women have been both the spark and engine driving the protests, taking to the streets in vast numbers. Young Iranians, including teenagers, university students and schoolchildren have been heavily involved in the demonstrations. Despite the dangers of arrest and death, women have not only been removing their hijabs, but have been setting them ablaze, cutting their hair in protest and chanting “we don’t want an Islamic Republic”. This presents an enormous challenge to the authorities because the issue of women’s hijab, the covering of women’s heads, is one of the pillars of their revolution. To give in on that would knock down that important pillar and question the continued viability of the revolution and the regime itself.
A particular problem for the authorities is the age of the protestors. According to the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards, the average age of those arrested is just fifteen. Day after day, on open streets and in gated schools, young girls have captured the world’s imagination by a flood of tweets and brazen videos ridiculing the theocracy that deems itself the government of God.
A video appeared last week, widely shared on social media, of schoolgirls giggling at their audacity as they stomped on a framed photo of the two Supreme Leaders, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who have ruled since the 1979 revolution. They ripped up the photos and threw the pieces joyfully into the air. With their backs to the camera, the girls formed a line and pulled off their head scarves, shouting “don’t let fear in, we stand united”. Other girls were photographed again from the back in order to protect their identities, raising their middle fingers at pictures of the two Supreme Leaders. In another video from Karaj, schoolgirls gathered in front of a male official and shouted in unison “get lost”, tossing their empty water bottles at him as he fled through the gates of the school. Such audacity from such young people is a new phenomenon in Iran.
While the spark of the current protests was the brutal treatment of Mahsa Amini, beaten to death by the morality police for showing just a few strands of hair from her standard hijab, the underlying strength of the growing movement comes from decades of repression and oppression of any viable opposition to the hardline clerical regime, from an economy in free-fall and the hypocrisy of the ruling elite. These allow their own children to parade on the streets of Europe and America in revealing outfits and to party in luxurious mansions purchased with the stolen riches of their country. All at the time that they refuse to allow women in Iran to even loosen their hijabs.
So will these protests, now in their fifth week, bring the regime down? The tentacles of the Revolutionary Guard, the defenders of the revolution, are widespread and the idea that in Iran people can privately decide that they are going to do something and keep it secret is difficult. The Guard and the clerical establishment will lose everything if the regime falls, and will therefore fight ruthlessly to make sure that it doesn’t. Although there is currently considerable violence on the streets, with tear gas and metal pellets being fired, there is still plenty left in the Revolutionary Guard’s lockers. But this time they see their wives, mothers and daughters protesting on the streets, which could cause them to hesitate. They are currently at a loss as every week the protests are not subsiding, they are intensifying.
Last week something also happened that might have sent shivers down the spines of the theocratic leadership—workers at two oil refineries joined the protests by staging strikes, later spreading to a major crude refinery in the southwest. This is reminiscent of the steps that led to the Iranian revolution four decades ago.
Then, a combination of mass protests and strikes by oil workers and shopkeepers helped to sweep the clergy to power. Today, the memory of oil workers is omnipresent, so could history be about to repeat itself, this time by protests and strikes sweeping the clergy out of power?

John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.