Students of Amir Kabir University protest against Hijab and the ruling democracy. Photo: Darafsh/CC
Students of Amir Kabir University protest against Hijab and the ruling democracy. Photo: Darafsh/CC

Lukas Zöbelein, Sozialistische Organisation Solidarität (CWI Germany)

Mahsa Amini’s death has plunged Iran into turmoil. Protests and clashes have taken place in at least 85 cities and towns. Protests, often led by young women, immediately began after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman of Kurdish descent had been arrested by the Iranian morality police, the so-called ‘Guidance Patrols’, for not wearing her hijab properly, was beaten in a police vehicle before being held in custody and dying in hospital three days later.

Mahsa Amini’s death was a tipping point. Already there was anger as across the country women were arrested after a ‘hijab and chastity day’ held in July. Then, in mid-August, a presidential decree clamping down on women’s dress and stipulating harsher punishments for violating the strict code was announced, a measure that would be enforced by surveillance technology. Protests were beginning and, when pictures of Mahsa Amini lying in a coma and after she had died on 16 September, spread on social media, the situation accelerated.

Since the morality police are particularly there to enforce religious laws such as the observance of the strict dress code for women, it was clear to many women in Iran that they too could have died in Mahsa Amini’s place. This initially sparked protests in the Kurdish regions of Iran, which quickly spread throughout the country.

It seems that for the first time since the Green Movement against the election rigging in 2009-10, a broad movement is developing. This underlines the new quality of the situation in Iran. From the beginning, parts of it had an anti-regime character, ranging from reflecting existing public anger at reports of how children of the ruling elite live overseas to chants in a northern city of “death to the oppressor, be it the shah or the supreme leader”, to shouts on protests in Tehran of “death to the dictator”, “life, liberty and women” and “oh the day when we will be armed.”

As is to be expected, the regime is once again reacting to the protests with massive repression and violence. These protests are the largest to sweep the country since those in 2019 against rises in fuel prices when reportedly around 1,500 people were killed in a crackdown on protest. Now the regime is mobilising all its forces in the repressive apparatus – the police, Basji paramilitary militia and the misnamed Revolutionary Guards.

But the reaction of the mainly young and female protesters is different to before. For example, on 21 September, there was a curfew and a massive deployment of police and Basji to the capital city of Tehran.

The regime’s move was simply answered by a local movement gathering a day later, bypassing all control measures. Wherever the repressive apparatus manages to break up meetings and demonstrations, new meetings and protests simply form in other localities in the same city. The protests were initially organised mainly through social media platforms and WhatsApp, but this is becoming increasingly difficult as the regime has blocked sites and massively slowed down and hampered access to and speed of the internet. This shows the need for the movement to organise itself in broad organisations, both involving already existing bodies like the independent trade unions and building new ones so that the protests can be planned and democratically discuss what steps are necessary, and what should replace the regime.

Another development is that the movement has begun to actively defend itself against the police and the Basji. Pictures from different cities show that the demonstrators were armed with clubs and stones, and were able to actively repel attacks by the police and the Basji. This has led to the regime using its henchmen mainly in everyday clothes. But even this is recognised by parts of the movement, and the regime’s henchmen are attacked and driven away.

These developments show the need to form bodies that can organise the defence of the movement. This is also underlined by the fact that, for example, in Tehran and other cities, some police stations have been attacked and the police driven out of them. There are reports of individual attacks on the police and Basji, even including a few shootings. However, a collective defence needs to be organised based both on mass struggle and the creation of forces that can defend the movement.

These questions arise in particular in Oshnavieh in the province of West Azerbaijan, where protesters pushed the state forces out of the city, but they have returned and reports are now that it is now “completely militarised”.

The regime’s massive use of repressive force, which is expressed in particular by firing on the protests, has so far resulted in up to 100 deaths.

Role of the organised working class

Part of the background to this situation is that since 2017-18, the organised sections of the working class, in particular, have been regularly striking and demonstrating for a minimum wage linked to inflation that is enough to live on, better working conditions, against corruption and for their most basic democratic rights. These include, for example, the right to political and trade union organisation, in other words, the legalisation of their trade unions, and the freedom of all political prisoners.

At this moment the independent trade unions have supported the protests, while teachers in Kurdistan have held a two-day protest strike, and Tehran bus drivers have called for a general strike. Such a step would mark a tremendous step forward as it could help bring the different strands of the opposition movement together. A 48-hour strike, accompanied by mass demonstrations, would both bring together, and show, the strength of the working class, youth and the oppressed.

Already in recent trade union struggles and May Day events, there have been elements of national coordination, particularly among teachers. There needs to be an association of all independent trade unions, organised locally and nationally, which could be based on the structures of the teachers’ union organised throughout Iran and extended to involve the wider movement. A central part of this would be to ensure that leadership bodies are democratically elected and that the representatives can be elected and voted out of office at any time.

The preparation of a 48-hour general strike as the next step could also be used to promote nationwide the establishment of these structures mentioned above and to combine the struggles for equal rights for women with political and economic struggles. Every victory in terms of women’s equality also strengthens the working class overall.

Such a campaign would also have the task of warning about the role of the rival imperialist states, especially since foreign capitalist rulers are currently pretending to stand on the side of the movement.

However, they are not really interested in strengthening the movement, but rather in weakening their opponent, i.e. the Iranian regime. This is shown in the fact that the Western imperialists are silent on the position of women in their close ally Saudi Arabia; they have said virtually nothing about the sentencing in August of two Saudi women to 34 and 45 years imprisonment because of Tweets they posted. They want a new Iranian regime which is an ally in the way in which the Shah was prior to the 1979 revolution and, like with the Shah, they would close their eyes to oppression in Iran if it is carried on by one of their friends.

In some of the Iranian workers’ struggles of recent years the questions of nationalisation and workers’ control of production has been raised. This shows how experience is leading workers not just to oppose the regime but to question the capitalist system upon which it rests. They do not want the regime to be simply replaced by another gang of exploiters, and therefore need to maintain political independence from the Iranian capitalists who have their own reasons to oppose the regime.

To achieve this, workers, youth and the oppressed need their own party that combines the fight for democratic demands, the right to organise and have free elections, economic and social demands, and the ending of oppression. The issues of nationalisation and workers’ control over the economy which, for example, the Haft Tappeh workers have raised, would be a significant part of a socialist programme to transform society. A workers’ party with such a socialist programme could unite the struggles of all workers, as well as the struggles of other social and ecological movements. It could provide them with a clear path to breaking with oppression and capitalism by establishing a government led by representatives of workers and the oppressed people.