Do Iran’s Women Protesters Have the Power to Topple the Regime?

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Do Iran’s Women Protesters Have the Power to Topple the Regime?

Despite limits to their political and social power, Iranian women are leading protests that could jeopardize the regime.

Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, women have had limited roles in government while men have held the highest positions of power. Yet women have regularly challenged the regime and incrementally won some rights. Since coming to power in 2021, President Ebrahim Raisi’s government has been especially hostile toward women, and it now is struggling to subdue anti-government protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish Iranian woman.

How much political power do Iranian women have?

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Very little. Women have been parliamentarians, diplomats, and cabinet-level ministers, but they are far outnumbered by male officials and have never reached Iran’s highest offices. Iran’s supreme leader must be male, and no woman has been approved as a presidential candidate.

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While high-ranking women officials are usually conservative on gender issues, some have successfully led reforms benefiting women. Outspoken women risk being pushed out of government, though some ousted officials have maintained ties to the regime that help them continue to support women’s rights with less risk of repercussions, says Mona Tajali, a scholar of women’s and Middle East studies at Agnes Scott College.

But Iran’s hard-liners, including Raisi, have hamstrung reformists both within and outside the regime, Tajali says. Hard-liners won control of parliament in a 2020 vote that saw record-low turnout. The number of women lawmakers remained at 17 out of 290, but conservatives replaced most of the incumbents. Most parliamentarians have denounced the current protests.

Women also face significant inequality outside government. They lost rights after the 1979 revolution, and Raisi’s government and its predecessors have passed laws further limiting their freedoms. They are barred from certain jobs, though they have increasingly entered male-dominated roles in recent decades. Although women comprise 60 percent of university students, their unemployment rate was twice that of men in 2021, and on average they earned less than half the wages of men in the same jobs, according to the U.S. State Department.

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Why is the regime worried about the current protests?

Women have protested regime ideology since the beginning of the Islamic Republic, often at great risk: Iran stands out for its high number of executions, of both men and women, and many formerly incarcerated women report being sexually threatened or assaulted in detention. But women’s involvement in the ongoing protests exceeds that seen in previous periods of unrest, even the 2009 Green Movement or the 2017 street protests, in which women also played central roles. Young women and girls are especially prominent in the current demonstrations: the average age of those arrested at the protests is fifteen.

Two women without headscarves walk along a Tehran street. A man and one of the women flash victory signs at each other.
An Iranian woman flashes a victory sign as she walks along a street in Tehran without wearing her headscarf in October 2022. Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto/Getty Images

The protesters want to abandon Iran’s theocracy rather than reform it, and the women-focused demonstrations chip away at the regime’s legitimacy. Chants of “woman, life, freedom” and calls to end mandatory hijab-wearing challenge the Islamist ideology that Iran’s government is based on. These protests have unusually widespread support, unbound by class, ethnicity, or gender.

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Can foreign powers support the protesters?

Some Western countries have condemned Iran’s violent repression of the protests and imposed sanctions on officials involved in the crackdown. The United States is seeking Iran’s removal from the UN Commission on the Status of Women, while Germany and Iceland are expected to request a probe into Iran’s rights violations during a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in November. 

Many analysts say supportive governments can help protesters get around internet restrictions that limit their access to social media. Washington is currently trying to make it easier for tech companies to facilitate internet access. Tajali emphasizes the importance of providing Iranians access to media platforms “so that they speak for themselves.”

What’s next?

Many experts say the strict hijab policy is likely to remain in place, as Iran’s hard-liners fear that compromise will lead to further concessions. The government hasn’t acknowledged what’s at the roots of these protests and instead blames interference from the West, Saudi Arabia, and exiled Kurdish groups in Iraq. It has already launched missile attacks on the latter, and those are likely to continue, the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney tells The President’s Inbox podcast. The domestic crackdown could also intensify, particularly in border regions with large populations of ethnic minorities such as Kurds and Baloch. This could already be in the works, Tajali says, as the government likely feels it can target these areas with impunity.

However, the protests show signs of longevity. The regime isn’t sure how to deter protesters who aren’t afraid of it, Maloney says. Though the protests seem leaderless and unorganized, they can be fueled by the mistreatment of any woman who flouts hijab laws. “The security forces will have to decide to arrest and potentially abuse one of those women, precipitating yet another round of protests, precipitating yet another potential situation of martyrdom, which itself creates a self-sustaining momentum to the gatherings and demonstrations,” Maloney says.

Experts agree that Iran is at a crossroads, but there’s no consensus that the regime will fall. The 1979 revolution was the culmination of unrest that became more organized and formidable over many months, and some analysts say these protests could too.

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