“Down with the Oppressor:” Iranian activists on why the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ uprising is against the whole regime

Mass protests and strikes once again swept Iran in the week of 5 December. Middle East Solidarity interviewed women’s rights activist Parinaz Partow and social activist and former political prisoner Haydeh Ravesh about the uprising which developed after demonstrations escalated nationwide in the wake of the death of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Jina Amini at the hands of the so-called “morality police” in September. Repression has intensified in recent weeks, as the Iranian regime has begun executing protesters after show trials.

Students of Amir Kabir university protest against compulsory veiling and the Islamic Republic, September 2022
Students of Amir Kabir university protest against compulsory veiling and the Islamic Republic, September 2022 (picture: Darafsh via Wikimedia Commons)

Are protests still happening? Where are they taking place?

Parinaz: Unrelenting protests continue across the country and videos are posted daily of these protests. In the first week of December there were videos of protestors in Arak, central Iran, Zahedan, Iranshahr, Nokabad in South-East Iran, Bandar Abbas in Southern Iran. Truck drivers in Sumar, Western Iran held strikes in solidarity with the nationwide protests.  

The funerals of those killed by the regime are also galvanising the Iranian people to continue their struggle for regime change. The protests are widespread and whilst there are various videos of the regime pushing its suppressive forces into certain regions, it is finding it impossible to silence the protestors like it has in previous uprisings.  

Haydeh: The protests are continuing every day in all parts of the country, particularly in major cities such as Tehran, Araak, Shiraaz, Isfahan, Gielan, Mazandaran, and Mashhad and of course in Kurdish cities. During the day, protestors are mostly organising at universities and high schools, in the evening it’s mainly in local areas. On Monday 5 December a three-day national strike was announced by the Young Iranians group. Workers, students, shopkeepers, main market, lorry drivers and even athletes in Iran have joined this strike. Several parties, organisations and political and human right activists outside Iran supported this national strike too.

Have the demands of the protests changed since September? 

Parinaz: No. The demands of the protestors have remained consistent throughout this and previous uprisings, the voices have simply become louder and stronger. People are chanting “Harfe Aval – Harfe Akhar – Sarnegooni – Sarnegooni”. This is Farsi/Persian and means “Our first word and our last word – is regime change – regime change”. Therefore the people are demanding a complete overthrow of the Iranian regime in its entirety, by the Iranian people and for the Iranian people and with absolutely no concessions.   

Haydeh: In the beginning, the main demands were on compulsory hijabs and asking to stop the so-called ‘Morality Police’. As the protests have evolved the most popular slogans and protest graffiti on the streets are “Down with the Dictator” and “Death to Khamenei” (the supreme leader in Iran), “Poverty, Corruption and Inflation, We Will Carry on Till the Government falls.” Calling the names of young people who were killed since September is also incredibly common at demonstrations in Iran.

How have the authorities responded?

Parinaz: The Iranian regime’s modus operandi for the past 43 years is to rule Iran with an iron fist and to crack down on dissent by unleashing a reign of terror on the Iranian people. To date, over 600 Iranians have been unlawfully killed, 10 percent of whom are minors and over 30,000 Iranians are currently being unlawfully detained, subjected to savage and brutal torture.  

Haydeh: The authorities are using police forces to suppress and control the current uprising. They are employing a wide range of brutal methods. They use batons, tear gas, pepper spray, ball bearings, sound grenade, flashing water. In addition, they organise big groups of their army on motor-bikes to ride into the demonstrators to intimidate, hurt and even kill protestors. In some parts of Iran, they are using guns with real bullets. Alongside this, the authorities have deployed their media propaganda network against the uprising by calling them:  disturbing, spies for the USA and Israel, desperate for sex (with regard to women and veiling), agitated teenagers or a violent mob of radicals.

Are there strikes in solidarity with the Women, Life, Freedom uprising or over economic issues?

Parinaz: This Revolution was sparked by the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini and while mandatory veiling is certainly one aspect of the demands, it is a symbol of the real and overwhelming cry which is regime change in its entirety. Iranian women and all freedom loving Iranians know that it is only by regime change that the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Iranians will be realised, irrespective of genders, race, religion, ethnic or linguistic differences. 

Haydeh: First, I would like to mention that what is currently happening in Iran, after nearly three months from its beginning can be defined as more of a revolution than an uprising. However, Kurdistan was the very first province that went on strike just a few days after Mahsa (Jina) Amini’s death. In other parts of Iran, the strikes started weeks later. The main and widespread strike was over the three days in memory of the October 2019 riots which ended in the death of 1,500 people according to Reuters.   

How does the current uprising relate to previous protests and strikes?

Parinaz: In the previous people’s uprising in 2019, the extortionate rise in the price of petrol was the trigger for people to take to the streets and to demand regime change. During the bloody crackdown of 2019, the Iranian regime unlawfully killed over 1,500 pro-democracy demonstrators and imprisoned over 12,000 others and the uprising was brutally and savagely put down in under a week by the Iranian regimes suppressive forces. This time, nearly 3 months since Mahsa Amini’s savage killing by the so-called morality police, the demonstrations rage and school children, university students, workers’ unions, the lower and middle classes are united in their demand for freedom and democracy and a secular Iran where the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Iranians are protected. The people will not back down from this demand and this is the beginning of the end for the Iranian regime.     

Haydeh: What is happening in Iran is the outcome of 43 years of campaigns, strikes, petitions and writing letters to ministers and MPs. In addition to all this, women were attempting to challenge Islamic rules for hijabs, and then facing arrests, beating and fines. They worked hard by studying at universities and finding jobs and organising campaigns for rights to custody of their children, or against laws requiring their husband’s permission for travelling abroad, to be able to ask for divorce, to work as a judge and so on.

Teachers organised a sit-in in schools in Kurdish regions of Iran on 23 and 24 October.  The Coordinating of Council of Iranian Teachers’ Trade Associations said on Twitter “Today, Kurdistan schools are no longer just a place to teach textbooks, but have become a bastion of freedom for students and teachers.” (picture: CCITTA via Twitter)

Can you tell us more about the role of teachers unions in organising strikes?

Haydeh: The teacher union’s history goes back longer than twenty years, when founding a union in Iran was not easy at all. They worked very hard, steadily and with dedication. It took years for them to attract committed teachers who were interested in union activity too. I would estimate that from about 3 to 4 years ago, they started to organise some demonstrations for their union’s demands. They were quite persistent and aware of avoiding redlines in Iran.

Last year they organised demonstrations and strikes across cities in Iran, at points over 200 localities were striking. When teachers go on strike, it affects about 14 million pupils and their families in Iran.

School students in Bandar Abbas show their contempt for Iran’s Supreme Leader in a protest in their classroom (picture: CCITTA via Twitter)

Western governments sometimes say they support the protests – is this popular with ordinary people in Iran?  

Parinaz: The Iranian people are willing and more than capable of overthrowing the Iranian regime. They have never sought and nor do they desire international intervention of any kind. However, what the Iranian people expect and demand is that the British government and the international community take concrete steps to support the Iranian people in their democratic aspirations and their desire to live in a democratic and secular republic. Whilst the Iranian people certainly welcome condemnation of the Iranian regime by our government and others, the Iranian people now expect action in several forms. Firstly, shut down the Iranian Embassy, expel Iran from its seat at the United Nations, sanction individuals and organisations associated with the Iranian regime and most importantly, recognize the Iranian people’s right to self defence to resist tyranny and oppression.   

Haydeh:  It is not easy to answer this question, as there is a dilemma about this. First of all, since 1979, this government has always claimed that all the dissent is related to foreign countries and they receive money and support from them. They are portrayed as ‘agents’ of enemy countries: America, Israel and England. Secondly, people in Iran are hoping that western countries will cease any negotiations with the Islamic government and actively disengage.  I believe Iranian nationals are concerned about receiving support from western countries. 

Is there any support for the idea of a return to the monarchy? Or are protesters opposed to dictatorship in general, not just the current regime?

Parinaz: Since the beginning of this current uprising one of the most popular chants and slogans of this Revolution all over Iran has been “Marg Bar Setamgar – Che Shah Bashe – Che Rahbar” which is Farsi/Persian for “Death to the oppressor – Be it the Shah or the Ruler”. This is indicative of the resounding sentiment of the Iranian people that they will not return to the old days and they will certainly not replace one dictator for another, especially given the dictatorial nature of the Shah’s rule, which was the very reason for the 1979 Revolution when people took to the streets to demand a democratic republic and an end to the dictatorship of the Shah.

Haydeh: If we listen to the street voices in Iran, there is very little support for the monarchy. We even can hear slogans which are against the monarchy, for example, this slogan was raised often at universities. However, Iranian demonstrations outside of Iran are different; one can see a number or even part of the Iranian demonstrators carrying Iran’s flag and putting it on their shoulders, pictures of Reza Pahlavi (son of the last king in Iran) or pictures of the former monarchy. These Iranians support the monarchy and believe it is the best way to run Iran. But the full picture has to include that Reza Pahlavi, in his interviews, has mentioned that after the Islamic Government the type of government will be chosen by Iranians through a free election.

Most Iranians, particularly young people, more than 27 per cent of the population are under 34 years old and they believe in secularism and human rights. They are familiar with social systems and values in modern countries and when they shout out for a “normal life” they mean that style of life.

What you can do: 

  • Join the protest – stop the executions in Iran. 12-2pm, Monday 12 December, Iranian Embassy in London, 16 Prince’s Gate, SW7 1PT
  • Pass a resolution in solidarity with the uprising in Iran in your union branch. 

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