Assesses the social composition of and the prospects for the Iranian uprising — Editors
The protests in Iran continue. People are demonstrating not only in big cities, but also in many small provincial towns. They continue to take place on a decentralized basis and in the form of scattered groups. The protesters gather “spontaneously” in the neighborhoods, at the corners of large intersections, at the main entrances of shopping centers and bazaars. Before they are attacked or surrounded by security forces or thugs, they disperse and head to another location. In the provinces of Kurdistan and Baluchistan, the protests are more numerous and have a stronger social base. In many universities, opposition students form one of the most active parts of these protests. The movement is accompanied by strikes in the oil and petrochemical industries, in the steel, engineering and processing industries, in schools, and in the transportation and service industries.
Looking at the work stoppages to date, it is apparent that some of the striking groups are directly and openly showing solidarity with the protests and thus taking a political stance, while a considerable number – mostly from the blue- and white-collar sectors – are focusing more on workplace and economic demands. The wave of protests has now also reached some of Iran’s resident artists from theater, film and even athletes. According to the “Human Rights Organization of Iran” (MOI), at least 476 demonstrators have been killed by security forces so far, including 64 minors and 34 women. At least 100 people face the death penalty, and 6 are already on death row. So far, four death sentences have been carried out – Mohsen Shekari from Tehran, Majidreza Rahnavard from Mashhad (both were 23 years old), and Mohammad-Mehdi Karami and Mohammad Hosseini. The number of arrests is believed to be between 10 and 15 thousand people. Nevertheless, the protests continue, and the regime’s repressive apparatus-a bundle of regular police, “special forces” (Yeganeh wiejje), “people’s militias” (basiji), thugs from various state security agencies, and the so-called “civilian-clad” (lebas-shakhsi-ha)-is cracking down ever more brutally.
The immediate cause of the protests is well known: the death of Iranian Jina Mahsa Amini (Kurdish: Jina) as a result of mistreatment by the notorious “morality police” (gasht ershad) on September 16, 2022. The young woman was visiting Tehran. She was arrested for violating Islamic dress regulations (“veiling law,” qanun hijab). Shortly thereafter, she collapsed and died in the hospital after three days in a coma. According to the official statement, she died of a heart attack with simultaneous stroke. Witnesses, on the other hand, report beatings and abuse during the transport and in the notorious assembly station of the morality police. The reason why many people in Iran do not believe the official statements is also due to the fact that the current government under President Ebrahim Raisi consists almost exclusively of former functionaries of various military and security organs of the Islamic Republic. Ebrahim Raisi himself was one of the five judges on the infamous “Committee of Death” (hey-yate marg), which was appointed by Ayatollah Khomeini in July 1988 to “cleanse” Iran’s prisons of as many political prisoners as possible. From summer to late fall 1988, the committee had executed an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 political prisoners nationwide-mostly members of left-wing religious (then People’s Mojahedin) and Marxist-Leninist groups.
As a result of the protests, the Islamic regime has announced that it will dissolve the morality police in its current form, but will continue to uphold the veiling law as an “important moral pillar of Islam”. Although this promise has not been kept so far, it seems that there is more at stake than the abolition of the headscarf or veil law – the protesters are aiming at the “whole”. Since the first demonstration after Jina Mahsa Amini’s funeral in her hometown of Saqqez on September 17, protesters have been chanting “Death to Khamenei” or “Down with the Islamic Republic” in the streets and squares, in universities and schools, on balconies and from the windows of their homes. Again and again we hear the protest slogan “woman, life, freedom” (zan, zendegi, azadi, in Kurdish: Jan, Jian, Azadi), which goes back to the liberation struggle of the Kurds in the region. For the impact and meaning of the current protests, this slogan has great importance; for example, there is talk of a “feminist revolution”.
What is striking about the current protests as a whole is the massive participation of young people. It is estimated that over 60 percent of the protesters are under the age of 30, including a significant number of 15-16 year olds. This is not surprising, however, as about 35 percent of Iran’s population is between the ages of 15-34, according to data from the Statistical Center of Iran (SZI). What is particularly striking, however, is the high level of participation by young women, who are among the main initiators, especially in the cities, and are usually in the front line. The sociopolitical reasons for this are well known: the patriarchal image of women is an integral part of the ideology of this theocratic state. Compulsory veiling is presented as a moral and religious commandment, but under the given social and political constellation, it is an instrument of patriarchal domination. What is at stake is control over women’s bodies as a place of sin and, ultimately, control over the whole of social life. This can only be achieved if the private sphere is abolished and subordinated to the state’s monopoly on violence. The individuality and lifestyle of citizens is placed under the dictates and penal sanctions of the “God-State,” which concretely means the everyday experience of violence and oppression of citizens.
Another characteristic of the protesters is their immense rage against security forces and militias and, along with it, also their remarkable courage to confront them. At the demonstrations, young people defend themselves, throw Molotov cocktails, set fire to police vehicles, block roads and free fellow demonstrators from the hands of security forces — scenes reminiscent of the bleak times of the revolt against the Shah’s regime in 1978/79. The wall of fear has begun to show cracks. In contrast to the principle of “nonviolent resistance” pursued by some opposition groups, there is talk of “the use of legitimate violence against the symbols and institutions of the regime”. The anger of the protesters can be described, to use Slave Cubela’s term, as “social rage” that springs from the structural “social suffering” of the people.
The case of Jina Amini in particular gives young people, especially women, cause for identification in a dramatic and sorrowful way. She was 22 years old and full of the joy of life. As her private video clips and the stories of relatives and friends testify, she loved parties, dancing, music and singing, traveling, chic clothes and fashionable hairstyles. After having passed the difficult university entrance exam, she wanted to successfully complete her studies, find a job, become financially independent, and eventually start a family. She was not politically organized; she was, as the young people would say, “one of us”. In joyful anticipation, she took a trip to Tehran, wanting to stroll around the Iranian metropolis and forget the confines of her provincial town of Saqqez for a few days. Jina Mahsa Amini wanted to enjoy her life – instead she found death. Youth in Iran share not only the dream of an untroubled and free life, but also the experiences of humiliation, degradation and powerlessness: the moments of fear, violence and pain that Amini had to endure in her final hours. Anyone could be the next one. This is what generates tremendous anger towards the ruling regime.
The protests thus also bear elements of a youth rebellion. Young people under the age of 30 form a dominant group; the Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat speaks of a “struggle to regain youthfulness” in view of the current clashes. The youth movement in Iran is not necessarily political. But its diverse struggles to regain youthfulness, freedom and dignity turn political and become part of general efforts to transform political and social conditions.
As early as 2018, some Iranian social scientists and economists warned of social unrest. They continue to speak of a structural crisis that, although exacerbated by the decades-long embargo imposed by the United States and its Western allies, is basically homemade. The immediate causes are the excessive exploitation of natural resources, the widespread system of clientelism, corruption and kleptocracy. In addition, there are the regime’s costly geopolitical adventures and anti-American, anti-Western policies, which serve to maintain the de facto state of emergency domestically — at the expense of isolating the country and massively violating the rule of law. This is also one of the reasons why the old as well as new anti-imperialist tendencies do not play a significant role for the post-revolutionary protests in Iran — and not only there, but in many countries from Central Asia to North Africa: anti-imperialism, or more precisely, anti-Americanism, forms an important part of the state ideology anyway. In contrast, the people of Iran are now seeking the misery of their countries in the contradictions of their own society, in its social as well as economic, cultural as well as political circumstances.
To understand the current protests, a look at the socio-economic factors is helpful. According to the latest survey, the population has reached about 84 million in 2021. Despite all the regime’s efforts to promote rural development, the rural exodus has increased in recent decades, with about 76 percent of the population now living in urban areas. In this urban society, everyday life is shaped by the diversity of spaces, in which individuality, creativity and collective self-understanding emerge. Especially for young people, such social spaces are places of shared experiences, places where fears and hopes can be articulated.
Given the regime’s rigid controls, virtual spaces are also becoming increasingly important. 96.9 percent of Iranians between the ages of 18 and 29 use social media. This opens a window for people to the prosperous, liberal states of the West, which function as a yardstick for judging their own reality. Thus, they are confronted with two opposing concepts of life and sociopolitical perspectives. All this produces not only hope, but also frustration, anger and despair.
It is also helpful to look at the socioeconomic changes in the status of women. Of the approximately 41.5 million women, 33 million are literate — about twice as many as before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The number of female students has grown rapidly, accounting for 51 percent of the total in 2020. The integration of women into the labor market lags behind this development; according to SZI (Statistical Center of Iran), the unemployment rate for men in 2022 will be 13 percent, while that for women will be 28 percent. This disparity is even more pronounced among university graduates, where 27.7 percent of the unemployed are male compared to 71 percent of the unemployed are female. If we compare these figures with those from 2018 or 2020, the trend is upward. When Ebrahim Raisi came to power in August 2021, discrimination against women in higher education became even more severe, with many universities refusing to admit women in more than 20 academic subjects.
Other economic factors include inflation, which– according to SZI — rose to 41.1 percent in the summer of 2022 , and the growing cost of rent. According to the latest report from the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), in the last five months alone, basic rents in cities have risen by an average of around 45 percent. There is a real displacement of the lower classes to the margins. According to official estimates, the number of slum dwellers has risen to about 14 million in the last two decades. Since some time, parts of the impoverished middle class have been trying to find new dwellings in the poorer parts of the city in order to maintain their social status as city dwellers. This aspect is hardly considered in the analyses of the protests. Although the standard of living of the middle class has declined precipitously, their subjective social status, internalized over years, remains intact. This circumstance produces a sense of failure and dissatisfaction that can contribute to radicalization in crisis situations.
Among the reasons for discontent is corruption. Based on reports from official institutions, Abolghasem Mahdavi, a renowned economist based inside the country, speaks of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds in the billions. The perpetrators are state-owned or ostensibly state-owned banks, institutions, foundations and companies that are and managed by officials or members of the government. This veritable robbery of both public and private funds is taking place under the rule of a regime that preaches “sublime Islamic morality” every day, and in a situation characterized by growing social inequality and impoverishment. In 2018, eleven percent of families were considered poor; in 2021, the figure was about 25 percent. In view of galloping inflation, falling wages and cuts in state social benefits, this figure is likely to have risen in the meantime.
If one adds to these stylized facts and figures, all published by official bodies and organs of the regime, the fall of gross domestic income, the decline in investment, the wave of bankruptcies of medium-sized enterprises, the privatizations in education and health care, the fall in wages, the growth of the low-wage sector, the precaritization of labor relations, and the environmental and water crises, then the multiple causes of the current protests are readily apparent.
As for the social background of the protesters and their supporters, it should be noted that, compared with the protests of previous years, it includes somewhat broader social classes, i.e., social strata from both the lower and middle classes. In particular, the impoverished middle class or those threatened with social decline form one of the largest groups among the protesters. Overall, the active protesters consist of precarious workers, small shopkeepers, teachers, pensioners, employees of small and medium-sized enterprises, students and the young unemployed, including not a few academics.
The strikes and work stoppages in the various sectors of the economy remain largely within the horizon of workplace demands, and the majority of workers do not participate in the protests. This is due to a variety of reasons, primarily the social and economic dependence on state and semi-state companies and institutions and the lack of a clear political perspective on the aftermath of a possible overthrow. Activists from the labor movement and civil society also worry about the infrastructures they have built up in recent years: Associations, syndicates, charitable organizations, etc., which are watched suspiciously by the regime but still tolerated. If they were to side politically with the opposition, it is feared, these achievements of decades of work could be destroyed.
Therefore, not all social classes are equally involved in the protests. Slogans such as “all-together” or “we-are-all-together” and the message they contain that the current struggle is not about the interests of a particular class, but about those of the general public, correspond more to a wish than to reality. At the same time, the “all-together” focuses on a common enemy and thus has strong mobilizing potential.
In terms of political programs, two main tendencies can be identified within the protests: republican and constitutionalist. The former is linked to the secular program of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the latter to the constitutional revolution of 1906. The former aims to abolish religious rule in favor of a republic; the latter strives for a constitutional monarchy along the lines of Scandinavian states. The common political denominator of both is based on a liberal democratic constitutional state and on the principle of separation of state and religion. Their difference lies in the question of the form of government.
The political perspective of the majority of the protesters thus remains within the horizon of a bourgeois democratic republic; a thematization of social issues or a demand for socioeconomic change hardly takes place. This distinguishes the current protests from those in January 2018 and November 2019, which had immediate economic and social causes. The political-economic perspective of the protesters remains diffuse and ranges from market-liberal ideas to the different varieties of social market economy of Keynesian and social-democratic character. The right-wing elements of the opposition currents, especially the constitutional monarchists, are well aware that they cannot win the trust of the impoverished middle and lower classes with their market (neo)liberal concepts alone, nor can they expand their mobilization possibilities. Therefore, their representatives occasionally speak of the welfare of the working classes as one of the immanent duties of the state.
The absence of social demands triggers mistrust among left-wing activists. This is countered by the argument that the slogan “woman, life, freedom” implies not only the unity of the political and social question, but also the question of equal rights for all genders and ethnic groups. The reconquest of a life in dignity and freedom thus opens up a universalist emancipatory perspective. This interpretation does not seem entirely wrong, because the slogan contains all these moments in a poetic form. But the “poetry of class” is formed only in the confrontations with the “prose of existing conditions”. It addresses the immediate concrete, without losing sight of the abstract beyond it, in the sense of the upheaval of the social totality. Therefore, despite its disruptive and integrative power, the slogan cannot replace a political, social and economic program – the “working masses” need a concrete perspective sooner or later. This confrontation illustrates the fragmentation of social struggles that has been established over four decades: here the strikes for better working conditions, there the demonstrations against the regime. Bringing together these struggles, which have been waged separately for decades, remains one of the great challenges in Iran.
A significant feature of the protests is the dominant role of women and the thematization of their experiences in an Islamic theocracy. No post-revolutionary protest before has turned to this oppressed and marginalized half of society and identified their suffering with the suffering of society as a whole, as have the current protests. This is one of their great, perhaps historic, achievements.
Some media emphasize that the number of protesters is not even one percent of the population, but this can hardly be verified. We know from history that at the beginning of a revolutionary process there is not a large number, but continuity and perseverance, the everyday appropriation of public places, the creation of social spaces in which common experiences are possible and a common language is developed. These are moments of a revolutionary process that is still in its early stages in Iran — but the current struggles could mark the beginning of a movement to reclaim a life of dignity and freedom.
* Said Hosseini is a social scientist and freelance lecturer for political education and lives in Frankfurt, Germany.
This text was originally published in German in: Express, Zeitung für sozialistische Betriebs- und Gewerkschaftsarbeit, Vol. 01 (2023. Nenad Stefanov translated it from German into English.
 Population Statistics by Age and Sex [in Persian], in Amare Iran, http://www.amareiran.org/index.php/jm-yt-mwmy/34-jm-yt-ayran-bh-lhaz-sn-w-jns
 Cf. Slave Cubela: Anger, Hope-Action? Organizing und soziale Kämpfe im Zeitalter des Zorns, Berlin 2021, S. 9ff.
 See also Asef Bayat: Leben als Politik. Wie ganz normale Leute den Nahen Osten verändern, Berlin 2012, S. 162f.
 Statistics on the users of social media, in: Gadget News, https://gadgetnews.net/646927/statistics-iranian-users-use-of-social-networks/
 Officially, the rial is the Iranian currency. Ten rial are one Tumān. In the meantime, monetary amounts are usually calculated or quoted in Tumān. According to the current exchange rate, the exchange value of one euro is 41,855 Tumān and the exchange value of one U.S. dollar is 38,330 Tumān (as of Dec. 17, 2022).
 On the significance of the conflict between “poetry of the heart” and “prose of relations” problematized by Hegel for the formation of the “poetry of class,” cf. Patrik Eiden-Offe: Die Poesie der Klasse, romantischer Antikapitalismus und die Erfindung des Proletariats, Berlin 2017, S. 12ff.