Almost a year ago, the death of young Mahsa Amini in moral police custody, sparked widespread unrests across many parts of Iran, capturing the attention of the world towards the plight of Iranians, especially women. Dr Marzieh Kouhi Esfahani, whose research focuses on women in the Muslim world and international relations of the Middle East, analyses the situation today.
Accompanied with her brother during a family visit to Tehran, Mahsa was arrested by the morality police “accused of violating rules on wearing hijab in public”.
A wave of harsh treatments by the authorities regarding hijab during the weeks leading to Mahsa’s death had already taken the public opinion to the boiling point. For example, horrified people objected to how the female author, Sepideh Rashno, was treated when she delivered her forced confession on state TV, clearly battered and bruised after her arrest.
The heated discussions on irrationality and immorality of forcing specific attires on women, or the risks of pushing the disenchanted masses to the breaking point fell on deaf ears. To make the matters worse, not only were there no arrests, no resignation or announcement of an independent public inquiry into Mahsa’s case during the crucial early hours, but also, there was a crackdown on people who had gathered around the hospital in which she was supposed to be treated.
The ensuing unrests shook the system to the core and took months and a heavy-handed response to calm down. There were hundreds of deaths, including more than 40 minors. Protesters were arrested in their thousands and the death penalties for some youngsters accused of blocking the streets or beating up undercover security operatives were carried out shortly after.
Keeping the above in mind, together with the hefty economic and reputational costs, as well as mounting international pressure and isolation, one wonders why the authorities failed to reduce the tensions in some practical ways, such as the dismissal or suspension of personnel involved in the arrest and detention of Mahsa despite her complaint of not feeling well. Furthermore, why after such a turbulent year, and despite the increasing number of women defying the hijab law, are Iranian hardliners stepping up the policing of women?
The answer may lie in what I call the ‘survival arrogance’ and believe it to have two aspects. The first aspect is that for over four decades the Islamic Republic has survived against all the odds. From the eight-year war with Iraq in which all the West, the USSR and the Gulf monarchies were supporting Saddam with arms, money, and intelligence, to the most prolonged and punitive sanctions applied internationally, from several proxy wars to terrorist attacks and repeated riots and unrests, as well as international isolations and pressure. None of these have been able to destabilise the system or result in substantive change.
Surviving all these destabilising factors and their collective impact has resulted in a sense of invincibility due to the righteousness, a feeling of sacredness. This is one root of the survival arrogance. The great devil – a popular expression of the Islamic Republic’s politicians for the US - and his allies have not been able to take us down, why should we resign or answer to the man on the street for what has happened? God is with us, so we carry on doing what we were doing.
The second aspect has more to do with domestic factors. With its legitimacy at the lowest level in recent years, the regime has to keep its current supporters content. For a considerable portion of this population, Islamic symbols are of significant importance and their only reason to support the system. The Islamic Republic has failed to fulfil various promises made by the revolution’s leaders. Those in power have no competence to resolve the increasingly complicated and interwoven economic and social challenges that threaten the survival of the regime and the integrity of the country. Instrumentalising religious symbols to rally these ardent supporters, to claim that we are maintaining the Islamic values, if nothing else, is then the way forward.
Although, hijab has never been of core significance in religious sources, it has historically been used as a symbol by populist Muslim leaders (either its removal or its compulsion) due to its apparent and manifest nature. Hence, to survive further decline in legitimacy, the Islamic Republic authorities see no other way than arrogance in disregarding the majority demand in favour of their supportive minority.
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