Orhan Kemal Cengiz
Can women overthrow the Iranian regime?
When I published my article titled "How the Erdogan regime is secularizing Turkey," a close friend of mine who is a Western diplomat of Iranian descent told me that all my arguments for Turkey were also true for Iran. My basic premise in the article was this: the more the regime has tried to impose religion on society, the more secular Turkish society has become.
Days after my friend sent this message to me, we all witnessed the violent eruption of Iranian women against oppression. As if he foresaw what was going to happen regarding Iran, he also had written to me: "Although I would say that there both action by the government and reaction by the society is much more violent."
I can say that half of Iranian society is quite at peace with the regime. But the other half, some portions of whom we see in the streets of Iran in protests now, are very much secular in their lifestyle and are forced to have a kind of state-sanctioned hypocrisy in public life.
The first time I became aware of this reality was a decade ago. I was on the plane at the Tehran Imam Khomeini Airport. When we boarded the plane, the women were all wearing headscarves. When the plane took off, I turned back to look at the passengers; there was not a single woman with a headscarf. As if a magical stick had touched upon our plane, and all women's clothes had been changed. Abracadabra! It was such a memorable moment for me to witness this transformation that happened in just moments.
In the streets of Tehran, you could also feel similar contradictions. In quite a contrast with how women covered themselves with hijab in conservative parts of Iran, in urban parts you would see many women who covered only half of their heads in clear defiance against state-sanctioned mandatory dress codes.
There are also other surprising elements about society in Iran, which I believe could help us to understand what is going on in the streets now. In a stark contrast with other countries that are governed by Sharia rules, women in Iran are everywhere. You can see them in traffic on their own; you can see them as doctors at hospitals, as flight attendants on a plane, as receptionists at hotels, as pharmacists --you name it, they take part in every aspect of public life.
They are not allowed to go to stadiums and a few other places, but Iranian women are breadwinners and work shoulder to shoulder with their men. This paradox, where on the one hand the regime is trying to restrict public appearances of the feminine side of women but on the other hand these women are very active in the public sphere, has its very roots in the establishment of the Iranian Islamic Regime.
Imam Khomeini was saying in 1979 that "There's no problem for them (women) to go to work but they need to have the Islamic hijab." So, the conundrum of the regime has been there from its inception. They wanted to control women’s bodies; how they dressed, how they behaved and so on, but they have also set women free by allowing them to work.
These women, who somehow have a secular mindset, see the hijab as the symbol of the oppression exerted on them by the regime. They were fed up with mullahs and morality police warning them every single day on how they should cover themselves. So many women have been taken into custody by morality police and they were insulted, rebuked, and threatened by them. The death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the moral police sparked such outrage as a consequence of all this accumulated experience. They did not buy the regime's explanation for the death of this young woman, that she had some health problems, and they all know from their own experience that Amin was mistreated at the hands of her killers.
The regime's reaction has been harsh and resulted in the killing of more than 35 people at the time I was writing this article. I am afraid we may witness a much harsher reaction from the regime to completely suppress this uprising.
Some news leaks show that Iranian leadership sees some actions such as burning the hijab as mohabereh (war against God). We also know from the previous comments of Khamenei that the Supreme Leader sees the hijab as the red line of the regime. He once said that "The logic that says let the people choose themselves can also be used for other wrongdoings, like selling alcohol."
They think that if they make any concessions on the hijab, they will also have to make other concessions that are so dear to the regime. This is why I am waiting for much more brutal attacks on the demonstrators by the regime.
A few other factors are telling me that at this time this uprising cannot bring down the regime. If we put aside some notable exceptions like Mohammad Ali Ayazi, there are no voices within the religious circles supporting the idea that the hijab can be optional. The second element, which may be more important than the previous one is this: There is no political leadership that could lead this uprising to a regime change.
I wish Iranian women could tear down this regime right now. But the conditions are not in their favor for the time being. On the other hand, no regime can continue to exist against the will of its people. You cannot oppress people forever. Maybe what we are witnessing now is the conception of a much stronger opposition to the regime which will inevitably lead to the collapse of the whole system.
In the end, women will win, and the mullahs will lose. The only thing we do not know is when the Iranian people will deliver the final blow to this regime!