‘Against hopelessness, we need to work not to lose the very small windows of freedom that we can find under this dictatorship’

CIVICUS speaks to an Iranian woman human rights defender about the causes and significance of the recent protests in Iran, as well as the prospects for change in a country with a closed civic space and a theocratic government that maintains a firm grip on power. She asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

1. What triggered the current protests, and what is their significance?

The protests that began on 28 December 2017 were triggered by price increases in a context of massive unemployment and widespread corruption. They started in Mashhad, the second most populated city in Iran, and quickly spread throughout the country. As they spread, they also widened their focus and started encompassing political grievances as well as economic ones. This made a lot of sense given that the current economic crisis is in great measure the result of the irresponsible actions of people and groups linked to the Supreme Leader that are completely unaccountable and immune from justice, including Ayatollahs and leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the branch of the armed forces charged with protecting the country’s Islamic Republic system. So it was only natural for protestors to target Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and all these organisations as well.

These protests are the biggest internal challenge that the government has faced since the protests – also known as the Green Movement - surrounding the 2009 presidential election. Although not nearly as massive as the 2009 protests, they have been met with harsh repression, with more than 20 deaths and hundreds to thousands of arrests over the first few days. These protests also seem different from previous ones in that they are not concentrated in Tehran, the capital, and that they represent a more direct challenge to the rule of the Supreme Leader.

It is not surprising that they elicited such a strong government reaction, not only through force but also through other tactics meant to hinder organisation and mobilisation, such as blocking the internet and restricting access to social media apps. The government also made a show of force by staging pro-government rallies in a number of cities across the country.

2. Do you think there is a chance for the protests to succeed in Iran’s current political climate?

I don't think so. Since the beginning I thought they wouldn't succeed, because the government of the Islamic Republic knows how to crack down on people and because people have gone through enough repression for a lifetime: the bloody Islamic Revolution and war, the executions of the 1980s and the crackdown on the student movement and the Green Movement. As a result, most people are not as selfless or brave as to be able to stand in front of a huge gun machine of the IRGC anymore. We can’t forget that those are the same gun machines that helped al-Assad in Syria.

In fact, the violent crackdown has already discouraged many people from mobilising. In Iran, the minimum government reaction against a peaceful protest involves tear gas and massive arrests, and situations easily escalate to much worse. The pain of 2009 is still fresh for us. It’s not easy to forget how many young people lost their lives, suffered torture or were thrown in jail for the long term. All those lives wasted and nothing changed - so why would people choose to sacrifice themselves for nothing? Most people felt they had no choice but move on.

On other hand some people - mostly educated people, and especially those who were active in the 2009 protests and are still living in Iran - think these protests can't solve anything, and can even put our country in danger. A backlash could result in us losing the little space of freedom that we have – or had.

3. To what extent are women taking part in the protests?

Compared to 2009, I would say I have seen fewer female protesters, particularly in cities other than Tehran. I haven’t seen that many women in the video footage I saw from other cities, maybe because those protests turned violent. But women have always played a big role in protests in Iran, and even this time around there have been several great moments in which women stood their ground in front of the Special Forces.

Women demonstrating in Tehran have been portrayed in the international media as symbols of defiance, but it is possible that their role is being overstated. It is true, however, that Iranian women are highly educated, play a relatively important role in the work force and have been fighting for equal rights for decades. In fact, the women’s movement has become stronger in recent years.

4. As a member of civil society and an Iranian woman human rights defender, what are your feelings and hopes for the country going forward?

I am having a very hard time and have been under a lot of stress. On the Saturday night after the protests, the internet was shut down completely from 10pm until the next morning, and all I could think was that when they did this in 2009, the next morning I found out that most of my fellow women human right activists had been arrested. So I spent the night thinking they were coming any minute to take us away.

There is also an ongoing disagreement, a fight within the activist community, especially between those who are living in exile and those who have stayed in Iran. While some believe we are close to getting rid of the Mullahs, others think that the Mullahs not going to go away easily, and that everything needs to be destroyed. This has caused all main activism to stop.

The atmosphere is sad and very frustrating. As you can imagine, one the few things that helped us live under a dictatorship and survive was the internet and virtual private networks (VPN). Telegram, with 40 million Iranian users, was the main chat app in the country, and many people used it to run their business. Instagram was also very popular. But suddenly nothing worked, not even with VPN. Just a few days ago I checked over 15 VPNs on Google play and none of them worked; only the websites with servers inside Iran still worked, and this also applied to email and WhatsApp. This means civil society actors that use social media and the internet to raise awareness and do their work lost their main tool. Of course none of us have a place in state media and TV, so basically we couldn’t do anything. Now the situation just got a little better, as VPNs seem to be working again and the filter on Instagram has been removed. But Telegram is still being filtered.

5. How can international civil society and people around the world support Iranians and their aspirations for human rights?

First of all, any group that has the technical capacity could help by providing Iranians with servers for VPN connections.

Also, and thinking more in the long term, it is important to understand that this uprising has complex underlying causes. Unemployment is a particularly acute problem for women. Most educated women are unemployed due to employment rules, and most women human right activists are unemployed women who are fighting for a better society, because we all know that even when a regime change takes place women’s rights tend to get lost along the way. So it's important for international civil society to find ways to help Iranian women human rights defenders stay out of jail and keep going.

Finally, as I have learned from my experience in the 2009 Green Movement, it is vital for the world to keep watching and not forget us. The 2009 was initially a very civil and calm protest of people who believed that the government of the Islamic Republic had cheated in the election, but the IRGC crackdown was brutal. As soon as the government reacted with violence against demonstrators, the internet was shut down, and there was no way to report out of Iran. As a result, the world quickly started to forget about us. Nowadays, with or without the internet working and reports going out, we are aware that there are so many problems in the world that ours won't be in other countries’ people's minds for a long time.

It is clear why educated people living in Iran these days think that an uprising will not take us anywhere, and could in fact cause more damage than good. We are living under a powerful dictatorship that controls everything. How do you fight such big evil? There is this feeling that they made us what we are, they are part of who we are, and if they go the country will collapse as well. In fact, none of us ordinary people have ever been in power. How could any of the multiple oppositions in exile, who are each other's enemies, run the country? It really feels sometimes like we are doomed to living under this dictatorship.

But still, I believe we should at least try to create a strong grassroots movement and be ready for when our country finds itself in a better place. We, the Iranian people, should be very careful to not lose the very small windows of freedom that we can find under this dictatorship.

  • Civic space in Iran is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating overwhelming restrictions in the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

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