Iran has been in the headlines for the last three and a half weeks, and pundits are speculating on a second revolution, this time sparked by the murder of a woman by the government’s morality police. Her crime? She wasn’t wearing her hijab “properly.”
These events stir up memories of the first Iranian revolution. Forty-three years ago I attended a demonstration against the previous Iranian government:
A Personal Memory
I can still recall the hope that Iranians had when they overthrew the Shah, can still see a certain man’s face, his dark brown eyes blazing with incredulous joy. He seemed old to me, maybe in his late fifties or even sixty—I was thirty-five at the time—his gray hair cut short, his face clean-shaven and almost without wrinkles. It was late fall or early winter of 1979, and I sat next to him at a large rally on the U.C. Berkeley campus. Most of the people around us were younger, foreign exchange students I thought, and they were chanting, “Marg bar shah! Marg bar shah!” I understood immediately, without knowing a word of Farsi: “Death to the Shah!”
All of us were full of hope that day. The Shah was about to go into exile. SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police that had tortured and murdered thousands, would be dissolved.
IMO, there seems to be a certain parallel between the current uprising in the Islamic Republic and those in other times and places.
In October of 1789, in France, crowds of women marched from the markets of Paris to Versailles, in response to food shortages and high prices. They besieged the king’s palace and forced the royal court to move back to the city—a major and early turning point of the revolution.
It was a protest on International Women’s Day in 1917 that sparked the Russian revolution. Crowds of women assembled in Petrograd, the capital, to decry the shortages of bread. By afternoon, “female textile workers from the Vyborg side of the city came out on strike…there were calls of ‘Bread!’ and ‘Down with the tsar!’
In 2011, the Egyptian economy was growing, but the profits were entirely absorbed by the elite, and inequality continued to increase. Food prices had doubled from 2007 to 2011. On January 18, Asmaa Mahfouz posted a video calling for people to assemble in Tahrir Square in Cairo on January 25. At least half a million people showed up. Demonstrations went on for 18 days, until President Mubarak was forced to resign.
And now, in Iran, on September 13, 2022, Mahsa Amini was arrested and beaten to death in Tehran. Since the murder women have been protesting by burning their hijabs, cutting their hair in public, and leading marches and demonstrations. As reported on CBS News, the protests “have united Iranians across different ages, ethnicities and cities…calling not only for women’s rights but…also protesting political repression, corruption, Iran’s battered economy and a climate crisis stemming from mismanagement.”
According to the Statistical Centre of Iran, “Figures released [on July 24] show that consumer prices have risen 54 percent year-on-year…The rampant inflation, which has increasingly flared up since the United States unilaterally abandoned Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers in 2018 and imposed sanctions, has left no sector of the Iranian economy untouched…Iranian households spent 70 percent of their expenses on housing, a figure that is more than three times the global average.” As of this week 133 Iranians have been reported killed in the protests, while 28 journalists and photographers have been arrested by the regime.
There are two common threads in all these rebellions. The first is economic—most people will endure an oppressive regime as long as they have enough to eat, and can feed their children. When that ceases to be the case, due to their rulers’ corruption and incompetence, they rise up. Second, women have been front and center. It seems that our participation is crucial.
Unfortunately, however, success is never guaranteed. France had its ups and downs after 1789, but over time the people were infinitely better off. They became citizens instead of subjects. Russia? Despite Stalinism and now Putinism, I doubt if most Russians would welcome a return to monarchy. On the other hand, in Egypt the Arab Spring was crushed—the U.S. backed the current al-Sisi government, supplying it with arms, and conditions now are even worse than they were under Mubarak.
Nowadays, during the current uprising, I think about the older man I met at the 1979 demonstration. Did he return to his country to help build a new society? Was he pleased or devastated by witnessing one dictatorship replaced with another?
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Perhaps we can better understand current events by looking at the history and economy of modern Iran. In Part 2, I’ll look at conditions that led to the first Iranian revolution.
Thank you, as usual, for this critical essay, Martha. I have always felt that fascism is “natural” to humans—we, or they, love the Alpha Dog, and will support it without thinking. Therefore, you have to work hard and fight hard to keep that impuse toward fascism and “common sense” (what John Kenneth Galbraith called “the stupdity that passes for genuine knowledge”) from taking over. He actually called it “the common wisdom,” but it was the same idea. Having grown up in a violent, completely segregated society in the South, which everyone for the most psrt thought was “natural,” I understood this from an early age. We have to fight that impuse—so keep on fighting.
Thank you so much for the long view of revolutions around the world that have shaken world leaders and their power to the core. You always seem to be able to connect the dots in a way that helps me better understand what’s happening.
I’m looking forward to reading Part 2 as soon as I post this.