Why are Young People Protesting in Iran?

Women are chafing against intrusive restrictions. Young women and men worry about lack of opportunities and well-paying jobs, making marriage difficult. Resentment is on the rise and the regime faces a rocky ride.

Headlines in the BBC, The Guardian and other western media have focused on protests in Iran. They erupted after a tragic incident in Iran. On September 13, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurd, was arrested by irshad, the morality police. She was taken to a detention center to receive training to observe hijab rule where she fainted. Amini was then taken to a hospital. Three days later, she died in police custody. The next day, protests broke out across Iran and continue to this day.

The BBC tells us that women around the world are now cutting their hair to show their solidarity with their Iranian counterparts. Abir Al-Sahlani, a Swedish Member of the European Parliament, cut her hair in the midst of her speech, giving a rallying cry: “women, life, freedom.”

Why are women protesting?

Since 1979, Shia clerics have ruled Iran. They have imposed strict moral codes and restrictive rules on society. Women are supposed to dress modestly and cover their hair in accordance with clerics’ strict interpretations of Islam. As education levels increase, Iranian women are increasingly unwilling to play by such rules.

Irshad can stop and intimidate any woman for the most arbitrary of reasons. Over the years, Iranian women have become highly educated. The percentage of females in higher education increased from 3% in 1978 to 59% in 2018. Women have entered almost all professions now. Their expectations have risen similarly. Even when there have been no protests, there is a simmering discontent among women about the restrictions they face on a daily basis. Many women hate the morality police. 

So unpopular is irshad that conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposed to parliament to get rid of this morality police but he was shot down by those far more conservative than him, led by Parliament’s members Mutahari and Pizishkiyan. He explained that the police are also young people and they cannot make a correct diagnosis. Overall, Ahmadinejad opposed forcing people to observe the hijab rule. He held that people had rights to choose and they must be given choices so he was accused by ultra-conservatives of supporting indecency. 

While women may have done well in gaining an education, jobs have been hard to find. Glass ceilings remain thick and strong. Few women make it to top positions. They also find it difficult to get married because educated men with good jobs are in short supply. Furthermore, strict rules make it difficult for women and men to socialize. Like women elsewhere, Iranian women want some choice when it comes to their life partners.

Last year, Ebrahim Raisi was elected president. He is a conservative cleric who has sought to reinvigorate the old cultural revolution. Irshad have stepped up patrols and taken women away for “re-education” because of their supposedly improper dress. A hijab-and-chastity decree bans women without headscarves from posting pictures of themselves on social media. Naturally, women are dissatisfied with the tightening of restrictions and Amini’s death has set off a powder keg.

Why are men protesting?

Not only women but also men have taken to the streets. If Iranian women are dissatisfied, so are the men. They are really frustrated with the lack of opportunities. Many have lost hope in the future. In particular, educated men are most discontented. They are unable to get decent well-paying jobs. This restricts their marriage opportunities.

Young people are increasingly influenced by western media. They think of the US as a land of milk and honey. Alumni of the elite Sharif University of Technology leave the country in the search of a better life. Those who remain behind are frustrated by the lack of jobs in Iran. They access western media and want similar lifestyles to what they see on screen. This exacerbates their discontent.

American sanctions have taken their toll on the Iranian economy. Since 2012, per capita income has stagnated. After the Russia-Ukraine War, inflation has further soared. To make matters worse, Iran is facing an environmental crisis. Rivers have run dry, groundwater is falling, lakes are drying up and farmland is parched. A growing population has led to wanton felling of forests. In turn, deforestation has exacerbated desertification. As in India and China, pollution is choking cities. Young men find it very difficult to be hopeful about the future.

Over 60% of Iran’s 84 million population is under 30. Historically, young single men have been a source of instability in any society. Iran has millions of discontented young men. During the recent protests, unknown assailants have attacked banks, police, ambulances, other government officials, mosques, clerics and religious people. The 1979 revolution may not yet be at risk but Iranian society is volatile and could erupt in a volcanic eruption given the slightest provocation.

Mehdi Alavi and Atul Singh

This article was originally published on Fair Observer on October 15, 2022.