Iranian Men Are Playing a Key Role in the Protests
“Woman, life, freedom” is the slogan of Iran’s ongoing protests, which began after the death of the 21-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini while in police custody on September 16. She was arrested by the morality police for violating the hijab (Islamic dress code and head cover) and died after she was beaten in a detention center.
Her death became a rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of Iranian women, many of whom have been arrested, harassed, and beaten by the morality police for the very same offense. But the protests were not limited to women as they were joined by a large number of men. Soon the grievances of protestors expanded beyond the brutal enforcement of the hijab to address the broader violations of human rights, lack of political rights, and desperate economic conditions.
The insertion and the lead position of “woman” in this slogan could not have been more fitting. From the start, women, particularly young women under 30, have taken the lead in these ongoing protests. In these protests, many women have been killed, injured, and arrested but their participation has not diminished.
During the past four decades, dissident Iranians have organized several uprisings and mass protests against the regime but all of them have only lasted for a few days before being violently suppressed by security forces. The protests after the manipulation of the 2009 presidential elections, for example, caught the world by surprise when more than three million people rallied in Tehran for three days with the slogan “where is my vote?” but it was quickly contained when the regime resorted to violence and mass arrests. Similarly, the November 2019 uprisings against poverty and economic mismanagement lasted only four days.
Everywhere in Iran there are anti-regime protests with people chanting “death to the dictator” as in this recent video.
Iranians are fed up with more than 40 years of clerical rule. The world must stop recognizing this regime. #IranRevoIution
— Masih Alinejad 🏳️ (@AlinejadMasih) November 16, 2022
The current uprisings have endured and are still gaining momentum thanks to a large extent to the active and sustained participation of women. First, the visibility of women and their struggles has attracted worldwide support at an unprecedented scale. Politicians, celebrities, and influencers have expressed solidarity with the movement and the protest anthem has gone viral with translations into many languages. This unexpected worldwide attention has shocked the regime and to some extent has deterred it from using brute force as it did in response to previous uprisings. With their visibility, women have denied the regime the opportunity to inflict fear through the large-scale killing of protestors.
Second, the participation of women, particularly young women, has given additional motivation to a large number of men to join the protests as allies and supporters. In a strong display of solidarity, Iranian men have joined the protests to call for an end to the enforced hijab and an end to political repression. Men, however, have not only contributed to the uprising with their participation, but also by showing courage and stepping forward to protect women when the security forces and plainclothes officers attack them or try to arrest them. Many videos of men struggling with security forces are circulating online.
We have also seen an unprecedented display of cooperation and support among male and female students in university protests. In many universities, men and women have deliberately defied the rule for gender segregation in dining rooms, which has been in force since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Men’s participation and support have increased women’s confidence and willingness to participate in the protests.
At the same time, the absence of opportunistic behavior and various types of sexual harassment in the behavior of men toward women in the current protests is also noticeable. The protests have created a high level of social solidarity and social trust among the people. When men see a woman that has removed her headscarf, they rarely stare at her with a male gaze. Even day laborers and low-income migrant workers, who come from more conservative and religious backgrounds, do not behave in a manner that can be perceived as harassing by the protesting women. On the contrary, it seems that men in general understand the hijab removal by women as an act of social protest and treat it with respect, rather than adhering to the narrative of the ruling regime, which questions the moral character and dignity of hijab violators.
The respectful and supportive behavior of men toward women and the high level of engagement and cooperation among men and women in the protests is partly a reflection of the cultural and social changes that have been underway in Iran. While the regime has used vast educational and media resources to promote an Islamic lifestyle with emphasis on gender segregation, a sizable segment of the urban middle class has become more secular with a growing trend toward socialization among genders and avoidance of hijab in private spaces.
This decline in religiosity and growing popularity of secular lifestyles include an increase in dating and friendship (and, to a lesser extent even cohabitation) among men and women. In many urban families, parents are imposing fewer restrictions on young women’s interactions with men. A positive consequence of these cultural changes is that the young Iranians who were born after 1990 grew up in mixed private environments (at home and in private events) and had an opportunity for social interaction with each other. As a result, the street harassment of women, which was common before the 1979 Islamic revolution and in the decades after, has significantly diminished in recent years.
These positive changes in men’s behavior made the streets safe enough for women to participate in the protests in large numbers with an awareness that not only will they not be harassed by men but they can count on them for support when the security forces attack them during the protests.