Shouts of “death to the dictator” and “woman, life, freedom” are reverberating throughout the streets of Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, while in custody of the “morality police” in Tehran.
These protests have echoes from past resistance movements. For the past two decades I have been studying gender and sexual politics in post-revolutionary Iran through on-the-ground ethnographic fieldwork. For some 40 years following the Feb. 11, 1979, Iranian Revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and overthrew the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, people have been rising up against the brutality of the regime in both urban and rural areas.
Today, these protests have been gaining increased momentum and international attention, giving many Iranians inside and outside of Iran some glimmers of hope.
Support for the Revolution grew out of many Iranians’ desire to bring equality and democracy to Iran. They criticized the monarchy as being overly deferential to the United States and were frustrated with increasing gaps between rich and poor.
The Islamists were most critical of westernization, which they saw as violating Islamic tenets and leading Iranians morally astray. They vowed to return Iran to Iranians and to re-center Iranian culture.
To do so, the Islamist regime juxtaposed its rule with everything that it believed to be wrong about “the West.” At the top of the list of critiques was what the regime viewed as loose morals. These loose morals were exemplified in the consumption of alcohol and women’s wearing miniskirts and heavy makeup and flaunting their hair and curves of their bodies in public.
As Khomeini ushered in the Islamists to power, a new era of austerity was born. Khomeini replaced the shah’s brutal police squad, SAVAK, with an equally if not more brutal Revolutionary Guard and created a new unit referred to as the “morality police.”
This era is perhaps best exemplified in the Khomeini quote that was painted across buildings and billboards in Tehran: “The Islamic Republic is not about fun, it is about morality. There is no fun to be had in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Alongside the changes at home, Khomeini also engaged the country in a decadelong war with its neighbor Iraq.
Worried about the rising death toll coming out of the Iranian Revolution, combined with increasing numbers of soldiers needed for the Iran-Iraq war, the Islamists realized that they would need to increase their population quickly, according to demographic researchers. Thus, in the 1980s Khomeini instituted a series of policies in Iran to encourage families to have more children.