The death of 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s vice squad has sparked ongoing protests. In courageous protest actions, Iranian women march through the streets, burn their state-mandated Islamic headscarves and shout: “Women, life, freedom”. These are acts of defiance unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic.
For those unfamiliar with Iranian history, it would be easy to see the current protests as narrowly limited to the current circumstances. In fact, these protests are part of a longer history of the struggle for democracy in modern Iran.
As early as 1905, Iran was the first place in the Middle East to experience a revolutionary movement striving for a democratic form of government. In the short term, the “constitutional revolution” was defeated by both internal divisions and external intervention.
However, Iran’s democratic aspirations have not been extinguished. After three decades of royalist absolutism and foreign occupation, the 1940s saw the new growth of political parties, a vibrant Iranian press, and new educational opportunities that empowered citizens of all walks of life, especially women.
This era culminated with the rise of Mohammad Mossadegh, the Prime Minister, who mobilized the Iranian people’s democratic will to nationalize the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. The American CIA and British MI6 to foment internal unrest that led to the coup d’état in August 1953 that overthrew Mossadegh.
The next 25 years of Iranian history are a contradiction in terms. The newly restored Shah ruled with an iron fist and restricted political freedoms. At the same time, however, Iranians made remarkable social advances during this period. Iranian women were granted the right to vote by royal decree in 1963 over the clergy’s objection. Family law reforms were also introduced in 1967 and 1975, giving women rights in marriage, divorce and child custody, even over the objections of religious authorities.
These social reforms empowered Iranian women so much that at the time of the 1979 revolution they joined the fight against the Shah’s autocracy.
It is now forgotten, but the revolution that overthrew the monarchy in January 1979 did not begin as an “Islamic Revolution”. The initial revolutionary spark began not in 1979 but in 1977 and was spearheaded by pro-democracy activists. Their initial demands included the release of political prisoners and the guarantee of free elections.
These Iranian calls for democracy in 1977 were inspired by an already established democratic tradition in Iran. In 1978, however, the course of Iran’s revolutionary process took unpredictable turns, and pro-democracy advocates quickly found themselves outmaneuvered. In the emotional context of the revolutionary struggle, liberal demands for civil rights and free elections did not seem revolutionary enough.
After the shah was overthrown, Iranian democracy was once again thwarted, this time by the emerging authoritarianism of the Islamic Republic. Women lost many of the social rights they had acquired over the past decades, including the right to wear the Islamic headscarf.
In the years since, calls for democratic reforms in Iran have not gone away. The failure of successive waves of reforms, such as the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and the Green Movement in 2009, revealed the deep structural obstacles to working within the Islamic Republic’s political system.
As we have seen in Iran over the past few weeks, this new generation of supporters of Iranian democracy is no longer content to operate within the system and are calling for fundamental changes in Iran’s form of government.
It is not known how this process will develop in the coming weeks and months.
What is known is that this latest attempt to build a democratic Iran is the result of more than a century of struggle. It is an ongoing struggle that deserves our support and promises to rewrite the history of modern Iran and its relationship with the United States.
Afshin Marashi is Professor and Farzaneh Family Chair in Modern Iranian History in the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma.