Though all recent media attention on Iran has focused on the Islamic Republic’s quest for nuclear power, another type of power has been slowly and steadily incubating in Iran, receiving very little to no coverage: people’s power.
Over the past few years, a surging tide of activists, ranging from labor organizers, women, students, and oppressed national minorities to intellectuals, political prisoners, environmentalists, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists have helped spur a revival of various autonomous social movements.
Although the range of politics within these movements varies from run-of-the-mill liberal to radical anticapitalism, they share several key characteristics; their vehement opposition to both the theocratic nature of the state and to any external intervention in their independent course of action. These protests are occurring within the context of a continued, pervasive climate of economic hardship and political repression.
To fully appreciate this revival of social movements, a brief review of the historical background might be in order. The Iranian revolution of 1979, now referred to as the ‘Islamic’ revolution, was in fact one of the most modern, mass, urban, industrial-based revolutions of the 20th century.
Compared to other major revolutions of the 20th century, it had the highest combined rate of political urban street demonstrations and industrial actions. Between 1978 and 1980, barely two years, almost every level of the society, from the oil industry to various governmental ministries to neighborhoods and universities, were managed by Shoras, or councils.
Needless to say this magnificent experiment with self-management and autonomy was cut short by the start of the Iran-Iraq war and the consequent onslaught by the Islamic Republic against all opposition. In the next 27 years, all Shoras were forcefully converted to “Islamic” ones.
For the next twenty years, Iranian society witnessed a degeneration of the goals of the 1979 insurrection, with the establishment of a theocracy devoted to a ruthless exploitation of workers, codification of gender-apartheid for all women, and the imposition of a reactionary, superstitious, intolerant culture for youth and the society at large.
The presidential election of 1997 ushered in an era of “reform” in Iran. These “reforms” were supposed to save the ruling clerical caste from another revolution by reinvigorating Iran through social, economic, and political change. Suffice to say, this project was not exactly a success.
In the last election reformers were driven out of power, replaced by hardcore conservatives bent on theocratic “purity.” Led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the administration promised to tame all protest movements and bring back the “purity”of the early years of Iran. This platform was sweetened by promises of “putting the oil wealth on everyone’s table.” However, the June 2007 nationwide protests over the rationing of gasoline were the latest indication of the government’s utter failure to improve the economic situation.
Today, the new labor movement, the women’s movement, students, and the revolutionary movement in Iranian Kurdistan, among others, are confronting the Islamic state on a daily basis, while each advances its respective agenda.
WOMEN LEAD THE WAY
Since the Constitutional Revolution of early 1900s, the women’s movement in modern Iran has been a vanguard of social change and progress. Women’s participation and leadership was a crucial factor in the movement for nationalization of the oil industry in the early 1950s.
Women participated on every level in the massive protests against the CIA-installed monarchy up to the February 1979 insurrection. However, only a few weeks after overthrowing the shah, Iranian women organized the first protest against the new regime, opposing Islamic restrictions concerning women’s participation in social life.
For the past 28 years this movement has been engaged in a life-and-death struggle against an unimaginable gender-apartheid theocracy. They have fought against a regime that has introduced the penalty of death by stoning and has, at times, even attacked protesting women by throwing acid in their faces.
Yet, almost every year on March 8, International Women’s Day is celebrated throughout Iran. In more than one instance, participants have been physically attacked and some jailed.
STUDENTS DEFY THE REGIME
The Iranian students’ movement actually did get a few minutes of coverage in the Western press when Ahmadinejad attended a meeting at Tehran’s Polytechnic University. The Iranian president was welcomed by firecrackers and signs calling him a fascist.
Like the labor and women’s movements, the students movement has an incredibly prestigious history in Iranian politics and culture. The most outstanding contemporary tradition within this movement is undoubtedly what is referred to as 16-Azar (December 7). A few months after the CIA-engineered coup against the democratically elected nationalist government of Mohammed Mossadegh, on December 7, 1953, Richard Nixon paid a visit to Tehran. The visit encountered many protests, including a major one on the campus of Tehran University.
As a result of students’ clash with the shah’s security forces, three students were shot to death. Since then, the day has become a symbol of resistance against internal and external reaction. In the past five years, practically all university campuses around the country commemorate December 7 as a day of solidarity between the students’ movement, labor, and women’s struggles.
The revolutionary movement in Kurdistan has always been a solid beacon of hope in the darkest days of reaction throughout Iran. Throughout Iranian history, Kurdistan has been a center of defiance and resistance against different central governments.
The short-lived Democratic Republic of Kurdistan, which existed between from January 1944 to December 1946 headed by Kurdish nationalist leader Ghazi Mohammad, was the first independent Kurdish experience in 20th century.
Since 1979, Iran’s “contributions” to Kurdistan has been nothing but another version of Persian chauvinism, coupled with a tightly maintained military occupation of the entire province, occasional massacres of entire villages, the creation of vast military minefields close to civilian areas, constant systematic harassment, and futile attempts at intimidating the rebellious population.
Two years ago in August 2005, after a month of continued high levels of oppression in various cities of Kurdistan, the entire province responded to a call for general strike, initiated by Komalah, the Kurdistan organization of the Communist Party of Iran.
Perhaps a dress rehearsal for revolutionary events to come, the August 7 strike stunned Iran with its high level of political awareness and organization.
Shortly after New York City experienced its own transit strike, in late January 2006, bus drivers in Tehran also went on strike. The Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, representing employees of the United Bus Company of Tehran (Sharekat-e Vahed), walked out on January 28 in pursuit of their goal of creating an autonomous workers organization.
Though Tehran was never completely shut down and at least a third of the drivers crossed the picket lines, southern districts of the city, where the poor and working-class residents depend on public transportation, came to a major halt.
The bus drivers’ strike in Tehran is just one instance of what has been termed the New Labor movement in Iran. On May 1, 2004, a series of autonomous coordinated May Day celebrations and protests were held in six different cities throughout Iran. This was something that had not happened for 20 years prior.
Following the protests, two separate Iranian workers committees were formed. The committees jointly published the names of 7000 workers and called for improvements in job safety, wages, retirement and women’s rights, while setting up legal advocacy institutions to address labor issues. They also protested racial discrimination, child labor, and the ongoing wars and foreign intervention in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq.
While the 2004 protests were largely free of violence, Iranian security forces attacked an event in the Kurdish city of Saghez. Seven labor leaders, known as the Saghez Seven, were arrested. For the past five years many of those leaders have been dragged through courts and been subject to other kinds of harassment.
These movements provide a glimpse into an evolving spectrum of activists contesting the state and trying to establish their own social spaces in Iran. However, predicting what will happen in Iran, even two years from now, borders on the impossible.