“Yearning for a Regular Life”: The Failure of Reform in the Islamic Republic

By Natasha Parnian

On September 16, 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, was killed in custody after being arrested by the Gashte Ershad (Guidance Patrol) for wearing an “improper hejab”. What began as protests in reaction to her death have turned into widespread civil disobedience against oppression and autocracy. Today, protesters are not calling only for reform. The radically assertive chant “Death to the Dictator” is echoed in Iran’s streets, university campuses, and high schools.

These protests, sustained for over nine weeks now, challenge the fabric of the revolutionary ideals envisioned following the Islamic Revolution in 1979. A long-term power struggle has plagued the Iranian political system since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Questions regarding the nature of an Islamic republic and the role of the Supreme Leader have stayed unresolved since the creation of the Islamic Republic, forming the basis for reform movements.

The current uprising embodies the growing dissent to the ideals of the revolution and the inability of the state to respond to their citizens’ requests. The establishment of the revolutionary state, with constructed values in opposition to the United States, or the “Great Satan” and Western imperialism[1], remains the stage on which the nation is debated. The Islamic Republic has yet to conceive or respond to demands for increased rights and democracy without deeming these large-scale reforms as threatening their existence. The uprisings illustrate the extensive disagreement over the ideals of the revolution and those who enforce them. The movements beg the question: is reform possible within the Islamic Republic? 

Velayat-e Faqih (The Guardianship of the Jurists)

Any question about reforming the Islamic Republic begins with understanding the most critical document of Iranian society: the Velayat-e Faqih. Envisioned by Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s, this document forms the basis of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It calls for a Vali-ye Faqih (Guardian Jurist) to serve as the Supreme Leader. The Velayat-e Faqih outlines the basis for Islamic governance, claiming that legislation is not enough to guarantee a true Islamic republic and legitimises the need for a supreme leader that is “an appointment of a successor after the Prophet to implement and uphold the laws.”[2]  

The Velayat-e Faqih was not without controversy. During the early revolution, important figures such as Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari opposed the Velayat-e Faqih because it disrupted the natural order of waiting for the Mahdi, a term for the final messianic figure who will appear at the end of time, which is central to Shia belief.[3]  Similarly, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, who was instrumental to the revolution, initially supported the Velayat-e Faqih but urged the Supreme Leader to be subject to popular election.[4] Others, including the then Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and President Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr, feared that the idea of Velayat-e Faqih disregarded the values of popular sovereignty and Islamic democracy.[5] Critics such as Ayatollah Montazeri were later placed under house arrest but remained influential to the reformist movements.[6] Although opposing the current interpretation of the Velayat-e Faqih, protesters in 1999 and 2009 were not asking for its removal.[7] Instead, they demanded new interpretations to allow for increased civil rights within the parameters of an Islamic republic.

Reforming the Islamic Republic

The earlier reform movements reflected the post-Khomeini revolutionary power struggle to define, structure, and control the Islamic Republic. The powers entrusted to the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council are a contentious area where reform has failed. Reformists have criticised the regime of Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, as resembling a clerical monarchy or a ‘sultanate‘–a most insulting criticism as it compares the Islamic Republic to the monarchy they overthrew.[8]

According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, the Government has several  elected institutions, including a president and parliament, or majles, but their power is severely restricted by the Guardian Council and the Supreme leader. The Guardian Council is made up of six Faqihs (Jurists) directly appointed by the Supreme Leader and six other non-clerical officials responsible to assess the conformity of the laws passed by the Parliament to Islamic standards. It has the power to veto all legislation and approves candidacy for elections. Other powers of the Supreme Leader include the command of the armed forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the power to dismiss the president and to appoint the country’s chief justice, lower court judges, and guardian council members.[9]

The role of the IRGC differs from the military because it is primarily ideological. Thus, it is closely associated with the Supreme Leader and clerical establishment. From at least 2009, the political power of the IRGC has grown considerably. For example, the appointment of Rostam Qasemi in 2011, a former IRGC officer, as the Oil Minister was perceived by reformists as a sign of the growing involvement of the IRGC in politics, especially controversial as the legality of this is still debated.[10] From Ahmadinejads’ era in 2005, nearly half of his cabinet consisted of IRGC veterans as well as one third of the 30 provincial governors.[11] The Majlis (parliament) speaker was an IRGC brigadier.

From 2009, the clerical establishment has lost its power to the military security guards, from whose ranks President Ahmadinejad and other hardliner advisors emerged.[12] Created in May 1979, the IRGC is part of the Iranian armed forces, but differs in having the primary role to protect and promote the country’s Islamic political system. The IRGC protects the Republic’s survival through mobilisation and monitoring of the paramilitary resistance force Basij. Both these factions promote the ideology of the Islamic Republic by protecting the institutions and countering anything deemed ‘threatening’ to the law and order of the regime.[13] For example, the Basij were heavily involved in cracking down against protestors of the Green Movement in 2009 and protests in 1999. Given the approval by Khamanei, the Basij militia violently attacked and broke up university protests on June 14 at the University of Tehran and continued with beating, intimidation, and arrests of peaceful protestors.[14] The same scenes can be seen in 2022: hundreds of Basij men attack, arrest, and imprison demonstrators in the streets and university campuses across the state.

“Take off the uniforms of the American army”

  • Recent warning by Hossein Salami, head of the IRGC to the Iranian public.

Responsible for maintaining internal security, the IRGC and Basij milia exert considerable political power. As members of a volunteer organisation, the Basij volunteers and their families are the Revolutionary Guards’ popular base in society.[15] During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, they were influential in mobilising the urban poor vote, which was rewarded through subsidies, favours, bribes, and commissions.[16] However, like the hardliner constituency today, Ahmadinejad’s constituency is not simply tied to an urban or rural class. Instead, it is connected to a “regime class,” an ideological community comprised of poor and affluent members of Iranian society who share in the government’s proceeds and are encouraged to support a hardliner government.[17] Other benefits include exemption from military service, which is compulsory for Iranian men, and easier access to universities and government roles. In theory, the Basij are banned from involvement in politics by the Iranian Constitution, but former guardsmen assume public office regularly.[18] In effect, such economic and political power places the Revolutionary Guards at the forefront of political power in Iran. They fall within the ‘leadership troika’ where power is shared between the Supreme Leader, the IRGC and the neoconservative faction, or the “osul garayan” who are devoted to the Velayate-Faqih, the original ideas of the revolution, adhere to strict definitions of Shia Islam and are opposed to the international status-quo.[19] The Basij and IRGC are committed to the core principles of the Islamic Revolution. Thus, they oppose any new interpretation of Islam, especially any opposition to the Velayat-e Faqih as interpreted by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei. It is this relationship that prohibits any real reform.

The Supreme Leader’s response to the uprising indicates the unresolved legacy of the revolution. In his first public statement, Khamenei called the unrest “schemes designed by the US and the fake Zionist regime and treasonous Iranians abroad.” This is the same rhetoric used in 1979, which positions any criticism of the state as synonymous with western immorality and interference.[20] This rhetoric silences any opportunity for internal reform, such as the movements of 1999 and 2005 under Mohammad Khatami and the 2009 Green Movement under Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi.  

Women, Life, Freedom.

The current uprising must be placed within a long history of reform to the tenets of the ideology of the Islamic Republic. One month after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, women protested the imposition of the hijab and regressive laws that determined women’s social and familial roles and legal and civil rights. Whilst they could postpone this mandate for a few years, the hijab was imposed in 1983 based on the Islamic Republic’s interpretation of Islamic governance. Under the rubric of “rescuing women from the superficiality of Pahlavi pseudo-modernity,” women’s bodies became symbols of anti-modernity and secularisation-ideologies the revolution fought against.[21] State media cautioned the public that hijab was a religious duty upon which the foundation of the Islamic Revolution was based.[22] In the early revolutionary period, the Gashte Sar-Allah (Patrol of Gods Vengeance) terrorised women in the capital cities, detailing a litany of moral transgressions, including the length and colour of fingernails, showing off natural female contours and the use of cosmetics as offences to the state and Islam. Consequently, this enforcement furthered the class warfare of the revolutionary period by exploiting poorer people with religious proclivities to inspect and correct the “vices” of the “secularised” middle class. Today, the Gashte-Ershad exercise similar power in victimising women as symbols of moral deterioration and opponents of Islamic values.

Obsession with the female body as a marker of revolutionary success is precisely why the state has not responded to the repeated calls to remove the Gashte-Ershad. Applications such as requiring women  to sign a form declaring that they will not commit the “bad hejab” offence again and forced to take part in police-oriented guidance to learn how to observe “Islamic values” is evidence of the strict connection between the values of the state and the bodies of women. There is no specific legal definition of what “bad hejab” constitutes, which enables the Gashte-Ershad to enforce Islamic morality how they choose. Article 146 of the Constitution binds the Judge to adjudicate each case based on the written law. In case of the absence of any such law, he is to deliver his judgement based on “authoritative Islamic sources.” Without proper guidance, police can enforce their interpretations of “bad hejab” and charge them as moharab, “enemies of the state.”

Today’s protestors and the response by the state are entrenched in the legacy of the 1979 revolution. Iranians are challenging the absolute rule of the Supreme Leader, rooted in the Constitution and the repressive political and social laws dictating every arena of Iranian life. They want to change the very fabric of the Islamic Republic until, in the words of Shervin Hajipour,  they can achieve their yearning “for  an ordinary life.”

Natasha Parnian is a PhD Candidate at the Department of History and Archaeology, Macquarie University focusing on the reception of Persia as a concept. Her research examines the overlap between the ancient past and nationalism, particularly how Iranians have reimagined themselves as a nation post the revolution of 1979.

Bibliography

Afshari, Ali, and Graham Underwood. “Iran in Ferment: The Green Wave.” Journal of Democracy 20.4 (2009): 6-10.

Amanat, A. Iran: A Modern History. Yale University Press, 2017.

Ansari, Hamid, ‘Narrative of Awakening: A Look at Imam Khomeini’s Ideal, Scientific and Political Biography from birth to ascension’ in Institute for Compilation and Publication of Works of Imam Khomeini, International Affairs Division, transl. 1994: Seyed Manoochehr Moosavi, 165-167.

Afary, J. Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009

Arjomand, Said A. After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Fazili, Yousra Y. “Between Mullahs’ Robes and Absolutism: Conservatism in Iran.” SAIS Review 30.1 (2010): 39-55.

Forouzan, H and Shahi, A “The Military and the State in Iran” Middle East Journal 71.1 (2017): 67-86.

Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010.

Khomeini, A. R,. Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist: Velayat-E Faqih. Transl. Algar, H. The Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, 2005.

Kurzman, Charles. “Critics Within: Islamic Scholars’ Protests against the Islamic State in Iran.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 15.2 (2001): 341-359.

Milani, Mohsen M. “The Evolution of the Iranian Presidency: From Bani Sadr to Rafsanjani.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 20.1 (1993): 83-97.

Moallem, M. Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Rizvi, Mahtab-Alam. “Evaluating the Political and Economic Role of the IRGC”. Strategic Analysis, 36:4 (2012): 584-496.                                                                 

Safshekan, Roozbeh, and Farzan Sabet. “The Ayatollah’s Praetorians: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the 2009 Election Crisis.” Middle East Journal 64.4 (2010): 543-558.

Takeyh, Ray. Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.


[1] This a derogatory epithet for the United States, originally used by Khomeini in May 1979.  It became a commonly used epithet for Iran’s foreign policy concerns. The term  “Iblis” (the devil) was also used to address the US. These terms were regularly used  during the US hostage crisis, largely in support of the students’ takeover. Finally, the “Lesser Satan” was used to describe the Soviet Union and communism. These were common epithets Khomeini used to communicate his views on Iran’s foreign policy and domestic  values.

[2] Khomeini, A. R,. Islamic government: Governance of the jurist: Velayat-E Faqih. Transl. Algar, H. The Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, 2005.

[3]Fazili, Yousra Y. “Between Mullahs’ Robes and Absolutism: Conservatism in Iran.” SAIS Review 30.1 (2010):42.

[4] Kurzman, Charles. “Critics Within: Islamic Scholars’ Protests against the Islamic State in Iran.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 15.2 (2001):346.

[5] Milani, Mohsen M. “The Evolution of the Iranian Presidency: From Bani Sadr to Rafsanjani.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 20.1 (1993): 86.

[6]Kurzman, Charles. “Cultural Ju-Jitsu and the Iranian Greens” in Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010:6.

[7] Fazili, Yousra Y. “Between Mullahs’ Robes and Absolutism: Conservatism in Iran.” SAIS Review 30. 1 (2010): 50.

[8]Arjomand, Said A. After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:70.

[9] Arjomand, Said A. After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:91.

[10] For a brief overview of this debate see: Rizvi, Mahtab-Alam 2012:588-589. See also this debate from as early as Khomeini’s time regarding the political influence of the IRGC in Ansari, Hamid, ‘Narrative of Awakening: A Look at Imam Khomeini’s Ideal, Scientific and Political Biography from Birth to Ascension’ in Institute for Compilation and Publication of Works of Imam Khomeini, International Affairs Division, transl. 1994: Seyed MAnoochehr Moosavi 165-167. The unresolved nature of the question about the IRGC’s involvement of politics and the economy is the root of modern discussions of their role, see for instance:

Aftab news: “Officials Should Prevent the Politicisation of the Basij” Dec 2007, http://www.aftabnews.ir/vdcamyn49un0i.html

[11] Rizvi 590, Forozan and Shahi 2017: 67-86 for an overview of the increasing presence of the IRGC in Iran’s political economy and business and economic activities during Rouhani’s presidency.

[12] Takeyh, Ray. Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:227.

[13] Safshekan, Roozbeh, and Farzan Sabet. “The Ayatollah’s Praetorians: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the 2009 Election Crisis.” Middle East Journal 64.4 (2010): 548.

[14]Arjomand, Said A. After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:170.

[15] Safshekan, Roozbeh, and Farzan Sabet. “The Ayatollah’s Praetorians: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the 2009 Election Crisis.” 64.4, 2010: 551.

[16] Bayat, Asef, “A Wave for Life and Liberty: The Green Movement and Iran’s Incomplete Revolution” in Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010: 51

[17] Bayat, Asef, “A Wave for Life and Liberty: The Green Movement and Iran’s Incomplete Revolution” in Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010: 51.

[18]Takeyh, Ray. Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:224.

[19] Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010. Pg xvii

The current President, Ebrahim Raisi belongs to the neoconservative faction as did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and previous candidates Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf and Ali Larijani amongst others.

[20] For an overview of Khomeini’s political philosophy and consolidation of power, see Amanat 2017: 743-751.

[21] Amanat, A. Iran: A Modern history. Yale University Press, 2017: 88. For further discussion on the role of women in postrevolutionary Iran, see: Afary, J. Sexual Politics in Modern Iran Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 and Moallem, M. Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

[22] Amanat, A. Iran: A Modern History. Yale University Press, 2017:883.

Two Interpretations of Religion: The Tudeh Party and Iran’s 1979 Constitution

By Kelly Skinner

After Iran’s 1979 “Islamic” Revolution, Foucault noted that Islam was pervasive throughout Iran’s political discourse, rendering secular political options obsolete (Behrooz. Foucault in Iran, 82). This was largely due to the association of Islam with nationalism during the Revolution as it was used as a symbol of resistance against both the Shah and Western imperialism (Mirsepassi. Intellectual Discourse and the Politics of Modernization: Negotiating Modernity in Iran, 100). This left the secular-identifying political groups in a difficult position– would secularism remain central to their ideology or would they forge political alliances based on other factors? In mid-1979, as Iranian leaders were in the midst of creating a constitution which would define the new Islamic Republic, the political stakes could not have been higher. One of these secular parties, the communist Tudeh Party of Iran, forged an interesting path in their approach to this question, ultimately putting their economic goals above any other consideration. The Tudeh Party’s response to the growing presence of political Islam included identifying multiple interpretations of religion and espousing one interpretation as aligning with the party’s own goals. This also included identifying which versions of an Islamic Economy mostly closely aligned with their own economic platform. The Tudeh Party publicized these ideas in various interviews and articles published at the time, including those printed in Mardom, Ettelāʿāt, and recorded in the international press by the FBIS-Daily Service.

In early June, before the official June draft constitution was published, the Tudeh Party published their goals for the new constitution in Ettelāʿāt. Secretary General Nurredin Kianuri stated:

… the new constitution must include the following principles: full national independence and sovereignty in all political, economic, cultural, social and military affairs, democracy meaning the provision of all freedoms and fundamental rights, the right of the masses (tudeh mardom) to participate in determining their own destiny through strong social institutions, ensuring the national rights of the peoples (hoquq-e melli-ye khalqhā) and nationalities living in Iran within the framework of our unified and indivisible homeland, social progress that guarantees the comprehensive industrial, agricultural, and cultural progress of society, its dynamics and its people and the flourishing of human character, moral values, and spirituality. Public welfare for all the toilers (zahmatkashān) and the provision of the right to work, education, treatment, rest and housing etc. The health of the country’s economic construction in order to secure the interests of the vast majority of people and cut off the possibilities of plundering the natural and human resources of our country. (Ettelāʿāt 12 Khordād 1358/ 2 June 1979)

After the publication of the June draft, the Tudeh Party’s positions changed very little though the draft had included little of what they had argued for. However, their goals for the new document did have one significant shift, the inclusion of a cooperative sector of government in their ideal economy. In late August, the Tudeh Party published an article in their party paper, Mardom, stating,

The economic system of the Islamic Republic of Iran should be based on three sectors: public (dowlati), cooperative (ta’āvoni), and private (khosusi), with regular government planning. The governmental sector is the main economic factor of the country and is the basic device for its dynamics and the advancement of the economic objectives of the revolution. (Mardom 29 Mordad, 1358/ 20 August 1979)

This new part of the Tudeh’s platform was repeated in another instance in which a Tudeh Party spokesman qualified their advocacy for these types of ownership by adding that this was what the party believed, “under the current circumstances” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. Tehran Ayandegan in Persian 1979. “Tudeh Gives Views on Constitution.” 2 August 1979). This is interesting, because while cooperative ownership is not featured in the June draft, these three types of ownership are popular in many conceptions of an Islamic economy, including in the ideas of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani, and Mas’ud Rajavi. 

This shift can be explained by the Tudeh Party’s new support for leftist conceptions of an Islamic Economy. In late July 1979, Tudeh Party published an article in their party paper, Mardom arguing that there are two different interpretations of Islam. What the Tudeh Party claimed to be the modern interpretation was the Islam that Ayatollah Khomeini and other revolutionaries followed. This interpretation supported the same economic goals as the Tudeh Party. The article states:

In this regard, we should especially name Imam Khomeini and also other Islamic thinkers such as Ayatollah Taleqani, Doctor Ali Shariati, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, and others. This Islamic ideology, political and societal, that thanks to their efforts and the appearance of collective other Islamic thinkers of our country and was named “Monothesistic insight” (binesh-e towhidi), was a very important spiritual flag in the first stage of the of the victorious Iranian revolution against the Pahlavi dynasty and for  the establishment of an Islamic Republic and still in in the current revolutionary phase plays a progressive role in expanding and spreading the achievements of the revolution (Mardom 8 Mordad, 1358/ 30 July 1979)

In the same article, the Tudeh party also claims that in this new interpretation, Islam had become a social ideology, “Imam Khomeini by preserving his strict loyalty to all Islamic beliefs and Shi’ism, has given a new impetus to this trend and today Islam in countries is more and more formulated as a social ideology” (Mardom 8 Mordad, 1358/ 30 July 1979).

Not surprisingly for a communist party, the Tudeh Party’s support for Islam and an Islamic Economy only mentions the leftist proponents of an Islamic ecnomy, perhaps except for Khomeini. However, in his speeches during the Revolution, Khomeini too, often spoke of lifting up the oppressed, something the Tudeh party seems to have taken note of as they even adopted Khomeini’s rhetoric. In a press conference given on October 9th, 1979, Kianuri lays out the “content of the revolution” that the Tudeh party would support. These points include the following: “Fundamentally changing for the better the living standards of millions of plundered people, i.e., the working classes or, to use the term coined by Imam Khomeyni, the Mostaz’afin [the deprived]” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. Tehran Bamdad in Persian 1979. “Kianuri Press Conference”). Notably, Mostaz’afin, originally a Qur’anic term, was first used to talk about economic class in Shariati’s translation of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth into Persian as Mostaz’afin-e Zamin (The Oppressed of the Earth) (Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic, 47). Khomeini’s use of this term shows, at least to the Tudeh, that he is combining Islam with class struggle. 

On the other hand, the Tudeh party’s use of Mostaz’afin also attempts to show the Iranian people that although they often use different language to express their agenda, it is remarkably similar to Khomeini’s own goals. This is also evident a month later when in an interview a German newspaper Kianuri states, “The Shi’ite religion has democratic roots and in history it was linked with popular national and anti-imperialist forces… We are making every effort to find a common language with Khomeyni, because objectively he is playing a progressive role in Iran’s development” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. East Berlin 1979. “Interview with Tudeh’s Kianuri” 16 November 1979). Kianuri justifies this position by saying, “between scientific socialism and the social content of Islam there are no unbridgeable differences rather, many common aspects” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. East Berlin 1979. “Interview with Tudeh’s Kianuri” 16 November 1979).

Following this strategy, the Tudeh Party, although not agreeing with the form of government instituted by the new constitution, did support the overall constitution due to the leftist economic principles in the document. In November 1979, Kianuri stated:

Some articles of the constitution are positive and others negative… We support the articles relating to the structures of the economy in the Islamic Republic. The economy will be based mainly on the national sector… despite the great resistance shown by the bazaar. (FBIS-Daily Service 20 Nov. 1979)

This is interesting because Khomeini has historically been an ally of the bazaar in the lead up to the Revolution and relied on their support to oust the shah (Abrahamian, Khomeinism, 41).  In the view of the Tudeh party then, the final constitution marks a victory of Khomeini’s revolutionary rhetoric over his more conservative tendencies. However, the economic focus of the Tudeh Party may have been shortsighted as the party would be banned by the new government only a few years after the Revolution, in 1983.

Secular political groups in Iran had to adapt to the changing meaning of Islam during and after the Revolution. The Tudeh Party did this by accepting the fact that Iran’s constitution would include principles for an Islamic Economy. Following this acceptance, the Tudeh Party then identified the proponents of an Islamic Economy whose ideas were most similar to their own economic beliefs. This included Shariati, who was known as the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution, though he died before its fruition and Khomeini, the leader of the Revolution, as well as Bani-Sadr and Taleqani whom the party endorsed for the Assembly of Experts. Even after the final draft of the constitution was published, the Tudeh Party still supported the document, which famously included theocratic elements such as Velāyat-e Faqih, due to its inclusion of leftist economic principles.

Image obtained from Tudeh Party of Iran

Three Strikes: Somaya’s Story

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), an annual campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault. Based on prevalence data from 2000 to 2018 across 161 countries, the World Health Organization estimated that 1 in 3 women throughout the world are survivors of sexual and/or physical violence. Insiya Raja interviewed Somaya Tarek, a brave Egyptian woman who exemplifies the struggles women continue to face, not only in experiencing sexual assault but also in speaking out about it. 

Strike I

On October 25, 2015,  Somaya Tarek was publicly harassed in a mall in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis After Somaya threatened to call security, the man turned around and slapped her in the face twice. The entire incident was captured on closed-circuit television, and the security video from the mall was leaked. When she went to the police, the officers laughed at her, joking about the incident. No investigation followed and the man was not charged by the police. 

This did not deter Somaya, who made the rare decision of personally speaking out in Egyptian media about the incident. She posted the video on her Facebook that night, which had over 400,000 views by the next morning. As her case began to garner national attention, talk show hosts invited her to speak. She agreed to an interview with Reham Saeed, a famous TV talk show host, which aired on the private network Al-Nahar. Reham had invited Somaya, telling her that she needed to be “honoured for her courage.”  She went to the interview, and before she entered, a man from the production team told her she was not allowed to take her phone on stage and must leave it with him. 

When they went on camera, Saeed told Somaya, “I’m not bringing you here to make you a hero. Do you think you were dressed appropriately?” Any expectations that the presenter would treat Somaya with empathy and trust were quickly dashed. Saeed questioned her aggressively, blaming Somaya for provoking harassment by wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and even accusing her of being the one to catcall her assailant. Somaya asked for the termination of the interview and the return of her phone; instead, she was handed a paper to sign. After four hours, when she got angry and threatened to call the police, they finally returned her phone and let her go.

One hour after this dramatic incident, Saeed’s show aired on TV, showing private pictures of Somaya, including in a bathing suit, which had been stolen from her cellphone. Somaya was accused of being indecent, and Saaed argued that if a woman dressed provocatively, it is no surprise she would get harassed. Saeed concluded with the remarks: Just as there are harassers in the streets, some girls have really gone beyond the limits. You won’t like this, but this is the truth. Keep your girls in check and nothing will happen to them.

Saeed’s crass accusations and misogynistic behaviour sparked outrage amongst women’s rights advocates, who launched a social media campaign calling for the suspension of the show. Bowing to pressure from the activists, Al Nahar’s management suspended Saeed’s show for several months. 

After a whole year, the court finally sentenced the harasser, identified as Hany A., 28-years old, to one month in prison and a fine of 100 Egyptian pounds–about $6 U.S.. After he appealed his sentence, his jail-time was reduced to two weeks. In 2015, under the Egyptian penal code, the minimum punishment for sexual harassment and assault was six months in prison or a fine of 3,000 Egyptian pounds. However, the court said the video was not enough proof to establish that. The court also told Somaya’s lawyers that Hany was handed the minimum possible sentence because of the media fuss Somaya had created, and that they did not like media interference in a trial.  

The culture of victim blaming and shaming was pervasive, and Somaya came to be known as the “Mall girl” in the media, with a hashtag even arising from the moniker, فتاة_المول#. However, after Somaya first spoke out, she also received hundreds of messages from girls all over Egypt who said that they had faced similar harassment but had been too afraid to speak out. They told her they were waiting for someone else to make the first move. In 2017, a global movement would shake the world, as women inspired by the #MeToo movement in 2017 would speak out. However, it is in this year that Somaya would suffer the consequences of her speaking out. 

Strike II

Two years to the day of her assault, as if marking the anniversary of his first crime, Hany, a released assailant, attacked Somaya again. But this time, he tried to kill her. After slashing her face with a box-cutter–causing a 20mm gash from behind her ear to her cheek–he left her bleeding on the pavement in the Korba district of Heliopolis. It was 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon in a busy Cairo street, but Somaya could not find anyone willing to help her. She ran by herself to three different hospitals, but all of them refused to treat her. Finally, at the fourth hospital which was private, she was taken in. 

It took 50 stitches to close the wound across the side of her face. It appears this attack was not only meant to disfigure Somaya, but to kill her.  Somaya re-appeared on several other TV shows, and publicly accused him of attacking her with a knife, with the large gash on her face still an unhealed wound. 

The police arrested Hany a second time, and investigators said that he confessed to the attack. Under Egyptian law, the minimum sentence for attempted murder is seven years. Hany was sentenced to eight months in prison.  

The second attack was Hany’s revenge for Somaya going public with the case in 2015. However, the attacks against Somaya did not end there. The public nature of the case caused scrutiny amongst the broader population of Egypt. In Somaya’s experience, 90% of the comments on the forums she had posted on after getting out of the hospital, were critical of her. Amid all the victim-blaming, the cruellest comment that Somaya saw constantly was that she got what she deserved

Two months after the incident, after she had been told that more than 70% of her scar was permanent, she went online on Facebook to express the desire to take her own life in front of 60,000 viewers. However, in comment after comment, people continued to shame her, often encouraging her to go through with suicide. 

Strike III

Hany was released in 2018, after which he began stalking and threatening Somaya. He showed up at her house, at her work, and at her family’s homes. Every time she would find a new job, he would be waiting for her outside. A man called her, claiming to be Hany’s brother, and said that they would “take her mother” if she did not go to the police and said that she had identified the wrong person. 

While Hany was free, Somaya was constantly under threat. Fearing for her safety, she moved ten times in just two years. She complained to the police, but nothing was done to rearrest the man. She tried many times to flee Egypt,  and finally got out in December 2021 after she was able to obtain a visa to Spain. 

Somaya is currently living in Spain. Her lawyer has filed her asylum application under Spain’s gender violence category. Even though the application process is taking time, Somaya says that she finally feels safe and is grateful to be able to take a walk on the street without overwhelming fear. 

The Broader Situation in Egypt

In 2013, a research study conducted by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) revealed that over 99.3% of Egyptian girls and women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. A member of Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW) said in 2016 that this widely circulated statistic is “exaggerated,” that sexual harassment has started to “recede,” and that the numbers incorrectly suggest that “all women on the street are harassed.” The NCW,  the only “national independent women machinery in Egypt,” was established by a Presidential decree in 2000;  the members of the council are appointed by the President of Egypt himself. 

Recently, the Freedom Initiative (NGO) released a report entitled No One is Safe which found that Egypt employs abuse in detention as a method to coerce, punish, and bring a population under the control of the state. According to Allison McManus, Research Director at  the Freedom Initiative:

Sisi will declare “the year of the woman” and the new National Strategy on Human Rights will claim it prioritizes gender-based violence and sexual harassment, but the Egyptian state fails to protect women like Somaya who do not conform to strict gender laws. This is because the state sees the mandate of women’s empowerment through its claim to “guard morality” in a way that is narrowly heteronormative and patriarchal. 

In 2011, officers in the Egyptian army subjected women to “virginity tests” in Tahrir Square, a practice that continued to be carried out against female political detainees under President Sisi. Mainstream and local media coverage of violence against women in Egypt has contributed to the culture of victim-blaming. In December 2011, a woman who was dragged and beaten by soldiers became known as the ‘blue-bra girl’ after her abaya was pulled over her head during the assault. The media demonized her and accused her of provoking the attack, with commentators asking why she would wear such a provocative bra, or why she did not wear more layers of clothes under her abaya. However, the pervasive violence carried out systematically by both state and society has come under increasing criticism on social media in recent years. 

Women human rights defenders in Egypt have faced persecution. Last year, two TikTok influencers, Mowwada al-Adham and Hanin Hossam, 22 and 20 years old respectively, were arrested for posting content on social media. Hossam was accused of human trafficking after inviting her followers to join the social media platform Likee, and the court sentenced her to ten years in prison. A 2018 cybercrime law has been used to punish women for expressing their opinion online, violating “family values” and undermining  “public morals,” with imprisonment of up to five years in some cases. Recently, Egypt’s highest court upheld a prison sentence against Amal Fathy, a well-known activist, who had spoken out against sexual harassment on Facebook. Egypt has also placed travel bans on women who have been active and vocal advocates and activists, and frozen the assets of women’s rights organizations such as Nazra for Feminist Studies and the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance. 

The situation of women is not unique to Egypt, and initiatives like SAAM remain extremely important in the world today. A special thanks to Somaya for telling her story and continuing to inspire women everywhere.