Women Are the Face of Iran’s Leaderless Revolution

24 October, 2022


Mahmood Karimi Hakak


Almost 45 years ago, one of the most pop­u­lar rev­o­lu­tions of the 20th cen­tu­ry was high­jacked by a group of hide­bound reli­gious fanat­ics. Why? Two rea­sons: The Shah of Iran had decid­ed to stop pay­ing trib­ute to “the blue-eyed man,” thus, he no longer served the eco­nom­ic inter­ests of the west. And the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion groups were almost all aligned with the Sovi­et Union. 

The best solu­tion the west could come up with was to pro­mote an old cler­gy­man noto­ri­ous for his oppo­si­tion to the Shah. Thus, Ruhol­lah Khome­i­ni was brought from exile in Iraq to France, where his ser­mons were dis­trib­uted wide­ly inside Iran through such west­ern media as the BBC. The oppo­si­tion inside the coun­try, mean­while, was scat­tered and self-absorbed. It did not have a coher­ent col­lec­tive plan to gov­ern in the absence of the exist­ing regime. They also trust­ed Khomeini’s dec­la­ra­tion that he had no ambi­tion for gov­ern­ing the coun­try past the Shah’s depar­ture. Per­haps they were unaware, or dis­be­liev­ing of the fact that he jus­ti­fied this lie in accor­dance with the reli­gious Taqiya‘ (the prac­tice of com­mit­ting a sin­ful act for a pious goal). Soon, using the old tac­tic of divide and con­quer, Khome­i­ni sided with one oppo­si­tion group against anoth­er, until they were all destroyed. 

By the time peo­ple began to see his deceit­ful­ness, the Amer­i­can Embassy was tak­en hostage, cre­at­ing an inter­na­tion­al cri­sis for Ira­ni­ans inside and out­side of Iran. Then, again, by the time the peo­ple saw the real­i­ty behind this trick, and ques­tioned the valid­i­ty of the mullah’s promis­es, the west came to their res­cue once more by pro­vok­ing Sad­dam Hus­sain to attack Iran.

Ira­ni­ans, by and large, are patri­ots. When a for­eign ene­my attacks, they all gath­er under one flag to defend their home­land, regard­less of ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences. A year into the war, Sad­dam asked for a truce. Sau­di Crown Prince Fahd met with Iran­ian offi­cials, offer­ing to pay for the cost of the war. Iran’s army agreed, its pres­i­dents agreed, its prime min­is­ter agreed, the peo­ple of Iran agreed, but Khome­i­ni did not agree. Why? The inter­nal oppo­si­tion was not total­ly destroyed yet. There­fore, sev­en years lat­er, after anoth­er mil­lion lives had been lost on both sides, Khome­i­ni agreed to fig­u­ra­tive­ly “drink the poi­son” and sign the peace treaty. How­ev­er, before he signed, he ordered the exe­cu­tion of over 3,500 polit­i­cal oppo­nents in one week. 

Iran­ian women have been the first and most con­sis­tent oppo­si­tion to the rule of the mul­lahs, espe­cial­ly the forced hijab. In the ear­ly days of the rev­o­lu­tion, their oppo­si­tion to this was so strong that it forced Khome­i­ni to back away from agree­ing with Grand Aya­tol­lah Taleghani that “Hijab is not com­pul­so­ry.” Again, peo­ple trust­ed him and went back home. But he unleashed his mili­tia (the Basij) to beat women who did not cov­er their hair prop­er­ly with knives, chains and brass knuck­les. How­ev­er, the regime’s attempts to force women to accept their place as sec­ond-class cit­i­zens failed time and time again. They marched along­side bus dri­vers, teach­ers, stu­dents, and oth­ers at every demon­stra­tion. The largest out­pour­ing was the 2009 Green Move­ment, when peo­ple object­ed to the rigged elec­tion of Mah­moud Ahmadine­jad. This was the first time that mil­lions of peo­ple marched in the streets of Iran in silence, their mouths taped, car­ry­ing signs ask­ing “Where Is My Vote!” Again, that strug­gle was crushed with hun­dreds killed and thou­sands arrest­ed or dis­ap­peared. The peo­ple learned anoth­er impor­tant and para­dox­i­cal les­son: Strength is not in num­bers — a les­son they ben­e­fit from today.

Iran­ian anti-regime protests, Tehran, Octo­ber 10, 2022 (pho­to cour­tesy AFP).

The recent upris­ing is dif­fer­ent both in con­tent and form. There are major dif­fer­ences between what hap­pened in 2009 and what is hap­pen­ing now, for although women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion was vis­i­ble and essen­tial in the Green Move­ment, they were part of the move­ment, where­as the women today are lead­ing the upris­ing. In 2009, peo­ple were hop­ing to reform the regime from with­in. They sin­cere­ly believed that the Islam­ic Repub­lic was capa­ble of improve­ment. They did not want anoth­er rev­o­lu­tion, rather they want­ed an evo­lu­tion with­in the exist­ing sys­tem. Now, they have real­ized that this regime is inca­pable of reform, per­haps because of its inher­ent contradiction.

An Islam­ic Repub­lic is a con­tra­dic­tion in terms — one can­not have an Islam­ic regime with a god-like supreme leader placed above all, and at the same time have a repub­lic where the will of the peo­ple must rule. Real­iz­ing the impos­si­bil­i­ty of reform, and frus­trat­ed by the lies and duplic­i­ties of deceit­ful mul­lahs, today’s youth demand noth­ing less than an end to the regime. Hav­ing learned the lessons of the past, they no longer gath­er in large groups, rather they assem­ble in thou­sands of small groups all over the city. This strat­e­gy forces gov­ern­ment agents to spread thin and wide, mak­ing them less effec­tive. This gen­er­a­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies is not afraid to face the bru­tal police with emp­ty hands. Remem­ber, this is the gen­er­a­tion of Insta­gram, the gen­er­a­tion of Tik­Tok, the gen­er­a­tion of avatars. For them death is anoth­er video game. They are fear­less and deter­mined; noth­ing can stop them. 

Anoth­er dif­fer­ence with the 2009 upris­ing is in its lead­er­ship. This rev­o­lu­tion is lead­er­less, as it should be. The Green Move­ment, although launched as a home­grown revolt, soon accept­ed a leader, the per­son peo­ple had vot­ed for. Today’s is a tru­ly lead­er­less upris­ing, and that, in my opin­ion, is to its advan­tage. One rea­son is that this is the com­ing togeth­er of all peo­ple under the Kur­dish slo­gan, Woman, Life, Free­dom, a slo­gan that encom­pass­es oppo­si­tion from every polit­i­cal, social and cul­tur­al spec­trum.   Who­ev­er claims, or dreams of claim­ing the lead­er­ship of this gen­er­a­tion, has to come with­out pre­vi­ous affil­i­a­tions. They must be as fresh on the scene as this “rev­o­lu­tion” is. 

The lead­ers this time will emerge from with­in the move­ment itself. These lead­ers will have a clear and con­cise idea about what they want for their future. The lead­ers have to be those who have lived under this regime, who know what Gen­er­a­tion Z is ask­ing for. I fer­vent­ly hope that these future lead­ers will be women, not only because women are the ones who start­ed and led this move­ment, or because women are the ones who have been sub­ju­gat­ed to the most dras­tic oppres­sion by mul­lahs; nor because women have con­sis­tent­ly fought this bar­bar­ic regime since its incep­tion; but because women are the more com­pas­sion­ate sex, the more thought­ful sex, the more endur­ing sex, the more per­sis­tent sex, and a look around the world pro­vides many exam­ples of suc­cess­ful woman lead­ers, from New Zealand’s Jacin­da Ardern to Iceland’s Katrin Jakob­s­dot­tir, and two dozen more. As the Unit­ed Nations’ UN Women divi­sion has point­ed out, as of Sep­tem­ber 2022, 30 women are serv­ing as heads of state around the world, “earn­ing praise for their inno­v­a­tive and effec­tive lead­er­ship and for offer­ing unique and fresh per­spec­tives on the chal­lenges their coun­tries face.”

In Istan­bul, in Octo­ber 2022, women protest on behalf of free­dom for Iran­ian women (pho­to Dila­ra Senkaya/Reuters).

Why not in Iran?

So, the ques­tion is, what can we, half a world away, do to help these young peo­ple suc­ceed? We can do a lot, from sym­bol­ic ges­tures, like cut­ting hair, to more seri­ous ones like demand­ing that our lead­ers take this upris­ing seri­ous­ly and sup­port them. And if they real­ly don’t know how, here is one way: The Islam­ic Repub­lic of Iran recent­ly released two Amer­i­can pris­on­ers. In return, they expect to receive anoth­er instal­ment of frozen Iran­ian assets. This mon­ey belongs to the peo­ple of Iran, not to a regime that has imposed itself on its cit­i­zens by force, lies, deceits, abus­es, arrests and mur­der.  These funds must be reserved for the vic­to­ri­ous peo­ple of Iran, who are deter­mined to over­come this deplorable regime, hope­ful­ly, with­out a need for armed resis­tance. Free-think­ing peo­ple of the Unit­ed States, as well as the Iran­ian dias­po­ra, know that, if the funds are released, the Iran­ian regime will use that mon­ey to inten­si­fy beat­ing, killing, impris­on­ing, and tor­tur­ing its cit­i­zens, or, at best, to laun­der it back out through their chil­dren who live lux­u­ri­ous lives through­out the west. If this hap­pens, the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty has no choice but to con­sid­er the release of these funds as an act of col­lab­o­ra­tion with the mon­ey launderers.

In the year 2022, the Islam­ic Repub­lic is slaugh­ter­ing young girls and boys who are sim­ply ask­ing for the free­dom to live like any oth­er young per­son in the world. Iran, one of the most ancient civ­i­liza­tions in the region, is not only rich in nat­ur­al resources but far more impor­tant­ly, rich in high­ly edu­cat­ed and entre­pre­neur­ial human cap­i­tal as well. Beyond this regime, Iran will serve as the bea­con of hope and eco­nom­ic progress for us all to ben­e­fit from worldwide. 

As an artist, as an edu­ca­tor, a schol­ar, a father, an Amer­i­can, and an Iran­ian, I expect the Amer­i­can admin­is­tra­tion, the bipar­ti­san con­gress, the region­al and local gov­ern­ments, and all the peace seek­ing, free­dom-lov­ing cit­i­zens of this world to sup­port the peo­ple of my coun­try and to help them over­come this mur­der­ous regime, and estab­lish a sec­u­lar, demo­c­ra­t­ic and col­lab­o­ra­tive gov­ern­ment which they so rich­ly deserve.


Dr. Mahmood Karimi Hakak is a poet, author, translator, and professor of theatre whose scholarly and artistic works are centered on intercultural dialogue and peacebuilding. He has produced, directed, and designed over 70 stage and screen productions, a number of which have received international acclaim at theatre and film festivals around the world. He is the recipient of eight artistic and scholarly awards, including a Fulbright (2009-'10). Karimi Hakak’s literary credits include seven plays, two books of poetry, five translations and numerous articles and essays. Mahmood is the founder and president of Free CultureInvisible. He has taught at Rutgers, Towson, and Southern Methodist universities in the U.S., as well universities in Europe and his native Iran. He presently serves as Professor of Creative Arts at Siena College in New York. Email.

Green MovementIranian womenKhomeiniMahsa Aminimorality policeTehran


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