– Iran is rocked by major protests about every ten years. But in recent years they have occurred more frequently, says Rola El-Husseini. And for the first time, young women and girls have initiated them.
Sixty percent of Iran's population is under the age of 40, and, as such, they have never lived under any form of government other than the current theocratic one. Dissatisfaction is widespread; Covid hit the country very hard, poverty is widespread and unemployment sky high. Economic mismanagement, in combination with the sanctions from the West, has meant that 50 percent of the population live below the poverty line. In addition, the Islamic morality police have become increasingly zealous in recent times, according to Rola El-Husseini.
She has studied social movements and women's movements during, among other things, the Arab Spring. An important factor for success, she believes, is that there is someone to lead the movements. This was not the case during the Arab Spring and is also not the case currently in Iran.
– Unfortunately, I do not think that the protests can lead to anything other than - at best - some small changes and easing of the behavior of the morality police, she says.
Rola El-Husseini is soon publishing a book dealing with women's movements in eight countries in the Middle East, though not specifically Iran.
What is the situation like for women in the countries you have studied?
– Success in terms of women's political participation is often about small cosmetic changes, says Rola El-Husseini. And these changes do not come as a result of the work of women's movements.
As an example, she mentions the Moroccan king who has put in place quotas for women in parliament. After the Arab Spring, they increased somewhat in scope, but the quotas had been set in motion earlier and were not a result of the protests. Another example is that women in Saudi Arabia now have the right to obtain a driver's license.
– In Saudi Arabia, women fought for years to be allowed to drive. Activists were imprisoned and tortured. But the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman suddenly changed his mind on the issue should not be seen as a result of the women's struggle, says Rola El-Husseini. Rather, it should be perceived as a gift from an autocratic ruler who wants to be perceived as benevolent in the eyes of his subjects.
But even if changes for the better are cosmetic, it does not have to mean that they are useless, says Rola El-Husseini. In the long run, these small steps could lead to change.
Of the eight countries that Rola El-Husseini has studied, Iraq and Lebanon stand out. Because power in those countries is divided between different religious and ethnic groups, a top-down improvement for women's rights becomes more difficult. In Lebanon, the political situation is so deadlocked that no bills pass. In Iraq, 25 percent of the parliamentary seats are to be occupied by women, but these women do not push specific women's issues, but tend to vote in unison with the leaders of their religious and ethnic groupings.
Tunisia is the country in the Arab world where the women's movement has so far been most successful. It began in the 1950s when Tunisia became independent and introduced a strict separation between church and state.Today, the secular state is being challenged by religious groups, but so far this has not happened at the expense of women's rights, says Rola El-Husseini.
– I think it is difficult to make real change in the Middle East without taking religion into account, she says, mentioning feminist Islam, a movement that wants to change the situation of Muslim women by reinterpreting the religion.
– Admittedly, it is something of an elite movement that primarily works outside the Middle East. It was stronger a few decades ago, but still exists and operates.
Read the original article published on lu.se in Swedish
Rola El-Husseini's research profile