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Leadership Needed for Protests to Usher Change in Iran

A silhoutte of a hand holding a pair of scissors and cutting a lock of hair in front of the Iranian flag
Illustration: Linda Eitrem Holmgren

What is most surprising about the demonstrations in Iran, is how young the protesting girls are. So says Rola El-Husseini, researcher in political sociology and expert on women's movements in the Middle East. On Monday, she will participate in a panel discussion on Iran, organised by the Centre for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University.

– 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 in Swedish

Rola El-Husseini's research profile

Public Panel on Iran Protests

On 17 October (15:15-17:00) the Centre for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) is organising a panel discussion on the ongoing protests in Iran. The event will start with an introductory speech by Lund University's Vice Chancellor Erik Renström.


  • Rola El-Husseini Dean, Associate Professor of Political Sociology and CMES, Lund University
  • Barzoo Eliassi, Associate Professor of Social Work, Linnaeus University and CMES Alumn
  • Narges Mosavat, Master Student in Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University
  • Rouzbeh Parsi, Head of the MENA Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and CMES Board Member
  • Sarah Anne Rennick, Senior Researcher CMES, Lund University and Arab Reform Initiative

Chair: Karin Aggestam, Professor of Political Science and CMES Director, Lund University

Read more and register for the event