Journal Article - Foreign Affairs

Iran's Women on the Frontlines

| Oct. 31, 2022

Why Female-Led Movements Succeed—but Also Risk a Backlash

There is no sign that the protest movement led by women in Iran is slowing down, despite violent crackdowns by Iranian security forces. Just last week, thousands of Iranians marched to the city of Saghez, the hometown of Mahsa "Zina" Amini, whose death in custody 40 days earlier had sparked an outpouring of public grief and outrage that has evolved into a mass movement. Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian, had been visiting family members in Tehran when she was arrested by the morality police for allegedly violating Iran's hijab law. Witnesses claim that the police severely beat her; she died three days later in a hospital after slipping into a coma.

Her death has catalyzed one of the largest and most sustained uprisings in Iran in a generation, mobilizing thousands of Iranians and supporters globally. Protesters have adopted the Kurdish slogan "Woman, life, freedom!" as their rallying cry and have taken to the streets to demand political freedom in the face of internet blackouts, mass arrests, and live-fire attacks by security services. The remarkable size and resilience of these protests are directly tied to the central participation of women. When women are on the frontlines, mass movements have a higher chance of succeeding and are likelier to lead to more egalitarian democracy. This is one of the reasons today's protests are so threatening to the Iranian regime. As two of us (Chenoweth and Marks) wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this year, "fully free, politically active women are a threat to authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning leaders—and so those leaders have a strategic reason to be sexist."

Over the past year in Iran, the government's control over women's lives has tightened, especially regarding the hijab law. Viral videos of the morality police violently enforcing the law have generated a swell of anger and defiance. Amini's death was arguably the tipping point.

From the start, women have set the tone of these protests and have found innovative ways to register their anger with the government. Although men have also participated in large numbers, they have done so in the name of Amini and by embracing more feminist rhetoric than ever before. In this way, women's organizing and outrage have laid the groundwork for a much wider pro-democratic uprising.

This is a moment of great hope but also great worry. Although the extensive frontline participation of women in protest movements often makes them more effective, it also raises the stakes dramatically. Should the Iranian regime defeat today's protesters, an even deeper patriarchal backlash could follow, potentially setting back Iranian women's rights and political freedom by decades....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Marks, Zoe, Fatemeh Haghighatjoo and Erica Chenoweth. "Iran's Women on the Frontlines." Foreign Affairs, (October 31, 2022).

The Authors

Erica Chenoweth