Daily Iranians are risking their life in a fight for their freedom. The movement, advanced by youth, is a fight for basic decision-making power. And, while women are at the core of the issue, their right to choose if, when, and why to wear a hijab, a head covering worn in public by Muslim women, is part of a larger move for freedom for Iran. As we write, one of us, Trish, is a Kansan scholar of leadership, who studies global practices of leadership. This ongoing work in Iran is something that demands our attention. The other, A., is Iranian, here to study leadership, risking personal and familial safety to share this story. To talk publicly about Iran. We believe Kansans can and should learn from the leadership work in Iran – about our commitments to our rights, to leadership when it is risky, and to one another.
The murder of Mahsa Amini catalyzed a movement in Iran that has sustained traction in the face of great risk. Mahsa was killed by “morality police,” which arrest people who violate Islamic dress codes, for improperly wearing the hijab. Her death spurred a national response. Iranian youth are raising the heat, speaking from the heart, and holding to purpose to exercise leadership for their rights. Their cause, their practice, is not without great consequence or loss, but they continue.
Raising the Heat
Mahsa (which means moonlike) is the name of a Kurdish-Iranian woman whose death catalyzed a movement that raised the heat on an authoritarian government. The heat built as voices from the margins organized in liminal spaces like social media, where rules and regulations of a dominant system are suspended. From hashtagging (#Mahsaamini) on social media to occupying physical spaces and shouting, “women, life, freedom,” from rooftops, streets, and university campuses in Iran. Crossing the national borders to more than 100 cities worldwide and even Soccer World Cup stadiums in Qatar, Mahsa’s death mobilized a movement from the informal spaces of whispering and griping to the mainstream, shouting, and drawing global attention. In what seemed innocuous to her, the placement of her hijab energized others to say, “enough.” At current, youth are engaged in disruptive participation by violating the norms and nudging tactics (e.g., yelling, clapping, chanting, booing, crying) as well as protest art like music, dance, and painting. The movement spread across Iran and the globe, allies joining, a collective purpose is emerging under a united slogan: “Women, Life, Freedom; Man, Fatherland, Prosperity.”
This slogan represents the humanity of the movement, of their love for country, for one another, and for freedom, together. However, anchored in indemonstrable evidence, the authority stigmatizes protesters as traitors, separatists, and deceived.
Diagnosing the Situation
The status quo in Iran is that the authority sustains the current system through work avoidance. Not being able to adapt to the exigencies of the new era, the system fell short in problem solving and responding to the new generation’s needs and wants. Government authorities offer Iranians delusional simple interpretations of the public challenges they face. Treating national challenges as technical prevents progress on growing adaptive challenges like financial crises, environmental issues, corruption, and social dissatisfaction.
The government (formal authority) does not recognize (and even denies) dissenting. Suppression grows when they respond to questions with technical, benign, and individualistic interpretations and people do not buy them: “Mahsa died from a heart attack or previous mental conditions; women wear hijab spontaneously, when they want to – it is not our rule that forces this; only police regulations should be modified; protesters are being paid by the Western governments.” The authority’s intransigent strategy in addressing Mahsa’s death – externalizing the enemy, skirting, denial – and a competing approach to resolving the conflict has led to death of more than 400 people. More Mahsas on the streets. The government has put itself in a position where it must kill hundreds to prove it did not kill one. Meanwhile, Iranian authority reports the current governance as the best democracy in the world.
Protesting as Leadership
Iranians protesting have no protections guaranteed. Assembly, freedom of speech, these are not acts of democracy in Iran, they are hostile, anti-government. Government actors crack down on demonstrators – killing, beating, and silencing them. For instance, authorities recently and violently responded to university and high school students protesting, firing bullets, and beating students, faculty, and staff for simply raising their voices. While in some areas people build trenches on the streets with their house furniture and wear pots to protect their heads, in some other, people kneel on the ground opening their chest shouting, “Shoot me, I don’t have anything to lose.” In this case, the idea that leadership is risky takes on life and death consequences. This serves as a stark reminder that in Kansas, we don’t agree with one another, but our disagreement rarely means death.
In the absence of a civic space, people build autonomous spaces. In the absence of adaptive space, Iranians are creating one by claiming public spaces. Years of an authoritarian approach where questions are not entertained, and rigid outworn rules are the way of life have left people demanding a broader space to lead. The Islamic Republic regime shows a use of authority that does not create space for the exercise of leadership and undermines its own stability.
This movement, these protests, are the consequences of a lack of adaptive practices of leadership. The rally cry of protesters today is, “The Time Has Come.” Through action, Iranians shout their resentment and desolation. Authorities ignore these cries and try to disingenuously accommodate it in a way that they can live with. This is a tested approach across world history. Make enough rooms for seizing people’s voice, but not for change.
However, today there are unprecedented signs appearing that concede protesters’ argument, “This Time is Different.” Most obvious is the government’s inability to stop the protests after several months. Moreover, the emergence of a new vein of art after four decades – protest art depicting change. Also, using traditional 40-day-after-death commemorations, people are collectively constructing historical memory for their movement. Forty days following Mahsa’s murder, thousands of people made their way to her gravesite to mourn and to remember.
This is another notice to the government, and to the world that Iranians are demanding life, freedom, and prosperity. This can be a warning paper for those who lean towards the authority approach more than the leadership side.