While the current global atmosphere seems quite bleak for American-style liberal democracy, the anti-Hijab movement in Iran is a surprising pushback out of the blue. This is happening amidst the rise of conservative tendencies across the world that are feeding a strong current of right-wing politics. Much of this is a result of rampant globalization and immigration.
However, the Iranian paradox emerges from the fact that the waves of globalization could never fully hit the Iranian shores especially after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Its seclusion continued even after the triumph of US-led free-market capitalism in the early 1990s. The situation was further exacerbated after the US imposed heavy sanctions on the country in 2011.
Iran as an economy and society therefore is yet to experience the forces of globalization like the rest of the world after the fall of Communism. In that sense, it is around three decades behind, and continues to maintain its pre-globalization virginity somewhat.
A trigger for bottled-up forces?
The anti-hijab movement has to be viewed from a larger perspective than what a merely feminist prism can offer us. The death of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the Iranian morality police has only acted as a trigger to release a gamut of bottled-up forces in the country. Going by the lyrics of a song that has emerged as the anthem of this movement, the common anxieties include “…the embarrassment of an empty pocket”, “…a command economy”, “…students and their future”, “…yearning for a normal life”, “…a forced paradise”, “…imprisoned talents” and so on.
Much of the unrest clearly has to do with Iran’s struggling economy and high levels of unemployment amongst the educated youth. As per the country’s latest census (2016-17), the unemployment rates for men and women aged 25-29 were 34.6 percent and 45.7 percent, respectively. This has largely been a result of overbearing state bureaucracy and the dominance of state enterprises, both of which have stifled the growth of the private sector.
Besides, Iran’s oil-centric economy has been more of a curse than a blessing when it comes to inequality in the country. Its fruits, even after the removal of the Shah in 1979, have been enjoyed by a minority Iranian elite. The sector continues to be dominated by state enterprises that are notorious for corruption, red tape and controversial contracting. Rather than boosting productivity and growth of the sector, successive governments have kept the oil prices low in the domestic market, thus using it as an instrument for populist politics. Even the most promising sector of the economy therefore hasn’t been able to generate a healthy rate of jobs for the youth.
When Donald Trump reimposed the sanctions in 2018, the crude oil exports instantly halved. Under American pressure, dozens of European firms exited Iran, leaving thousands of educated youth unemployed. Eventually, the Covid-19 pandemic further weakened the economy and resulted in the further loss of at least 7 million jobs.
The death of Mahsa Amini therefore was a trigger that released a massive current of socio-economic tensions bottled up in Iran for years. Much of this was a result of external pressure applied by the West to gradually implode the Iranian system. But a lot must also be attributed to the lack of an imaginative policy of the regime which failed to share the fruits of the country’s resources amongst the population.
What will the success of the Iranian movement mean for India’s Kashmir policy?
Although the movement has so far been limited to urban Iran, it is gradually beginning to spread to smaller towns of the country. The protesting youth are actually using this opportunity to demand the complete ouster of the regime. If this materializes, it will have far-reaching implications beyond Iran’s national boundaries.
Indian authorities in Kashmir for one, would be watching the developments very closely. They would love to press home the advantage if such an ouster were to materialize. The authorities realize that liberal-democracy has much better chances to gain a foothold in Kashmir as compared to hardline nationalism. Ironically, while liberals are abhorred by the right-wing in the rest of India, in Kashmir they could become the means of introducing lasting stability.
The authorities have already warmed up to this idea and have made a steady start in this direction. The government has lately been inaugurating movie theatres, promoting fashion shows, shopping malls and liquor outlets, which form the economic and cultural paraphernalia of an urban, liberal-democratic order. As separatist politics seems to be receding from the landscape, the government realizes that this space could be filled effectively by a large liberal constituency which will act as a storm-breaker against potential waves of fundamentalism in the future. A sprawling population of liberals will also see the Indian system as a protective outer shell for the preservation of their values, lifestyles and businesses.
The tiny, green shoots of liberal-democracy have in fact already started to become visible in the valley. Kashmir since the land reforms of 1970s, has seen the emergence of an affluent, upwardly mobile middle class. Over 30000 students from J&K travel abroad for studies every year, mostly to Europe. Srinagar now has a thriving culture of startups, cafes and high fashion, which is quite remarkable for a relatively small, non-metropolitan city. The millennial and Gen-Z influencers, especially female, have taken to social media quite actively and fearlessly. These are indications of a gradually ripening substratum for a liberal-democratic outlook to take root in the valley.
Luckily for Indian authorities, the triumph of the Iranian movement will be received with a sense of gratification, if not jubilation, in the Sunni-majority Kashmir. It therefore has the potential of capturing the imagination of the youth and giving a significant impetus to the budding liberal forces in the valley. Ironically, while the liberal forces across the world are retreating, in Kashmir these could actually hold the key for a politically stable future. Indian authorities would love to capitalize on this unique opportunity, pretty much along similar lines as successive governments in the past have patronized Kashmir’s moderate and composite Sufi culture.
[Photo by Brett Morrison from Los Angeles, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.