2019 marks the 40th anniversary of a very dark day in the history of Iran: the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The decades since have been a long nightmare of cruelty and oppression from which the people of this great country are still struggling to wake. Compared to the reign of the Shah, who ruled prior to the Revolution, Iran today groans under trampled women's rights, curtailed freedom of speech, and a fundamentalist dictatorship that the people themselves increasingly no longer respect. It's in no way an exaggeration to say that the strain of this political strife is threatening to rip apart one of the world's most venerable civilizations.
Things got bad almost from the very beginning. Shortly after taking power, though he had promised to be a champion of the fairer sex, the Ayatollah Khomeini declared that women "should" wear the traditional Islamic hijab. Iran's history with the religious garb is long and complex, but at that point in history, Iranian women enjoyed the freedom either to wear it or eschew it at their option, as it should be. Faced with sudden and strong backlash against his remarks, and likely because his regime was only months old and potentially still vulnerable, Khomeini backtracked and said that he had merely been making a "suggestion". The following year, however, when he had solidified his control, we saw that this suggestion was the enforceable kind. Khomeini made the hijab mandatory.
The decree was emblematic of the kind of government which the Ayatollah intended to run. Since then, Iran has degenerated into an oppressive theocracy that tolerates only the government's interpretation of the state religion of Islam. Countless women have been arrested, imprisoned, and even beaten for failing to observe modesty laws concerning the hijab. Many of these deplorable incidents have been accidental, but others – the most noble – have been deliberately orchestrated by the victims.
Vast demonstrations have erupted since the hijab requirement was enacted, and they have never stopped. This has come at great risk to the women brave enough to flout the law, as the government is both unreserved and unapologetic about enforcement. Nevertheless, women have courageously protested in the streets for the right to dress as they please. Those truly prepared to suffer for their convictions have even stood alone, defiantly removing their hijab in public and waving the scarves at passers-by until they are taken into custody. At least one video exists of a woman being violently tackled by a police officer for doing this; apparently the bared female face is considered an emergency under Iran's regime.
Under its religious government, Iran is also corrupt. This was demonstrated by the clearly-fraudulent reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "President" (an impotent office that exists as a pitiful play at democracy). The rigged contest spurred the founding of the Green Movement, yet another group of brave protesters standing up to their oppressive leaders. Today, Ahmadinejad's term has come and gone, but the Green Movement persists, in no way safely for those who continue it.
Iran's ruthless repression of its own citizenry has left it isolated from the rest of the world. Because of the terrifying specter of such a government gaining access to nuclear weapons (which it almost certainly is attempting to do), economic sanctions have been imposed on the theocracy, causing no end of financial misery there. Unfortunately, this misery has virtually all targeted the innocent people of the nation, rather than their evil leaders. Worse yet, while the sanctions causing the pain were relaxed under an otherwise-abominable nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, President Trump's understandable decision to rescind that agreement has reinstated the sanctions. Economic catastrophe in Iran is nearing its boiling point.
Recently, widespread protests have been seen, these not inspired by political strife but by poverty. Several labor unions, most notably one representing bus drivers, have gone on strike, due to long periods of no pay for their work. The conditions under which these people toil are unbearable, and something will need to be done soon if the economy is to survive at all.
It should be noted clearly that, while perhaps well intentioned, economic sanctions against Iran are not the answer. Again, this tactic can only harm the Iranian people themselves, who are innocent victims of their brutal regime. The only long-term solution to their woes is a fundamental shift in government, away from the fundamentalist theocracy that now rules and toward a free democratic leadership that would actually represent those over which it presides. However, just as sanctions are a poor, harmful means of bringing this about, so too would be military action. Iranians have suffered enough without having their home invaded.
Iran's true salvation must come from within. Fortunately, this is entirely feasible, because Iran's population is not at all like its government. The Iranian people are largely and increasingly liberal, with a knowledge of and sympathy toward Western democracy. This is one of the reasons that the theocracy there is so brutal; it knows that if unrest is not quickly and aggressively stamped out, it could easily spark a fire of rebellion. It's a fire that struggles to burn even now, despite the government's best efforts.
As we somberly observe this 40th anniversary of the horrific Islamic Revolution, it is incumbent upon the free world to let the people of Iran know that their plight is seen, and supported. It is only because of the growing availability of communications technologies, such as the Internet, that dissidents have been able to gather and share ideas. This is why the government has been unable to stop them, and it is why the people will eventually win. The best thing that can be done for Iran is to support the continued development of these technologies, and allow the oppressed to finally achieve the freedom that is their birthright.