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Context From The Talk

Abbas Milani Explains How Authoritarian Regimes Use Fear To Stay In Power

Iranian Regime

The Iranian regime is profoundly misogynous. If you ever look at any picture of the Iranian leadership, you see a room full of septuagenarian men and sometimes nonagenarianmen. But people living over 90 should not be the sole people to decide the fate of the country that is 70 percent under the age of 35. It is this misogynous septuagenarian male elite that has had virtual control in Iran for 39 years. They have tried everything they can to push Iranian woman back into what they think the model of womanhood is, which is motherhood and being subservient to their husbands. 

There are many, many laws that are surprisingly misogynistic against women, laws about marriage and laws about divorce. Women have no right to file for divorce unless the husband is a certified lunatic, and even that is very difficult to obtain.

In spite of all of these laws, in spite of the systematic effort to curtail the advancement of women, in spite of actual quotas on women getting into universities, in spite of the fact that there are sixty different programs at the universities where women are barred from because supposedly it is not a womanly job, women have persevered.

Nevertheless, in spite of these laws, in spite of the systematic effort at every level, Iranian women have fought this regime. Over sixty percent of the graduating classes last year at the universities were women. And everyone would tell you that if there weren’t any quotas, the numbers would be much, much higher. Last year, for the first time in the history of Iran, there were more women published authors then there were men.   

The Islamic Republic tried of force the veil on women. Women were forcefully unveiled, to give you historic context, in 1936 by a modernizing king called Reza Shah. Reza Shah ruled Iran from 1925 to 1941. The current regime tried to revert back by forcing women to wear a veil. That became the law of the land. From day one, women began to fight this. And today, it has become a movement of remarkable power. They are forcing the regime to reconsider its forced veiling. Many of the clerics in the regime are saying we have lost this battle, we cannot force this on women, and we must educate them.

The significance of the women’s movement is not just about the veil.  It is about breaking the authority of a despotic regime. Fear is an absolute essential ingredient of authoritarianism. No authoritarian regime survives if fear dissipates. Why? Why does an absolute authoritarian regime suddenly disappear? The key element is that there is a moment, an ineffable moment when fear is lost. 

Women have been fighting this gradual dissipation, this gradual challenge to the authoritarianism to the regime. If you can beat them in the streets, as women have, maybe we can beat them in other places.

Abbas Milani, 2018 Hoover Institution Spring Retreat