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Why the Iranian regime should fear youthful revolt

Across the Middle East the lack of jobs, particularly for the under-thirties, is creating a rage that always simmers and sometimes boils.

I once travelled with a senior British government minister to Tehran. As we left Iranian airspace on the way home, with the RAF cabin crew providing restorative gin and tonics, the minister marvelled at how easy it had been to talk to his Iranian interlocutors. He was impressed, too, by Tehran’s streets, by the bustle and hum of an unexpectedly commercial metropolis.

Perhaps the minister had been expecting black-clad, revolutionary crowds punching the air and chanting “Death to America”. Shia Muslim clerics and their allies run the Islamic Republic of Iran. But in the capital, the call to prayer is nothing like as ubiquitous as it is in most Arab cities. Iran is more subtle and diverse than the stereotypes suggest.

The demonstrations around the turn of the year were the biggest since the Green Movement of 2009, when up to three million Iranians protested over president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s allegedly fraudulent re-election. In 2009, our office was in a well-appointed apartment building in north Tehran, the more affluent end of the city. It is the kind of place where elegant people step out of expensive cars and into coffee shops for something expensive and frothy, more like a middle-class district in Europe than a patch of the Middle East. 

But in Europe, elections don’t get stolen, and in 2009, millions of Iranians believed that had just happened. The demonstrations tailed of once the state had deployed its muscled, well-armed security forces and militias on the streets.

Men from the Basij militia, armed with heavy clubs, were positioned every ten yards or so down Tehran’s tree-lined avenues. They would glower at anyone who looked like a potential demonstrator. Behind them were uniformed squads from the security forces, with automatic weapons. Armed police in motorbike squads cruised around, breaking up crowds, intimidating anyone who felt brave enough to shout a slogan. When it was quieter in the evening, people would still go to their roofs to chant “God is greatest”, just as some of their parents protested against the Shah in advance of the 1979 elections.

 In the last days of 2017, the protests could not have been more different from those in the “green summer” of 2009, which for a few weeks seemed to be changing Iran. It was not just that far fewer people took part. It was also how they started and spread: in the provinces, rather than Tehran.

The first demonstrations were in Mashhad, in the north-east. Mashhad is Iran’s second biggest city, and the site of the shrine of Imam Reza, a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, which attracts large numbers of pilgrims. But the frothing lattes and shiny cars of well-off reformists in north Tehran do not feature in many lives in Mashhad, or the smaller cities, where young Iranian protesters gathered.

Ebrahim Raisi, a well-known hardliner, lives in Mashhad. He lost the last presidential election in May 2017 to the reformist Hassan Rouhani. Some have suggested that Raisi’s supporters might have started the first Mashhad protests to discredit Rouhani’s handling of the economy (the president had just published an austerity budget). It’s a theory, but what’s more important is that the protests swiftly spread, and were soon targeted at the entire system, up to and including the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Everywhere, politics and the economy are intimately linked. Canny authoritarian states are able to buy off the frustration and anger created by years of political repression. To do that, however, they need money, and in Iran they don’t have enough. The economy has been badly damaged by years of sanctions, corruption and mismanagement.

A recent survey by BBC Persian found that, on average, Iranians have become 15 per cent poorer in the last ten years. Inflation is lower, but it is still a problem. So is corruption. President Rouhani promised to do more to solve this problem. But the demonstrations show that his efforts have been insufficient to satisfy those people who hoped for a transformative effect.

Across the Middle East the lack of jobs, particularly for the under-thirties, is scaring regimes, and creating rage that always simmers and sometimes boils. In the 1980s and 1990s, Iran’s population rose dramatically. Now these children are grown up and they want jobs. In Iran, more than half the population of 80 million is under 30. Around a quarter of young people are jobless, more in some harder-hit regions. Most of those on the streets in the last few weeks have been young men. In traditional, generally religious societies in the Middle East, young males are not accepted as proper adults – real men – until they can afford to marry and have a family.  That is impossible without a job.

The same distress is being felt across the Arab Middle East. Young people are a danger to regimes if they face bleak, impoverished, jobless futures. Unemployment drove them on to the streets during the Arab uprisings of 2011. In 2018, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, is attempting to reform the economy and crack down on corruption because of the threat youth unemployment poses to his family’s power.

Iran is locked into conflicts with Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States, who have been calculating whether they can exploit this moment of Iranian weakness. The Iranians invest significant money in foreign and military policy. They back proxies and allies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and, increasingly, Yemen. That is unlikely to change.

President Trump might decide this is the time finally to revoke the UN and EU-backed deal that ended the prospect of a war over Iran’s nuclear arsenal. The abolition of that agreement is this year’s biggest risk in the Middle East.

Regardless of the deal’s fate, the leaders of Iran, starting with Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani, have a tremendous headache. The New Year demonstrations may well have subsided. But they are a warning of the dangers ahead if Iran cannot satisfy the expectations of a big, young and frustrated population. 

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC's Middle East editor.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist