By RFE RL
By Golnaz Esfandiari
(RFE/RL) — The scenes coming from Iran are striking.
Women removing their head scarves and waving them defiantly in public while some are burning their veils and throwing them into bonfires to the cheers of men. Others are chopping off their hair in public to the chants of “Death to the dictator.”
Men and women have also been standing up to security forces — in some cases chasing them and forcing them into a retreat.
Iran is in the middle of a popular revolt sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman who died after being arrested by the capital’s morality police, which enforces the Islamic dress code.
Mahsa Amini’s death plunged the nation into grief and outrage while her name became a rallying cry against four decades of state violence against women, lack of freedom, and other grievances, prompting some of the protesters to call for an end to the Islamic republic.
Amini died on September 16 in a Tehran hospital three days after being arrested by the morality police and taken to a police station to be “educated.”
The police have said that she had a sudden heart attack and denied allegations by activists that she suffered blows to the head. Amini’s mother told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that her daughter was in full health.
The government ordered an investigation while reaching out to Amini’s family.
Analysts say the protests that started in Amini’s hometown of Saghez in Iran’s Kurdistan region and quickly spread to dozens of cities and towns across the country, including Kish Island and the holy Shi’ite city of Qom, are among the greatest challenges the Islamic republic has faced in the past few years.
“We’re witnessing the beginning of the greatest challenge to the Islamic republic since 2019,” Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), told RFE/RL, referring to the violent 2019 protests over a sudden rise in the price of gasoline that quickly turned political amid calls for the downfall of the clerical establishment.
“How it will evolve depends on the ferocity with which the government represses the protests and the extent to which the international community keeps a spotlight on Iran so mass human rights violations do not occur in darkness,” Ghaemi added.
In Iran, political activist and journalist Mohammad Sadegh Javadihessar told Radio Farda that Amini’s death has plunged the country into grief and anger.
“A young woman who was visiting Tehran from another city, she was supposed to be kept safe by the police but she was detained by the police, and then she ended up in a hospital and died. This has affected Iranian society in an unprecedented way,” Javadihessar said in a telephone interview from Mashhad.
“I had never witnessed such widespread unity regarding violence against women, and I think this could be a watershed moment in social behaviors in Iran,” he added.
Iran is not likely to drop the compulsory hijab rule, which constitutes one of the pillars of the Islamic republic. But Javadihessar says the morality police could review their tactics under intensified public pressure and calls for their abolition following Amini’s tragic death.
“It’s not expected that the current parliament moves to reform the compulsory hijab law, but it is possible that we won’t see such measures by the morality police,” he said.
The establishment has deployed large numbers of security forces to stop the protests, which have turned violent at times, while also imposing a near-total Internet blackout.
Amnesty International said on September 21 that it has recorded the deaths of eight people — six men, one woman, and a child — with four of them shot by security forces at close range with metal pellets.
State-controlled television said on September 22 that 17 people have been killed in six straight nights of protests, including demonstrators and policemen. Some reports suggested that four members of the security forces had been killed.
Several people in the Iranian capital told RFE/RL on September 21 that they could not access the Internet using their cell phones. Instagram, one of the few social media sites not blocked in Iran, was inaccessible, while users also said they could not access the popular WhatsApp.
Protesters have been chanting, “Women, life, and freedom,” and “Justice, freedom, and optional hijab” while targeting the hijab, the most visible symbol of the Islamic republic, which became compulsory following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Several actresses based in Iran have published photos of themselves on social media not wearing the compulsory veil at the risk of never being able to act in the country again. One even shaved her head to protest Amini’s death.
Prominent women’s rights activist and researcher Mansoureh Shojaee says she believes the protests are a turning point.
“After 40 years under the rule of a misogynist establishment, this movement is chanting the most feminine and civilized slogan that has united women and men from Tehran to Kurdistan,” Shojaeyi told Radio Farda.
Ghaemi said the protests are “the culmination of years and years — especially the last five years — of Iran’s protest movement, and it’s targeting the height of power.”
Paris-based analyst Reza Alijani said many Iranians have turned away from ballot boxes while taking increasingly to the streets to express their frustration and anger at the clerical establishment, which has in some cases responded with lethal force, including in 2019, when hundreds were reported killed.
“They could be moving toward strikes. We’re not there yet, but it is moving in that direction,” Alijani told RFE/RL, adding that the current situation is unsustainable.
“The ball in is the court of the establishment. It either has to retreat and submit [to the public’s demands] or it will be changed by the people through a popular revolution. History has shown that [around the world], and the Islamic republic is not a different kettle of fish,” he added.
The protests over Amini’s death followed near-daily street demonstrations over the poor state of the economy, which has been crushed by crippling U.S. sanctions, putting additional pressure on the government.
They also come amid a deadlock in talks aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal and renewed rumors and reports about the health of Iran’s 83-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Speaking in Tehran on September 21 at an event commemorating veterans of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, Khamenei made no mention of Amini’s death and the protests rocking his country.
Radio Farda broadcaster Sepideh Behkham contributed to this report.
- Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.[email protected]