On Monday 26 September, about 500 people were arrested in Mazandaran, a northern province of Iran. Amnesty International reported at least four children among those killed by the security forces since the start of nationwide protests over a young woman’s death.
Mahsa Amini’s death has unleashed a flood of protests that have escalated amid anger over state control and patriarchy, religious rules, a rock-bottom economy and decades of human rights abuses.
To her family and friends, Mahsa was known by her Kurdish name, Jina. She was a 22-year old young woman from Saqqez in the north western region of Kurdistan in Iran.
On September 13, she had travelled to the Iranian capital Tehran with her family to visit relatives when she was arrested by Morality Patrol Officers, who enforce strict rules in the Islamic Republic requiring women to cover their hair and wear loose fitting clothes in public. It is known as the Hijab Law, which went into in full effect after the Islamic revolution in 1981.
Amini was arrested on an accusation of violating the hijab law. She was taken into police custody at the Vozara police station and referred to a “re-education center” in the station. She died three days after falling into a coma. Iran’s security forces issued a statement saying that Ms. Amini had collapsed from a heart attack at the detention center while receiving training on hijab rules.
According to human rights organizations, family statements and witness testimonies, Amini was beaten by the arresting officers in the police van and later at the police station.
On Monday the 26th, the official death toll for the unrest was 41 with over 1200 people detained by the authorities. However, human rights groups say the true number of deaths is more than 100 and estimated that thousands of people have been arrested.
Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said: “The rising death toll is an alarming indication of just how ruthless the authorities’ assault on human life has been under the darkness of the internet shutdown.” Morayef described the Iranian heavy handed approach as a “harrowing pattern of deliberate and unlawful firing of live ammunition at protesters.”
MEDIEVAL ATTITUDE TOWARDS IRANIAN WOMEN TAKES CENTRAL STAGE
On Friday 23 September, Amini died after falling into a coma from a concussion. This Kurdish woman had no idea that her death would spark anti-government protests that have erupted in at least 50 cities nationwide nor could she have known that she would be the symbol of an uprising against the theocratic state of Iran. Her death has sparked demonstrations from the Kurdish region in the northwest, to Tehran, Yazd, Isfahan, and Bushehr and even in more traditionally conservative religious cities like Mashhad in the northwest.
People are protesting even in Amini’s hometown despite a heavy military and police presence there. There are also reports that university students at three universities in Tehran were refusing to attend classes.
Amini’s death quickly struck a national nerve and gave a human face to the public’s long suffering under the oppressive and corrupt regime. Jina’s death ignited protests with initial demands calling for justice for Jina and calling for the end of violence and discrimination against women (e.g., the compulsory Hijab wearing) but the demands were to get broader and people started calling for a regime change and an end of the political repression that took hold of Iran since 1979.
The fear factor has been broken and many Iranians have directed their anger towards the heart of the country’s system of government, chanting “Death to the dictator” and “Death to the oppressor,” in reference to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Protesters were tearing down portraits of Khamenei. In Khamenei’s birthplace in the city of Mashhad, protesters set fire to his statues. Women were ripping off and burning their headscarves to protest the hijab law.
AN UPRISING LIKE NO OTHER – “THE WOMEN-LED REVOLUTION”
Indeed, this is not the first time Iran was rocked by anti-government protests. In 2009, The Green Movement, which was led by the middle class and university students, turned out on the streets to denounce the fraudulent re-election of the conservative president at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The regime cracked down hard, with the Revolutionary Guards and the much feared Basij militia sent in to arrest, beat and kill protesters.
And again in 2019, Iran was shaken by protests sparked by a rise in fuel prices which were led by poor Iranians. Here also, the regime launched a brutal crackdown, hundreds of people were killed, thousands were injured and many were detained.
However, this time protests are different, they are bolder and braver: from setting fire to the statues of Khamenei to women reclaiming the public space and in rare displays of defiance of the government’s hijab law, they took their hijab off setting them on fire in front of a roaring crowd, these are imageries were unthinkable for many years.
This year’s protests were also driven by women as a result of the death of a woman. Female participation is high. The protesters are young and despite diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, they all came together calling for an end of decades of theocratic dictatorship.
Evan Siegel, an academic who has co-published books on Iranian history, said: “Driven by their fury of decades of repression and humiliation, they [referring to the protesters] have held their own in street fighting with the repressive organs, particularly the hated para-police. For the first time I can recall, the regime’s medieval attitudes towards women has become a central issue in mass resistance to the regime.”
The world is witnessing some extraordinary scenes of bravery and defiance. More and more Iranians from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds are joining the protests, turning the crisis into an outlet for broader anger and frustration with the government. Ordinary Iranians are struggling to make ends meet after years of economic decline due to the U.S.-led sanctions and the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, as well as widespread corruption, economic mismanagement, and religious and political repression.
“An entire generation is calling for the end of the Islamic Republic”
There is no doubt these protests are posing real challenges to the government but like previous anti-government protests, the regime has once again resorted to a brutal and systematic crackdown. In the past few days, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran’s most powerful security force, issued a statement describing what was occurring as “sedition” and saying that protesters must be crushed to teach other people a lesson. There are many reports of security forces firing on unarmed protesters and the number of casualties is going up for every hour. Plainclothes officers from Basij militia have also been deployed. Cell phone and internet usage has been drastically restricted. The regime has also called on its supporters to report on protesters known to them.
The deadliest unrest has taken place in the Kurdish region. The Iranian government has employed more brutal and systemic crackdown measures: there are reports that the IRGC is sending troops to the Kurdish region (Rojhelat) and bombing Peshmerga forces in the Kurdistan region both in Iran and Iraq.
According to the Norwegian Human Rights Group, Hengaw, at least 733 people have been injured and more than 600 people arrested in the Kurdish region (figures from 25 Sept).
Dr Sanam Vakil, the Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow, at Chatham House Think-Tank, said the protests ignited by Jina’s death, have “shed light on the groundswell of issues that ordinary Iranians face every day related to security, freedom. (…) I don’t think this is an existential challenge to the regime because the system in Iran has a monopoly of force, a well-honed security strategy that it is already implementing,” she said.
Most analysts would agree that, like previous protests, the government will brutally crackdown on the protesters. But differently from previous uprisings, the government now has a bigger challenge and that is the rise of a new young Iranian generation who is rejecting the entire project of “Velayat Al Faqih.”
Professor Roham Alvandi, an Iran historian at the London School of Economics, on his Twitter called the protesters the “Mahsa Amini’s generation” and writes, “the anger is palpable. The demands are far beyond anything we’ve ever seen before. This is an entire generation that is calling not just for reform, not just for their votes to be counted, not just for an end to compulsory veiling, but the end of this Islamic Republic.”
The Iranian regime will once again brutally crush this uprising like the ones before, but one thing is for sure this time – this is not the end of the Mahsa Amini’s story or the political movement of Iran’s young generation.