The Iranian morality police officers who arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 13 must have seemed like business as usual. Her brother’s pleas that they were visitors to an unknown place in Tehran fell on deaf ears as she was forced to leave, just one of dozens arrested that day for showing a few strands of hair outside her headscarf. But the subsequent shaking of the theocratic state to its foundations.
Hours after her arrest, Amini was admitted to a hospital “without any vital signs and brain dead,” officials there said. She was pronounced dead on September 16. In the days between, the Iranian public saw a photo of a young girl in the prime of her life attached to tubes – blood stains visible on her ear, which a doctor examining the images called a possible sign of severe head trauma.
Almost immediately protests broke out at Amini’s funeral in her hometown of Sakez in Iran’s Kurdistan province, only for it to spread like wildfire across the country. Unprecedented in size and speed, they were also marked by the audacity of the protesters – led in almost all cases by women. They held up pictures of Amini, waved their veils in the air, burned them in bonfires and shouted “Jin, Zhiyan, Azadi” (woman, life, freedom).
On social media, her name has become Iran’s version of #MeToo, a call to action for ordinary people post experiences of loss and oppression in the hands of the Islamic Republic, gathered under #MahsaAmini. “For my cousin, whom you imprisoned in 1958 at the age of 16, and in 1967 informed his mother of his execution,” reads one. In a variety of forms and language, the hashtag has surpassed 80 million mentions Twitter— many with the slogan “Mahsa, you’re not dead, your name has become a symbol.” others alluded to her brother’s pleas to let her go since they were strangers in Tehran: “You are no longer a stranger, now the whole country knows you.”
Every day image after image appeared of Iranian women facing the police and security forces with their heads uncovered. Most have only known the hijab – the head and body covering prescribed by faith – as the law of the land, born decades after the 1979 revolution that turned Iran into a theocracy while revoking women’s rights. On Friday, a week after Amini’s death, parts of Tehran turned into protest zones. Iranians gathered under a highway overpass singing“This is the year of blood, Seyyed Ali will be overthrown,” a reference to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Islamic Republic, no stranger to public discontent and protests, was nonetheless shocked and caught off guard. The security apparatus started blocking almost immediately. Short, grainy clips taken with mobile phones began to appear on Instagram, Twitterand WhatsApp showing police, in many cases accompanied and instigated by Basij paramilitaries, attacking and beating men and women as they fled their advance – with the sound of gunshots clearly audible.
As the protests continued, more and more names and photos of young men and women allegedly killed appeared on social media, including one on the Instagram account of Iranian actress Parasto Salehi. The official scores have grown steadily, from more than a dozen to 26 per state broadcaster cited at one point on Thursday to 35 a few hours later.
In more than four decades in power, the Iranian state has suppressed many protests, starting with those led by rivals vying for control of the country after the 1979 flight of the US-backed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in 2009 to protest alleged election fraud in what became known as the “Green Revolution”, only to be crushed by regime forces and mass arrests. Most recently, in November 2019, petrol price hikes led to sudden communal outbursts across the country, to which the government responded with live fire. In eight days, the number of civilian casualties passed 300, including at least 23 children, according to Amnesty International. To hide its actions and prevent protesters from communicating, the government took another extreme step: shutting down the Internet.
Alarmingly, such an approach seems to be underway now. Mobile data networks were excluded and most social media is filtered. And although years ago Iranians learned how to bypass internet restrictions – often by using VPNs – emerging opportunity a complete blackout has many worried, especially since dozens of activists, students and political figures were preemptively arrested on orders by the head of the judiciary Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i.
The threat is also fueled by recordings distributed on messaging services. In an unconfirmed audio file shared on Telegram, a senior Basij commander in the northern city of Rasht can be heard pleading with members of his division to turn up for anti-protest operations, saying repeatedly: “Thank God our hands are left open. ” The language is generally understood to mean that paramilitaries can now use live ammunition against protesters.
In another leaked recording, an intelligence official called a young protester in the central city of Kerman, demanding that he stop “inciting crowds” by making speeches in the street or face consequences. To the officer’s apparent surprise, he was told to “Do your best.”
Protests continue despite the risks. clips and images circulating online riot police show and civilian agents chased and in some cases captured and beaten by demonstrators. with at least 80 cities are reported to be actively protesting – and their numbers are growing daily – security forces appear exhausted and reports on disagreement among them began to circulate.
At the same time, more and more Iranian celebrities, actors and athletes have come out publicly in support of the protesters, demanding that the state step down and listen to them – from former footballer Ali Karimi, who on Twitter and Instagram criticizes the authorities and demands an end to the brutality towards actresses such as Katayoun Riahi, who publicly removed her veil in solidarity with Iranian women. Even celebrities who were considered loyal and close to power, such as Shahab Hosseini joined the ranks of those calling for an end to violent suppression.
During the first week of protest, international diplomacy may have acted as a constraint on security forces. President Ebrahim Raisi had traveled at the UN General Assembly in New York in part over talks to restart the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. But with Raisi now back and no deal in place, campaigners warn a repeat of November 2019 may be inevitable.
The Managing Director of Keyhanthe newspaper closely associated with the Supreme Leader, warned earlier this week that security forces would soon take over the streets. The Revolutionary Guard Corps issued a statement Thursday promising the defeat of the “enemy’s plot”. The week brought reports of increased violence and the use of more lethal equipment by security forces and an increase in deaths, particularly in the Western Kurdistan region where Amini hails from. There are already signs that security forces are closing in on Tehran, with schools, universities, cinemas, theaters and even some government offices set to be closed in the coming days, in an all-out effort to quell protests in the capital. Government-organized counter-demonstrators called for the protesters to be executed.
Both sides understand that the issue goes beyond the hijab.
“Mahsa Amini’s death was the spark in the powder keg of almost universal discontent among Iranians,” said a political analyst in Tehran, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Whether it’s political and personal freedoms, economic hardship or social restrictions, many Iranians no longer have any hope for the future in the Islamic Republic … and the state no longer has the economic means to solve or slow down its problems by throwing money at it,” he added. the analyst.
“The protests these days are in the name of humanity, unlike the 1979 revolution which was in the name of God,” tweeted Mohammadreza Javadi Yeganeh, Professor of Sociology at Tehran University.
The 2022 demonstrations are a “social revolution,” Yegane added. “Protesters, especially women, want to live according to their own understanding without paying attention to what religion says.”
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