‘Women are in charge. They are leading’: Iran protests continue despite crackdowns

People, determined to defy violence by security forces and online blackout, are resorting to old-fashioned methods to organise unrest

Emma Graham-Harrison and Akhtar Mohammad Makoii Sat 1 Oct 2022 by https://www.theguardian.com/

Protest in Tehran on Saturday following Mahsa Amini's death
A protest in Tehran on Saturday over Mahsa Amini’s death. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

The messages, printed on scraps of paper, were thrown on doorsteps across Iran overnight by protesters determined that an online crackdown would not stop their movement.

“The Islamic Republic is falling. Join the people,” said one handed out in northern Rasht city. In southern Ahvaz organisers gave an address and time for protest, and a broader call to action. “If you cannot come, spread the message so other people come,” it urged readers.

Hours later a video from Ahvaz showed women dancing in the street, their hair uncovered, waving their headscarves in the air as a crowd lined up along the edge of the street applauded.

Two weeks into a wave of anti-government protests across Iran, authorities in Tehran seem increasingly frightened by the scale and determination of the popular uprising against their rule, and increasingly ruthless in their attempts to crush it.

The security forces have used live ammunition and brutal force on protesters, and swamped central Tehran with riot police. Dozens of people have been killed – tolls from human rights groups and Iranian state media range between 40 and 83. At least 1,500 have been arrested, according to the Associated Press.

Authorities have tried to hinder planning and reporting of protests with an online crackdown, banning social media apps, restricting internet access and trying to silence celebrities who support the movement. One football player has been arrested; the statue of another has been torn down.

The campaign of terror and obstruction has so far scattered the protests, but failed to stop them. Iranian demonstrators are determined to keep coming out.

“You see something about a gathering (online) and then you go there, and you are not sure whether you will come back home alive or not,” said Negar*, a protester from Tehran who spoke to the Observer by phone.

She pointed out that a revolution brought Iran’s current rulers to power long before the digital age. “The people have decided what they have to do. Just remember there was no internet in 1979 and people did what they wanted.” Some protesters set plans for a new gathering before they disperse, or have several familiar protest sites.

“We tell each other on the scene where and when we would gather next time. But mostly you know where people would gather, and you do not need to arrange anything,” said Nosheen*, a resident of north Tehran.

Others are chanting from the rooftops where the streets feel too dangerous, or using VPNs to dodge government controls on the flow of digital information.

The protests were sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, after her arrest by the morality police. But they morphed into a broader anti-government campaign – led by women and focused on the controls on their lives – but fuelled by wider discontent.

It is a movement that has been nurtured online, where Iranian and foreign celebrities tweet and hashtag their support, and powerful images carry protesters’ messages far beyond their own borders.

An Iranian woman stands by the grave of her mother, Mino Majidi, killed in the protest movements. The woman’s head is shaved and uncovered, and in her hand she holds the hair she shaved off in protest at both deaths.
One image that has gone viral shows a woman with a shaved head by the grave of her mother, Mino Majidi, killed in the protest movements. Photograph: handout

One photograph that has gone viral shows a young woman, standing by the grave of her mother, killed in the protests. Her head is shaven and uncovered, and in her hand she holds locks of flowing hair, cut off in mourning and opposition.

Women have led the protests, with their bodies on the streets and behind the scenes. “I was a little bit scared at first but when I saw that many women on the streets it gave me the courage to continue,” said Negar, a veteran of other protest movements who is in her 40s.

“Much of the time the men are just watching. Women organise and do everything. It’s completely different from previous times. Women are in charge. They are leading.” Security forces’ response has included tearing down a statue of Iranian football legend Ali Karimi after he used his social media to support the protests and share practical tips on avoiding internet controls. Protesters responded by spraying his name on the empty plinth.

On Saturday university students defied orders to return to their classrooms. At the University of Tehran they chanted “Justice, freedom, optional hijab”, before security forces clashed with them.

At Isfahan university a video shared on social media apparently showed a woman setting her headscarf on fire, and in Mashhad crowds chanted “students will die but we will not accept humiliation.”

Central Tehran was quiet under the watchful eye of a heavy security force presence, but protests continued elsewhere in the city.

“All forces are masked and sometimes when I go out, I feel like I’m walking in a war video game,” said one Tehran resident. “They are trying to scare people so they do not gather for protests, but people do not care and they keep gathering.”

One Saturday protest was held not far from the official residence of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.The group were close enough that if he stepped outside, the wind might have carried to his ears the chants of women determined to fight against almost impossible odds.

“We will continue until they kill every single one of us,” Nosheen said. “They fired teargas directly at us the other night, my eyes were burning, I could not sleep all night, but still I went out the next night, with my tears and pain in my eyes.”

*Names have been changed for security reasons