The Fight in Iran Continues

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Talia Lunken

A group of protesters holding a sign that says "Woman, Life, Freedom" and that is covered in red handprints.
The first anniversary of Jina Amini’s death just passed. On September 13, 2022, a woman by the name of Jina Amini, also known as “Mahsa,” was arrested by Iran’s morality police for “improperly” wearing her hijab.[1] Her arrest occurred while she was on a trip with her family to go to Urima to enroll her in university to study biology.[2] She was severely beaten and died three days later, all while in police custody. After reports about the incident came out, protests erupted all across Iran.[3][4] Two of the female journalists who broke the story are now in prison.[5] The protests were “led by women who tore off their hijabs, cut their hair, and adopted a rallying cry of ‘women, life, freedom.’”[6]

Amini was included on the Forbes list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women. Her death was so powerful that it started an outcry against the Iranian regime’s treatment of women. The outcry evolved into a globally recognized revolutionary movement that is calling for regime change.[7] Nina Ansary, a historian and women’s rights activist, says “Mahsa Amini is now a global symbol for freedom, not just in Iran.”[8]

In March, seven months after Amini’s death, the government had detained over 20,000 protestors, of which more than 500 had been killed.[9] These protests are not the first time that Iranian women have advocated for their rights on this large of a scale. During the 1979 Islamic Revolution, progress in equity had reversed as the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s secular monarchy was replaced with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Shiite Islam-driven regime. The new government specifically targeted women and girls by implementing restrictions that limited career prospects and pushed a strict dress code, making the hijab mandatory. On March 9, 1979, a meeting to mark International Women’s Day turned into a protest of the mandatory hijab. Today, the fight continues. The current protests are not so much about overthrowing the government, but about the right for women and girls to “have freedom over [their] own bodies.”[10]

Protests are not new in Iran, as they have flared up for various reasons over the years. The most recent widespread protest before today’s protests was the Green Revolution of 2009.[11] The intent of this revolution was to protest the fraudulent electoral process for the prime minister that caused Mousavi to lose to the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in what was supposedly a “landslide” victory. There was anger at the fact that the government claimed to be “of the people,” yet the election had been stolen.[12] This time, the protests are different. They are “an unprecedented revolution led by women, with support from men, encompassing a wide variety of grievances.”[13] Women are forced to wear certain loose clothing and to cover their bodies and hair fully. They can’t dance in public, they can’t drive a motorcycle, they can’t travel without approval from their parents or from their spouse, and are restricted from doing much more.

Social media, more specifically TikTok, has been used to gain support for the message in Iran. Despite efforts from the Iranian regime to prevent certain information from leaving the country, TikTok has been one effective method to spread knowledge. In order for protestors to use TikTok, they use multi-hop virtual private networks, which are VPNs that send internet traffic to multiple servers to get around the government blackouts. Users can like the videos, duet them, and stitch them to spread the word. TikTok and various other social media platforms have been able to gain lots of support globally for the movement through education about what is happening in Iran.[14]

The government has stayed very quiet publicly about the anniversary of Amini’s death. State-run media has avoided mentioning the anniversary. During a news conference with journalists, President Ebrahim Raisi never said Mahsa Amini’s name. Privately, there has been a rise in people being detained and questioned by security forces, one of the people being Amini’s uncle. There have been more police officers on the streets, and there are snap checkpoints for those who ride motorcycles into the country’s capital.[15]

On Saturday, September 16, 2023, protests erupted all throughout Iran to commemorate the one-year anniversary. Demonstrations were in the capital city of Tehran as well as Mashhad, Ahaz, Lahijan, Arak, and Senandaj, with many of the protesters chanting “Women, Life, Freedom.”[16] Death slogans were also chanted against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As a show of force, authorities deployed armed guards in many of the cities. Around the world, rallies were held to commemorate Amini’s death, in places like Paris, Berlin, and Brussels. Also, on Saturday, authorities detained Amini’s father and his son, “who was warned that he would be banished to a remote village if encouraged people to attend ceremonies marking the anniversary of Amini’s death.”[17]

March 2024 is the parliamentary elections in Iran. The regime is accusing protestors of planning one-year anniversary protests not only to commemorate Amini, but to use them to undermine and disrupt the parliamentary elections, and they believe that is the main goal.[18] The Islamic Republic is being extremely proactive as there is an expected round of protests approaching. Women who identify as “activists” are being arrested by the regime.[19] There is still a long way to go for women and girls to have freedom over their bodies.

[1] Maggie McGrath, “Mahsa Amini: The Spark That Ignited a Women-Led Revolution,” Forbes, December 19, 2022.

[2] Youhanna Najdi, Niloofar Gholami, Omid Deedar, and Dialika Neufeld, “Jina Mahsa Amini: The Face of Iran’s Protests – DW – 12/06/2022,” Deutsche Welle, December 7, 2022.

[3] McGrath, “Mahsa Amini: The Spark That Ignited a Women-Led Revolution.”

[4] Niloufar Baghernia, Haleh Esfandiari, Tito Ambyo, and Will McEniry, “Understanding the Protests in Iran: Similar Demands with New Features,” Australian Institute of International Affairs, March 8, 2023.

[5] Michael Kruse, Michael Schaffer, and Sheryll Cashin, “The Women of Iran Are Not Backing Down,” POLITICO, January 22, 2023.

[6] McGrath, “Mahsa Amini: The Spark That Ignited a Women-Led Revolution.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Nicole Ellis, Casey Kuhn, and Yasmeen Sami Alamiri, “Watch: Women and Girls Are Still Protesting in Iran. Here’s Why,” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, March 9, 2023.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Victor H. Sundquist, “Iranian Democratization Part II: The Green Movement – Revolution or Civil Rights Movement?” Journal of Strategic Security 6, no. 1 (2013): 35–46.

[13] Ellis, Kuhn, and Sami Alamiri, “Watch: Women and Girls Are Still Protesting in Iran.”

[14] “Whitney Shylee May, “Iranian Protesters Turn to TikTok to Get Their Message Past Government Censors,” The Conversation, February 6, 2023.

[15] N. Karimi, and J. Gambrell, “In Iran, snap checkpoints and university purges mark the first anniversary of Mahsa Amini protests,” AP News, September 12, 2023.

[16] H. Law, N. Mando, H. Chen, S. Akbarzai, and M. Tawfeeq, “Protests erupt in Iran, one year after Mahsa Amini’s death,” CNN, September 17, 2023.

[17] Ibid.

[18] H. Dagres, “The protests in Iran are not a revolution-yet. these events must occur first,” Atlantic Council, September 7, 2023.

[19] Ibid.