Anger over the death of Mahsa Amini has taken various forms in Iran, from mass demonstrations to hacking state TV to schoolgirls trampling portraits of the supreme leader. In the year since Amini died after being detained by the morality police, Iran’s protest movement has become entrenched, taking the authorities by surprise.
Mahsa Amini, 22, arrived in Tehran with her family from the city of Saqqez in Iranian Kurdistan. She was detained by the Gasht-e Ershad – officially, Guidance Patrols but popularly known as the “morality police” – for incorrectly wearing the obligatory headscarf. The patrols stop people at random to enforce clothing rules based on a strict interpretation of Sharia law, whether to demand that loose strands of hair be tucked in or to stop those whose veils are too colourful. Amini was taken into a van in front of her brother, who tried to intervene. According to her family, she received a violent blow to the head while in police custody. The authorities have always denied this version of events, maintaining there was no physical contact between her and police.
In the corridors of Tehran's Kasra Hospital, Amini’s parents have just learned of their young daughter’s death, three days after she was arrested by the morality police. This photo sent shockwaves through Iranian society. In the days that followed, demonstrations demanding justice multiplied across the country – first in Saqqez, Amini’s hometown, then in Tehran and some 30 other cities. The photo was taken by Niloofar Hamedi, a journalist with the reformist Shargh Daily newspaper, who was detained in turn by Iranian authorities on September 22 and remains in prison.
A woman stands on the hood of a car. Hair blowing in the wind, she has just set fire to her veil, waving its shreds at the end of a branch while men cheer her on. In the days following Mahsa Amini's death, Iranian women took to the streets in massive numbers, leading the protests. Slogans such as "Woman, life, freedom" and "Death to the dictator" became increasingly common. Clashes with security forces took place in dozens of Iranian cities, resulting in deaths and arrests. Videos posted by the protesters went viral, conveying Iranians' anger to the whole world. On the ground, journalists were arrested and prevented from covering the events, with more than 80 detained since the start of the protests, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Protests start spreading through the ranks of Iranian universities. At Tehran's prestigious Sharif University of Technology, some 200 students chanted slogans hostile to the Islamic Republic; riot police launched a violent crackdown and closed the school. But protest rallies continued at other Iranian universities, including Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran (photo) as well as in Isfahan, Mashhad and Babol. The revolt took various forms: students from the Faculty of Arts at Azad University in Tehran rallied with their palms covered in red paint or covered the school courtyard in red to symbolise the repression. At the canteens of several universities, girls and boys sat side by side in a challenge to the strict gender separation normally observed at mealtimes.
With the start of a new school year, it is the younger generation’s turn to show their discontent. Photos posted on social media showed high-school girls removing their veils and tearing or trampling on portraits of the Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, as well as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In other images they waved their middle fingers at the symbols of the Islamic Republic that adorn classroom walls or booed representatives of the state. Some members of Iran’s opposition believe a spate of toxic gas attacks targeting girls’ schools that began the following month may have been retribution for the protests.
During a television news programme on the evening of October 8, TV hackers managed to broadcast the faces of some of the victims of the crackdown alongside that of Mahsa Amini. Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmaeilzadeh, both 16, are believed to have been killed by Iranian authorities on the fringes of protests in late September. Their deaths marked a turning point, exacerbating the anger of the protesters. The hackers also broadcast a photo of the supreme leader surrounded by flames. "The blood of our youth drips through your clawed fingers," read the text, which also called on Iranians to join the revolt against the regime.
Forty days after Amini’s death, several thousand people marched to the cemetery in her hometown of Saqqez in Iranian Kurdistan. The region bordering Iraq has been the target of a severe crackdown, particularly since the uprising in response to her death. The internet was blocked and access to Saqqez strictly controlled. There were more reports of live fire and arrests that day.
Taraneh Alidoosti, the Iranian actress most well known abroad, and several others posted photos of themselves without the veil to express their support for the "Women, life, freedom" movement. Alidoosti was arrested on December 17 for her post as well as for denouncing the execution by hanging of Mohsen Shekari, 23, accused of waging "war against God" for his part in the protests. Upon her release from prison three weeks later, the actress continued to go without the veil – joining the many Iranian women arrested for defying the regime who were seen upon their release with bouquets of flowers in hand, hair blowing in the wind and fingers raised to form a “V” for victory.
Many of Iran’s athletes also sided with the protesters. Climber Elnaz Rekabi and chess player Sara Khadem refused to wear headscarves while competing abroad. And the men’s soccer team boycotted the national anthem in front of millions of TV viewers at their first World Cup match in Qatar. After coming under pressure from the regime, the footballers sang the anthem in subsequent matches.
Ghazal Ranjkesh, 21, says she lost an eye after being shot by a “smiling” law enforcement officer while with her mother in Bandar Abbas in southern Iran on November 15. She became one of the first to talk about her injury publicly on Instagram in January, and dozens of similar testimonies followed. A New York Times investigation published in November 2022 found more than 500 cases of serious eye injuries at just three hospitals in Tehran since the start of the protests. Posting defiantly on the social network months after she was targeted, Ranjkesh addressed her attacker with a smile on her face. “When you shot me from a distance of two meters and smiled, were you thinking that I would survive and smile back at you?”
To mark International Women's Day, a group of young girls filmed themselves dancing in front of buildings in Tehran's Ekbatan district. Dressed in crop tops, they danced to "Calm Down", a sensual Afrobeat hit by Nigerian singer Rema. The police launched a manhunt to find them, and they were eventually arrested. After spending two days in detention, a video emerged on March 14 showing the five friends with their heads veiled, taking turns to express their regrets. Meanwhile, the video they posted, which went viral on TikTok, had inspired other Iranian women: in Isfahan and Shiraz, women posted dancing videos on social media. As the months went by, Iran’s large demonstrations gave way to acts of civil disobedience that prompted more crackdowns.
In Tehran, Shiraz and other major cities, it is no longer rare to see Iranian women in public without the obligatory headscarf. However, the regime has hardened its stance, introducing new sanctions in mid-April against recalcitrant women. Businesses have been closed, vehicles confiscated and fines imposed for failing to enforce the headscarf requirement. The law also makes it possible to dismiss women and refuse hospital treatment to those who disobey.
As the demonstrations slowed in many parts of Iran, rallies continued unabated in the Sunni region of Sistan and Baluchestan until September 2023. Every Friday after prayers, the men of Zahedan, the provincial capital, demonstrated against the government in the streets of this poor area of southern Iran. On September 30, 2022, dubbed "Bloody Friday", police opened fire, killing at least 66 people including children, according to Amnesty International. Since then, the Baluchi minority has continued to pay a heavy price, including death sentences based on what Amnesty has called “torture-tainted” confessions and “grossly unfair” trials.