Last week, a photo of Mahsa Amini, 22, spread online in Iran. The young woman was in a coma, barely clinging to life, shortly after she had been taken into custody by the so-called “morality police” for violating the strict dress code, a mandate that women above the age of puberty must cover their hair and wear loose-fitting clothing in public. She died soon after, and protests erupted almost instantly. Young Iranian women and men poured into the street over the killing, women throwing their veils into burn pits as they sang and danced, all of which is illegal in the country. Riot police were soon deployed to quell the protests, but they were met with intense resistance.
By design, it’s hard to follow what’s going on now: Iran has disrupted internet and cell phone service in entire neighborhoods where clashes are being reported. Only a handful of videos of skirmishes have trickled out onto the internet, and they paint an ugly picture of what’s unfolding. At least nine people have been killed.
To understand more about what’s happening—and why this feels so different from past protest movements in Iran—I called Samira Mohyeddin, a journalist at CBC radio in Canada who has studied Middle Eastern history. Born in Tehran in 1975, she left with family and immigrated to Canada in 1979 just as the Islamic Revolution took hold. She told me she’s never seen anything like the defiance currently on display in Iran, where much of the population is under 25 and anger at the current regime has reached a fever pitch. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: What’s happening on the ground in Iran right now?
Samira Mohyeddin: We’ve seen these flare-ups before. The last one was back in November 2019. But the protestors that I spoke to said that this time, it’s different. The police killed a young girl who people saw as very innocent. She wasn’t protesting when she was killed; she wasn’t a political figure or anything like that. She just came to town to visit her family in Tehran.
Most of the people protesting are young. The median age is around 20 years old. Seventy percent of the population in Iran is under the age of 25. That’s a huge population. This generation had nothing to do with bringing the Islamic Republic to power. That’s something their parents’ generation did. So, they’re like, “We don’t want this. We didn’t ask for this.” It’s obvious from their chants. It’s not, “Where is my vote?” or “End the veil.” Their chants are “Death to the dictator,” “Clerics get lost,” “We don’t want an Islamic Republic.” There are videos of hand-to-hand skirmishes between protestors and Iranian riot police holding tasers, guns, batons, and protestors are coming right at them. This is unprecedented. We haven’t seen this level of fury and fearlessness. People are angry, and it’s moved beyond the morality police and Mahsa Amini. Mahsa was the spark, but it’s moved way beyond that at this point.
What are you hearing from people inside Iran?
I spoke to my cousin who lives in Tehran, and she told me that they have mixed emotions of not knowing what’s to come. They’re feeling sort of elated from what they’re seeing. But it’s a weird mixture of fear and elation. I can tell you most of the Iranian diaspora has that same feeling. Because as we can see, the government is really clamping down. It’s very difficult. I verify videos sent to me by looking at street names or markers to figure out where and when it happened. It’s hard to get people on the ground to talk to you. But I was able to speak to a couple protestors only because people put me in touch with them. Right now, there isn’t any sort of leader of this protest movement. It’s so grassroots, and so spread out. It’s in 18 different provinces, which is more than half the country. There isn’t any one group for any person that you could talk to, which is very different than what you saw with the green movement in 2009, which had spokespeople and was very organized. And as a result, that made it very easy to put down. This iteration is proving difficult for the government of Iran to put down, because they don’t know who to go after. It’s coming at them from all sides.
You’ve mentioned several protest movements from the past—what was the birth of these movements post-revolution?
The first iteration of this, I would say, was when the Islamic Republic first came to power back in 1979. On March 8, 1979, three days before Khomeini, who was the ideological founder, declared that they are imposing a mandatory veil on women, 100,000 women poured out onto the streets for three days and protested. Another group, the Kurds, also came out in opposition to Khomeini. And both groups were met with brutality from the Islamists coming to power. These flareups have happened every once in a while, since then.
After the Islamic revolution in 1979, the universities were closed for three years so they could be quote-unquote “Islamized.” Classes became gender segregated. There was a purging of professors and teachers who were seen as not pro-revolution. And then students went through a re-education program where they, too, were quote-unquote “Islamized.” Girls needed to wear their hijab if they wanted to study. And then there were certain subjects that they weren’t allowed to study anymore. And in August 1999, a big student movement, known as 18th of Tir, pushed back against the government.
You said this time is different. But hasn’t the government learned anything by enduring those protests in the past?
One of the things that the Islamic Republic has done, which is quite ingenious, is installing Basij, basically plain-clothes vigilantes, all throughout Iranian society. But they are especially present in every single university. They keep an eye on the students to report on any student movements, and they also stand guard to make sure that the women are dressed properly, that men and women aren’t frolicking together. You’re seeing riot police wearing all green on the streets right now, but there’s also a lot of plain clothes Basij. These are the young people that are sponsored by the state. And so, you have this onion that the Islamic Republic has created, and you keep peeling it back to reveal all these layers of what can really only be called a totalitarian system, which makes people in the country fearful of each other. It’s by design, because when you live in a system where you can’t trust anybody, you can’t get together and bring down that system. We have this saying in Persian, the walls have mice, and the mice have ears. And that, I think, has proven for the past 43 years, a very effective tool in making sure that people don’t come together
But the Islamic Republic has failed to keep society the way they want it to be. It’s sort of silly to say—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie Footloose, but I make that comparison because the women in Iran can’t dance or sing in public. They can’t show their hair. And breaking those rules have become an act of protest.
I want to talk about the reaction outside Iran. I’ve seen a lot of right-wing politicians in America and elsewhere amplifying the protest movement, but also using it as an example of Islam as a broken faith. They are framing this as a revolution against Islam.
I see it. You can’t fault the people in Iran for that. What’s interesting is that’s what the government in Iran is saying—that narrative is the narrative of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I watch the Iranian state broadcaster, and that is the narrative that they are pushing right now, that this is a movement against Islam, that it’s not about Mahsa Amini. And so whoever is espousing that, well, congratulations, you are just parroting the talking points of the Islamic Republic.
How does the particular imagery of burning the hijab and cutting hair, as many women have done, play into this?
First, the cutting of the hair is a very old pre-Islamic form of mourning among women. It is a ritual cleansing. And so when you see women doing that, they’re hearkening back to that era. The burning of the veils—well, that’s sort of like the burning of the bras during the women’s liberation movement in the United States in the 1970s. The veil is not a choice in Iran, so it’s become a symbol of oppression. And that’s what I think we really need to keep in mind here. Not having the choice is what they’re burning. A lot of the people involved in these protests are very religious people. Women are doing this even though they are very religious. As it says in the Quran, there shouldn’t be any compulsion in religion. So, in a lot of ways, they don’t see the Islamic Republic as either: It’s neither Islamic nor a republic.
What else can you tell me about the government’s response, which is picking up, along with the death toll? What are they saying?
The government has said from the beginning that they had nothing to do with Mahsa Amini’s death, and that she had heart problems. They have sent out a video that shows her collapsing and are saying that they didn’t do her any harm, and that she had previous medical issues. Her family has denied all of that, saying she has no heart problems. Her father has come out and said that he saw obvious signs of trauma on his daughter’s body, and there are reports of a CT scan that showed blunt-force trauma to parts of her skull. She was declared brain dead when she was in that coma. So, the evidence is overwhelming.
Iran has a history of lying. They lied when they shot the plane down in 2020 and killed 176 people, 138 of them with ties to Canada. The only reason they said “mea culpa” was because satellite footage showed missiles launched at the plane. And they also lied about the killing of Zahra Kazemi, another Iranian Canadian, back in 2003. Iran said she was hungry, and she fell and hit her head. It was only later when the doctor who examined her came forward—who later had to escape the country—detailed that she had a brain hemorrhage, she had missing fingernails, and there were signs of a brutal rape, and that’s how she died. So, Iran doesn’t really have much of a leg to stand on. And that’s why you see the people reacting the way they do instantly. Because they don’t trust this government. They have no reason to.
What do people not in Iran right now not understand about what’s happening?
I think people need to view what’s happening in Iran very simply. We always look at this country as being really mysterious, complex, and full of nuance. But it’s simple. This is a generation that has had enough. They don’t want to live under a religious theocracy. That’s really it. They don’t want to live in a gender segregated world. I’m constantly comparing this to racial apartheid in South Africa. We all know it is wrong. And in Iran, women have to sit in the back of the bus, they have to enter from the back of the building, they cannot travel without the signature of their husband or male guardian. This is gender apartheid.