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Iran Has Never Seen a Protest Movement Like This

A woman holding a photo of Mahsa Amini
A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in front of the Iranian Embassy in Brussels on Friday. Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

The protests in Iran this month started after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini decided to visit Tehran. She was reportedly coming out of the subway when she was spotted by Iran’s “morality police” and escorted into a van. They thought she was dressed immodestly—perhaps a wisp of hair was out of place, or maybe her hijab was drooping. Arrests like this are not uncommon in Iran; neither are deaths in custody. But what happened next was unexpected, as Iranian American human rights attorney Gissou Nia told me: “There was a photo of her in a hospital bed looking beat up, with gauze around her neck, hooked on an air device to help her breathe. It was absolutely shocking to see this young, beautiful woman in the hospital bed like that, and the photo went viral.” In the weeks since, protests have roiled Iran, with many rallygoers carrying pictures of Amini. Her father, speaking to the BBC, said he doesn’t believe what the government is telling him about his daughter’s death—that she suffered a heart attack due to some preexisting conditions. “Her family absolutely refutes that and says that’s not the case,” Nia says, pointing to photo details that indicate signs of a concussion. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Gissou Nia, director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project, about how Mahsa Amini’s death has led thousands of people to exercise their freedom of expression in Iran—and where that may lead. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: The Iranian struggle for women’s rights is more than a century old. And protests over hijab—the modest clothing required of all women in Iran—have been going on since the 1970s. Back then, protests were taking place in the shadow of the Iranian Revolution. Since a broad coalition had overthrown the government, it was a shock to some when Islamic fundamentalists took control. And in 1979, new Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini began rolling back some of the limited freedoms women had enjoyed.

Gissou Nia: It was all very gradual. Every day there was a new announcement about how women would be restricted, either in the public space or at work. Khomeini prohibited women from serving as judges. He announced that women could no longer initiate divorce proceedings. He prohibited women from serving in the army. The marriage age of women reverted back to 9, which is what it is under Islamic law. Then, on the eve of International Women’s Day, March 8, Khomeini said women could work outside the home but that government-employed women should wear hijab to work. That’s really how they started to roll this out.

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Was the reaction from women immediate?

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Yes, they responded immediately to these limitations on their rights with massive demonstrations and sit-ins.

My understanding is that Iranian women are incredibly educated and yet they’re still restricted.

Yeah. There are incredibly high rates of literacy in Iran. It’s a very educated population. We often hear that there are more women graduates from university than there are men in Iran. I should note that there are a lot of restrictions, though—different rules that are applied to encourage women to stay at home and thrive in the family sphere, that are not super supportive of them working or taking those skills to the workplace.

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Over the past couple decades, protests have become a common part of what’s happening in Iran: over elections that are fraudulent, over economic hardships. I’m wondering how this current movement is different from what we saw in 2009 or in 2017.

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In 2009, there was a very organized protest that a lot of people might remember, the Green Movement. The big slogan during those protests was “Where is my vote?” So ultimately, it was still saying we believe in this institution and just want to know why our votes weren’t properly counted, because the issue at the time was the disputed presidential election in June 2009. There was a sense the election was stolen—and I should note that presidential elections in Iran are neither free nor fair. The candidates are very carefully vetted. The then-incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was declared the winner after barely any vote counting. There was a real sense of grievance. People had the streets, but that was mostly centered in Tehran in urban centers.

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What we’ve seen since then is completely different. There were nationwide protests that occurred in December 2017 and January 2018 that were very clearly anti-government. Since then, there have been recurring protests, and the space and time between which the protests occur keep on shortening. We then saw the wide-scale protests in November 2019. Initially, that was said to have been sparked by a spike in gas prices that occurred after the state abruptly removed subsidies. But it quickly spread nationwide and took on anti-government slogans really calling for the downfall of the Islamic Republic.

It sounds like you’re saying things are getting more and more intense, and a little bit chaotic even.

The protesters are definitely not as scared, and they’re definitely willing to hit the streets and call for what they want. We saw protests in 2020 and 2021. Some of those were about other issues: water shortages in particular provinces, labor union struggles over wages, and this time, a social demand. So this round, there are no commentators who can dismiss it as being due to economic concerns or something that’s not really core to the ideology of the Islamic Republic. The mandatory hijab laws are core to the Islamic Republic’s repression of its populace. They’re only the most visible sign of a much more extensive, gender-discriminatory legal framework— which can encompass very restrictive marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance laws—that includes women’s testimony being worth half that of a man’s in a court proceeding, It’s not only gender discrimination. There’s discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities and LGBTQ populations.

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I think it’s also worth contextualizing Iran’s political situation right now, since the country has a new president and his election was incredibly controversial.

What we have to note is that the true head of state in Iran is the supreme leader, and he is unelected and accountable to no one. The presidents, in a sense, are just a sideshow, the people shipped out to the U.N. General Assembly to greet the world. But the true decision-maker is Khamenei, the current supreme leader. Things change very little depending on who the president is. But what is notable about this president, Ebrahim Raisi, is that, although none of Iran’s presidents have ever been human rights champions, this guy is actually a direct perpetrator of the killings of thousands of political prisoners in Iran’s jails in 1988, which legal experts, people’s tribunals, and others declared to be crimes against humanity. That’s why it’s quite astonishing that he’s in the presidential office, giving interviews to Western journalists or being met with in any way as a serious figure. This guy is quite literally a murderer.

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It has been striking to me to look at pictures of the protesters and contrast them with pictures of who is actually running Iran, because the protesters are young women and the leaders are older men with beards. It’s hard to understand how that kind of monoculture could represent these people who are on the street.

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Absolutely. What we see is that Gen Z is on the streets, essentially. Iran has a very young population—something like 80 percent of the country is under the age of 40. The government is mostly the ruling elite. They’re all deeply traditional and, frankly, geriatric men. They are all 70-plus, more or less. The supreme leader, for instance, is 83 and has been ruling since 1989. He is the only supreme leader many of these young protesters have ever known, and they’re not happy about it.

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It feels inevitable to me that we are going to see a harsh crackdown from the Iranian government. We are, of course, already hearing about dozens of people being killed. It makes me wonder what can actually be done to help the people in Iran and hold the Iranian government to account.

There have been concerns that the internet is going to be completely shut off. The background is that during the November 2019 protests, Iran shut off the Internet for up to two weeks in some provinces, so nobody was getting videos to show what horrors were happening there. Unfortunately, such blackouts are now happening, and the people who are collecting on-the-ground information are reporting that they can’t get access in the same way. There are some citizen journalist collectives and human rights organizations that people send this kind of footage to—they say that those submissions are slowing down.

What we need is robust action to ensure that the violations that are happening in Iran are documented by an independent, impartial body that’s either housed outside of the U.N. Human Rights Office or within it. There are examples of prior mechanisms on Syria, on Myanmar, and for the crimes of ISIS. There are elements of an investigative mechanism that were set up for Ukraine. These investigative mechanisms support future accountability processes. The whole world should be in support of the people of Iran right now. They’re the winning bet.

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