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Moment that mattered: The death of Mahsa Amini sparks a wave of protests in Iran

People gather in protest against the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran, Iran, 19th September 2022

People gather in protest against the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran, Iran, 19th September 2022. Photo: Getty Images

On 16th September a 22-year-old woman of Kurdish origin died in custody three days after being arrested by Iran’s morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab, a compulsory head covering for women, too loosely. When images of Mahsa Amini in a coma taken shortly after her arrest circulated on social media they sparked outrage; protesters gathered outside the Tehran hospital where she died, and the next day women removed their headscarves and chanted “death to the dictator” in her hometown of Saqqez in Kurdistan province.

Negin Shiraghaei was at home in London when she first heard about Amini’s death. “It was horrifying to see someone dying over the hijab,” she says. Iranian police claimed that Amini had a heart attack while in custody and wasn’t mistreated; her family insists she had no underlying health conditions. “After hearing that she was in hospital I checked the news all the time… I had to decide how much I wanted to be involved in the movement.”

Until four years ago Shiraghaei was a journalist and presenter at BBC Persian, a Farsi-language network based in London whose staff have faced harassment and intimidation from the Iranian regime for years. Her line of work had consequences for her family back in Iran – her father was interrogated by regime agents at a time he was undergoing treatment for cancer, and her brother was forced by the authorities to call her and urge her to travel to meet him in Romania where, Shiraghaei presumes, a regime agent would have confronted her. On another occasion, she says, she was tricked into thinking she was having a Skype conversation with a journalist; her heavily edited words to the regime agent were used in a documentary on state TV which targeted her and other Iranian journalists in the UK.

After leaving the BBC she tried to “manage exposure to news from Iran due to the trauma I’ve been through” and she co-founded a tech company focusing on women’s health. She found opposing the regime in Iran emotionally draining, but the death of Amini encouraged her to commit to the cause.

“When her death was confirmed I knew it was time to go full-on and try to help people,” Shiraghaei recalls. “I got a message from a group of feminist activists from Iran, my old friends, asking me to circulate a call for a big protest in Tehran. I did it, and I didn’t expect it to be so big; these protests usually spring up and then die away. But it was the beginning [of the movement] and every day since it hasn’t stopped.” On 19th September rallies were held at seven universities in the Iranian capital. By the end of the week, despite warnings from the authorities that protests would not be tolerated, dozens of demonstrations were happening all over the country. The slogan “Woman, life, freedom” became a rallying call for the leaderless movement.

These aren’t the first mass demonstrations against the regime in recent years. There were nationwide protests in 2019, sparked by rising fuel prices and violently quashed by the authorities. And in 2009 millions of Iranians took to the streets after accusations of a rigged presidential election in favour of the hardline incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those protests, too, were ended by a brutal clampdown. According to Shiraghaei, it was hard for Iranians seeking change to shake off a feeling of hopelessness.

“A lot of Iranians both inside and outside the country began to believe that we couldn’t change the country, that it was out of our control,” she says. “But this moment [Amini’s death] shook me… and it shook others too.” This is different to 2019 and 2009, she says. “2009 didn’t involve the working class that much… it was more intellectuals, middle class people. And in the 2019 protests my friends who went on the streets in 2009 said it was not to do with them. This time everyone is involved.”

Shiraghaei suggests that a key reason why so many Iranians back the movement is because Amini was Kurdish, an ethnic minority that has long suffered from discrimination and human rights abuses. Mahsa is also known by her Kurdish name, Jina Amini. “The regime narrative has always been that without us there’s going to be violence, there’s going to chaos. The Kurds will separate [from Iran], it will be like Iraq, it will be like Syria,” Shiraghaei says. “Mahsa Amini’s death has given us the feeling that we’re all Iranian and we can coexist after the Islamic Republic.”

At the front of the current protests are Iranian women, who have faced systemic discrimination since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Shiraghaei says that compulsory hijab is symbolic of control over women in a patriarchal society; girls must wear it in public from the age of puberty. Many of the female protesters will have had negative experiences with the ‘guidance patrols’, commonly known as the morality police, which can arrest women and girls for not fully complying with Islamic dress codes. Under arrest they may be beaten or harassed.

The number of protesters is rising… A lot of people are scared, but every day people are becoming braver”

Shiraghaei, who says she had many run-ins with the guidance patrols before leaving for the UK in 2008, has long believed that “if we’re going to take down the Islamic Republic it will come from the women’s rights movement.”

In the days and weeks after Amini’s death Iranian women challenged the regime by cutting their hair in public, no hijabs in sight. “Watching the videos [of women cutting their hair], they seemed almost too graphic,” says Shiraghaei. “The act of grieving by cutting hair is so strong in my culture, so loaded with meaning. Watching women do this shook me to my core.”

As the protests spread to more than 150 cities in all of Iran’s 31 provinces and incorporated more social groups, the anger broadened to encompass a long list of political and economic grievances against the regime including sky-high inflation and unemployment as well as a botched response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The regime has responded to the unrest with fury, severely restricting the internet, detaining thousands of protesters and sentencing some activists to death. Over 300 people, including more than 40 children, had been killed by security forces by mid-November according to the UN. Has the seemingly indiscriminate violence against protesters come as a surprise? “It’s heartbreaking to say no,” Shiraghaei replies. “This regime is brutal.”

However, the killing of protesters has so far failed to quell dissent. If anything, the images circulating of the deceased, especially those of young people, have hardened protesters’ resolve. “After the deaths of the children it’s now the mums who are the ones really pushing this campaign,” says Shiraghaei. “The number of protesters is rising… A lot of people are scared, but every day people are becoming braver.”

Perhaps with the failed revolts of 2009 and 2019 in mind, western governments have referred to what’s happening in Iran as merely a protest movement. Shiraghaei uses a different word. “It’s a revolution,” she says. “From the beginning it’s been a feminist revolution.” Shiraghaei says this is no longer just about pushing for reforms and that Iranians have lost faith in the reformists, a political faction who were backed by protesters in 2009. They argue that change should come from within the system. “But this is about a complete change of system,” says Shiraghaei.

Shiraghaei hasn’t been in Iran since leaving 14 years ago – she doesn’t want to wear a hijab and it could be risky for her to visit. “But I dream about being there now,” she says. “It would be amazing to be there and lots of Iranians in the diaspora I speak to feel the same. Maybe there will be a moment when we can jump on a plane, be on the streets and fight, but most of us feel like being the protesters’ voice on the outside is more important right now.”

She is optimistic that the Islamic Republic will be taken down. “I hope we can do this in two to five years,” she says. “They’re short on money and support, and their violence is only creating more fuel for the revolution.”

“I know Iranian women,” Shiraghaei continues. “They’re very fed up and they’re very brave…  This is a snowball that’s been growing little by little and at some point it’ll be so big it’ll be unstoppable.”

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