Something snapped in the hearts and minds of countless Iranians when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in a Tehran hospital on September 16. A few days earlier, images had emerged of her lying comatose in her hospital bed, showing signs of the severe beating her family members and witnesses allege she received from members of Iran’s morality police after she was arrested for not fulling covering her hair with a hijab as mandated by the theocracy’s so-called modesty laws. The regime has denied she was abused, claiming she died due to a preexisting health condition.
The demonstrations began almost immediately after Amini’s death. The next day at her funeral in her hometown in Iran’s Kurdistan province, women tore off their headscarves and waved them in the air as mourners chanted “Death to the dictator!” and the popular slogan from the Kurdish independence movement in Turkey, “Woman, Life, Freedom!” — which quickly became a new protest anthem across Iran. Despite a brutal government crackdown, the protests have continued every day since for more than three weeks with hundreds of demonstrations in over 80 cities and towns across the country. Mostly led by young Iranians, and women in particular, it is the broadest and longest wave of civil unrest in the country in decades.
While the demonstrations began with, and are still powered by, outrage over what happened to Amini and the lack of freedoms afforded women in Iran, those are not the only grievances fueling the unrest. From the start, the protests have been explicitly against the Iranian regime, and it is now an open question whether they may ultimately pose an existential threat to the Islamic Republic, which was itself founded after Iranians rose up and toppled their government in 1979.
Young women are clearly at the vanguard in most of the protests — holding their headscarves above their heads in a closed fist, or burning them in the street, or performing numerous other acts of civil disobedience. In more and more videos, women are seen fighting back against the security forces, physically defending themselves and others.
Even school-age girls have been staging demonstrations — and, in some videos, have been seen confronting and denigrating regime officials to their faces.
The regime has attempted to quell the protests with the same draconian playbook it has used to snuff out past unrest — including beating, arresting, and killing protesters. Security forces have repeatedly opened fire at the demonstrations with bullets and supposedly less lethal crowd-control rounds. Through Saturday, at least 185 people have been killed, including 19 children, according to the organization Iran Human Rights. Amnesty International has recorded the names of 134 people killed by security forces but believes the real death toll is far higher, further reporting the use of other forms of violence against protesters including torture and sexual assault.
The stories of those who’ve been killed have been widely shared online, providing more fuel for the unrest. In one video, shot at the funeral for a slain protester, his devastated sister cuts off her hair while kneeling next to his shrouded body at the cemetery, a traditional act of mourning that has helped inspire countless other women in and outside of Iran to cut off their hair in solidarity with the movement.
The regime has imprisoned dozens of journalists and severely disrupted internet access in an attempt to suppress news of the demonstrations and has completely blocked apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp. But the sharing of stories, videos, and images continues, collected and distributed by tech-savvy Iranian activists who are working to get around the regime’s digital blockades. A member of the team behind @1500tasvir, which is one of the clearinghouses for new footage of the protests, told Wired that during the first week of the protests, they were receiving 1,000 video submissions per day.
During Iran’s last major protest wave in 2019, which was sparked by an increase in gasoline prices, Tehran ultimately shut down the entire country’s internet and brutally crushed the protests during the blackout. It’s possible the regime will try to do that again, but while demonstrations in previous waves were individually larger, they were nowhere near as widespread. Earlier periods of unrest were focused on more discrete and less revolutionary grievances. As Iran-based journalist Mahzad Elyassi has explained, Amini’s death “has revealed the conflict between the Iranian government and citizens who do not want to comply with rules they believe infringe on their civil rights” and that “there is significant disillusionment and profound doubt about the prospects of reforming a system that has shown zero interest in compromise.”
Elyassi, like many outside observers, says it’s still too early to tell whether the movement will be able to topple the regime, but that outcome cannot be ruled out. These protests have proved that a growing number of women, young people, and other marginalized Iranians now see no future under the theocracy. This may mean they now believe they have nothing left to lose.