How virtual social networks translate into street protests: The case for Mahsa Amini’s death under IRI (Islamic Republic of Iran’s) Morality Police?

By S. I. Ejaz

On September 16, 2022, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini of Kurdish ethnicity, succumbed to wounds while in the custody of the country’s notorious morality police. What followed was a series of protests, both at home and abroad, against the incumbent Iranian regime, the flagbearer of the post-1979 Islamist ruling ideology. The presiding political communication scholarship often perceives Iranian conflicts from a binary standpoint. They categorize the population as either pro-Shah or pro-Khomeini, a limited understanding of a country of 80 million people with an average age of 31. Most Iranians today did not experience life under the Shahs or the 1979 Revolution. Therefore, it is essential to develop an updated and nuanced conceptual framework to study the country’s political networks. 

Background & Context

This is not the first-time young Iranians are protesting against the theocratic Islamic Republic, although the average Iranian today is on the street to protest the gruesome killing of Amini. Lately, the regime has seen waves of protests from 1999, 2009, 2017, and 2021, and the ongoing one. However, this wave of protests differs from the rest. It encapsulates the wider Iranian society and is the first to reflect elite-subaltern harmony (Al-Sulami, 2022). One fundamental trigger to the recent protests has been online social media in an otherwise severely censored media regime. How do virtual social networks translate into street protests? Are social media platforms bringing like-minded Iranians together via forming homogeneous networks? Or is it vice versa, and Iranians from different socio-economic, ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds uniting for a single cause? In this essay, I aim to answer these questions. 

Before I begin, it is essential to acknowledge that network diversity remains a contested term. It stems from a Western standpoint, where the phenomenon of individuals forming networks with like-minded individuals originated from the US (Lazarsfeld & Merton, 1954), followed by subsequent literature from McPherson et al. (2001), Lawrence and Shah (2001), etc. While the literature illustrates the existence of homophily in social networks, the empirical evidence might differ from one society to another. For this article, I shall look at the ongoing protests in Iran and ask whether the protesters are coming together due to shared socio-demographics (status homophily) or values (value homophily)? An alternative explanation could be the common objective of reconstituting the state-society relationship by eliminating Islamic Republicanism in present-day Iran. This common objective, however, took decades of conflicts, protests, disruptions, and often international interventions, to coalesce. 

Having established the existence of homophily in the wider Iranian society, I will dissect the networked movement in question, the anti-regime protests across Iran. Unlike the previous ones, these have lasted more than three months across the country’s urban and rural pockets.

Conceptual Framework

I will use Tufecki’s (2021) framework to classify the movement into three parts: the movement’s making, the tools of protests, and the aftermath of the said protests. Tufecki’s works, unlike other political communication scholars, are far more apt towards events in the Middle East, Turkey, and volatile regions. Her take on the 2011 Tahrir Square protests in Cairo and the 2013 Gezi Park in Istanbul compels us to reconceptualize the public sphere. To what extent does religion play a role in constructing a networked public sphere? Are we heading towards a post-Islamist and post-secularist world order? Egypt and Turkey, though not theocratic states, have often found themselves in a conflicting social contract between Islamism and secularism (Yilmaz, 2014). Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and individuals like Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen in Turkey are resorting to post-Islamic practices such as democracy and modernity to win votes and maintain their influence on the electorate, which brings them closer to post-secularism in the public sphere, which Jurgen Habermas discussed. Not only are such forces trying to limit the political roles of religion, but they are also trying to diffuse tensions between one’s faith, personal freedom, and the state’s invasive role towards one’s religiosity.

On the other hand, Iranian authorities are yet to follow this path of post-Islamism, as they are adamant about maintaining a theocratic order. Iran cannot afford to follow states like Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, and the recent wave of liberalism in the Arab world due to its hegemonic power structure. In principle, Iran has a presidential system, legislature, and judiciary. However, unlike a Western democracy, the Islamic Republic is under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader, who holds power over the President and his cabinet and acts as the Commander-in-Chief of the country’s armed forces. Therefore, the whole state apparatus, with its different branches, stems from the clerical oversight of the Supreme Leader. In Dahl’s (1957) terms, the Supreme Leader here is A, who exerts power over the Iranian state to the extent that he can get the state to do something that it would not do otherwise. For instance, the whole state apparatus around policing the morals of its citizens, especially the ‘hijab’ mandate for women, has faced severe backlash from the public but has remained in effect since 1983, barring a few relaxations and exceptions over three decades. Suppose we hold the Iranian state to any other self-serving rationale of a nation-state. In that case, none of the other Islamists except Afghanistan under the Taliban regime will go to such extents, including physical and mental torture, lobbying, and censorship to enforce a piece of clothing on women. Having said that, there are examples of ultra secular states, for instance,the French Republic under President Macron using state apparatus to ensure women do not cover themselves as per Islamic rituals. Whether France, Iran, Afghanistan or Al-Shabab in Africa, the underlying issue remains the state’s approach towards policing female bodies to propagate power, and hegemony.

Nevertheless, unlike other states, present-day Iran derives all its power from  so-called “Islamic” values, interpreted by the Supreme Leader and his group of hand-picked clerics. Networked protests against discriminatory legislation, state-enforced morality, and patriarchal governance have been part and parcel of Iranian society since 1979, or even before that against the Shah’s regime. However, until the advent of digital media, previous protests could not have a significant impact due to the lack of resources, global attention, and economic outlook of those protesting. Now that current protests can evade traditional censorship, publicize, coordinate, protect, and make themselves heard worldwide, the regime seems on the edge of collapse. According to Tufecki, digital technologies have transformed the trajectories of social movements and reset the power dynamics of state and society, where giant software platforms can tilt a social movement in either direction. I shall now break down the ongoing movement into the previous sections and argue for the success of online-offline mass mobilization in the case of Iran today.

As Tüfekeci mentions, the ongoing protests are the first stage in a potentially long journey; initially, the movement shall reconfigure itself through the assimilation of digital technologies and then burst into smaller sections. The chant, ‘women, life, freedom,’ initially originated in the Kurdish parts of Iran in 2013. A decade later, down the line, it is now a famous slogan for a country-wide mass-movement, which seems unstoppable despite the brutal disruption measures by the government. An authoritarian regime like Iran, in the last month, has not been able to curb the country-wide protests, despite propaganda-peddling on state television, shifting the blame to its “enemy” countries, and cracking down on regime critics. A leaderless movement just must persuade the masses to come out and protest for a common goal, unlike the state, which must execute and use the bureaucracy, military, or other arms of government through a defined order.

Social Media & Social Movements

Similar movements in the past including Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and the Arab Spring in 2011 were all successful to an extent. These movements relied on disruption, civil disobedience, chaos, and social media mobilization. If Darnella Frazier had not filmed the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, the BLM movement would not have “gone viral” and initiated change around the world. Amini’s alleged murder triggered an unstoppable wave of protests breathing down a dying regime, which may be in sync with the events in Tunisia following Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation. Unlike the urban and middle-class background of the previous protests, Amini was an ordinary Kurdish girl who, like most of the protestors, came to Tehran for a better life, making it more relatable and culturally appropriate for most conservative Iranian circles. As the protests continue, cities like Mashhad, and Qom, previously considered as loyal to the regime, are up in arms against the state, with chants of “Death to the dictator”, replacing the 1979 era slogan of “Death to America”. Drawing on Zhu’s (2017) analysis of the Occupy Central Movement, events in Iran can be attributed in a similar fashion, where the country in question lies in the peripheries of the world system, is undergoing a constant wave of protests fueled by low national income, high political grievances, and international isolation in addition to high internet penetration. 

However, as protestors continue to mobilise, the masses are uniting on an ideological basis. One can only trace the events leading up to Amini’s death and its repercussions. The online mobilisation had already started from Amini’s arrest on September 13 to her death on September 16. Through Instagram, Twitter, and Telegram, women’s rights groups had already gone public with Amini’s arrest. It is important to note that these groups, just like the BLM movement, have been protesting for decades, but Iran’s George Floyd moment was September 16, 2022, when Amini passed away. The official version of her cause of death was a heart attack, which was not bought by the Iranian public. Therefore, state authorities initially released a video on Twitter and then onto other platforms, where Amini collapsed in the morality police detention centre. The public and human rights organizations did not accept the validity of the video footage when it went viral and was picked up by all mainstream media outlets. The regime was already on the back foot. Three days into the protests spiraling out of control, the authorities started cracking down on internet access, restricting access to Instagram and WhatsApp, proving that the internet-fueled protests had already converted onto the streets of Tehran and urban centres. A few weeks later, the UN sanctioned Iran’s morality police, and a motion has already been forwarded to the UN Women’s Rights Council for Iran’s expulsion. As Iran continues to restrict internet access, it is evident that the regime is beginning to fear the politically motivated use of the World Wide Web (Wojcieszak & Smith, 2014). 

That said, there is ample evidence of the recent online-offline mobilization within the Iranian public sphere. Even with a crackdown on all major social media platforms, the protests are growing from rural villages to girls’ schools and markets and spearheading into neighbouring Afghanistan, currently under Taliban control. However, one can still not conclude whether the latest protests are bringing Iranians closer or drifting them apart. The movement’s heterogeneity or homogeneity can only be established after the protests have subsided. Scholars can gather empirical data from the protesting groups precisely because the protesting parties have vested interests and may have been operating with a self-serving bias. For example, certain sections of the women, life, freedom movement want to go beyond the gendered frame. They want a complete overhaul of the Iranian Constitution annihilating the Islamic Republic. These groups are primarily based in Iran and have always criticised the ruling regime.

It will be important to monitor the movement and its eventual result, which might have a long-lasting effect not only on the Muslim world but on all such nation-states which tend to invoke religiosity for political legitimacy, and unending control over their subjects. Scholars, political scientists, and concerned governments can use this research line to predict the Iranian state’s possible future, which is not only a formidable military might but also a next-to-nuclear power being the second nation with a constitutional recognition of Islam to nuclearise after Pakistan. While the ongoing networked movement is political, it can soon have profound national security implications for Iran’s friends and foes.


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This piece was published as part of “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi”: A series of weekly articles and interviews that unpack different symbols and concepts at the heart of the most recent developments in Iran

“Kurds and Baluch are brothers, thirsty for the leader’s blood” – Iran’s minorities, the Mahsa Amini Protests and Iranian identity

By Guy Fiennes

Kurds and Baluch have long complained of discrimination within the Islamic Republic of Iran. The nationwide protest movement following the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in police custody has pulled the issue of longstanding tensions and state repression between the regime in Tehran and the minorities of Iran back to the fore. The regime specifically blamed secessionist elements – such as the exiled Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) in northern Iraq – for fomenting the protest movement and smuggling weapons into Iran. Beginning days after Amini’s death in September, Tehran launched various ‘retaliatory’ strikes against KDPI targets in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq which killed at least 18 people[1], and even went so far as to threaten an unprecedented land offensive[2]. Meanwhile, a separate protest movement was already underway in the south-eastern, majority Baluch province of Sistan and Baluchistan at the time of Amini’s death. These regional tensions were inflamed and underscored by a particularly bloody incident in the regional capital of Zahedan on 30 September in which at least 82 were killed and hundreds injured, including four security service members.[3][4][5]

Mahsa Amini was detained for allegedly wearing ‘bad hijab’ – a notoriously ambiguous term – and died on 16 September in custody of the controversial ‘morality police’ or gasht-e-ershad, who operate across Iran to enforce religious law. While some Kurdish activists argued that Amini’s Kurdish identity likely made her a target, making the incident an example of wider discrimination against Kurds[6], there is no hard evidence to support this view. Rather, what Iranians saw in Amini and her story was a woman who could have been any one of them – their mother, sister or daughter – regardless of Kurdish identity. Indeed, she was far from the first woman to be brutalized for alleged violation of the conservative dress code, and prior incidents in the same year[7] had already set the stage for public anger against clerical rule to burst through.

Despite Amini’s Kurdish identity being somewhat incidental to the wider protest movement, the protests in Kurdish-majority regions and cities were nonetheless more intense, as was the regime crackdown. From November 18, the regime sent military convoys into Kurdish cities such as Mahabad and established military suppression of the protests, a step-up from the use of the Basij paramilitary forces and the police[8].  The higher intensity of unrest in Kurdish majority regions stems from historical and ongoing discrimination and repression, exemplified by the more heavy-handed regime response in those regions, as well as Amini’s Kurdish background. A gathering of thousands marking the anniversary of Amini’s death was met by a strong security presence and gunfire amid clashes in her hometown of Saqez. Many Kurdish activists objected to using her non-Kurdish name, Mahsa, instead of her Kurdish name, Jina, as yet another form of cultural erasure and argued that media reporting should recentre her Kurdish identity.[9] However, the sentiment is far from unanimous. Not only did her father refer to her as Mahsa in interviews following her death, but also insistence on framing her as a particularly Kurdish symbol rather than one of the Iranian women regardless of ethnic identity would weaken the wider protest movement and corroborate with the regime’s narrative that the source of the unrest is primarily dissident minorities (besides foreign conspiracy), rather than frustration with the regime from Iranian society at large.[10] Ultimately, her death came as a result of a conservative religious law in Iran which targeted Iranian women rather than one which targeted ethnic minorities.

The Baluch make up around 2% of the Iranian population at an estimated 1.5 – 2 million and form the majority in Sistan and Baluchistan province, south-eastern Iran. The Baluch people, like the Kurds, have long complained of state discrimination, both religious and linguistic, and held surpressed aspirations for statehood and autonomy with the 5 million Baluch across the border in Pakistani Balochistan. Life expectancy and literacy in the province trail far behind the average in Iran[11] with 45% of the population reported to live below the absolute poverty line and water scarcity considered a growing issue.[12] Several separatist militant groups, such as Jundullah and Jaish ul-Adl exist in the region and are considered terrorist organisations by the central government in Tehran and the international community, with the line between Baluch anti-regime ethnonationalism and Sunni extremism blurring.[13]

The alleged rape of a Baluch minor by an Iranian police commander led to protests in multiple cities and rare condemnation of the regime from the influential religious leader of the region, Molavi Abdolhamid[14]. On 30 September, during a protest in the capital city of Zahedan, a police station was attacked, and the head of regional intelligence was killed along with three other members of the Basij paramilitary force. According to Amnesty International, at least 82 protesters and bystanders were killed and hundreds injured as the security services fired upon protesters. While the regime sought to paint the unrest as an issue purely of minority separatism, slogans such as – az Zahedan ta Tehran, janam fedaye Iran (from Zahedan to Tehran, I sacrifice my life for Iran)– reject[15] the state narrative that separatists are driving unrest in the region, although targeted killings of security service members have spiked after the incident.

Forty days after the Zahedan massacre – forty days being an important mourning date in Iranian tradition – demonstrations were held, and businesses shut down in Tehran and  across Iran, including in majority Kurdish cities such as Amini’s hometown of Saqez. As the regime stepped up its repression in Kurdish-majority cities, protesters in Sistan and Baluchestan chanted in solidarity: “Kurds and Baluch are brothers, thirsty for the leader’s blood”.[16] (kurd o baloch baradarand, teshneye khoone rahbaran).

It would be misguided to suspect any tangible coordination between the two groups, as the protest movement has been characterized by grassroots, spontaneous collective action rather than directed by specific organizations. Instead, as the chant suggests, the two groups are bound by similar, even parallel, grievances against the regime in Tehran – as is the case for the various other participants in the protest movement. The two groups are ultimately bound by their being Iranian, as with everyone else in the movement from Zahedan to Tehran to Saqez.

Curiously, while the protests have highlighted the divides and tensions between Tehran and the minorities of Iran, they have also sharpened and foregrounded Iranian nationwide solidarity. The Iranian public have mostly rejected the regime’s attempts to frame the protests as secessionist or foreign conspiracies. The protests are also notable for their ubiquity throughout Iran. Deaths and crackdowns on one side of the country have inspired demonstrations in solidarity on the other, and the popular anger echoes the 1979 revolution in its clear crossing of the geographic and ethnic lines of Iranian society. Despite a sense of discrimination along ethnic lines playing a key role in the unrest in Kurdish and Baluch areas, the protests have so far united them – and their fellow protesters regardless of ethnic affiliation – as Iranians with a common cause against a repressive regime, to the extent that the unrest manifests more as a popular, patriotic movement than the explosion of ethnic separatism decried in state media.

Whether the newfound sense of national unity will be maintained in the case of regime reform or continued intransigence is uncertain. It is possible that protest momentum in ethnic minority areas will outlive and alienate the Farsi-speaking majority, with the regime sticking to the fearmongering narrative that foreign powers seek to turn Iran into a Syria-esque civil battleground. Indeed, in the context of the 2011 Arab Spring protest movements, nationwide unity against dictatorial regimes quickly descended into inter-communal rivalry and conflict. It is possible that the same process would occur in Iran, in the unlikely event that the protest movement leads to significant militant resistance or regime change. In the more likely event of limited regime reform, it is unclear to what extent the Iranian people would remain in solidarity with ethnic minorities without the momentum of a dynamic common cause – for example, if Tehran tones down conservative religious laws and further restricts the morality police. However, for the moment at least there is a sense that Iranians have never been more united, regardless of ethnic identity and in spite of the regime’s best efforts.

















This piece was published as part of “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi”: A series of weekly articles and interviews that unpack different symbols and concepts at the heart of the most recent developments in Iran