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

Contextualising the Current Uprising in Iran: A Short History of Mass Protest Under the Islamic Republic 

The most recent protests in Iran represent a culmination of grievances from seemingly disparate protests throughout the Islamic Republic’s history.  Protestors have combined various techniques from the repertoires of contention they have developed over the last forty years to present the greatest challenge to the Islamic Republic since its inception. The gravity of Iran’s current protests and the threat they represent to the Islamic Republic are best understood when contextualised in the history of protests since the revolution.

Khatami, Khatami Hemaayatet mikonim! (Khatami, Khatami we support you!): 1999 Student Protests

              Iran saw its first significant post-revolutionary protest movement in 1999 during the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami. Two years into Khatami’s mandate, regime officials closed the reformist newspaper Salam (Peace) after it published a letter from Intelligence Ministry officials discussing a further clampdown on already restricted press and artistic freedoms.

Following the paper’s closure, Iranian students in Tehran took to the streets in peaceful protests. The security forces’ response was swift and harsh: Basijis–paramilitary forces loyal to the regime–attacked a dormitory at the University of Tehran, killing at least one student and fanning students’ anger. This led to a week of more violent protests, with many student protestors battling Basijis and the police on the streets.

Student protestors looked to Khatami for support as Salam had ardently supported the president before his election, a demonstration of protestors’ initial faith in the elected institution of the presidency. However, much to their chagrin and surprise, Khatami called for moderation among his supporters, most likely because of a letter he had received from the Revolutionary Guards. The letter clearly said that ‘patience has come to an end’ and threatened to intervene if the president did not re-establish law and order.

Even though the protests subsided a week later, they had an enormous impact on the Islamic Republic. They were the first major public challenge to the then twenty-year-old regime’s system. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the protests the very reformists that the protests sought to empower were weakened. The regime’s response also proved the superiority of Iran’s unelected institutions over its democratic institutions. Finally, and practically, laws limiting freedom of the press were enacted, tightening the political sphere.

Ra’i-e man kojast? (Where is my vote?): The 2009 Green Movement

              Ten years later, Iran witnessed a much more violent and intense wave of protests. After Khatami’s second term ended, much of the Iranian reformist electorate boycotted the 2005 presidential election, leading to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–a conservative populist known for his hardline views. In the 2009 elections, Ahmadinejad’s foremost challenger was Mir Hossein Mousavi, a reformist like Khatami, who campaigned on increased freedom of expression, individual liberties, and meritocracy. After a contentious election – highlighted by the head-to-head debates between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, in which accusations of corruption were aired on live television – Ahmadinejad is said to have won in a landslide, allegedly receiving 62% of the vote.

Shocked by the results, many Mousavi supporters took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations, with most the protestors donning green – the colour of Mousavi’s campaign. Simultaneously, Mousavi himself called for an investigation of election results. Unsurprisingly, the Guardian Council (the body charged with investigating the results) found no irregularities, which only fuelled peaceful protests. On June 15, three days after the election, Mousavi and his supporters took to Azadi Square in Tehran, with reports of attendees ranging from hundreds to millions.

Sensing a threat, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a sermon during Friday prayers on July 19 in which he affirmed the election results and said that the protestors would be met with violence. As Pouya Alimagham, a specialist in the Green Movement, argues, this was a declaration of war against protestors.[1] From then on, paramilitary forces adopted tactics ranging from beating protestors to kidnapping and killing them. 

 Protests lasted throughout the rest of 2009 and into 2010, with protestors using events important to the Islamic Republic’s historiography as focal days of protest – from the anniversary of the martyrdom of Ayatollah Beheshti (Ayatollah Khomeini’s right-hand-man, who was killed in a bombing two years after the revolution) on June 29 to the anniversary of the US embassy takeover on November 4, and to National Student Day on December 7. Further, many opponents of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei within the regime expressed their support for the protestors – from Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who delivered a sermon on July 17 affirming his support for the Green Movement, to Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist candidate in the election, who was tear-gassed during protests.[2]

 Indeed, by coming out on holidays vital to the regime and receiving the support of some of its most influential figures, protestors and dissidents within the regime could subvert the Islamic Republic’s governing ideology.[3] However, after severe repression, protests died down. They did not last beyond 2010, and its leaders – Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – were put under house arrest in 2011 after their calls for renewed Green Movement protests following the Arab Spring. They have still not been released.

Na ghazze na lobnaan ja’anam fadaaye Iran (Not Gaza, not Lebanon: I will sacrifice my life for Iran): 2017-18 Winter Protests

            About a decade after the beginning of the Green Movement, Iranians took to the streets again in late December 2017. However, these protests were very different from the student protests of 1999, and the Green Movement in that protestors’ primary concerns were economic.

This changed both the fabric and the demands of protests. Whereas in 1999 and 2009, many protestors were guided by socio-political reform, the core of the protesting mass in the winter of 2017-8 was economically disadvantaged Iranians, with one of their primary grievances being the difficulties in purchasing basic necessities. Further, these movements were widespread throughout the country, as opposed to the previous two movements, which were concentrated in Tehran.

Because the protestors could not point to anyone in the regime they supported, this movement was both leaderless and quicker to oppose the Islamic Republic as a whole. Moreover, President Rouhani (a moderate who had the endorsement of reformists such as Khatami) stated that the government would not tolerate those breaking the law–a stark contrast from 2009 when reformists supported the protestors.

            Protestors employed different tactics than their predecessors of 1999 and 2009. After the breakout of street protests, workers mobilised en masse in 2018, leading to labour strikes in various industries. Protestors also used street protests as a chance to criticise the regime’s foreign policy — which was perceived as wastefully spending the Iranian people’s money — and call for “death to the dictator.”

Though such criticisms and chants were present in 2009, they were not ubiquitous, with many of the protestors still advocating for reform rather than regime change. 2017-8 was a different story, and the overall ethos of the protests was regime overthrow.

The initial wave of protests lasted two weeks, with about two dozen protestors killed and thousands arrested. Still, strikes and intermittent protests continued well into 2018.

Marq bar diktatur (Death to the Dictator): 2019 November  Protests )

          The 2017-8 protests laid the groundwork for the 2019 November protests, the largest mobilisation against the Islamic Republic until today’s protests. Protests began when the government suddenly announced an increase in previously heavily subsidised fuel prices, ostensibly to help fund welfare programmes. However, this price hike was seen as a slap in the face to a populace already facing extreme economic hardship. As a result, people took to the streets in protest, with the makeup of protestors similar to that of 2017-8.

Protests were widespread throughout the country, and the government displayed the most violent reaction in its history. The death toll ranges by source, with the regime admitting 225 deaths[4] and international sources, namely Reuters, claiming 1,500 deaths.[5] The government also shut down the internet for over a week, preventing Iranians from giving information to foreign journalists, communicating with their families, or even going about their daily lives within Iran.[6]

Though the protests began due to economic issues, we see an escalation of chants from the 2017-8 protests, mainly “death to the dictator,” accompanied by the attacking of government buildings, setting fire to banks, and the tearing down of posters with Khamenei’s photo.

 Like the 2017-8 protests, the 2019protests were leaderless, did not receive support from any moderates or reformists in the regime, and were widespread. For many, the sheer breadth of the protests, and the unprecedented crackdown that followed, showed the extent of dissatisfaction with the regime. They caused many to believe that reform — the wish of protestors in 1999 and 2009 — was no longer possible.

Zan zendegi azadi (Women, Life, Freedom): Protests Today

Iran’s most recent protest movement, now in its eleventh week, began with Mahsa (Jina) Amini’s killing at the hands of Iran’s Morality Police. Her death sparked outrage on social media and then led to protests in the street. Protestors began by demanding the abolition of obligatory hijab laws and of the Morality Police. Yet protestors quickly broadened their message, starting with criticising the entire corpus of laws related to women’s treatment as second-class citizens – such as their inability to travel without their husband/father’s permission or the rules granting daughters only half of what sons receive from their parent’s inheritance.

Going beyond the Islamic Republic’s misogynistic laws, protestors began speaking out about other issues at the heart of previous social movements, such as economic mismanagement and censorship. This fusion of various social, economic, and political issues has brought hundreds of thousands of Iranians from every sector. Indeed, from factory workers going on strike, to university students occupying their universities, to women taking off their hijabs in city centres, many different groups of Iranians are expressing their anger at the regime.

         The culmination and combination of grievances into one single movement are likely the primary reason these protests have been so massive, widespread, and constant. Indeed, this movement fuses aspects of all of Iran’s most recent protest movements: like the 1999 student protests and the Green Movement, the protestors’ demands were not economic and, instead, were socio-political — but they have grown to incorporate the economic protestors of recent years. Moreover, like the more recent protests (Winter 2017-8, November 2019), this mobilisation has been leaderless and widespread throughout the country, not just focusing on Tehran.

Just as the grievances culminated in the past 43 years of protests, so have the current protests’ tactical repertoire built upon past movements. Like 1999, universities in this movement are one of the hotbeds of mobilisation, with the government crackdown on Sharif University resembling the 1999 crackdown on the University of Tehran. Like in 2009, scenes of massive street demonstrations in Tehran have been broadcast all over the world. And like the protests over the last six years, workers all over the country are striking: from teachers in Tehran to shopkeepers in Sanandaj to factory workers in Tabriz. We’ve even seen anonymous hackers targeting Iranian state television — reminiscent of the hacking of Evin Prison’s security cameras over a year ago by a group identifying itself by the same name. Thus, if protests over the last 43 years have allowed protestors to develop a diversified repertoire of contention, it is over the previous two months that they have taken full advantage of it.

 Protestors have adopted a tactic from the 1978-9 revolutionary movement. In Shi’a Islam, the fortieth day after a person’s death is a day of mourning, as it is believed that this is the day the soul leaves the body. In 1978-9, protestors used the fortieth day after a protest as a focal day, allowing the protestors both to control the revolutionary calendar and come out en masse on one specific day. In the current movement, protestors have used the chehellom of Mahsa Amini and Hadis Najafi – a 22-year-old woman killed in protests five days after Amini’s death –  as focal days of protest. These protests then bring about harsh repression from the government, leading to the deaths of other protestors, whose chehellom will likely also inspire protests.

Yet, the movement has previously unseen characteristics.

For this, we can look at the role of women. Women played vital roles in the 1979 Revolution – as guerrillas engaging in armed revolt against the monarchy and as protestors (namely, in the Women’s Day march in March 1979).

Further, Neda Agha Soltan became a symbol of the 2009 Green Movement following her death at the hands of the police. However, the extent to which women have led this most recent protest movement is undoubtedly unmatched – neither by pre- or post-revolutionary protest movements. The faces of valiant young women protestors – many of whom have been killed by the police, like the 16-year-olds Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh and 22-year-old Hadis Najafi – have galvanised and inspired protestors. Videos of women going out publicly unveiled, burning their headscarves, and cutting their hair have gone viral on the internet–inspiring protestors and further attesting to women’s leading role.

Though the current movement has seen ups and downs, it still appears to be going strong after eleven weeks, an encouraging sign for protestors. Unfortunately, government officials at the highest level have yet to offer a real path for negotiation, despite some insincere statements from some government officials. Thus, there seems to be no end in sight for these protests. Yet these protests represent a culmination of demands, and protesting tactics show that we are at a turning point in the history of the Islamic Republic. It is unlikely that the regime will ever be able to govern like it used to. But whether or not this means that we are nearing the Islamic Republic’s end is uncertain. 

It is important to note that this is not a comprehensive list of protests under the Islamic Republic. Indeed, within the past few years, Iranians have taken to the streets in Tehran to protest the IRGC’s downing of a commercial airliner, killing over 200 people, in Khuzestan to protest water scarcity, and in Isfahan to protest the drying up of the Zayandeh Rood river. Indeed, it is through the smaller protests focused on specific issues, coupled with the more widespread larger protests, that we can genuinely see the extensive discontent that the regime is dealing with.

[1] Pouya Alimagham, Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020, 92.

[2] ِRadio Zamaneh, 4 November 2009,; ibid, 98.

[3] Alimagham, Contesting the Iranian Revolution, 92.

[4] BBC Persian, citing Iranian Interior Ministry,

[5] Reuters,

[6] Amnesty International,

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