On September 16th 2022, Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of the Iranian Government. Three days prior, Amini was arrested by the “mortality police” for wearing her hijab improperly. The mortality police declared that she died as a result of pre-existing conditions, however Amini’s family, friends, and hundreds of thousands of fellow Iranians disagree. They believe that she was tortured and, as a result, died. In the two weeks following her death, Iranians have taken to the streets. The protests, which have been led by young people, specifically young women, have stretched to nearly every province with a common chant “Women, Life, Freedom!”
From a western perspective, Iran is a brutal dictatorship that functions by installing religious fear and political propaganda into the minds of its citizens. While this sentiment is widespread outside of Iran, the Iranian government has survived over the past 43 years by isolating and stifling their citizens from the rest of the world (Adebahr, 2022). In mid-September, Iranian authorities known as the “mortality police,” whose sole job is to enforce Iranian moral code, detained 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. In the span of a few days, Amini went from being a young, energetic, passionate woman to being dead (Radjy, 2022). Her death at the hands of Iranian authorities has spurred protests throughout the country. The protesters are demanding more than accountability for her death. They are not just calling for political and religious rights but are also seeking for the government to recognize their natural rights. Although lacking a centralized leadership, the protests have a shared mantra; “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” or, in English; “Women, Life, Freedom” (Adebahr, 2022). The protests surrounding the death of Amini are not the first that the current regime has seen. In 2009, 2017, and 2019 protests swept through Iran (Adebahr, 2022). During these current protests, westerners should be interested in evaluating the differences between the current situation and previous protests; and how the differences could impact the results of the Amini protests.
The first difference between previous protests and the Amini protests is that young people and women are at the forefront of the movement. Dr. Mehdi Khalaji, a native of Iran, Shiite theologian, and fellow at the Washington Institute, remarked that the current movement, “Is overwhelmingly composed of young Iranians under age twenty-five who identify themselves as more than just opponents of Islamist ideology—they are also avowedly alien to the mindset of the older generation” (Khalaji, 2022). These young Iranians pose a significant threat to the established regime. The current regime came to power as a result of the Iranian Revolution of 1978. The current Ayatollah, Ali Hosseini Khamenei has held power for 33 years. However, Khamenei is reportedly in bad health (Adebahr, 2022). The Khamenei regime seems to be slipping away, and it appears that the younger generation is not looking to pick up their forefathers’ mantle.
This is not the first time the authoritarian regime in Iran has faced pressure, but it is the first in decades to be led by women. As Dr. Mohammad Ali Kadivar, Assistant Professor of Sociology and International Studies at Boston College, observed, “The current wave of protests takes courage from those past protests but goes beyond them in some significant ways…women are leading this round and finding creative ways to challenge the regime” (Ali Kadivar, 2022). Women have always been silently fighting the battle for rights in Iran, but this movement has been defined by their presence. In comparison, recent Iranian protests have been male-led. Khalaji pointed out that the protests in 2009, which spurred millions to the streets, were led by two men: Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi. (Khalaji, 2022). What unifies the protests is not a single leader, but rather one event: the death of Amini. Her death has caused the echo of “Woman, Life, Freedom” to ring throughout Iran. Reports from Iran show that women are the protesters on the ground leading the movement. In an interview with the Associated Press, one protester remarked, “This is a women’s movement first of all, and men are supporting them in the backline” (Radjy, 2022). Unlike previous movements, women are leading the charge on the streets; they are coming out from under their veils and making their voices heard.
The demonstration of leadership by Iranian youth and women is a vital difference from the past. These two groups represent the future of Iran. These women will become mothers and raise future generations of Iranians, while the young men who have joined will soon become national leaders in business and politics. Stanford University’s Founding Director of the Iranian Studies Program, Abbas Milani, observed the importance of the gender and youth factors of the protests: “The fact that men have joined women in their epic battle for equality, and that the youth, savvy about the world and despairing about their future, have joined hands to create a better tomorrow is the reason for the remarkable number of protesters in cities and villages all across the country” (De Witte, 2022). Iranian men and women have come together and recognized the need for change. They have rejected the regime’s structure of Iranian society and are now taking bold steps to change their way of life.
The differences between past and present protests do not stop at gender and age. The protests are showing that people from across the country can come together. People from different regions, cultures, religions, and beliefs have all coalesced behind this one movement. Dr. Narges Bajoghli, Professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, commented on how the youthful dynamics of the protests are also crossing ethnic lines: “Voiced by the youth of Iran, it conjures a vision of a society that is more equal not just along gender lines, but ethnic ones” (Taub, 2022). In addition, these protests span the socioeconomic divide. As Sweden-based Iranian Sociologist Mehrdad Darvishpour observed, “The current protests are now being reported in both middle class and working-class areas. They seem to have moved from local or ethnic issues to more inclusive ones” (Rahimpour, 2022). Societal chains that long kept apart different cultures, religions, regions, and genders have been broken. The Amini protests have brought together these groups for a common purpose.
The Fight for Natural Rights
The rallying cry of “Women, Life, Freedom” in itself is different from what Iran has seen before. Previous Iranian protests of the 21st century have not addressed the issues that are currently centerstage: “The 2009 protests were led by Iran’s ‘reformist ‘ movement which called for a gradual opening-up of Iranian society. But none of Iran’s political parties — even the most progressive, reformist-led ones — supported abolishing the compulsory veil” (Radjy, 2022). The 2009 protests began over alleged voter fraud, and the 2017 and 2019 protests were about economic conditions. As Iranian-British journalist Rana Rahimpour remarked, “The so-called Green Movement of 2009 saw the middle-class protest against alleged election fraud. Although it was large in size, it centered on major cities. Other major protests in 2017 and 2019 were confined to poorer areas” (Rahimpour, 2022). The current protests can be found in both cities and rural areas. Despite that, the Amini protests do not have an economic component in their messaging or beliefs. As Ali Kadivar noted, “This may be the first time in decades they’ve protested not just over their immediate economic interests but are standing up in solidarity with Iranian women and others who’ve been mistreated by security forces — something they did during the 1979 revolution” (Kadivar, 2022).
If the Amini Protests are not about purely politics or economics, the protests must be about something even more fundamental than government and money. The Amini Protests of 2022 are about natural rights. They are about the rights of Iranian women to be free to live however women chose to live. They are about freedom of speech and assembly. They are about the right of privacy and due process. These protests are not seeking to just gain more seats in parliament, more economic opportunities for women, or more materialistic objectives. These protests are trying to change a 43-year-worldview that has been instilled into every action, every thought, and every desire of the Iranian government. The cry of “Women, Life, Freedom” is a demand for the government to respect their fundamental rights as human beings. Such recognition is a minimum requirement for any government, regardless of its structure and underlying beliefs.
It is unclear whether victory will be immediate. Despite these differences, the Iranian government has remained in control. The regime’s grip on power in this case has already cost several lives, including Amini, and thousands of arrests. Time will tell the fate of these protests. However, the diverse make-up of the movement and message of natural rights makes this protest the most serious challenge to the Ayatollah and his supporters that Iran has seen. As Jomhouri Eslami, a newspaper that supports the Ayatollah, wrote, “In regards to ending the protests, authorities should not think that the discontent is over and will not grow. The current situation is like embers under the ashes, which can flare up again” (The Associated Press, 2022). The current situation in Iran is different from previous movements against the Ayatollah. The movement’s ranks are filled with young Iranians, especially women and the movement has shifted from pure political and economic considerations to a demand for natural rights. The message of “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” is one that will echo for years to come.
Adebahr, C. (2022, October 11). Can Protests in Iran Topple the Regime? Carnegie Europe. https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/88131
Ali Kadivar, M. (2022, September 23). Analysis | Are Iran’s hijab protests different from past protest waves? Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/09/23/amini-hijab-morality-police-iran/
De Witte, M. (2022, September 26). Understanding protests in Iran. Stanford News; Stanford University. https://news.stanford.edu/2022/09/26/understanding-protests-iran/#
Khalaji, M. (2022, September 28). How Iran’s Protests Differ from Past Movements. The Washington Institute. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/how-irans-protests-differ-past-movements
Radjy, A.-H. (2022, September 28). Iran’s anti-veil protests different than previous unrest, activists say. PBS NewsHour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/irans-anti-veil-protests-different-than-previous-unrest-activists-say
Rahimpour, R. (2022, September 23). Iran grapples with most serious challenge in years. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-63006664
Taub, A. (2022, October 5). Unveiled and Rising Up: How Protests in Iran Cut to the Heart of National Identity. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/05/world/middleeast/iran-protests-women-hijab.html
The Associated Press. (2022, September 29). Iran’s protesters chant from buildings amid crackdown. AP NEWS. https://apnews.com/article/iran-middle-east-dubai-united-arab-emirates-tehran-4e6f904be486819db06f3ad1b1a9a66a